Three Datums on the Evolution of the Internet

By | 2004 April 28 |


About ten days ago I had a brief conversation with a friend about the late Earle Birney. I’d mentioned that Earle had been a likeable man, but not a particularly great poet. I liked Earle because he had a sense of humour about himself, something which I can attest to personally. The first time I met him back in the 1960s, my opening—and impudent—comment had been “Gee, I thought you were dead.” Earle’s eyes flashed just for a second, but then he laughed. He recognized that I was a kid poet taking my shot at him, and he didn’t take offense.

But this recent conversation got me thinking about him, and about the poem that made him famous: “David”. So I looked it up on the Internet. Sure enough, it was there, part of an elaborate website (it attaches one of those annoying blue bead trailers to your cursor) created by a Chinese neurosurgeon named Shue-Jen Hwang. In other parts of the site, Hwang tells us who he is—an American-trained doctor from Chinese Taipei who golfs, plays the French horn, owns three small dogs, is married to Lilly Hong, and doesn’t sleep much. He also reads extensively in English. Recent books he’s read include Swing like a Pro – the breakthrough scientific method for perfecting your golf swing by Dr. Ralph Mann and Fred Griffin; Neuroscience by Dales Purves et al from the Duke University Medical Center; and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

Hwang also has a serious—and slightly strange—love for poetry, listing poems by W.H. Auden, Yeats, William Blake—and, um, E.J.Pratt and Earle Birney.

My initial assumption had been that the website creator was a school teacher, because the lines of the “David” poem are pre-numbered on the left side of the screen. This is a typographical device I’ve seen used in print textbooks to provide—I suppose—easy reference while teaching, and/or accurate citation in student essays. The cynical side of me imagines that the duller students, while reading aloud, include the line numbers, thus making the poem slightly more turgid than it already is.

What was more annoying than the numbered lines was the 28 typographical errors I found in the transcript of the poem. They were enough to make it completely unreadable. I found myself wondering whether this should be attributed to Birney’s clumsy phrasing in the poem itself, which hasn’t weathered the years since its publication very well. But no. It’s the Internet, and the speeded up conditions of articulation it encourages and perhaps even enforces. The webpage of the poem thus constituted a kind of accidental blog, and told me more about Dr. Hwang’s hyper-drive mind than about Earle Birney or about whether or not it’s a good idea to push a mortally injured man off a cliff to forefend useless pain. But that’s the wonderfulness of the Internet, no? The next time I think about Earle Birney, I’ll remember that he was a good enough poet to be able to stimulate a slightly cracked-but-brilliant neurosurgeon in Chinese Taipei to attempt to reify Birney’s 1920’s homoerotic moral crisis in the Canadian Rockies for everyone in the world. Earle would have loved it.

By the way, 151,000 people have visited Hwang’s site since he set it up five years ago.


Two years ago, Phinjo Gombu, my co-proprietor at created a neighbourhood exchange for the website in what I assume was a burst of competitive enthusiasm for the E-Bay universe. I didn’t pay much attention to it after it was set up. It was complicated to access—I had to remember yet another log-in and password—; I don’t like virtual auctions, and anyway I’ve had nothing material or immaterial to exchange that way. I didn’t realize that my co-proprietor wasn’t paying attention to it, either.

It turned out there are a few unexpected things for sale on the exchange, and none of them is the baby carriages Phinjo was counting on.

Along with the predictable bulk-mailing software someone offered, and a more or less completely goofy meditation website, there are five human kidneys currently for sale on the exchange, priced from about $20,000 to $150,000 (plus, presumably, travel expenses). The offers come from Pakistan, Eastern Europe, and points elsewhere that couldn’t be detected from the hotmail addresses. As far as I can tell, four are still available—the fifth is probably off the market because the seller notes that he intended to commit suicide on January 25th, 2004 and was thus offering a stale-dating sale of his soon-to-be superfluous body parts. And we believe everything anyone says on the Internet, right?

What’s also interesting about this is that the offers were stimulated by an initial “just kidding” offering of a kidney by a Toronto-based Internet practical joker named Merklin Muffley, who probably thought he could get our attention with the offer while making an ironic critique of what the Internet is really about.

I don’t need to comment further, do I?


I ran into one of my new critics the other day—the ones created by Philip Marchand’s February review of Local Matters in the Toronto Star, in which he identified me as, among other more complimentary things, a “compulsive asserter”. In the course of the ensuing conversation, I said that I thought that e-mail was about done as a useful form of communication.

My new critic/conversation partner roared with laughter, and dropped the now-customary crack about my fear of making categorical pronouncements. I muttered the also-now-customary “fuck you” under my breath, and proceeded to argue my case. At least 70 percent of the e-mails I now receive are spam, of which my Windows XP spam filter picks off roughly 50 percent. Then I mentioned the Trojan viruses I get daily, most notably the Netsky virus, of which I’d received five that morning. My anti-virus software from McAfee stops them, but that’s all it can do. I have to go into my ISP webmail, erase the virus-carrying e-mail from my inbox, then empty the trash mailbox. Then I have to unlog from webmail, and download the one or two pieces of asked-for e-mail in Outlook Express. I now have to do this three to five times a day, and I calculate that it’s now costing me 20 minutes daily to get rid of this cybernetic garbage. I can’t leave my e-mail software on, because McAfee stops the virus but leaves the virus-carrying email on the ISP, and ten minutes later, Outlook Express will attempt to download the virus again.

What’s fascinating about the Trojan viruses, by the way, is that they’re commercial devices that colonize the unprotected computers of unwary technomorons (those without up-to-date virus protection) and redeploy them as spam-sending worker bees. The viruses employ your computer, in other words, not wreck it. In that respect, they’re totally in line with the Microsoft programming philosophy, which is that the Internet ought to be a medium, first and foremost, that enables commercial activity. That’s why 98 percent of viruses are aimed at Microsoft platforms and can’t get near Linux- or Mac-based systems. Trojan viruses, from that perspective, simply utilize under-employed technology, and never mind that most spam is aimed at convincing morons that male dicks can be longer and harder that nature intends, or at selling the same under-endowed class of males downloadable videos and jpegs of semen-splattered teenagers.

All I was saying—and this is hardly a categorical assertion—is that I’m thinking seriously of giving up on e-mail and going back to snailmail to save myself the five hours a week I’m currently wasting screwing around with a screwed-up technology that no longer does what it used to. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no big deal. It ain’t exactly as if my incidental missives are of such deathless importance that their recipients can’t wait a few days to get them. I’d be perfectly willing, by the way, to pay one cent for every e-mail I send if that would make spamming less attractive to bulk-mailers. But we know how that would work, don’t we? The ISP jackasses would give the corporations a cut rate, Microsoft would continue to leave its source-code flimsy enough that the nasties would find ways to spam anyway, and the legit e-mails I’d send will just make Bill Gates and Ted Rogers richer than they already are.

1379 W. April 27, 2004


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