The Cables under, in, and around Our Homes: “The Net” as Viral Suburban Intruder

Netposter1995

Delivered at the  Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) in late March, 2013

Please keep in mind, this was a oral presentation and, as such, it is a bit rough. Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema will house an expanded version of this chapter that includes discussion of Foucault’s concept of heterotopias alongside Susan Sontag’s work in Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors.

INTRO

The scene that perhaps best explains the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s comes about an hour into 1998’s Pleasantville (Dir Gary Ross, 1999), in which Joan Allen’s character, the black and white June-Cleaver-clone Betty Parker, masturbates in her bathtub, her sexual self-awareness paralleled by the introduction of colour into her various bathroom objects, her orgasm overlapped with a tree outside the Parker home that literally combusts.

Betty Parker inviting a sexual awareness into her life ran alongside the mass scale introduction of pornography into the home via the popularization of the web browser in the early 1990s. As Fabio D’Orlando points out, pornographic websites formed the backbone of larger parts of the early internet, providing full scans of magazines and later clips or whole films1, material that cascaded quickly into rural and suburban neighborhoods. However, in Pleasantville, colour doesn’t just correspond to responses and objects related to sexual awareness: characters gain color simply by being exposed to new knowledge and reacting in an emotionally expressive manner. Beginning roughly five years earlier, the internet, likewise, was suddenly allowing a giant excess of information (sexual and otherwise) into private households, flooding the suburbs with an invisible tide of facts and languages and strangers from around the globe, giving access to previously hard to get (or unpopular/dissident) data, opinions and context.

While Pleasantville ultimately celebrates this tidal wave, three year prior to the film’s release that sentiment was buried under a general fear and concern for this new pervasive public technology. Martin Rimm’s 1995 study in the Georgetown Law Journal (“Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway”)2 found 917,410 “pornographic files”; “seventeen of the thirty-two…newsgroups located on the Usenet contained pornographic imagery…or 83.5% of the total posts”; more, these posts contained large numbers of “paraphilic, pedophilic, and hebephilic” material. Spurred by Rimm, Time3 ran a cover story on the perverse and ubiquitous nature of cyberporn, insisting “you can obtain it in the privacy of your home–without having to walk into a seedy bookstore or movie house.” Though Rimm’s report was later discredited, in 1995, this alarm towards the deviant invasion into the private home in 1995 sounded the distress that came with the propagation of home computers and the internet; a number of films of this period chose to deliberately set these fears within a suburban setting.

While American films have long critiqued the suburbs as an overly homogenized community that breeds violence, menace and immorality (Blue Velvet (Dir. David Lynch, 1986), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Dir. Don Siegel, 1956) just two quick examples), the enemies within those films are external and corporeal (aliens/communist spies, oxygen sucking perverts). With the popularization of the first graphic user interface (GUI) web browser, Mosaic, in 1993, the enemy began to transform into an invisible invader, an undetectable stranger that would climb into your computer and private life in the same way a prowler would climb in an open window. Using the suburbs as a symbol of stability and familiarity, The Net (Dir. Irwin Winkler, 1995) and Hackers (Dir. Iain Softley, 1995)grapple with the changing of an individual into a collection of discreet digital information; the enemy then was invisible, able to manipulate or destroy that personal information. This was an accelerated killer that was already inside the home, not in a closet or basement, but on every floor simultaneously.

 

 

Part I: The Suburbs as Symbols

Ralph G. Martin opens his 1950 New York Times Magazine piece “Life in the New Suburbia” with a thought experiment that transforms the Long Island suburban into “a future park, all dressed up in thick trees and birds” populated by houses that encased “your wife busy in the kitchen making another fancy dessert, the crying of a brand-new baby” (14).4 What emerged from these imaginings was the cliché that would backdrop sitcoms like Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966), a set of mythology, a projection of a value system (optimism, wealth and healing) Martin underlines, that would center around G-rated perfect families, mildly living through familial and financial success. The value systems within these spaces were inherently conservative and traditional, in terms of familial units and moral systems, slow to change and accept “intruders” or “outsiders”.

Don Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), though unpopular at the time of its release, has gained in stature largely through its treatment of what Katrina Mann calls the subversion of “postwar hegemony”. The film explores the now overly familiar notion that suburbs, with their “cookie-cutter” replication of carefully measured housing/yards, create staunch homogeneity that mirrored the fear of Russian Communism at the time of the film’s release 5. The clichéd version of the suburbs becomes the perfect breeding ground for the real threat: the “infected” and reprogrammed citizens, citizens completely swallowed by an outside force hell bent on replicating and “equalizing” the American notions of the Individual (defined by hard work that is rewarded by material success) into oblivion.  Within the film, there is a need to distrust the familiar, the neighbors that are created by the homogeneous “equal” spaces of the suburbs.

Similarly, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) uses Jeffery Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) small town projections of “the American Dream – a comfortable, orderly, secure life” 6 as a catalyst for a “moral education that involves confrontation with his own capacities for violence and perversion” (83). Violence and perversion lies just barely beneath the surface – the opening shot of the film pans down, literally below the earth, underneath the homes and white picket fences to focus on the dirt underground. While Seigel’s film takes on the public infection of communism, Lynch’s suburbs are one where the private spaces are the most vicious, places where the most danger comes not the front lawns but in the closed rooms of the homes themselves.

In both films though, the enemy is still a physical entity, made corporeal and able, ultimately, to be combated or escaped; the landscape, similarly, is a familiar physical one of recognizable homes and material spaces.  Yet, as the Internet and home computing became more popular and affordable in the late 1980s-early 1990s, the enemies shifted from the physical to the ethereal, the landscape moving to the digital and urban, laying bare the shifts (and fears/concerns) of a changing value system in which the physical body, and the identity housed within, was becoming increasingly digitized.

 

PART II: The Explosion of the Internet & Home Computing

 

The early 1990s saw an enormous growth not just in users but the importance of the internet, as its integration into the lives of the “everyday citizen” snowballed exceptionally fast. Too, the public was slowly becoming aware of how much corporate and government infrastructure and information were becoming digitized; films like War Games (Dir. John Badham, 1983) reflect the initial fears of this networked shift. Combined with the standardizing of web protocols to HTTP & WWW, Mosaic (later Netscape) was the first browser that allowed for a visual GUI (Graphical User Interface – “point-and-click”) of networked computers that encouraged the public to navigate cyberspace easily. From June of 1993 to Jan 1997, the number of websites grew from 130 in 93 to 23,500 in June 95 to 650 000+ in Jan 97 (277); the amount of web traffic grew 11% each month (“two-thirds” in the US”) and in the time between Oct. 1994 and July 1995, the amount of users went from 3.8 million to nearly double at 6.6 million.7

The exponential acceleration of the distribution of hardware and software alongside gigantic performance enhancements was tremendous. But with McLuhan’s global village came fears and anxieties surrounding the digitizing of the self into dense cyberspaces that did not resemble cozy villages or familiar suburbs, but rather interconnected city blocks (think William’s Gibson’s description of cyberspace in Neuromancer8). Too, information was obviously vastly different than the McLuhan’s Literate Man’s9 previous dealings: instead of information being housed and presented in a linear and contextual document like a book or a newspaper, information on the internet was scattered, thread-connected by hyperlinks, often entirely bare of authorship or agency, much like Beaumont’s discovery of a human ear in a field, unconcealed and without context, in Blue Velvet. This invisible torrent of information gave access to value systems outside the “norms” of the users’ (conservative) private home and larger community; as such, there was a fear of this new “different” information being teleported directly into the home and how to contain or monitor it (see, again, the panic surrounding the discredited Martin Rimm report from 1995).

The internet and information processing became increasingly more private as it moved from communal infrastructures (like libraries and universities) to the personal home. By 1996, one in every three homes in America had a home computer in it (up from 8% in 1984)10; by 1996 nearly 50% of individuals were Internet users (274)11. The “home” or “personal” computer, as these devices were marketed, were constructed as an extension of the house, an extra room, a user would populate with folders and files and programs as furniture. Treating the computer with this sort of metaphoric language ignored the fact that the internet, by its very nature, is an extremely public network. The fear of (or realization that) other users of the internet now had access to that user’s computer and could infiltrate that private home by slipping, unseen, through the phone and cable lines, began to take root. Once inside the home, that stranger would burglarize not the jewelry or TV set but rather the personal information and records that had been slowly digitized over the previous decade and half. The struggle to maintain private documents (governmental, like a driver’s license, but also personal – pictures, narratives, likes and dislikes) and the identity of the self that a user defines through those documents, is at the heart of The Net and Hackers (both 1995), with each film providing unique (and generational) fears about what the uses of the early internet could entail.

 

Part IV:  – The Net and Hackers, the Internet as Viral Monster

 

Hackers opens with its 11 year old protagonist Dade in his suburban home, surrounded by typical domestic imagery: a dog barks on the front lawn and his mother cooks in the kitchen. The peace and stability of the scene is shattered as a masked police force bursts into the home to arrest the pre-teen Dade; the camera lens then distorts the scene: the colours and sounds appear underwater and the young hacker is lead to the back of a police car. When the film resumes after a brief court scene, Dade is 18 years old and is moving, with his mother, into a significantly smaller brownstone in New York City; the father is absent and the mother the only family member (and friend) Dade has. Initially, the child version of Dade, as easy short hand for innocence, invited the internet into the private suburban home and was corrupted; the punishment was not only to be banned from this suburban utopia but from the traditional nuclear family unit as well.

The Net begins similarly: Sandra Bullock’s character Angela Bennett lives in a quiet thick-treed neighborhood where she works as a computer virus expert who accidently comes across a hidden program that leads to a muddled plot line about corporations and millions being secretly siphoned etc. Bennett works from home, inviting the Internet in and, in fact, depending upon it, not only for work and money, but also for social interaction (some of the early moments of the film are spent with Bennett in a chat room, talking with strangers). When she’s attacked by a duplicitous Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam) while on vacation, he steals first her physical records (passport, driver’s license, money) but then, more terrifyingly the film insists, he starts destroying her digital identity. The red-lettered tag line for the film states, “Her driver’s license. Her credit cards. Her Banks accounts. Her identity… Deleted” – the lesson here is that, by inviting the internet into the formation and maintenance of personal identity and records, Bennett is leaving herself horribly vulnerable to being erased. In fact, that’s what happens – she struggles to get back in the country and when she eventually does, she finds her whole identity has been wiped clean and replaced with a drug-addicted ex-con’s! She’s even been replaced at her old job by a new “Angela Bennett,” (made possible by the established fact that Bennett has never met anyone, in person, at the company), a doubling that should remind us of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, shifted slight towards the distinct horror of the internet providing “pods” through the easy creation of avatars. Finally, when she gets back to her suburban home, she finds it has been sold and her name was taken completely out of the records of its ownership. Like Hackers, as Bennett invited the internet into her house, her punishment is to be cast out into a paranoid jumble of a life that eventually leads to a mental hospital and even jail.

The implication here is, of course, that it could happen to any viewer of the movie, that the movie viewer, by acting in the same way as Bennett and digitalizing her/his own private world (as necessitated by government, bank, police records), becomes just as vulnerable to home invasion and identity manipulation. In fact, the villain Jack Devlin gains entry into Bennett’s life through the chatroom that she is seen using in her private home at the beginning of the film: Devlin impersonates a friendly stranger (another Invasion pod), fishes all the personal information he can get from Bennett, and uses that to ultimately wipe her existence out. Devlin, a name deliberately close to “devil”, is the external embodiment (and cautionary corporeal presence) of the unbodied avatar and the internet; when Bennett  invites a camouflaged Devlin into her suburban home through the window of that chatroom, her casting out, destruction and breakdown begins.

Even the title of The Net recalls monster films like The Blob (Dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr, 1958) and The Fly (Dir. Kurt Neumann, 1958), with creatures and transformations that produced grotesque and inexplicable consequences. This begins to tie into the main plot catalyst of both films, the ultimate virtual boogey-man: the computer virus. Jan Hruska’s  1990 Computer Viruses and Anti-Virus Warfare 11gives a computer virus four characteristics: replication, executable path, side effects and disguise; Eric Filiol12 adds that a computer virus “does not only contain only a single virus (a program) but also all its possible different but equivalent forms (variants)” (44). This understanding then of a computer virus gives new vocabulary to the invasion of the home – suddenly the computer virus is a dormant, invisible invader, rhizomatic, silently swallowing the personal/private computer/space in the same way a body is infected. The computer virus, too, is an invisible destroyer and corruptor of biological health and home.

How each film “cures” its characters drive the films to two entirely different endings, both largely dictated by their target demographics. Hackers, a sometimes cartoonish depiction of 90s counter culture and early internet hackers/phone phreaks, is aimed distinctly at youth. The Net, however, is a remarkably more adult film – Angela Bennett is a freelance consultant who worries about job benefits and spends the first 45 minutes of the film trying to balance a failed love life with a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. It is fitting then that when Bennett has triumphed and the film ends with all the pieces restored to their proper places, the final scene is of her and her mother back in a full house in a tree-lined neighborhood; Bennett is typing with the door open to the front yard where her mother plants flowers in the garden. Order (and identity) is restored and, as such, the suburbs and the home are open once again a place of permanence and now familial strength. She is allowed back now that she has learned to control the Internet; her previous symptoms of a vulnerable self-identity, much like her mother’s Alzheimers, are being managed and monitored. The films argues, then, that vanquishing the viruses (given vehicle by “The Net”)  and restoring order (and personal identity) can only be achieved when the user of the internet maintains control and caution over that invisible force.

Hackers, on the other hand, argues a sentiment near opposite: it is the internet at the end of the film that brings Dade into a tight-knit structure of peers, or what McLuhan would call a tribe. Whereas The Net reinforces that the most important tribe one can belong to is a family, Hackers implies that the internet lends itself to multi-cultural bonds that run as deep (or deeper) than the conservative “familial” tribe. The Net goes out of its way at the beginning of the film to point out how few friends Bennett has; at the end of the film, she has expanded her tribe only slightly to include her mother. In contrast, Hackers’ happy ending is closer to Beaumont’s “moral education” in Blue Velvet: Dade is exposed to the corporate corruption of Ellington Mineral Company, then uses the tools of that digital space and virus against itself. This is not a casting away or conquering of the internet, but rather a celebration of it as a means to expose governmental and corporate vice and unite disparate peers together on a world-wide multi-lingual scale. The curing of the virus that serves as the climax of Hackers is not a purging, as it is in The Net, but rather a reclaiming of the internet’s powers, harnessed in positive moral directions. The two films seem to be arguing two different solutions: The Net, aimed at Literate Man, says that control of the internet as strictly a functional tool is necessary, ending with a reinforcing of the conservative values associated with the cliché suburbs – identity is grounded in the physical body and the family unit; Hackers, as youth oriented, says that the solution is to start a new “family”/tribe of densely connected, flexible and digital avatars that embraces the virtual space of the web. In The Net, the internet is a tool to be feared; in Hackers, the internet is a tool with a vast future and creative potential.

Conclusion

 

Looking at the films now, we can see clearly that the argument Hackers put forth won convincingly. Even three years after the film, Pleasantville revels in the ability to, first, literally enter into a multi-media document (a TV show) and live there with full agency, but, secondly, the triumph of the unfettered exposure to knowledge. Hackers overlaps with Pleasantville in that way: the visual metaphor of the introduction of colour explains how objects (or people) are not outright changed by this knowledge but, are, in the movie’s view, enhanced, made more “real”, better. This is not an infection or virus but what McLuhan might can an “extension” of base human capacities. In 2013, the digital natives and digital immigrants 13 alike are exaggerated Dades, not only consuming mountains of information in their private spaces but compulsively inviting in hundreds of millions of people into their own homes – vloggers spend hours a week seducing strangers, openly, into their bedrooms, bathrooms and households; mega-popular social media technology like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter demand a user share private meals, thoughts, conversations and moments constantly. At this height and prevalence, it might then be best to beware! Pay attention to what your Facebook and Twitter profiles are doing when you’re not signed in – The Net and its pods lurk, in wait, around ever webpage.

Works Cited

1 Drake, Richard E. “Potential health hazards of pornography consumption as viewed by psychiatric nurses” Archives of Psychiatric Nursing 8 (2). (April 1994) pg. 101-106.

2 Rimm, Marty. “Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway: A Survey of 917,410
Images, Descriptions, Short Stories, and Animations Downloaded 8.5 Million Times by Consumers in over 2000 Cities in Forty Countries, Provinces, and Territories” Georgetown Law Journal. 83. 1994-1995. Pg. 1849

3 Elmer-Dewitt, Philip, and Hannah Bloch. “On A Screen Near You: Cyberporn. (Cover Story).” Time 146.1 (1995): 38. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 May 2013.

4 Martin, Ralph G. “Life in the New Suburbia”. Suburbia: The American Dream and Dilemma. ed Philip C. Dolce. Garden City, N.Y. : Anchor Books, 1976.

5 Mann, Katrina. “”You’re Next!”: Postwar Hegemony Besieged in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)”. Cinema Journal. 44.1. 12/2004 p. 49 – 68

6 Knafo, D. and Feiner, K. “Film Review Essay Blue Velvet: David Lynch’s Primal Scene”. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 8. 2002. 1445–1451.
7 Moschovitis, Christos J.P. et all. History of the Internet: Chronology, 1843 to the Present. Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

8 Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

9 My understanding of McLuhan is drawn from a number of his key sources such as The Medium is the Massage (Random House 1967) and Understanding Media (Sphere Books, 1967). My clearest understanding of the concepts comes from an interview he did with Playboy in 1969 found in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. (Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 2003)

10 United States; United States Census Bureau; People and Households; Computer and Internet Uses
Main; Publications About Computer and Internet Use; Table A. Level of Access and Use of Computers 1984, 1989 and 1993. United States Census Bureau, February 12 2013. http://www.census.gov/ Web.

11 Moschovitis, Christos J.P. et all. History of the Internet: Chronology, 1843 to the Present. Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

11 Hruska, Jan. Computer Viruses and Anti-Virus Warfare. New York; Ellis Horwood. 1990.

12 Filiol, Eric. Computer viruses : from theory to applications. Berlin : Springer-Verlag, c2005.

13 Prensky, Marc. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1”. On the Horizon. 9,5, 2001. p1 – 6.