DIGITAL AMERICA

Digital Utopianism and the Chat Room

// Posted by on 09/07/2014 (9:33 PM)
When Dr. Rosatelli initially informed us that our first class “experience” would take place in a recreated 1990s chat room, I had almost no clue what that entailed, never having spent any time in a chat room up to that point. Nonetheless, I expected something dreadfully disappointing in its obsolescence.
The Internet has changed immeasurably in the past couple of decades, to such an extent that members of my generation may not even understand what a chat room is, what it looks like, or how it works, or at least in an earlier configuration. For the most part, I did not. Spoiled by the instant gratification of  iMessage, I was perhaps dismayed in understanding that this experience would require us to subject ourselves—perish the thought—to an hour on a program right out of the 90s. I can barely look at the gray Windows 2000 taskbar without feeling the need to immerse myself in the sleek modernity of Apple OS X Mavericks, let alone actually spending an hour on a website right out of the Clinton era. Revisitation of the past can be inherently uncomfortable, for reasons beyond my comprehension, and seeing the pixelated welcome screen on LA Live Chat, I felt the sort of hesitant unease with which I am all too familiar.
Yet, what I discovered in my time on the website was not a growing discomfort or a need to return to the technological progress with which our lives are saturated, but rather a greater appreciation for the chat room, in all its admittedly archaic simplicity, and for the grander notions that it represented for programmers and digital architects of the time.
There is an undeniable naiveté to the notions put forth by thinkers like Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller, whose conceptions of “cybernetics” and related notions would give rise to digital utopianism, first in the form of a New-Communalist return to the land, and ultimately in the form of the earliest online social networks in an ambiguous, transcendent place called “cyberspace.” Regardless of the seemingly logical nature of Gregory Bateson’s philosophy, which denied the idea of “transcendence” (first as LSD and later as a new digital landscape) and viewed the world as a purely physical place in which change was to be made here and now, the wonders of lalivechat.com are perhaps inexpressible in words. Especially placing yourself in the footsteps of an individual living in the 1980s, without any prior exposure to the early internet and the possibilities posed thereby, it is impossible to deny the wonders, and indeed the transcendence, that was offered by a program like the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or by 1990s chat rooms.
The concept was simple enough: To chat an hour away with members of my class, but to do so anonymously. Theoretically speaking, the experience could have been a rather cold and distant one, to be in a mysterious domain out of a different decade, speaking with people we do not, with certainty, know. The actual experience, however, reflected something much different, something decidedly personal in nature.
My first impressions were not the most positive, especially upon realizing that, unlike contemporary instant messenger services, the chat room had to be reloaded if I wanted to read the most recent comments. How unthinkably inconvenient. But in all seriousness, once that minor annoyance subsided, and the class discussion of our 90s childhood commenced, I felt remarkably empowered and closer to my classmates than I had up to that point.
I felt empowered because of anonymity, or at least the illusion thereof, as I later learned that one could see each user’s email address by scrolling over their username. I am thankful, however, that I had not made this discovery during the course of the chat, as I found it so freeing to speak openly with my classmates. As an individual using the WELL for the first time in the 1980s, unaccustomed to digital technologies, I can barely imagine the amazement one might have felt. The WELL—and soon enough, the young Internet and chat rooms like lalivechat.com—was something unfathomed by a majority of the population, something that could not have been expected by most, because it could not be easily defined. It was not a physical realm beyond the expanse of a monitor and perhaps a keyboard and mouse. Yet to be thrown into this new world, this so-called cyberspace, and to find oneself interacting with other anonymous strangers who might have been thousands of miles away, discussing everything from consequential political decisions to trivial mundanities, must have been one of the most indescribable sensations. It was as if the world were given a new dimension, and users of the WELL were plunged right into it.
Of course, the WELL predated LA Live Chat, but that sort of transcendent socialization, sharing a previously undiscovered world with previously undiscovered friends, even shone through for me as I typed to my classmates about everything from Furbies to “Full House,” and I sense that, immersed in the 1990s and sharing an evening of nostalgia, we all felt the same pangs of wistfulness, a bittersweet longing for a past we cannot reclaim. For all the obsolescence of a 90s chat room, far less advanced than our own modern means of communication, I longed for the days when Britney Spears was still a relevant young star and before “Seinfeld” ended its run and became a syndicated relic of a not-too-distant past. Even with its inconveniently obligatory reloading, something about lalivechat.com just made sense.
I once found a cheesy quote in a fortune cookie that read something like this: “The Golden Age never was the present one.” Cornball though it may be, it stuck with me, and my thoughts kept returning to it as I chatted with my classmates. I found the Golden Age in a chat room, and I knew I was not alone. The sort of closeness such an experience fosters is beyond words, something I had cynically doubted, but something I could not help but recognize as the evening came to a close and I typed, with complete sincerity, that I wanted to come back. That was the truth. I would gladly return to LA Live Chat to engage in conversation with fellow users near and far, but the 90s are gone, and the chat room has faded from popularity. Once my class left, the room was, as it likely will remain for some time, empty, and there is something truly sad about that.
In spite of the melancholy that results from such an understanding, I emerged from the experience nonetheless with hope, only being able to deny the supposed logic behind Gregory Bateson’s cynical rejection of “transcendence.” I have felt that transcendence, and though the dismal realities of the real world may prevent the Internet from achieving the ends towards which Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller hoped to work, if we would reach back into the annals of digital history, to a different time, we could find that idealistic hope that they recognized so many years ago.
Chat rooms may be on their way out, and the 90s may be gone, but wallowing in rueful pity accomplishes nothing. The world has moved on, to iMessage and to Facebook and to Twitter, and though the transcendence we once understood may now be muted by the depth of our knowledge of the Internet and the gradual lessening of its mysterious aura, we still carry with us the same utopian hope, that perhaps, in a world without chat rooms, we may not reclaim a long-gone past, but rather a vision once held by members of that past. Digital utopianism lives on, or at least the dream thereof, as mankind is more empowered than ever before to make the Golden Age the present one.

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