Psychoceramics: the on-line crackpots
This article first appeared in The Guardian, July 1997.
IN A MONTH which has celebrated the Mars Pathfinder mission, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Roswell UFO incident, it seems that science and anti-science are, for once, enjoying equal billing. Both events have big Web presences, and mark opposite ends of the spectrum of on-line sense and nonsense.
The trouble is, the Web is becoming increasingly nonsensical. Take, for example, the pages of Archimedes Plutonium (his legal name), who believes that the universe is a giant Plutonium atom. Or David Oates, who thinks that when we speak, we simultaneously talk backwards, the reversed speech revealing our true thoughts. And then there is Les U Knight, of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, who says all humans should immediately stop reproducing, to make way for something better to inhabit the planet.
Andrew Bulhak, of the Web Development Group at Melbourne's Monash University, runs an email list devoted to the study of such people. In a gibe against political correctness, Bulhak refers to these on-line techno-crackpots as "psychoceramics".
No longer hampered by the costs of printing and distributing pamphlets, psychoceramics can reach a wired-up world for the modest expense of a PC and a subscription to an Internet Service Provider. Information Technology has freed them from their traditional small-scale underground, so they can get down to writing the billions of words needed to do justice to their amazing theories.
And write, they certainly do. There are thousands of Web pages devoted to crazy ideas. The traditional crank fixations on anti-gravity, free energy and perpetual motion are well represented, but there are seemingly endless others: the New York couple who claim to psychically "zap" the CBS evening news every Thursday; the Raelians who want to clone human beings; the Unarius Academy of Science, channelling "the brothers of light from the higher frequency planes".
Says Bulhak: "The Web makes such ideas more accessible to the general public. It's far easier for the curious to look at a Web page than to order a self-published book from a lone eccentric".
Some people worry about the easy availability of "strange" ideas, and not without reason. While it's fairly harmless to read transmissions from the Zeta Reticulan aliens, there's another, far darker, side to the Web.
Without much trouble, you can find yourself in the skewed worlds of the Holocaust revisionists, religious cults, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-semites, homophobes, terrorists, and malicious hackers. These are the "hate sites", and they're not much fun.
This is when things start to get serious. Not only does the Web allow the mass distribution of ideas, it can also increase their plausibility. In the past, the rantings of the haters were mostly expressed, like those of the psychoceramics, in small-circulation newsletters. On the Web, it's the same text, the same dangerous and unpleasant ideas, but the new typeset and tidy pages are more believable -- a far cry from inky pamphlets mailed out in second-hand envelopes.
The Web is establishing a democracy of ideas on a scale unimagined by previous generations. With plans to connect all schools to the Internet, the question of controlling access to "undesirable" Web sites becomes increasingly important. Systems which bar access to pornographic sites are already in widespread use -- but will we see similar systems which shut out the hate sites and the psychoceramics?
Many Web-watchers argue that such an approach is wrong and unneccesary. The Web is self-policing, they say. Already a number of sites, such as hatewatch.org and www.rickross.com, attempt to monitor the proliferation of the hate sites, and to provide a counterbalance.
Donna Kossy, author of "Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief", and curator of the online Kooks Museum at www.teleport.com, says: "I like the idea of having access to the full range of ideas, no matter how bizarre, wrong or odious. Providing access inspires independent thinking, while cutting it off inspires narrow-mindedness and emotionalism".
Wendy Grossman, founder of The Skeptic magazine, thinks that the Web is in a time of transition, and that we should credit Web surfers with intelligence: "Over time, people will develop their own information filters, and will learn to discriminate the reliable Web content from the spurious", she says.
Andrew Bulhak agrees: "If strange and technically incorrect ideas are given more credibility by being on the Web, this will be a temporary effect. As people become more used to the idea of an unmoderated, many-to-many medium, they will become more skeptical and discerning".
As the electronic media becomes more sophisticated, and TVs morph into PCs, the battle between science and anti-science is likely to hot up. We'll increasingly rely on intelligent agents which filter information on our behalf. So when, between TV shows, someone pops up claiming that the universe is a giant Plutonium atom, all you'll have to do is press the "psychoceramic" button on your remote, and you'll never hear from him again. You hope.
You can explore the on-line world of the strange starting at zikzak.zikzak.net/~acb/psychoceramics/.
Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester.