Ours was one team at America Online, but there are others, monitoring violations in e-mail, on member Web sites, and throughout the company's staple, instant messages. America Online is no longer a string of call centers against lonely backdrops like the Sandia Mountains. AOL/Time Warner, setting up shop now in New York City, has access to nearly every line of communication in and out of our homes.
The gravity and absurdity of the situation became clear when, having answered every complaint in the box, I took a call. A woman frantically explained her catastrophe. Her young son had been chatting online, and when she went to get him for dinner, she found his room empty. A last instant message was posted on the screen: "See you soon, can't wait." She begged me for the name and address of the person behind the dangling screen name. I had the information right in front of me, but I couldn't give it to her.
My heart flipped in my chest. What had started as a job wide with possibilities had narrowed to a pinhole through which I could see the messy corners and anguished moments of so many ordinary lives. I had the power to protect her, or at least to help—a mission my employer had made clear. Yet here the interests of customer and corporation collided.
I put her on hold and sought the supervisor's advice. There were no options. Only a subpoena warranted release of that name. According to the rules, he was right. And I had to tell her, in turn, as firmly as I could, that I could be of no assistance in the matter. She grew tired of pleading and slammed the phone back in the cradle. I like to believe her child came waltzing home, arms full of roses, within moments of that call. I like to believe it.
Even now, I understand that America Online is no more responsible for a stranger getting in than the phone company is when a latchkey kid answers a call from the creep across the street. But if there is anything more alluring to a developing mind than a blank slate on which to etch the symbols of adulthood, I can't imagine what it is.
I left AOL within days of that call, unable to shake what I'd learned: From a strictly evolutionary perspective, the eggs that hatch online, in the imagination, grow wings and claws behind the closed doors of real houses.
-- Terms of Service by Rita Ferrandino, http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0112/ferrandino.shtml
Fire is a powerful force. IT can dwell in the least obtrusive of items - lighters, matches, bits of rock and alloy - only to be released for one ephemeral, sparkling moment, and then, fed upon some dark and lifeless tinder, become a little flame.
That little flame can be controlled, fed more or less, doused, smothered - the ways to kill it off are manifold, but to thrive, it needs air and fuel. Eventually, this little flame can, with careful shepherding, grow into a fire, giving heat and light to the world.
But not without price, not without danger. The glowing daemon, summoned as a spark and fed with its surroundings, will just as happily turn on its owner as provide for him in time of need.
Leave the fire unattended, and it can spread, turning a might forest into, first, a huge inferno, then leaving it a blackened wasteland if not checked.
The only way to safely handle fire is to be experienced, knowledgeable, and careful. It is not for the foolish or unknowledgeable to handle fire. For them, it can be caged - perhaps in a lamp, or a stove - and the difficulty and risks can be reduced, but the fire, the essential element, is still there, and it can be released again, and it can grow...
The internet is fire. It has great possibilities, the power for great good, but if it isn't handled with care, it can do great harm. That care and responsibility has to come from those who use it, though.
Who would light a bonfire in their living room, without preparing a place for it first? Who wouldn't try to put it out after they noticed it was burning the floor, lighting the curtains on fire, killing their children?
People sometimes do this with the internet. Without examining it more than superficially what it is, how it works, they take it into their home and let it burn. Even leave it for their children to play with, unattended. If someone you knew had open flames in every room of their house, and let their children manage them, would you be surprised if their house burnt down? Or if their children got burnt, or worse?