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On Being a Citizen of the Web

  • December 20, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell
Once upon a time, a special feeling was imparted by this time of year. For those who embraced Christianity it was a time of spiritual delight, and even those who followed other religions or no religion at all felt a little extra...something. The phrase "Merry Christmas" was cheerfully given and warmly received.

It was a time when people liked being of good cheer. Today, the goal is to find reason to take offense, to be insulted. The heartfelt wish that one have a merry Christmas has been replaced by a vague and meaningless "happy holiday" just as "have a nice day" has come to mean "I have no further business with you, so go away now."

We are supposed to be celebrating diversity, but instead we seem to be trying to minimize it in favor of the lowest common denominator, and I think the price has been something very precious. We moderns are afraid to say "Merry Christmas" anymore. How sad.

And how paradoxical it is, then, that that most modern of media, the World Wide Web, in many ways bucks the trend. It is not so much that it is a place where "Merry Christmas" is uttered a lot more frequently (though in many of the places I inhabit it is), but instead that it is a place where that phrase can be written and is likely to be accepted in the spirit in which it is given.

Over the years I've participated in a lot of cheerful discussions online, and in a lot of flame wars, too. The remarkable thing about the latter is that often as not they end up getting resolved with the antagonists parting friends. In a lot of ways, the Web is more civilized than civilization is. The thought police are less welcome here, and beliefs and passions that one might be afraid to call one's own in "real life" can here be openly stated, discussed, defended.

Being a citizen of the Web is different from citizenship anywhere else. It is as if the world were being reinvented, as if prototyping for a better civilization were underway. Many of the hindrances to free speech that the real world imposes--usually in the name of defending free speech--don't exist here, nor should they be allowed to insinuate themselves.

That means, of course, that we each of us have certain responsibilities, an obligation to be good citizens. What does that mean? Well, we're still finding out.

All of this came to mind, surprisingly, as I was pondering the various Web browsers that reside on my machine. This column was going to be about how I'm nearly ready to banish Netscape from my computer forever, and in due course that's what it will be about, but then I got distracted by Konqueror.

When you open this increasingly good KDE2 program, you are in your home directory. If you tell it to do so, it will go anywhere else on your local machine, or local network, or the Web. Perfectly seamlessly. If you go to a distant ftp site, the directories and files look just like the ones on the local machine, and doing an ftp transfer is no more difficult than is dragging a file from one directory to another locally. The difference between your computer and the entire vastness of the Web is no difference at all where Konqueror is concerned.

Yes, it's cool, and yes, it's convenient. But there's a nice little philosophical aspect, when you stop and think about it. To Konqueror, when you're online you haven't merely dialed up the Web, you have become part of the Web. You haven't gone to see a play, you've become a member of the cast. It's a subtly different way of looking at things, but one that's worth a few minutes' thought.

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