Shooting the Messenger: Vonnegut, Schmich and the Internet
by Gilles d'Aymery

August 9, 1997

On August 6, 1997, The New York Times published on page A 16 yet another little story about the Internet of which most of our readers must have already heard; An E-mail that navigated all over the country--and perhaps the world--for the past month or so which was claimed to be a commencement speech given by the writer Kurt Vonnegut to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's class of 97. The fact is it was neither a commencement address to MIT nor had it been written by Kurt Vonnegut, but instead was a column written by a columnist named Mary Schmich for, and published by The Chicago Tribune on May 31, 1997.

For whomever has been on the Internet for the past few years these facts alone are not very newsworthy. As the Times put it, "another cyberhoax--or maybe simply a cyberinnocent mistake--was born." However, the entire article suggests that somehow the Internet has an inherently evilish character.

Kurt Vonnegut is quoted asking, "how can I know whether I'm being kidded or not, or lied to?" and commenting, "I don't know what the point is except is how gullible people are on the Internet." For her part Mary Schmich says: "I've heard from a couple of cyberlovers out there excoriating me for damaging the Internet. But this is just one of those stories that reminds you of the lawlessness of cyberspace." She continues, "until this moment, I thought I was just one of the curiosities of cyberspace. But having been roped into it in a very personal way, it suddenly seems less merely interesting and more dangerous."

My, my, my, what a series of serious accusations! "Dangerous", "excoriating", "lawlessness", "lied to"... Add to this pornography and extremists of all sorts and you would think that the country is under attack by conspiracies of anti-Christ proportion. Beware, the Chinese and the Internet are on the move to destroy our Western Civilization! Please...

Mr. Vonnegut seems to have forgotten the golden rule of intellectual research: To know whether you are being kidded or lied to, double check, triple check the information you are getting, whatever medium it comes from, television, radio, telephone, the press, E-mail, the Internet, ads, friends and more. Let's not fault the tool, in this instance E-mail--that is only one component of the multi-faceted Internet--for one's lack of intellectual rigor or mere laziness.

But sure enough, people are gullible; so gullible that even Kurt Vonnegut's wife received the incriminating mail and "sent it to a whole lot of people" without questioning whether her husband had indeed spoken to MIT and written the paper! Gullible? In a country where 95 per cent of the population believe in some kind of supreme being, a country that hosts over 1,600 religions and counting, where a majority of the X-generation believes more in UFOs than in social security, where after-death experiences are solemnly treated by Diane Sawyer (when she is not beating the fairy tale drums of the Duchess of York, or Lady Di), where you are constantly reminded to read the fine print of any ad, etc., etc., etc. How many E-mails do you get on a daily basis in your mailbox from or offering you to "earn additional income and do virtually nothing!", or "make ca$h in the comfort of your bed"?

Credulity is nothing more than the futile effort by someone to being anything or anyone else but oneself. "Be all you want to be" should be our national motto.

Yes, definitely, people are gullible--or simply naive--but is it reason enough for Mr. Vonnegut to believe (here we go again) "that the Internet is not a part of the future worth trusting"? When Jim and Tammy Baker, as well as myriad televangelists, were holding sway on TV in the Eighties did society turn around and make television the culprit? Did we blame radio for the panic that ensued when it broadcast "The War of the Worlds"? Can we hold the printed press responsible for Sergei Nilus' infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion?" At least there is one thing worth trusting about the future: Shooting the messenger will not stop the revolution in communication that is transforming our societies as profoundly as Gutenberg's movable type did.

As to Ms. Schmich, this writer does empathize with her pain--feeling someone's pain has become an important idiosyncracy of present-day America (and then you die)--and would gladly share with her a basket, or electronic mailbox full of "excoriating" messages that Swans receives on a much too regular basis! Notwithstanding the unpleasantness of these types of experiences, the degradation of civility has long preceeded the arrival of the Internet to an exponential user base representing all the strata of our society in what one would suspect to be a fairly normal statistical distribution. Who knows, perhaps Ms. Schmich would rather have some officials beeping out offensive language--and why not attitudes--as it is presently the case on TV.

Her charge of "lawlessness of cyberspace" may need a more deliberate review. For lack of space and time let's just say that in this particular instance the Internet appears to have policed itself pretty well. Within a month or so the charade, or misappropriation of her work was discovered and publicized. With regard to copyright and intellectual property, it seems that she already had been paid for her column by The Chicago Tribune, which in turn saw its property be disseminated without its permission (i.e. without getting paid... It always gets down to that!). There is little doubt that the Internet is emulating or forcing upon legal minds the re-thinking of our present copyright laws and the concept of intellectual property but the day is still young for a reasonable outcome. Meantime, The Chicago Tribune and both Ms. Schmich and Mr. Vonnegut got a lot of free advertising!

And you know what, out of this tempest in a teapot, all the protagonists from the New York Times (in the person of Ian Fisher, the author of the article, and his editor) to the two writers, have revealed some interesting character traits and have missed the significant consequence of the occurrence.

First, they demonstrate their absence of lightness. They tend to forget that if they are really serious people they should not take themselves too seriously (for instance, the irony that Ms. Schmich's writing looked so much like Mr. Vonnegut's). Secondly, and sadly enough, we learn that Kurt Vonnegut is a Luddite. Third, they all are inclined to advance a negative, almost nefarious characterization of the Internet missing the simple fact that thanks to this tool an excellent column, misappropriated or not, reached an audience that neither Ms. Schmich nor The Chicago Tribune could ever have dreamed to reach. Finally, and this is perhaps the most important matter, they ignore the content of the message that this column carried.

As a friend of this writer, Eileen Rinde, to whom he had given a copy of the E-mail he had himself received from his partner-in-crime at Swans who had received it from an old friend in San Diego, who..., and to whom he said two days later that the commencement address was not one and it had not been written by Kurt Vonnegut, said: "Oh, too bad!" When asked why it was too bad, she replied, "it was wonderfully written and the substance of the message was so light-hearted and true..." "Have you ever attended a commencement address?", she asked. To the negative answer she received, she continued: "Well, most of the time it is quite a boring event. At least such an address would have attracted their attention and could well have made them think." After a slight pause she concluded: "Yes, it's too bad."

Indeed, Eileen, it is too bad!

Published August 9, 1997
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