The invention of the stirrup--enabling armored knights to fight on horseback--changed history. The modem has done much the same thing. It has supplied millions with a weapon that allows them to fire instantaneous opinions through the air like tracer bullets and thus engage in daily cultural warfare on a scale never seen before in history.
You can argue this as a wondrous stimulation and expansion of democracy. On the other hand, the hair-trigger modem, wired directly to the adrenal glands and needing only a finger twitch to hit SEND, encourages a certain violence of opinion--impulsiveness that hardens more quickly than before into dogmatism. Once you've sent it, you're committed to it; you've got to defend it. On almost any subject--gay scoutmasters, say, or capital punishment or abortion--Americans tend to accelerate at unnatural speeds toward absolutes and sort themselves into fierce tribes to defend the absolute they've chosen. It's a moral video game. The fact that the combat is virtual (no physical danger) only adds to the gruesomeness of rhetoric--the flaming with verbal napalm.
Americans have always divided themselves into camps--proslavery and antislavery, say, or "Wet" and "Dry." But the computer modem revolutionizes controversy. Every man a king. Every person a moral philosopher (or blowhard) of instantaneous global reach. The written word, once a priestly prerogative, is now power in the fingers of the wired masses.
And so the tribes of the Decided form. This is great in many ways--sheer liberation, democracy juiced up to a new dimension. But with a dangerous side effect. To be of the tribe of the Undecided is to belong to a bloodless, dying breed--you are shunned, held in contempt. To be Undecided means you are still looking, suspending judgment, still thinking. A culture balkanized by sound bite does not tolerate the ambivalent--which may mean it does not tolerate certain traditional processes of thought. In a world armed with speedy modems, reason tends to yield to instinct. I have always thought there was an advantage to sitting on the fence for a while, being able to see both sides, and especially when the issue is one that does not concern me in an immediate way--and might even be construed as none of my business. I have not made up my mind about all kinds of things--including this election. I live in the drab little village of the Wishy-Washy, and say things like "on the other hand."
And I live in the crossfire of scathing certainties. In my right ear I hear the concussive blasts of Limbaugh. With my left eye I read the New York Times, the curia and house organ of America's new established church--the church of correctness and diversity, with all its rigid doctrines now embedded in the rules of corporations, of government, of universities.
On the other hand, the drab village of the Wishy-Washy seems to be located at the 50-yard line of American public opinion in this presidential election. It is the village residents who will--surprise--decide the outcome. In the village, we think there are strong reasons to vote for Gore--and strong reasons not to. Same with Bush.