By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 1996

A graying, middle-aged business man smiles meekly at the bottom of the frame. Shadows surround him. On the facing page, the text revealing his thoughts: “Will a 14-year-old SOCIOPATH bring my company to its knees?”

The headroom-oppressed businessman and his typeset, deepest fears are part of a two-page advertisement for IBM SecureWay© products and services. The copy begins, “It can keep you up at night, the thought of some wily hacker…”

On the very next page of the same computer business magazine, an ad for a networking consulting firm offers a chilling headshot of Frankenstein’s monster with the caption: “Does your pieced together network give you nightmares?”

If we aren’t already have bad dreams about the Internet, ads like these are sure to provoke them. Using fear to sell goods and services is nothing new ˆ but the intensity of this barrage, coupled with the intrinsically mysterious nature of Internet itself, only serves to heighten the level of paranoia already crippling the development of real online community.

What is your felt experience when you read Wired or most other trendy computer industry publications? Do you feel informed, welcomed, and respected? Or do you feel more anxious about the evolution of technology after you finish the magazine than before you picked it up? Do the complex graphics and fluorescent colors put you in a state of calm where you can absorb new information, or do they remind you of the bright-colored signs at a blasting zone?

In its best light, the presentation and content of most computer-related editorial and advertising can be equated with fire-and-brimstone religious conversion tactics. The underlying message is you will be damned if you don’t buy their services. If you don’t equip yourself with state-of-the-art computers and networks, your business will fail. If you already do own them, your business will fail because you don’t know how to use or protect them properly. It’s a two-pronged racket. First, accept the word. Then, come back to us every week because the word keeps changing, and only the experts know for sure what it is.

Businessmen put their dollars into new security programs with the same ignorant impulsiveness that most parishioners donate to the collection plate. They don’t understand the process by which their contributions grant them immunity from catastrophe, but they trust that the priest does. The more they invest in the system, the more they have at stake in keeping it going.

The folks making money off these suckers are simply exploiting the time-honored technique of monopolizing divine grace by creating sets of symbols and codes that no one else can understand. It is precisely what got everyone so mad at the Pharisees two thousand years ago. They controlled the language of money and mysticism, and exploited it to their own ends.

Today, the language of money and mysticism are both being claimed by the self-appointed computer elite, and it could render the online world as dangerously esoteric and out-of-reach as cabalistic religions made early Europe. The vestiges of anti-Semitism and religious tension we see today are the legacy of such practices. I hate to imagine the future of a digital society plagued by the same mistakes made at this early juncture.

In their advertisements, hi-tech companies equate the chaotic realm of computer code with mythic realm of the unconscious: computer viruses attack you in your sleep, and your ignorance of networking solutions will invade your sacred dream space. In their editorial, hi-tech magazines encode their text in jargon and layout meant to make us believe that more is being communicated to us than we can possibly decipher on our own. We assume that we simply aren’t savvy to the non-verbal messages. The articles just reinforce the notion that we need more experts.

There is something secret being communicated by the scary advertisements and articles filling today’s computer media: don’t go out there by yourself. You aren’t smart enough, young enough, rich enough, or privileged enough to even know what we’re talking about, much less take an action on your own. If you are so foolish as to ignore our warnings, just try to get a good night’s sleep.

The only answer I can come up with is either to ignore these folks altogether, or to realize that their need to sell us their expertise far outweighs their need to make our lives or the Internet more enriching, safe, or fun. If they believe it is directly against their interests to make us feel good about our relationship to technology, then we have stop turning to them for inspiration.

Meanwhile, and even more importantly, we have to correct the impression that this propaganda makes on those who still haven’t ventured online. If we don’t, then we, the digital enthusiasts, risk suffering the same persecution that may someday befall the digital elite.