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Dave Barry in Cyberspace

Author: Dave Barry
Publisher: New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1996
Review Published: July 1999

 REVIEW 1: Sarah E. Skwire

The great difficulty with reviewing humor, particularly computer humor, is how quickly it goes out of date. On the very first page of Dave Barry in Cyberspace, when Barry jokes about lusting after a 6X CDROM drive, it becomes quite clear that the book will be plagued by this problem, as almost any book of computer humor is doomed to be. Additional obsolescence problems occur in his chapter on "Selected Web Sites." Several of the sites are defunct, and a few have entirely new URLs. The technology simply changes too quickly for a static medium like the traditional book to keep up with what's funny and what's not. Barry notes this problem himself in his conclusion, saying, "I might as well have written this book in Swahili for all the good it's going to do you, because in the Computer Revolution everything changes way too fast for the human brain to comprehend. The cycle of obsolescence has become so short that, in the computer superstores of tomorrow there will be Dumpsters located conveniently right next to the cash registers so you can discard your obsolete purchases immediately after paying for them" (203-4). That he notes the problem, however, does not keep it from impacting negatively on several of the jokes in the book.

Although this admittedly large problem can be accepted as an inevitable problem of the genre, Barry's book, while much of it is an enjoyable and funny look at the humor of computers and cyberculture, is uneven at best.

Barry is at his best making fun of early computers in his introduction and in the chapter titled "A Brief History of Computing from Cave Walls to Windows 95: Not that This is Necessarily Progress." His fond remembrances of his first machine, which he'd bet against in a "head-to-head IQ test against a doorknob" (2), spark memories of the days of early desktop computing. His first program, for example, "utilize(d) my date-processing resources to do my counting for me automatically, thereby freeing me to devote my valuable time to the important task of shopping for a new computer" (3) took me instantly back to my days of learning to program an Apple IIE in BASIC. His homage to Pong is familiar, but no less funny because of that familiarity, and his jazz-like riff on the development of MS-DOS is the sort of thing that gets cut, pasted, and e-mailed to the world. I have never seen such an evocative depiction of the frustrations of dealing with a user-hostile interface. As Barry writes, "There were rumors -- never verified -- that if you typed in certain secret code words, [when using MS-DOS 1.0] you could get some response other than 'A:' or 'BAD COMMAND OR FILE NAME,' but if there were such code words, only Bill Gates every knew what they were. So mainly what this version of the MS-DOS was used for trying to get it to do something, anything" (25). Barry also has a good chapter on Comdex, the computer convention, which highlights its prevalence of semi-clothed women, and the computer enthusiasts lack of interest in same -- especially when they can experience computer-generated semi-clothed women next door at"Adultdex."

Barry's chapter on the Internet is also funny, particularly when he takes on commercial ISPs who are so eager for business that, "if you just leave your house unlocked, they'll sneak in some night and install their programs on your computer when you're sleeping" (125). He's equally sharp about chat rooms where the chatters' bizarre on-line handles are the only attraction, and the chat is limited to "Anybody here from Texas?" and "What's going on?" His parody of a cybersex session between "HunniBunni" and "Born2Bone," however, is not the first or the funniest with which computer savvy readers will be familiar.

Barry is weak when he leaves the subject of computers for some of his trademark digressions into airline prices, governmental idiocies, taxes and form letters, express line violators and other standbys from his syndicated column. While still funny, the digressions break up the book, and many seem to have been added simply to fill out chapters that were thin and lacking in relevant material. We've read much of this, or we feel as if we've read much of this, in Barry's other books and in his syndicated column. New and more germane material would have been a substantial improvement.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace also contains Barry's short story about a cyber-romance. It's not a terribly successful attempt to present a woman's view of cyberspace and cybersex as written by a man whose stock in trade is his non-comprehension of the opposite sex. The main character, a typical suburban wife and mom straight from central casting, rings false and is entirely unfunny, and her characterization ruins what might otherwise be an interesting story. A great deal of this falseness springs from Barry's willingness to create his main character (known to us by her on-line handle "MsPtato") from familiar and dumb stereotypes about women. In the first several pages of the story, for example, we learn that MsPtato has found and "would follow to another continent if she ever moved, a hairstylist who understands exactly what you mean by 'just a little shorter'" (170). She also has a friend who will tell her "without hesitation if a suit that you sincerely lust for makes your butt look too big" (170). She is also entirely indifferent to and incompetent with computers. She and her friend have heard of the Internet, but aren't sure what, or where, it is. If any of this were funny or new, I'd be inclined to let the sexism pass. After all, as I've noted, Barry bases a great deal of his humor on his inability to understand women. That's fine, and that can be extremely funny. However, Barry is just being lazy here, depending on jokes so old that they're not even jokes any more, and giving up the chance to create a quirky and interesting female character in exchange for the chance to perpetuate a stereotype. One wonders why Barry didn't write the story from a man's point of view. He might have been more comfortable and more successful using a more familiar voice.

The stereotypes that surround the main character are made more disturbing by Barry's odd decision to write MsPtato's story in the second person, so that "you" are the one who is described by these stereotypes, and "you" are the one who is ignorant about technology. It's a bizarre authorial choice that certainly will feel distinctly strange for his male readers and won't appeal to the majority of Barry's female audience at all.

Perhaps Barry has overreached his grasp here. Certainly, the many faults of the story overwhelm what could be an interesting and touching look at the way people use on-line relationships to fill voids in their lives and the consequences that such relationships have on their real lives. Certainly, we've seen similar material about cybersex, cyberromance, and gender handled more expertly by other writers on cyberculture. The novel E-Mail: A Love Story, the cyber-trilogy Chat, Connect, and Crash, and the movie You've Got Mail cover some similar ground more effectively and entertainingly. In comparison, Barry's story seems juvenile at best. It is also a disappointing ending to a book that has some very funny moments and some truly fresh humor on the subjects of computers and their culture.

In all, Dave Barry in Cyberspace offers one bad short story, along with some good material for die-hard Barry fans or for computer enthusiasts who haven't heard it all before. It's also perfect for those who are simply looking for the best Web site on deformed frogs that the net has ever seen.

Sarah E. Skwire:
Sarah E. Skwire is completing her dissertation on early modern representations of illness at the University of Chicago. Her publications include a variety of book reviews, some poetry, and an article on chronically ill women writers in the current issue of Medicine and Literature. She is the co-author of the 7th edition of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis and is currently at work preparing the 8th edition. She also writes an occasional humor column for the e-zine Denizine.  <seskwire@midway.uchicago.edu>

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