[MUD-Dev] Is There a There in Cyberspace?
J C Lawrence
claw at under.engr.sgi.com
Wed May 13 17:49:22 New Zealand Standard Time 1998
Ahh, the problsms of growing and fostering a culture. There's
actually a decent analysis of the formative forces in there too:
Is There a There in Cyberspace?
for Utne Reader
by John Perry Barlow
There's no there there. --Gertrude Stein (speaking of Oakland)
It ain't no Amish barn-raising in there....
--Bruce Sterling (speaking of Cyberspace)
I am often asked how I went from pushing cows around a remote Wyoming
ranch to my present occupation (which Wall Street Journal recently
called a "Cyberspace cadet"). I haven't got a short answer, but I
suppose I came to the virtual world looking for community.
Unlike most modern Americans, I grew up in an actual place, an
entirely non-intentional community called Pinedale, Wyoming. As I
struggled for nearly a generation to keep my ranch in the family, I
was motivated by the belief that such places were the spiritual home
of humanity. But I knew their future was not promising.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, over 40% of the American work force
lived off the land. The majority of us lived in towns like
Pinedale. Now fewer than 1% of us extract their living from the
soil. We just became too productive for our own good.
Of course, the population followed the jobs. Farming and ranching
communities are now home to a demographically insignificant percentage
of Americans, the vast majority of whom live not in ranch houses but
in more or less identical split-level "ranch homes" in more or less
identical suburban "communities." Generica.
In my view, these are neither communities nor homes. I believe the
combination of television and suburban population patterns is simply
toxic to the soul. I see much evidence in contemporary America to
support this view.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, doom impended. And, as I watched
community in Pinedale growing ill from the same economic forces that
were killing my family's ranch, the Bar Cross, satellite dishes
brought the cultural infection of television. I started looking around
for evidence that community in America would not perish altogether.
I took some heart in the mysterious nomadic City of the Deadheads,
that virtually physical town which follows the Grateful Dead around
the country. The Deadheads lacked place, touching down briefly on
whatever location the band happened to be playing and they lacked
continuity in time, since they had to suffer a new Diaspora every time
the band moved on or went home.
But they had many of the other necessary elements of community,
including a culture, a religion of sorts (which , though it lacked
dogma, had most of the other, more nurturing aspects of spiritual
practice), a sense of necessity, and, most importantly, shared
I wanted to know more about the flavor of their interaction, what they
thought and felt, but since I wrote Dead songs, I was a minor icon to
the Deadheads, and was thus inhibited, in some socially Heisenbergian
way, from getting a clear view into what really went on among them.
Then, in 1987, I heard about a "place" were they could gather
continuously and where I might come amongst them without distorting
too much the field of observation. Better, this was a place I could
visit without leaving Wyoming. It was a shared computer in Sausalito,
California called the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link or WELL. After a lot
of struggling with modems, serial cables, init strings, and other
computer arcana which seemed utterly out of phase with such notions as
Deadheads or small towns, I found myself looking at the glowing yellow
word, "Login:" beyond which lay my future.
"Inside" the WELL, were Deadheads in community. There were thousands
of them there, gossiping, complaining (mostly about the Grateful
Dead), comforting and harassing each other, bartering, engaging in
religion (or at least exchanging their totemic set-lists), beginning
and ending love affairs, praying for one another's sick kids. There
was, it seemed, about everything one might find going on in a small
town, save dragging Main or making out on the back roads.
I was delighted. I felt I had found the new locale of human
community...never mind that the whole thing was being conducted in
mere words by minds from whom the bodies had been amputated. Never
mind that all these people were deaf, dumb, and blind as paramecia or
that their town had neither seasons nor sunsets nor smells.
Surely all these deficiencies would be somehow remedied by richer,
faster communications media. These featureless login handles would
gradually acquire video faces (and thus, expressions), shaded 3-D body
puppets (and thus body language). This "space," which I recognized at
once to be a primitive form of the Cyberspace Bill Gibson had
predicted in his sci-fi novel Neuromancer, was still without apparent
dimensions or vistas. But Virtual Reality would change all that in
Meanwhile, The Commons, or something like it, had been
rediscovered. Once again, people from the 'Burbs had a place where
they could randomly encounter their friends as my fellow Pinedalians
did at the Post Office or the Wrangler Cafe. They had a place their
hearts could remain as the companies they worked for shuffled their
bodies around America. They could put down roots which could not be
ripped out by forces of economic history. They had a collective
stake. They had a community.
It is seven years now since I discovered the WELL. In that time, I
co-founded an organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
dedicated to protecting its interests and those of other virtual
communities like it from raids by physical government. I've spent
countless hours typing away at its residents, and I've watched the
larger context which contains it, the Internet, grow at such an
explosive rate that, by 2004, every human on the planet would have an
e-mail address unless the growth curve flattens (which it will).
My enthusiasm for virtual community has cooled. In fact, unless one
counts interaction with the rather too large society of those with
whom I exchange electronic mail, I don't spend much time engaging in
virtuality at all. Many of the near-term benefits I anticipated from
it seem to remain as far in the future as they did when I first logged
in. Perhaps they always will.
The WELL has changed astonishingly little, which one would generally
consider an asset in a small town. Pinedale hasn't changed that much
either. And the majority in both places seem to adhere to the common
rural dictum, "Even if it is broke, don't fix it." (In my experience,
only Bolinas, California rivals Pinedale for the obduracy of its
But Pinedale works, more or less, as it is, and there is a lot which
is still missing from the communities of Cyberspace, whether they be
places like the WELL, the fractious newsgroups of USENET, the silent
"auditoriums" of American Online, or even enclaves on the promising
World Wide Web.
What is missing? Well, to quote Ranjit Makkuni of Xerox PARC, "The
prana is missing," prana being the Hindu term for both breath and
spirit. I think he is right about this and that perhaps the central
question of the Virtual Age is whether or not prana can somehow be
made to fit through any medium but the act of Being There.
Prana is, to my mind, the literally vital element in the holy and
unseen ecology of relationship, the dense meshwork of invisible life,
on whose surface carbon-based life floats like a thin scum. It is at
the heart of the fundamental and profound difference between
information and experience. Jaron Lanier has said that "information is
alienated experience," and, that being true, prana is part of what is
removed when you create such easily transmissible replicas of
experience as, say, the Evening News.
Obviously a great many other, less spiritual, things are also missing
entirely, like body language, sex, death, tone of voice, clothing,
beauty (or homeliness), weather, violence, vegetation, wildlife, pets,
architecture, music, smells, sunlight, and that ol' Harvest Moon. In
short, most of the things which make my life real to me.
Present, but in far less abundance than in the physical world which I
call "Meatspace," are women, children, old people, poor people, and
the genuinely blind. Also mostly missing are the illiterate and the
continent of Africa. There isnot much human diversity in Cyberspace,
consisting as it largely does of white males under 50 with plenty of
computer terminal time, great typing skills, high math SAT's, strongly
held opinions on just about everything, and an excruciating face to
face shyness, especially with the opposite sex.
But diversity is as essential to healthy community as it is to healthy
ecosystems (which are, in my view, different from communities only in
I believe that the principal reason for the almost universal failure
of the intentional communities of the 60's and early 70's was a lack
of diversity in their members. It was a rare commune with any old
people in it, or people who were fundamentally out of philosophical
agreement with the majority.
Indeed, it is the usual problem when we try to build something which
can only be grown. Natural systems, such as human communities, are
simply too complex to design by the engineering principles which we
insist on applying to them. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Western
Civilization is now finding its rational skills inadequate to the task
of creating and stewarding life. We would do better to return to a
kind of agricultural mind-set in which we humbly try to recreate the
conditions from which life has sprung before. And leave the rest to
Given that it has been built so far almost entirely by people with
engineering degrees, it is not so surprising that Cyberspace has the
kind of overdesigned quality which leaves out all kinds of elements
which Nature would have invisibly provided.
Also missing from both the communes of the 60's and from Cyberspace
are a couple of elements which I believe are very important, if not
essential, to the formation and preservation of real community. They
are an absence of alternatives and a sense of genuine adversity,
generally shared. What about these?
It is hard to argue that anyone would find the loss of his modem
literally hard to survive, while many have remained in small towns,
have tolerated their intolerances and created entertainment to enliven
their culturally arid lives simply because it seemed there was no
choice but to stay. There are many investments, spiritual, material,
and temporal, one is willing to put into a home one cannot
leave. Communities are often the beneficiaries of these somewhat
But when the going gets rough in Cyberspace, it is even easier to move
than it is in the 'Burbs, where, given the fact that the average
American moves some 17 times in his or her life, moving appears to be
pretty easy. One can not only find another BBS or newsgroup to hang
out in, she can, with very little effort, start her own.
And then there is the bond of joint suffering. I think most community
is a cultural stockade erected against a common Enemy which can take
many forms. In Pinedale, we forbore together, with an understanding
needing little expression, the fact that Upper Green River Valley is
the coldest spot, as measured by annual mean temperature, in the lower
48 states. We knew that if somebody were stopped by the road most
winter nights, he would probably die there, so the fact that we might
loath him was no sufficient reason to drive on past his broken pickup.
By the same token, the Deadheads have the DEA, which strives to give
them 20 year terms without parole for distributing the fairly harmless
sacrament of their faith. They have an additional bond in the fact
when their Microbuses die, as they often do, no one but another
Deadhead is likely to stop to help them.
But what are the shared adversities of Cyberspace? Lousy user
interfaces? The flames of harsh invective? Dumb jokes? Surely these
can all be survived without the sanctuary provided by fellow
One is always free to yank the jack, as I have mostly done. For me,
the physical world offers far more opportunity for prana-rich
connections with my fellow creatures. Even for someone whose body is
in a state of perpetual motion, I feel I can generally find more
community among the still-embodied.
Finally, there is that shyness factor. Not only are we trying to build
community here among people who have never experienced any in my sense
of the term, we are trying to building community among people who, in
their lives, have rarely used the word "we" in a heartfelt way. It is
a vast club, many of the members of which are people who, as Groucho
Marx said, wouldn't want join a club which would have them as members.
How quickly physical community continues to deteriorate. Even
Pinedale, which seems to have economically survived the plague of
ranch failures, feels increasingly cut off from itself. Many of the
ranches are now owned by corporate types who fly their Gulfstreams in
to fish and are rarely around during the many months when the creeks
are frozen over and neighbors are needed. They have kept the ranches
financially alive, but they actively discourage their managers from
the interdependency which my colleagues and I required. They keep
agriculture on life-support, still alive but lacking a functional
And the town has been inundated with surburbanites who flee here,
bringing all their terrors and suspicions with them. They spend their
evenings as they did in Orange County, watching television, or
socializing in hermetic little enclaves of fundamentalist Christianity
which seem to separate them from us and even, given their sectarian
inter-animosities, from one another. The town remains. The community
is largely a wraith of nostalgia.
So where else do we have to look for the connection necessary to
prevent our plunging further into the condition of separateness which
Neitzsche called sin? What is there to do but to dive further into the
bramble bush of information which, in its broadcast forms, has done so
much to tear us apart?
Cyberspace, for all its current deficiencies and failed promises, is
not without some very real solace already.
Some months ago, the great love of my life, a vivid young woman with whom I intended to spend
the rest of it, dropped dead of undiagnosed viral cardiomyopathy two days short of her thirtieth
birthday. I felt as if my own heart had been as shredded as hers.
We had lived together in New York City. Except for my daughters, no
one from Pinedale had met her. I needed a community to wrap around
myself against what seemed colder winds than fortune had ever blown at
me before. And without looking, I found I had one in the Virtual
On the WELL, there was a topic announcing her death in one of the
conferences to which I posted the eulogy I had read over her before
burying her in her own small town of Nanaimo, British Columbia. It
seemed to strike a chord among the disembodied living of the
Net. People copied it and sent it to one another. Over the next
several months I received almost a megabyte of electronic mail from
all over the planet, mostly from folks whose faces I have never seen
and probably never will.
They told me of their own tragedies and what they had done to survive
them. As humans have since words were first uttered, we shared the
second most common human experience, death, with an open-heartedness
that would have caused grave uneasiness in physical America, where the
whole topic is so cloaked in denial as to be considered obscene. Those
strangers, who had no arms to put around my shoulders, no eyes to weep
with mine, nevertheless saw me through it. As neighbors do.
I have no idea how far we will plunge into this strange place. Unlike
previous frontiers, there is no end to this one. It is so
dissatisfying in so many ways that I suspect we will be more restless
in our search for home here than in all our previous explorations. And
that is one reason why I think we may find it after all.
But if home is where the heart is, then there is already some part of
home to be found in Cyberspace.
So... Does virtual community work or not? Should we all go off to
Cyberspace or should we resist it as an even more demonic form of
symbolic abstraction? Does it supplant the real or is there, in it,
I'm sorry. Like so many true things, it doesn't resolve itself to a
black or a white. Nor is it gray. It is, along with the rest of life,
black/white. Both/neither. I'm not being equivocal or wishy-washy
here. We have to get over our Manichean sense that everything is
either good or bad, and the border of Cyberspace seems to me a good
place to leave that old set of filters.
But really it doesn't matter. We are going there whether we want to or
not. In five years, everyone who is reading these words will have an
e-mail address...unless s/he is so determined a Luddite that s/he also
eschews the telephone and electricity.
When we are all together in Cyberspace then we will see what the human
spirit, and the basic desire to connect, can create there. I am
convinced that the result will be more benign if we go there
open-minded, open-hearted, excited with the adventure, than if we are
dragged into exile.
And we must remember that going to Cyberspace, unlike previous great
emigrations to the frontier, hardly requires us to leave where we have
been. Many will find, as I have, a much richer appreciation of
physical reality for having spent so much time in virtuality.
Despite its current (and perhaps, in some areas permanent
insufficiencies), we should go to Cyberspace with hope. Groundless
hope, like unconditional love, may be the only kind that counts.
J C Lawrence Internet: claw at null.net
(Contractor) Internet: coder at ibm.net
---------(*) Internet: claw at under.engr.sgi.com
...Honourary Member of Clan McFud -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...
MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.
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