Almost There: Contemplating Cybercommunities

by Rick Segreda

Back in 1995, on behalf of the Utne Reader, former Grateful Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow wrote, "Is There a There in Cyberspace" an open-ended, personal, and philosophical contemplation of the impact of the Internet on humanity, specifically on what is generally know as "the human community." To do this, he looked at the concept of community, as he has known it in his life, and the brave new world of the cyber community that he has found on the Internet. The topic is provocative, because it touches on many profound philosophical and sociological issues, such as what truly is "real" and what is the essence of a "community."

Barlow was introduced to the Internet early on-1987-and he was soon to find in it the potential to fulfill a personal, spiritual need in his life: a sense of community, or in his words "a spiritual home of humanity." This is something, Barlow claims, that to a certain extent has been lost in his real life, partly due to the increasingly mobile nature of the American lifestyle (he quotes a statistic claiming that the average American moves about 17 times in a lifetime) as well as the alienating effect of television on human interaction.

By contrast, on the Internet, in newsgroups and bulletin boards, Barlow had found "[once] again, people from the 'burbs had a place where they could encounter their friends as my fellow Pinedalians [Barlow lives in Pinedale, Wyoming] did at the post office and the Wrangler Cafe. They had a place where their hearts could remain as the companies they worked for shuffled their bodies around America. They could put down roots that could not be ripped out by forces of economic history. They had a collective stake. They had a community."

It was in one newsgroup in particular, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, or WELL, that Barlow found a place where, paradoxically, he could feel more in communion with his fellow Deadheads than he could in real, that is non-cyber, life, when the fact of his being a member of the band kept him, " in some socially Heisenbergian way, from getting a clear view of what really went on among them." (Heisenberg was the physicist who claimed that the very act of observing atomic particles altered the nature of the particles themselves).

Alas, Barlow's romance with the Internet and what he perceived to be its potential cooled after so many years. It, too, had its drawbacks: "'the prana is missing,' prana being the Hindu term for both breath and spirit...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."

In addition to the fact that on the Internet, one cannot experience life in all of its felt, heard, smelled, and tasted dimension (digital sounds and smells notwithstanding) Barlow also bemoans the lack of diversity in cyberspace of anyone beyond "white males under 50 with plenty of computer terminal time, great typing skills, high math SATs, strongly held opinions on just about everything, and an excruciating face-to-face shyness, especially with the opposite sex." It should be noted that this essay was written in 1995, and the demographic profile of people online has changed markedly, with the exception, as Barlow pointed out back then, of third world populations, many of whom are still living in pre-20th century conditions.

Thus, midway into his essay he starts, slightly, to re-appreciate Pinedale and what else there is of actual human communities. Even in suburb and TV saturated Pinedale, there's no substitute for the communal spirit that is a consequence of the undeletable harsh climate: "We knew that if somebody was stopped on the road most winter nights, he would probably die there, so the fact that we might loathe him was not sufficient reason to drive on past his broken pickup." Joseph Campbell made a similar point by relating a real life example of a police officer who saved a criminal's life; "I just couldn't let him die," he later told Campbell, thus illuminating Schopenhaur's community-affirming thesis that "metaphysically we are all one."

By contrast, writes Barlow, " 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 sufferers." He also makes a somewhat strange point that the experience of the tangible human community is enriched by the "involuntary investments" of individuals, forced by circumstance into staying in communities they would otherwise leave, into their cities, towns, and villages as a way of making the best of a bad situation.

But just as nostalgia starts to get the better of him, he acknowledges the dismaying development of Pinedale being exploited by the nouveau riche as a seasonal fishing tourism spot with no other investment in the town itself, and the new "suburbanites who flee here, bringing all their terrors and suspicions with them" and who spend "their evenings...watching television or socializing in hermetic little enclaves of fundamentalist Christianity."

Barlow then shares a personal trauma that for him re-established some cautious enthusiasm for the Internet. When his girlfriend suddenly died from an undiagnosed heart condition, his need for a community to share his grief was overwhelming, yet his own estrangement from Pinedale made that unfeasible, since he had not lived during the time they were together. He thus turned to WELL, and to his surprise it "seemed to strike a chord among the disembodied people of the net... Over the next several months I received almost a megabyte of electronic mail from all over the planet...They told me of their own tragedies and what they had done to survive them...Those strangers, who had no arms to put around my shoulders, no eyes to weep with mine, nevertheless saw me through. As neighbors do."

Thus he concludes his ruminations on a skeptical but cautiously optimistic note:

Like so many true things, this one doesn't resolve itself to a black or a white...[but we] are going there whether we want to or not...I am convinced that the result will be more benign if we go there open-minded, open-hearted, and excited with the adventure than if we are dragged into exile...Many will find, as I have, a much richer appreciation of physical reality for having spent so much time in virtuality...we should go to cyberspace with hope. Groundless hope, like unconditional love, may be the only kind that counts.

Barlow's conclusion has a quasi-religious overtone. For to enter cyberspace with "groundless hope," as well as an open heart and mind, does, in fact, involve a "leap of faith," even if it is not in a concept of God or Karma. This is certainly consistent with what appears to be Barlow's overall approach to life, in that his investment in the Grateful Dead community fulfilled his need for "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)."

And his ruminations on the Internet and the human community are also consistent with the prophetic words and thoughts of the Jesuit Priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who perceived in human evolution a collective evolution in consciousness, what he termed a "Noosphere." As Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg wrote in Condé Nast, quoting both Teilhard and Barlow:

Teilhard saw the Net coming more than half a century before it arrived. He believed this vast thinking membrane would ultimately coalesce into 'the living unity of a single tissue' containing our collective thoughts and experiences. In his magnum opus, The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard wrote, 'Is this not like some great body which is being born - with its limbs, its nervous system, its perceptive organs, its memory - the body in fact of that great living Thing which had to come to fulfill the ambitions aroused in the reflective being by the newly acquired consciousness?'

'What Teilhard was saying here can easily be summed up in a few words,' says John Perry Barlow. 'The point of all evolution up to this stage is the creation of a collective organism of Mind.'

It is worth noting Teilhard's own notion of such an evolution was preceded, and possibly influenced by, the Spanish medieval theologian, Joaquin de Flores, who proposed that the Christian Trinity-the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-was an outline for human history, what with the time of the Father and the Son represented by the Old and New Testaments, and the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of Christ's return, not as a solitary individual, but as a collective spiritual consciousness in the hearts and minds of all people.

It is worth noting, also, that Teilhard was a direct influence on media sociologist, Marshall McLuhan, who strongly believed that advances in communication technology would bring about a "global village."

So is the Internet it? Is it indeed Flores' Holy Spirit, Teilhard's Noosphere, McLuhan's global village, and Barlow's "community?"

In a sense, the very interactive nature of the Internet makes it a "community" whether it enhances the quality of humanity or not. As it is, one can argue that the impact of the Internet to its audience has indeed been beneficial. Chat rooms, news groups, and bulletin boards have demonstrated an ability to free people world wide to reach out to each other and find they are not alone in their idiosyncratic pains, neurosis, interests, hobbies, and fetishes, thus bringing about greater compassion, understanding, and self-acceptance.

But as Barlow points out, the Internet community can not provide for, substitute, or compensate for what is known as the experience of life itself in all its dimensions, least of all the experience of a human community, whether it is one's family, bowling league, grange hall, or neighborhood crime watch. Or simply being a member of the human race who has to interact with others on a daily basis in some capacity. Not to mention interacting with a phenomenologically real world.

And there is an additional problem: the mere notion of a "community", whatever the context, doesn't guarantee the presence of goodwill towards one's fellow man. The proliferation of hate groups that have found strength in numbers through the Internet testifies to that. Thus Barlow is wide of the mark in claiming that on the Internet, there is no genuine "common adversary." For many individuals, both good and bad, the Internet serves a bonding ground against adversaries, both real and imagined. What C.S. Lewis wrote about Friendship in The Four Loves applies equally to Community: "Friendship (as the ancients saw) can be a school of virtue; but also (as they did not see) a school of vice. It is ambivalent. It makes good men better and bad men worse."

Still, for certain groups, such as the physically disabled, or gays and lesbians living in intolerant rural environments, the drawbacks of the Internet community, which sometimes parallel that of the human community, are more than compensated by its strengths.

Indeed, what Barlow, with his perambulations back and forth between the two communities realizes is that both "real" life and cyber life fulfill certain aspects of the human need for community, but that neither one is capable of doing both.

But if it is only the technological breakthroughs of the last thirty years that have made possible greater compassion, understanding, and self-acceptance, then it could be argued that we are a sorry lot of animals indeed. If the Y2K bug had really manifested itself, would that have plunged us into a spiritual, as well as actual, Dark Age?

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Internet to humanity is not that it is a manifestation of a new human community that will supplant previous ones, but that it re-awakens in us the value of compassion, understanding, self-acceptance...and even the very concept of Community, although as C.S. Lewis has said of Friendship, like other forms of relationship, it doesn't by it's own essence preclude any negative consequences. The next step, therefore, in taking the spiritual wisdom we have gained from supposedly virtual reality, turning off the computer, and bringing it back to the part of life that is touched, tasted, smelled, and heard. As T.S. Eliot once put it, "We will not cease from exploration/And the purpose of all our exploring/Will be to arrive at where we started/And know the place for the first time."

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