Settlers in Cyberspace

This is Chapter 4 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

Howard Rheingold is the sort of guy you'd feel safe with even among the most disreputable, unshaven denizens of what he, like everyone else, prefers to call cyberspace. That is just as well, for occasionally he seems particularly drawn to the shadier haunts, where he introduces us to offbeat -- even threatening -- characters of the Net, and takes delight in surprising us with their gentle and positive side. An ever genial and informative guide, he ushers his readers /1/ on a bracing, personalized tour of the online world. While unabashedly playing “cheerleader” for the new networking technologies, he also calls up lucid visions of danger. And those who find his outlook insufficiently one-sided will still enjoy contented hours mining his wealth of historical narrative, anecdote, and observation to support their own utopian or apocalyptic predilections.

As one whose slightly alarmed imagination runs toward the apocalyptic, I am a little disappointed that Rheingold's critical eye is much more intent on discerning the human future in the networked computer than recognizing the origin and future of the computer in the increasingly computational bent of the human being. Surely it is only when the latter inquiry complements the former that we can begin to assay the dangers we face. But Rheingold's geniality elicits an echoing geniality of my own, so I am more inclined to begin with our common ground as children of the Sixties.

It was, for me, a surprise to learn from The Virtual Community just how rooted in the Sixties counterculture many of the earliest, person-to-person computer networks were. Stewart Brand, who founded the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), asserts flatly that “the personal computer revolutionaries were the counterculture.” Several of the early leaders of the WELL were alumni of the Hog Farm commune, and Rheingold -- a WELL veteran in his own right -- seemed to find himself soul-sharing with other children of the Sixties wherever he went to investigate the early history of computer bulletin boards and conferencing systems. “Personal computers and the PC industry,” he notes, “were created by young iconoclasts who had seen the LSD revolution fizzle, the political revolution fail. Computers for the people was the latest battle in the same campaign” (p. 48).

Lost in the counterculture

I, too, grew up with that generation, and I, too, see in its passion and indignation and arousal a glimmering hope for the future. But here I am obligated to meet Rheingold's confessional journey with a disclosure of my own. I never really signed on with my generation. When, in 1968, I made the required, ritual visit to Haight-Ashbury, the scene there struck me as too silly to take seriously. Of course, I had already sealed my status as a generational outsider when, four years earlier (the year I entered college) I acted as a Chicago poll watcher on behalf of the Goldwater campaign.

Something of the outsider has driven my restlessness ever since. When, in the Seventies, I ran an organic farm for several years, I found myself comfortable neither with the alternative food network nor with the buttoned-down bankers from whom we received operating funds. The social politics of the alternative types seemed too absurdly wrongheaded and unrealistic. (I found it vastly more edifying -- not to mention fun -- to listen to William F. Buckley in debate than to endure the naive ramblings of those who saw themselves saving the world.) Meanwhile, the conventional types -- just so far as they registered no discontent with the social institutions to which they submitted -- seemed to have lost their souls.

It shocks some of my friends -- for whom my behavior is the height of irresponsibility -- to learn that I have never voted in a public election. (I was too young to vote for Goldwater.) I never felt I had enough of a handle on the real historical processes to make the act of voting meaningful. I couldn't see how any of the things that really mattered were ever touched upon by politicians. The gyros guiding the human passage upon earth, I thought, spin invisibly within us, where our nascent moral suspicions and imaginative understandings first shape themselves; everything about the political system, so far as I could tell, served only to obscure what was important. I couldn't help thinking that my “statement” in refusing to vote was much more likely to have some minuscule awakening effect upon myself and others than the weight of a thousand votes in the pollsters' and sociologists' rude calculus. So I have spent twenty-five years standing apart, watching, and trying to understand.

This is not an apologia -- or, at least, not only that. I am not proud of the fact that I have been so thoroughly cut off from extended community for these twenty-five years. I see it more as a personal symptom than a cultural indictment. And yet, my relative isolation has taught me a few things -- above all else, to recognize the same symptoms in the larger society. And one thing has become painfully, vividly clear to me: very few in our society -- not even those who most passionately cultivate community -- quite know what it is they seek, or where they might obtain it, or how to grasp hold of it when it is actually offered to them.

It is as if a certain isolation of self is built into the structure of the human being today. I am convinced that much of the “community” we experience is more an effort to bury the loneliness than to reckon with its causes. And I suspect that the causes have a lot to do with our failure to acknowledge, let alone to have any useful language for grasping, the spiritual self whose cut-off condition is at issue. More and more, we try to lay hold of this self in the intelligent machinery that reflects a vague shadow of it -- which only accelerates our loss, even while temporarily anesthetizing us against the pain.

I now find the larger social and political processes beckoning for the first time. This book is one of my responses. Another has my family, as I write, preparing a move -- to a rural community centered around an organic farm, a school without computers, an intentional village for the mentally disabled, and an intellectual and artistic life that rivals many a university town's. Whatever the future may actually hold, this move feels like the first step across a lifetime's continental divide. For me it is, finally, a step toward community -- and one for which I fear my computer is more likely to prove a distraction than a help.

Pioneer days

I am not the only person to live through these twenty-five years. One hopes that the impulses that gave rise to the Hog Farm will be found, now matured and transformed, in the new virtual communities. In any case, Rheingold makes it clear that we can understand the early history of virtual community only in the light of these impulses.

The WELL -- which is at the center of Rheingold's story -- was a kind of intentional community. Its founders deliberately seeded it with discussion leaders who passionately believed in its potential for transforming society. Its success was purchased, in part, by giving free accounts to journalists, who discovered in it a source for unusual, future-oriented stories. Given this publicity, the WELL began to draw from a national and then international pool of idealistic computer networkers, sociologists studying the new virtual communities, participants in the first online Grateful Dead discussion groups, and, eventually, anyone and everyone. “People who were looking for a grand collective project in cyberspace flocked to the WELL” (p. 43).

All this newness and idealism accounts for many of the positive things Rheingold sees in the early virtual communities. Of course, as he himself points out, marked antisocial tendencies have also surfaced. John Perry Barlow -- one of Rheingold's subjects and a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as a former Grateful Dead lyricist -- captured both sides of the truth in a distinctive way:

Cyberspace ... has a lot in common with the 19th century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse .... hard to get around in, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty. /2/

The thing to take to heart, I think, is that neither the blatant outlawry nor the sheen of idealism tell us a whole lot about the future shape of the territory once it is settled. They do remind us, though, that what we'll finally have to face is ourselves. This is critically important. Many are intoxicated with the wild freedom, the self-determination, the escape from tyranny, the unbounded opportunities for unchaperoned contact and association they discover in the Net. It all becomes a “new paradigm.” New paradigms may indeed arise, but we should not forget the old realities that remain.

One of those realities is the social requirement for structure and reliable sources of information. Currently, many avoid the Net's more boisterous districts because the signal-to-noise ratio is too low. Surfing the Internet with an ear for the endless saloon gossip, the avalanches of self-published papers, announcements on every conceivable topic, uncertain news modulated through obscure channels, promotions of all sorts -- it's a notorious time sink (not to mention a rich source of hopelessly mixed metaphors). You quickly begin to look for the kind of established structure that enables you to make educated guesses -- much as you say, “Yes, I know what to expect from this magazine, and it's likely to contain something of interest.” As Michael Heim remarks, “the need for stable channels of content and reliable processes of choice grows urgent.” /3/

And just because our society is organizing itself around networking technology, those channels will take form. We, who work and play, will impose our structured preferences upon the new media, just as we have imposed our preferences upon the printing press, television and every other technology.

The self-absorbed Net

Besides the idealism of a kind of pioneering counterculture, a second factor powerfully affects what Rheingold finds in virtual communities: the historically inbred or self-referential character of the Net. Many of those who are most enthusiastic about its possibilities are the same people who develop the enabling software and hardware, or who write about cyberspace, or who study it (the flood of sociologists and anthropologists let loose upon the Net is legendary), or who are trying to make policy for it, or who -- like so many schoolteachers -- have been told that it is important for their future, so they're desperately trying to figure it out.

Rheingold relates, for example, how he was invited to participate in a (face-to-face) Washington conference. Before attending, he opened a discussion on the WELL. After spending a few minutes a day there for six weeks, he possessed “more than two hundred pages of expert advice from my own panel.” The topic of the conference he had been invited to: communication systems for an information age (p. 59).

This self-referential use of the Net colors much of Rheingold's book. Whether it's organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, or online activists who are convinced computer networking will reinvigorate democracy, or other activists who believe computer networking will redeem education, or yet other activists who are attracted by an almost mystical vision of electronic culture (“cyberculture,” as they are likely to call it) -- in most of these cases Net success stories occur for a good reason: not only do these people use the Net in their work, but their work is about the Net; often it is even aimed at promoting the Net. One hopes that the Net would “succeed” at least for them. Their experiences, however, may offer little insight into broader social issues.

The settling of cyberspace

Rheingold is particularly impressed by the “enormous leverage” the Net can give ordinary citizens at relatively little cost -- “intellectual leverage, social leverage, commercial leverage, and most important, political leverage” (p. 4). I find this notion of leverage rather hard to understand against the backdrop of a future in which the Net has become as ubiquitous as everyone expects -- that is, when the promotion of the Net itself is no longer a primary function of the Net.

Rheingold cites a successful political campaign by online activist Dave Hughes, who stunned his local city council by mobilizing 175 citizens to turn out for a council meeting. They won their case, and Hughes credited a computer network with making the organizational effort possible. The credit was no doubt well deserved; the council members were presumably baffled by this invisibly conjured turnout.

Yes, the practiced gunslinger in the Old West had a decided advantage -- but only until law and order was established. What becomes of the activist's differential advantage -- his special leverage -- when the political process has fully adapted itself to networked communication and all campaigns are Net campaigns? Will the individual citizen then find it easier to affect the political process, or will the sheer, inundative bulk and sophistication of machine-assisted, well-financed activism put politics even more out of reach than the TV-driven juggernauts of our own day?

The same sort of question applies in many arenas. There's a race now by investors to “guarantee” themselves an incremental advantage in the financial markets by employing computerized trading programs. Some of these programs are created in think tanks employing Ph.D. mathematicians and economists who bring the newest and most esoteric statistical theories to bear upon their task. The aim of the programs: to manage sometimes massive transactions on a split-second basis in order to secure a marginal leg up on mere chance. Such investment mechanisms are in continual flux, for the discovery of a winning formula quickly changes the probabilistic and psychological matrix upon which the formula was based. How is the “little guy” to compete?

Similarly, all the talk about individual empowerment through electronically accessible information really has more to do with the differential advantage for a few players early in the game than it does with any fundamental social change. It's rather like the pyramid scheme: those who are quickest off the mark win big; the rest must hope eventually to climb back to the break-even point in a game that is now speeded up and very likely more demanding than it was before.

The common response to these observations is that the individual-- the “plain citizen,” small investor, modest entrepreneur -- can use the new technology to counter the advantage of the big players. I will be able to send “knowbots” roaming the Net in search of information useful to me. I can buy my own software to do programmed trading. I can tie into the world Net and become my own activist. But this gets ridiculous fast. Every new leap of technology simply cranks up the speed of the game another notch. What improves my efficiency does the same for the millions of other players. As Langdon Winner has pointed out,

the availability of low-cost computing power may move the baseline that defines electronic dimensions of social influence, but it does not necessarily alter the relative balance of power. Using a personal computer makes one no more powerful vis-a-vis, say, the National Security Agency than flying a hang glider establishes a person as a match for the U.S. Air Force. /4/

Trying to find a calculus of advantage in the spiraling competition between the machine-assisted individual and the machine-assisted System strikes me as a fruitless pastime. Eventually, we will have to step back and realize that there are only two things in this picture: on the one hand, increasingly powerful, machine-assisted machines, and, on the other hand, you and I. If you and I are looking for “empowerment,” for an advantage over the next person, then that's the sort of society we will create, and that same spirit is what we'll encounter in the machinery -- only here it will harden into a volition substantially independent of our own wishes. If, on the other hand, we are truly and wisely seeking human community, then we will eventually figure out the right uses for machinery -- however drastic our change of direction must be -- and our human focus will prevent our embedding further anti-human tendencies in that machinery. Either way, the future shape of society is to be sought, finally, within the human being, not in technological assessment.

Who threatens the Net?

Rheingold makes many bows in the approximate direction of this truth. He certainly understands that the human future requires, not an endless drive for competitive advantage, but rather a spirit of cooperation. It is one of his virtues that he repeatedly returns to the truth that it is you and I who must make our virtual communities hospitable places; the issue, he says more than once, still hangs in the balance. And in discussing leverage, he cautions us:

But the technology will not in itself fulfill that potential; this latent technical power must be used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population. More people must learn about that leverage and learn to use it while we still have the freedom to do so .... The odds are always good that big power and big money will find a way to control access to virtual communities.... (p. 5)

But here and throughout the book he shows a tendency -- perhaps carried over from the counterculture -- to finger anonymous and institutional antagonists: the “big boys” who “divide up the power and loot”; “malevolent political leaders with their hands on the controls of a Net”; the “governments and private interests” who turn the media away from democratic debate toward talk shows and commercials (pp. 279, 289). This is justified so far as we have tended to invest certain institutions with a life of their own. One thing to realize here, however, is that the computer itself will “receive” these unconscious tendencies even more eagerly than the corporation. /5/ A second thing is that, ultimately, even these institutionalized and mechanized projections of our nature must be traced back to ourselves. It is we who watch the shows, we who populate the massive government bureaucracies, and we who, day by day, transact the nation's corporate business.

When Rheingold says that “the most insidious attack on our rights to a reasonable degree of privacy might come not from a political dictatorship but from the marketplace” (p. 292), he is doubtless correct. But the citizens who determine the character of the marketplace are the same citizens who will make the Net whatever it becomes. When we're all in the electronic marketplace together, will our enemy be any less ourselves than when we were all in the industrial marketplace together? When the Net subsumes all social functions, will the balance of healthy and destructive forces be more positive than we already know it to be?

Seeing the future in ourselves

Rheingold passes along many touching stories, such as that of Lhary, a participant in the WELL's Parenting discussion group. Lhary came down with leukemia and moved to Houston. When he checked into a Houston hospital, he continued to log onto the WELL from his hospital room. Some of the Parenting group “got together and personally tie-dyed regulation lab coats and hospital gowns for Lhary to wear around the hospital corridors.”

By such acts true community is indeed nourished, and it is heart- warming to find an online group so generous in spirit and so committed to the cultivation of community. It is also an important signpost for the future: this is one way we can use the Net. That stories like this tell us a whole lot about how we will use the Net -- how we will shape it and it will shape society -- nevertheless seems to me doubtful. The overall effects of the telephone upon community are probably not explained very well by the fact that people can and do extend acts of generosity toward friends or strangers over the phone. I think Rheingold would agree that this points us only to a range of possibilities, not likelihoods.

Where, then, do we look for the likelihoods? When I think of a leukemia patient in a hospital, the first thing that occurs to me is how inhospitable that environment is likely to be -- and how much it might drive anyone to a network terminal for support. Why have our hospitals become what they are? How is it that we have the most technically sophisticated medicine in the world, and yet have largely expunged the human element from it? There is nothing more intimately human than the healing process; in it we must come to terms with ourselves, our destiny on earth, our deepest human connections. Healing is, in the true sense of the words, a ministry, a laying on of hands. If there is a place where community ought to have formed, it is here. And yet, given what hospitals have already become, and given the promise of new technologies we are even now embracing -- remotely executed surgery, computer-generated diagnosis, ATM-dispensed medications -- what are the prospects for medical communities of healing?

In sum: I would, as far as possible, take the Parenting group over the hospital, and that is one reason I am pessimistic about the high- tech future. The medical establishment has been precipitated from the numerous currents and countercurrents of a complex society, and tells us much more about the kind of meaning we assign to technology than any pioneering experiments on the WELL. We may hope the more successful of those experiments will begin to shape the future, in however small a way. But if we plunge into that future without being realistic about the social forces of the present -- if we give free rein to whatever the engines of technology spew out -- we can only provoke disaster.

Some of this is, I think, implicit in Rheingold's comment about sharing over the Net:

Reciprocity is a key element of any market-based culture, but the arrangement I'm describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet- calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical transactions; different kinds of things become possible when this mind-set pervades. Conversely, people who have valuable things to add to the mix tend to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves when a mercenary or hostile zeitgeist dominates an online community (p. 59).

The only thing to add is that the technology of networking does nothing to implement a charitable spirit. In fact, it appears to add a new level of challenge, since it's easier to mask one's selfishness or disinterest in a world of electronic exchange than it is where sharing is supported and encouraged by a more tangible and present community. The Net demands a higher order of communal awareness from a society that has already failed badly at the “easier” levels. Our potential for a descent, under the Net's influence, from bad to worse is chilling -- and all the more likely at a time when so many are hailing the Net as a nearly automatic cure.

The mechanisms of our future

If, as I noted at the outset, the computer has its origin in the computational bent of humans, we must look there for its future as well. Rheingold's caution notwithstanding, it seems to me that the most ominous symptom of what lies ahead is found in the ease with which so many Net enthusiasts argue directly from patterns of technology to emerging social realities. The resulting analogies are often strikingly naive. Does the Net give everyone a chance to type into a terminal? That spells democracy. Does the Net put people in touch with each other? That spells community. Does the Net make information databases available? That spells a more educated and cultured society. Such leaps from a purely mechanical or formal set of relationships to the specifically human are breathtaking. /6/

All of which brings me back to the Sixties flower children. At some deep level they knew their challenge to society was both radical and founded upon a yet-unrealized potential in the human being. Sticking flowers down the barrels of the pigs' guns truly was an earth-shaking gesture. Like the lone Chinese standing in front of a tank on Tienanmen Square, it symbolized the fact that something in the human being -- some remaining spark of innocence and hope and bravery -- held more promise for the future of society than all the mechanisms of raw, earthly power. This remains just as true when those mechanisms have become largely informational.

I am not sure whether the more sophisticated, electronic “counterculture” of our day has kept a grip on this truth. There are some encouraging recognitions in Rheingold's book, and yet one senses in the electronic culture as a whole that a critical balance has shifted, and that the main hope today is felt to lie in the technology itself. If this is true, then no doomsaying can adequately capture the horrors of the future.

Perhaps that is why I warmed so much to Rheingold's genial guidance. One naturally hopes to stand within a “magic circle,” shielded by largeness of spirit from what is to come. And largeness of spirit is a shield -- but it will no longer prevail if we as a society incarcerate it within the forms of our technology.


1. Rheingold's book is The Virtual Community (Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993). An earlier version of this commentary on the book appeared in the electronic journal, Interpersonal Computing and Technology, vol. 2, no. 2 (1994).

2. Barlow, 1990.

3. Heim, 1993: 104.

4. Winner, 1986: 112.

5. See Chapter 8, “Things That Run by Themselves.”

6. For an elaboration of these thoughts, see Chapter 6, “Networks and Communities.”

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