Timothy, Allen, and Bill
The Godfathers of Cyberspace
By Douglas Rushkoff

Has anybody here seen my old friend William? Can you tell me where he's gone?

As if to reunite with his recently departed "beat" cohorts Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, Naked Lunch novelist William Burroughs died last week. Whether they found the ultimate hyperlink in the sky or merely a "Server Unknown" error will be left for each of us to determine in his or her own time. Wherever they've gone, they probably don't have access to a "back" button.

What seems more certain, to me anyway, is that their mutual and near-simultaneous final exit parallels the disturbing decline of their philosophies and ideals in the world they helped create. Cyberspace itself is, in many ways, the technological realization of the visions of these three men. Their departure offers us the opportunity to see how far from their vision we may have wandered, and if there's a way to revitalize some of their pioneer spirit.

Leary's frontier was always freedom of mind. However recklessly he may have spread his message (or was subsequently interpreted), his advocacy of psychedelics and computers was always towards sacred ends. The LSD trip was to be understood as a visionary experience. Technology could make human beings better than normal. It could aid our evolution.

His vision of using plants and chemicals to increase human potential was eventually outlawed and replaced with a decidedly less optimistic one: mind-altering substances as a way to cope. Prozac and other anti-depressants and mood altering drugs are prescribed to help us do our jobs better and buy more stuff. Instead of paying for costly therapy, health insurance plans would prefer simply to drug their subscribers. What began in the Sixties as a movement towards rekindling a sense of cultural intimacy is eventually relaunched as a way to get by in an increasingly soul-less world.

Likewise, Leary's early projections about computers and networking elicited only ridicule. He was literally laughed off the sets of TV news shows in the 1970's for predicting that most human beings would someday be sending one another "messages" through their word processors, and that the world would be linked together through a new electronic "nervous system." As we all now know, by the early 90's the Internet had developed into a worldwide (if economically elitist) conversation. It seemed to embody a new utopianism, and presented us with an opportunity to explore our relationships with one another in spite of geographical and cultural differences. Well, we all know where that one went.

Leary's longtime friend and colleague, poet Allen Ginsberg, espoused the true operating principles underlying this vision of a collective human project: diversity, tolerance, and a good sense of humor. He saw the beauty and creative yearnings beneath our cities' atrocities, and attempted to popularize the Buddhist ideals of acceptance and impermanence as a way of celebrating rather than mourning the transient nature of human existence. Ginsberg held the spiritual and behavioral keys to the bright future that his friends envisioned. The only way to make cyberspace work is to match our new access to one another's hearts and minds with an augmented sense of compassion. It's not about winning, it's about meeting. When all else failed, he reassured himself with the knowledge that it was all an illusion, anyway. You'll be okay as long as you don't take any of it too seriously.

Burroughs completed the triad by musing on the darkest potentials of our mediated collective hallucination. His was a world of controllers and human nodes. Through satire and self-parody, Burroughs explored and exorcised our deepest obstacles to cultural intimacy. Once inside one another's heads, what was to stop us from waging ideological war? Would we merely become agents of forces we don't even know by blindly following the subliminal commands of advertisers, governments, or aliens? Could the post-modern cut-and-paste language of a mediated universe be used to communicate secret messages, or influence people to heinous crimes against their own better natures? Are we being offered the chance to evolve, or are we merely being forced to adapt to a universe in which another directs our own consciousness?

Burroughs' comically paranoid corollary of Leary's utopian vision serves as an all-too-real warning against the perils of a cyberspace society. As the Luddites warn us, the Internet looks as inviting as a playground; but if it were to replace rather than enhance our current forms of commerce, interaction, and community, we might never find our way out again. Our keystrokes are already monitored by businesses ever-anxious to predict our next move, analyze our behaviors, and profit off them. At its worst, once we're all inside, the Internet would become like the "company towns" of the pre-unionized American coal industry: you follow your programming, earn your credits, and then spend them in the same place because there's nowhere else to go.

I think Timothy, Allen, and Bill, together, provide us with the template to prevent such a fate. By combining Leary's unabashed optimism, Ginsberg's disciplined tolerance, and Burroughs' sense of the vulnerable gap between a "cut" and a "paste," we stand a chance of letting our technology serve our highest aims, rather than the other way around.

Timothy, Allen and Bill saw cyberspace as the expression of something sacred. Although they certainly made errors of judgment and deed in their own lives, as best they were able they carried forward a precious torch: one that could be as easily snuffed out as passed on.

28 July 1998

Copyright: Douglas Rushkoff
Used with kind Permission