The Godfathers of Cyberspace
By Douglas Rushkoff
Has anybody here seen my old friend William? Can
you tell me where he's gone?
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
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
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.
Used with kind Permission