Technoreality Check

The story behind the splintering of a 21st-century philosophy

Even planned activities were effectively stillborn, say some. Until two weeks ago, Brooke Shelby Biggs, an ex­HotWired employee and current fellow at the Berkman Center, had been attempting to set up a conversation about TR in the community area of Netscape's Netcenter. Few of the people on the TR list could find the time to help, she says. ''There never seemed to be any momentum.'' The silence on the TR list to her proposal, says one member, ''was deafening.''

But in late July and early August, the TR list took a serious hit when David Shenk--one of the original conceivers of the document--signed off the list over ''very strong differences of opinion'' between himself and Mark Stahlman, a consultant and founder of the New York New Media Association. According to Stahlman (who says he now ''owns'' the mailing list and is planning its future activities), there were two distinct TR movements all along: a ''wide-ranging'' effort to study the role of technology in society, and a political endeavor to use TR to ''boost a policy platform.'' ''TR wasn't intended to advance the careers of the people involved in it,'' he says.

For other members, it was Stahlman's own strident and garrulous voice on the TR list that disrupted the group. Many of the members had become so overwhelmed by Stahlman's monologues that they turned on e-mail filters (also called ''bozo filters'') to keep his messages from filling their inboxes. The list had become a ''demonstration of the kinds of smoke-filled misunderstandings endemic to the medium of mailing lists,'' writes Wired contributing writer and TR member Steve Silberman in an e-mail. ''The last thing I need is more mail . . . with otherwise savvy people trying to explain what they *really* meant to say in their last five messages.'' Silberman dropped off the list August 7.

Now, Technorealism seems to consist in wondering whether it exists. As Biggs comments, ''it's not dead at this point, it's just reached a 'come to Jesus' moment.'' Stahlman points to two upcoming activities as proof of the life of the group--an academic panel discussion about TR and an electronic journal--coedited with David Bennahum, a Wired contributing editor and TR member. In addition, some members find themselves intellectually reinvigorated. ''[TR has] made me more mindful,'' says Rushkoff.

But the opera of TR's ambitions has diminished significantly since March. Many of the group now consider themselves restored to ''free agent'' status. This relaxation from dogma might be just a natural correction, says Bennahum optimistically. ''There is this element of impatience because everything on the Net happens so fast, you think social grouping on the Net should happen with the same velocity,'' he says. He's right--perhaps now is precisely when TR will become interesting, when it's no longer about egos or accolades or hype. ''Who knows what the accretion of e-mailing will lead to?'' Bennahum continues. ''Why can't we wait and see?''

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