Blurred Visionaries

Ye Olde Cyber Prophets Age by the Nanosecond

In the early 1990s, some of us made a name for ourselves pontificating about the liberating potentials of the Internet and digital technology. We saw a digital revolution that ultimately would free information by making it difficult for powerful forces to keep secrets, empower every man and woman to communicate their visions without the intervention of capital or an editor, create a space for the human imagination to act out, and break down the boundaries of nationalities and races, creating a global humanity. We were envisioning a kind of psychedelic anarchist utopia. But with just a few minor edits, we were writing the future ads for Microsoft, and the ideology of corporate neoliberalism.

We were, on the whole, a cranky and peculiar lot: visionaries, bohemians, artists, dissidents, and eccentrics. Not that we were Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, shooting junk at the Chelsea Hotel. As bohos go, we were pretty whitebread. Howard Rheingold wearing psychedelic tennis shoes on national TV was considered way wild. But as a group of people who were getting to define the social dimensions of the next economy in the mass media, we were a pretty radical bunch. Read an article or watch a program about the upcoming digital future in 1990, and most likely, there we were. A short list: myself, John Perry Barlow, Jaron Lanier, Howard Rheingold, cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and Future Sex editor Lisa Palac—for gender balance.

Back then, the Net was primarily a social phenomenon. Now, in the age of dot-coms and market mania, e-commerce has the center stage. Is it still possible to be excited about the culture-shaking impact of the "digital revolution"? Whither virtual community? Are we still relevant? Is it time to do the digital equivalent of VH1's Where Are They Now?

The queen of high-tech porn: former Future Sex editor Lisa Palac
photo: Aldo Mauro
The queen of high-tech porn: former Future Sex editor Lisa Palac

Not so fast. In querying a select group of first-wave digerati, I found that many of them are still optimistic, much in demand, and busier than ever. And their critics on the left like Richard Barbrook, author of The California Ideology, a diatribe against digital hippie libertarianism, also still see the digerati as vital, albeit as apologists for the capitalist juggernaut.

I asked Barbrook if he was ready to back off his campaign against the "loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists, and artists from the West Coast of the U.S.A. [who] have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age," now that the countercultural aspects of Net culture are buried somewhere beneath the megastore. He responded, "I think that [our critique] has stood up surprisingly well given how long ago it was written. The prophets of the digital future are still using the same rhetoric they did all those years ago."

Big deal, right? Isn't the real action on NASDAQ? Is the continued sense of the importance of Web gurus and their critics just a mutually convenient delusion?

In early 1993, Time editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt conspired with the managing editor, Walter Isaacson, to tout the digerati's freakiest, most anarchic elements by putting "cyberpunk" on the cover of their magazine. Today, DeWitt is skeptical about whether they were actually onto something that has withstood the test of time. "These guys were sources when people thought of the Internet as an engine of social change," he says. "Does anybody care what they think now that it's been turned into a shopping mall?" Well, do they? "Well, duh. I always suspected virtual communities were a little too warm and fuzzy to hold the interest of editors or readers. Especially compared to the pornography of twentysomething Webgeeks getting obscenely rich. Idealistic philosophies may someday rise again, but probably only from the ashes of whatever it is we're going through now. It was Walter's ambition, baldly stated, that the cyberpunk meme would become as widespread and influential as the beatnik or hippie, which sounds hopelessly wrong to me now."

Still, the digerati march on. After all, careers are at stake: book contracts, lucrative lecture appearances, guest professorships, in some cases even product endorsements. But even more than that, a sense of self, the contiguousness of one's project, and the ideas themselves, whether valid or not.

John Perry Barlow

If we were to try to invent a character who would stick in the craw of Foucault-spouting, lefty academic critics, we couldn't have done better than John Perry Barlow, wealthy Midwestern son of a gentleman rancher, cowboy hippie, and anarcho-Republican. Despite the fact that he wrote several extraordinarily eloquent documents about public ignorance and government repression in the early days of the Internet, the admiration he won from Netizens eventually frayed around the edges. People found his libertarianism, and what some would call his blind sense of mission, alienating.

John is also an honest seeker after truth who—while he wore his mistakes and his culture-bound prejudices on his sleeve—always appears open to change. Has his view of his own mission been altered by the dot-com juggernaut?

Not a chance! In fact, Barlow declares total victory. "It seems to me that I'm as much on the edge as I ever was, though it also seems that a lot of the purportedly insane things I was saying in the early '90s—about the inevitable explosion of the Net, about copyright, about crypto and privacy—are now considered conventional wisdom. The philosophies that now dominate the digital world are pretty much what we preached in the early days. It seems we've won."

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