Blurred Visionaries

Ye Olde Cyber Prophets Age by the Nanosecond

Not atypically, the next day Barlow moderates his exultant self-affirmation with a more modest afterthought. "It may be that the Era of the Net Guru is passing. The Internet has now become so huge and comprehensive that being a Net Guru is like being a World Guru. It is much harder to have sweepingly useful insights about this environment."

St. Jude

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

MONDO 2000, if you don't know, was the weirdest of all that early-'90s weirdness. We concocted a fantasy about young mutants and superbrights on smart pills taking over the world with incomprehensible technologies, or at least incomprehensible language. Article titles like "Digits Run Riot: Synaesthetic Electronic Technologies" and "Hurtling Toward the Singularity" give you a sense of the flavor: brown blotter, basically. And we sold this fantasy as journalism. When Philip DeWitt showed it to Walter Isaacson at Time, "he was dazzled by the density of new words and phrases and ideas he had never heard of," says DeWitt.

St. Jude was the most poetic and elegant purveyor of this confounding cyberbabble on the whole staff, and was frequently called upon by the media when they needed a particularly twisty quote to express the strangeness of the scene.

Like most of the others I spoke to, Jude remains successful and optimistic, I think . . . that is, if I understood her correctly. "I learned this: We recognize the completely new by its unrecognizability. Initially indescribable, it takes form as we describe it until, totally familiar, it becomes again invisible. En route we, happy we, get to tweak its shape. And the process does not end."

Jaron Lanier

At the beginning of the '90s, Jaron Lanier's long dreadlocks were iconic for a mainstream media fascinated by the new electronic LSD, virtual reality. It sort of drove Jaron nuts. Although he looked and talked like a counterculturalist, he never took drugs and he insisted that VR had nothing to do with acid. He had a big fight over it with his friend Tim Leary. His company, VPL Research, invented the data glove, a device that allowed people to manipulate objects in a three-dimensional computer space. Jaron was merrily programming ever more complex 3-D "Reality Built for Two" at VPL for rather limited audiences when his company was yanked out from under him by some scamming French businessmen in the mid '90s. For the masses, though, Jaron's virtual reality wasn't something you could experience. It was something you could read about, and Lanier made it sound exciting and very, very cosmic. He told MONDO 2000, "You know how Alan Watts once formulated the universe as a creature that looks at itself in a million ways and each of the ways was a person? Virtual Reality is a reality like that."

So is Jaron off in some private cyberspace, longing for the glory days? Hardly. "So far as I can tell, my status and influence have increased, not decreased. I used to be an oddball in Silicon Valley, and now I've graduated to being a 'classic."'

But as one of the most idealistic of the early idealists, does he feel like the forces of greed have hijacked the philosophy of the digital age? "The greed-centricity of a lot of the kids coming up does bother me. But the philosophy of the Net is still up for grabs—and may it always be so."

Lisa Palac

In the early '90s, a trio of horny middle-aged male lawyers and businessmen were failing to generate any enthusiasm for their concept of an all-Asian porn magazine. Then they read about cybersex in the papers, and decided to do a sex magazine for the digital age . . . and still feature naked Asian babes. Eventually, Future Sex was born, the babes would be multiracial, and one babe, Lisa Palac, a converted antiporn feminist who had been working at the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs, would become editor in chief. The attractive Palac knew nothing of Net culture, but she got herself online, and pretty soon she was able to spout enough digerati rhetoric to define herself as the "queen of high-tech porn" in The New York Times, and pretty much everywhere else.

Palac now freelances from her home in Santa Monica and accepts the stickiness of her public persona with good-natured aplomb. "People will always think of me as 'that cybersex chick,' which is great, but not entirely accurate. Being on the front lines of the digital revolution gave me insight into so many subjects, but all people want to ask me is 'D'ya ever think we'll get those cybersex suits?' "

Howard Rheingold

You may have seen Howard Rheingold on a TV ad for Kinko's talking about technology and making a little bit more sense than Bill Burroughs did in that Nike ad. Rheingold's signature book is Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, written in 1993. And while Electric Minds—his attempt at doing virtual community as a business in the early Web age—failed, Rheingold remains the poster boy for the idealistic notion of the Internet as a social space. "I feel an obligation to try to speak some sense about the social side of cyberspace, because there is so much nonsense out there. I'm not one of those busy and overbooked e-commerce speakers, but I still get a couple calls a week from newspapers, radio, and TV. I was on CNN this weekend. I'm happy to take the calls and sit still for the cameras, but celebrity is not an attraction to me, sitting still for cameras is a waste of time, and a day that the telephone doesn't ring is a day I can get some more writing done."

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