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."

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

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."


Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling wrote the defining cyberpunk "manifesto" in the preface to Mirrorshades, a sci-fi collection he edited in 1987: "An unholy alliance of the technical world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy . . . paralleled throughout '80s pop culture, in rock video; in the hacker underground; in the jarring street tech of hip-hop and scratch music." Sterling is now a successful novelist and nonfiction writer.

Still, Sterling doesn't take himself too seriously. When I told him I was trying hard not to make this a "Where are they now" sort of thing, he said, "Too bad." (In contrast, Barlow said, "Oh, God. I hope not.") "I always figured myself for a tangential figure. As a science fiction writer, I'm an anomaly no matter where I go. It's true that I'm considerably better-known and better-heeled now than I was in 1990, but I never expected to rule the Internet as some kind of sci-fi philosopher-king. Now that the Internet is becoming the new General Motors, I'm losing interest in it."


So everybody's doing great. If you're a digiman, you're still on the move. You're making money, you're giving lectures and being quoted in magazines, and it doesn't feel like your 15 minutes are up—not at all. So you may not notice that Steve Case and Bill Gates won.

Maybe it was just me, feeling buried beneath the e-commerce avalanche. Maybe I'm just pathetically waiting for my Where Are They Now? moment, to be remembered for those glory moments, like Dexy's Midnight Runners and Gary Numan. Or maybe I'm just an old geezer who wants to tell the recent arrivals on the shores of cyberspace about those wild frontier days, one more time, before I join the hoi polloi on NASDAQ.

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