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  • Settlers in Cyberspace



    This is Chapter 4 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Howard Rheingold is the sort of guy you'd feel safe with even among the most disreputable, unshaven denizens of what he, like everyone else, prefers to call cyberspace. That is just as well, for occasionally he seems particularly drawn to the shadier haunts, where he introduces us to offbeat -- even threatening -- characters of the Net, and takes delight in surprising us with their gentle and positive side. An ever genial and informative guide, he ushers his readers /1/ on a bracing, personalized tour of the online world. While unabashedly playing "cheerleader" for the new networking technologies, he also calls up lucid visions of danger. And those who find his outlook insufficiently one-sided will still enjoy contented hours mining his wealth of historical narrative, anecdote, and observation to support their own utopian or apocalyptic predilections.

    As one whose slightly alarmed imagination runs toward the apocalyptic, I am a little disappointed that Rheingold's critical eye is much more intent on discerning the human future in the networked computer than recognizing the origin and future of the computer in the increasingly computational bent of the human being. Surely it is only when the latter inquiry complements the former that we can begin to assay the dangers we face. But Rheingold's geniality elicits an echoing geniality of my own, so I am more inclined to begin with our common ground as children of the Sixties.

    It was, for me, a surprise to learn from The Virtual Community just how rooted in the Sixties counterculture many of the earliest, person-to-person computer networks were. Stewart Brand, who founded the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), asserts flatly that "the personal computer revolutionaries were the counterculture." Several of the early leaders of the WELL were alumni of the Hog Farm commune, and Rheingold -- a WELL veteran in his own right -- seemed to find himself soul-sharing with other children of the Sixties wherever he went to investigate the early history of computer bulletin boards and conferencing systems. "Personal computers and the PC industry," he notes, "were created by young iconoclasts who had seen the LSD revolution fizzle, the political revolution fail. Computers for the people was the latest battle in the same campaign" (p. 48).

    Lost in the counterculture

    I, too, grew up with that generation, and I, too, see in its passion and indignation and arousal a glimmering hope for the future. But here I am obligated to meet Rheingold's confessional journey with a disclosure of my own. I never really signed on with my generation. When, in 1968, I made the required, ritual visit to Haight