Surveys the relationship between conceptions of technology, self, and society.
Good evening. I would like to thank all of you for coming out tonight to participate in this lecture. I would also like to thank the Faculty Enhancement Committee for providing funding for part of this project. Last summer I was one of the fortunate recipients of a summer stipend from the Committee that allowed me to take some time off from teaching and pursue this research. I am grateful to the committee for making this possible and would like to voice my support for their continued efforts to support the scholarly research of York College faculty. Thank you also to the Research and Publications Committee which provided funds for some of the research costs of this work. Finally I would like to thank Dana Assed who has worked as my research assistant this semester and saved me from some of the more tedious tasks involved in doing research. And now, I would like to share with you a story. Slide 1 Once upon a time, a new and unusual form of technology appeared. It promised to make all fantasies become reality. Some called in the Information Superhighway. Others called it Cyberspace. It had lots of names. Slide 2 At first people didn't know what to make of it. And many were even confused by it. But there was a Wizard who understood this new technology was not as it appeared. He knew it was here to help people communicated in ways they never dreamed possible. So he got together with technology and created magical new products and services that everyone could use. Life in the kingdom became much easier. And much more enchanting. Herein lies a true story. Slide 3 While all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again, the Wizard was able to use AT&T's WorldWorx solutions to put Mr. Dumpty back together again.
Slide 4 And Hansel and Gretel were never even lured into the Witch's house. They used their Personal Intelligent Communicator to send an urgent message to their dad who in turn sent an image of a map to his children's communicator. Slide 5 The Prince was able to use his AT&T Network Notes, which combines the leading business collaborative software with the power of the AT&T Worldwide Intelligent Network, to locate that one piece of information that led him and the glass slipper back to Cinderella. Slide 6 And Alice didn't have to worry about understanding the mad ravings of the Queen of Hearts or the Mad Hatter or the Chesire Cat because she has AT&T's Language Line Services with access to interpreters 24 hours a day. Slide 7 The Wizard and all his magical products and services made it easier for people to embrace technology. So hat once seemed unattractive became beautiful in the eyes of everyone. And they all communicated happily ever after. Slide 8 For follow ups on these and other tales of the cyber-revolution, point your world wide web browser to http://www.att.com/stories. Slide 10 The end, or, as AT&T would have it, the beginning.
Slide 11 This series of advertisements appeared in a Time magazine special issue, "Welcome to Cyberspace." As you read through the magazine, ingesting its lessons about coming technological revolutions, you're treated to what amounts to a kind of computer revisionism in which our myths and fairy tales, the store house of our culture, are revised in terms of this new and unusual form of technology which has lots of names. As you finish the magazine and turn it over to the back cover, you're treated not to the end of the magazine but the beginning. The beginning of a coming revolution and the beginning of our culture being rewritten in terms of a technology with many names. In this fantasy world of magical new products, where wise Wizards who understand the true nature of frogs guide us through and around the perils of wicked Witches, evil wolves, and Queens who don't mean what they say, there are no endings, only beginnings. Slide 12 Doors that open upon doors that open upon doors, each promising fresh beginnings, pictorially represented by the cover of Time, inviting us to enter a seeming labyrinth where the imminent threat of disorientation is quickly banished with the introduction of a wise Wizard to guide us on our cyber journies. Time and AT&T's rewriting of these childhood fairy tales is a wonderful and somewhat portentous if not pretentious example of what I would like to talk about tonight: the computer culture. Not the computer as a tool or machine that lies there inert, waiting to be used, to be commanded by its human user, but the computer culture, that swirl of myths, tales, stories, and metaphors that have grown up around the computer, cannablizing and appropriating an older culture and rewriting it in terms of its own logic. Many of us are preoccupied by the machine itself. After all, we are surrounded by computers and there is probably no facet of our lives that are not in some way touched by computers. But if we're troubled by the growing, looming presence of computers in our lives, we can always reassure ourselves by remembering that they're just machines. We are the users. They're simply here to do our bidding. But this series of ads from AT&T 3
puts the lie to that belief and underscores the fact that the computer constantly threatens to break out of the die into which we have cast it. It forces us to recognize that the computer is not simply a tool to be commanded by the human user. It is also a cultural screen, a matrix or symbolic form through which we come to see culture and, in turn, ourselves. For we are cultural beings, symbolic animals, and we understand who we are, give meaning to our lives, and come to understand our place in the cosmos through culturally sanctioned stories, myths, and metaphors. As the computer appropriates more and more of these stories, myths, and metaphors, it becomes a defining symbol for both our culture and ourselves. And appropriate them it does. The computer has become something of a universal substance, appearing in many guises, even in places where we would least expect it, such as our breakfast cereal, Slide 13 our morning coffee, Slide 14 our lunch, Slide 15 our sardines, Slide 16 and, if that's not enough, even our relief medication. Slide 17 While individually these ads may be entertaining, rather silly, perhaps inconsequential, collectively I think they underscore the fact that the computer has become for us more than just a machine or tool. Rather it is, as David Bolter suggests in his book Turing's Man, a defining technology. 4
Bolter demonstrates that throughout the history of Western culture particular devices and crafts have moved out of the Academy and the laboratory to become defining technologies, technologies which develop links with a culture's science, philosophy, and literature, its culture. Such technologies come to serve as metaphors through which a culture can view both its physical and its metaphysical worlds. In 17th and 18th century Europe, for instance, the mechanical clock served as just such a defining technology. From accounts of animal and human bodies to accounts of the earth, the heavens, and God's very existence, the mechanical watch served as an always available explanation or metaphor. Bolter argues that the computer is the most recent example of a defining technology. He writes, "For us today, the computer constantly threatens to break out of the tiny corner of human affairs…that it was built to occupy, to contribute instead to a general redefinition of certain basic relationships: the relationship of science to technology, of knowledge to technical power, and, in the broadest sense, of mankind to the world of nature" (9). But if it's true, as I believe it is, that the computer appropriates and defines culture, it is equally true that culture appropriates and defines the computer. It is important that we not make the mistake of treating the computer as simply an inert object or tool. It is equally important, though, that we not make the mistake of treating culture as shaped in some simplistic and deterministic fashion by its technology. As the computer takes up and rewrites culture, culture is rewriting the computer. We cannot, I think, truely understand the computer and what people are doing with computers unless we understand the culture of which this machine is a part. The computer is not simply an artifact which comes to us completely unrepresented. Rather, it is a culturally mediated, culturally constructed object. And how we come to understand and interpret the computer is in part a function of how computers are mediated by culture. Culture, then, is central to our narratives of self-understanding. How we think about ourselves and our place in the cosmos is intimately shaped by our culture. But technology, including the technology of the computer, is as much a part of culture as philosophy, literature, or religion. And so, if we are to understand culture, we need to focus on its technology and the relationship between it and culture. In our culture today, the defining technology is the
computer. It is important, then, that we think about the ties between culture and the computer and explore and analyze their significance. For the past twenty or thirty years, there have been two dominant approaches to the study of the relationship between culture and computers. These approaches have revolved around the axis of evolution and revolution. On the one hand, the computer is simply another form of technology merely evolved from and not substantially different from earlier forms of tecnology. On the other hand, the computer represents something truely revolutionary in the history of technology and culture. Usually hand in hand with the evolution revolution axis is an evaluative axis. The computer is a demon that has come to further enslave humankind or the computer is our savior, the guarantor of a free and plentiful future. Both of these approaches, evolutionary and revolutionary, are mistaken and I think somewhat dangerous as they seduce us into a kind of passivity in regard to the computer. Consider the evolutionary point of view. There is plenty of evidence to suggest strong continuities between the so-called computer revolution and prior technological revolutions we have supposedly lived through. James Beniger, for instance, points to our chronic inability to adequately understand and appreciate the transformations we are living through and argues that there are deep connections between what society is going through today and what it went through during the industrial revolution. James Carey agrees and points to deep parallels in the rhetoric surrounding the industrial revolution, the age of mechanism, the coming of electricity, and the introduction of the computer. Each form of technology he argues promised the same ideals of freedom, decentralization, ecological harmony, and democratic community. These and other writers focus on the technooptimism or techno-philia surrounding the computer revolution, what Langdon Winner dismissively calls mythinformation, and argue that much of what is promised on behalf of the computer revolution are the same broken promises made on behalf of electricity, television, and even the Electrolux. Furthermore, many of these authors point to the deletarious effects of these past so-called revolutions, and look with some pessimism toward the computer revolution. I must admit that I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. At the same time, though, I think that it underestimates what is truly new and 6
distinctive about the computer in relation to past forms of technology. Unlike any previous form of technology, the computer is a psychological machine provoking questions and issues of a unique sort that are not raised by electricity, televisions, or washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Certainly these other forms of technology have not been taken up in as many culturally diverse ways as the computer. Sherry Turkle in The Second Self argues that computers are evocative machines in that they provoke debates about a host of metaphysical, philosophical, social and anthropological issues. "The computer," she writes, "raises questions about where we stand in nature and where we stand in the world of artifact. We search for a link between who we are and what we have made, between who we are and what we might create, between who we are and what, through our intimacy with our own creations, we might become" (12). The invention of the computer, Turkle suggests, brings us, for the first time, face to face with a creation of our own intellect that may just rival its creator. To obscure or ignore this new element, which the claims of the evolutionists do, is to obscure or ignore a significantly new element in our relationship to our creations, our machines, and obscures how our lives may be changed by the computer and the culture that comes in its wake, perhaps seducing us into acquiesence. While the evolutionary claim may simply be mistaken, the claim that computers represent a true revolution are both mistaken and dangerous. These claims are, first of all, more numerous. Beniger, for instance, notes that there have been more than 60 societal transformations identified that we have lived through between 1950 and 1984. More than half of these transformations have been driven by computers and information technology. The succession of transformations identified have included the computer revolution, the electronic revolution, the information age, the age of the smart machine, and the micro revolution. Today, the pace of revolution has not let up. Louis Rossetto, the editor of Wired magazine, argues that "the digital revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon…" Steven Levy writes in a recent issue of Newsweek devoted to the computer, "No question about it—the information revolution is here, at last. All those ones and seros we've been passing around—the fuel that flames the digital fire—have reached critical mass and ignited, big time.…It's the Big Bang of our time—we might even call it the Bit Bang" (26). Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich is quoted in the same article as observing "You're talking about 7
transformations on such a scale that everything changes" (27). Beyond the politicians and the wired elite, advertisers have a large stake in selling the cyber revolution, as we've already seen in the case of AT&T. The theme of revolution is a common one in computer advertisements. Slide 18 Intermedia "started a revolution" Slide 19 Nu Horizons' name and advertising promises us a nu millennium. Connected to this theme of revolution is the promise of a happier and better life to come. As Gingrich reminds us, in defense of his proposal to give the poor a tax credit for laptops, "There has to be a missionary spirit that says to the poorest child in America, 'Internet's for you'" (Newsweek, 55). The missionary comes preaching the promise of technology. This is a theme appropriated most directly in advertising, such as this for America Online Slide 20 which promises to make us more capable, powerful, connected, knowledgeable, productive, properous, and happier, if we just insert this disk. Slide 21 Super stack promises us choice, freedom, empowerment, and growth. Slide 22 Unity promises nirvana. Slide 23 And Gateway laptops, draped in the colors of the American flag, echo Patrick Henry's call for liberty. Newt's laptop promises to free us from our 8
schackles. One sees directly in this case how politically meaningful symbols are subverted for the purpose of marketing. The political rhetoric of revolution and the promise of a new day to come are seductive myths that encourage us to go out and purchase our pcs and online services and not miss out on the next revolution. The rhetoric of revolution prevents us from analyzing these promises and taking full measure of the computer culture by cutting the computer off from its past and its culture. If, as Gingrich asserts, the transformations are of such magnitude that everything changes, we have no context in which to assess these changes. Revolution cuts us off from our history, from any familiar landmarks in terms of which we might understand these transformations. It further sets up a mythic realm outside of history and politics and culture occupied by our savior, the computer, which is untouched by our current predicaments and problems. It is innocent, unspoiled, a force of change. If we are dissatisfied with the way Washington works, if Congress is ineffective, our nation fragmenting, our cities and communities self-destructing, the refrain, "If I only had a laptop," holds out the promise of easy answers and solutions. This is the danger of the rhetoric of revolution. It holds out the promise that the computer, not part of the problem, not part of our culture, can bring wholescale change. And when that promise goes unfulfilled, when after purchasing our computers, our modems, and our Internet service, our lives remain substantially the same, the disappointment and dissatisfaction may only be increased. We need, then, an analysis of the computer culture that avoids the simplifying dichotomy of evolution and revolution, a finer grain analysis that doesn't neglect what is new and distinct about the computer but which also doesn't cut off the analysis of the computer from its cultural background. Such an analysis should help us to understand the holding power of computers, why we find them so fascinating and evocative, and should help us make sense of how we use computers and how they use us. I would like to initiate such an analysis tonight by considering some of the ways in which the computer culture has become intertwined with cosmology, community, and self-identity. I'll begin with cosmology. Cosmology is concerned in part with the ultimate structure of the universe, the basic building blocks of reality. What is it that's really real? The computer has come to exercise a profound influence on how we think about and perceive reality. We no longer live in a world of atoms but of bits, not 9
matter but information. In this computational ontology, nature is reduced to the digital, for everything can be digitized. Slide 24 Nature is transformed into an outgrowth of the microchip, Slide 25 has as its underlying structure wires and silicon Slide 26 and is even evolving into a computer accessory. Slide 27 In ads such as this one for a product called Manhattan, the computer comes to stand in for or replace the real New York. The computer literally towers over and is more significant, commands more attention than the city's own skyscrapers. Slide 28 The movie Tron takes us even further in this direction, suggesting the underlying computational nature of reality and blurring the distinction between the external world and the internal world of the computer. Video Clip 1 Most of Tron actually takes place in the computer itself. The evil Master Control Program digitizes the main character, Flynn, literally transforming him into bits of information that are then transported into the interior of the computer. In numerous scenes, the movie juxtaposes views of the interior of the computer with exterior reality, presenting them as visually indistinct and suggesting their interchangeability. Tron also serves to 10
dismantle the screen that separates these two realities. It creates an inner life for the computer that competes for the mantle of reality. Life inside the computer becomes indistict from life outside. While Tron was perhaps the first to construct an inner world for the computer, today it has a lot of company. Since Tron, the distinction between the external world of reality and the inner world of the computer has grown progessively weaker. In ad after ad, we are greeted with images which break free of their computational world and enter this reality, ads which deconstruct the distinction between the external world of physical reality and the inner world of the computer. Slide 29 Slide 30 Slide 31 Slide 32 Alternatively, ads such as Intel's thrust us into the computer. The "Intel inside" series of television ads creates an inner point of view for the computer that viewers of the ads come to occupy. We take up a position on the inside of the machine looking out at the user as he does his homework and plays his video games. In their more recent series of commercials, the inside of the computer is itself endowed with life. We're told that Intel's pentium chip brings your programs alive. And, indeed, we see the computer's programs and transistors dancing to a snappy rhumba beat. Life inside the machine becomes more lively than external reality. The computer offers us a window onto another world, and it is a world that I think we find fascinating and compelling. Slide 33 What accounts for the computer's capacity to define and ultimately relplace the reality of the physical world? It is, I think, a peculiar mixture of what the computer offers and what we are looking for. Beyond contemplating the ultimate building blocks of reality, cosmology is concerned with providing us with a metaphysical map of the universe. How do we fit in the universe, it asks, what is our place in the 11
cosmos? Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian and philosopher, has argued that cosmology grows out of our feelings of solitude and estrangement in the universe. Throughout the history of humanity, we have constructed images or maps of the universe that transform it from a cold and barren wasteland into a secure home. But Buber argues that today such images or maps of the universe have become increasingly difficult to construct. Our world and the cosmos has become increasingly complex, culturally, technologically, and scientifically, and we are no longer able to form an image of it that makes it comprehendable and livable, that transforms it into a home. This point is underscored more recently in Edwin Dobb's reflections on contemporary physical cosmology, the work, for instance, of astronomers such as Steven Hawking. Writes Dobbs, "If there is a message to be deciphered in the vast expanses of space and time it is that life does not count for much in the big picture; all that we do and make, regardless of how noble it may seem, is little more than a 'stain on silence'…Confronting indifference on a cosmic scale cannot help but encourage feelings of diminishment, abandonment, implacable solitude. There is every reason to believe that we, the residents of Earth, are alone in the universe, stranded in a night that looms larger and longer with each new astronomical discovery. And unlike our fellow creatures, who have yet to look up from blessed oblivion, we are acutely aware of our position; we are insomniac and obsessional, anxiously searching the sky for signs of significance." We seek an image or map of the universe, then, which accounts for our place and our significance. But the universe frustrates us, is too unruly, chaotic, disorderly to fit into any imaginable frame. Into this dilemma steps the computer. The computer offers us a world of order and logic. Cosmology comes from the Greek words kosmos, or world, and logos, or reason concerning. The computer constructs for us a world concerned only with reason or logos. The computer is a formal mechanism that works according to the principles of logic and creates a world for us the building blocks of which are the logical algorithms of programs. Turkle argues that at the heart of the computer culture is the idea of constructed, rule-governed worlds, microworlds that are completely decipherable in terms of their programs. Where this world is chaotic, difficult to comprehend, obscure, the computer offers us the image of a world of order, logic, reason, and transparency. While we may have lost our cosmological map in this world, the computer offers us a 12
ready replacement: the pristine, orderly lines of the flowchart, which becomes the new image of an orderly and computable nature. Flowchart, program, and microchip become part of the new cosmology. This computational cosmology can be seen at work in movies. The film Bladerunner, for instance, presents us with a future vision of Los Angeles, a city which has already come to define what Frederic Jameson calls a postmodern hyperspace, a space which transcends "the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world" (81). Video Clip 2 In the Los Angeles of 2019 these characteristics are even more marked, for we are presented with a dark, dirty, disorganized dystopia, a disorienting urban scene that confounds the viewer's attempts to make sense of or give order to what's shown on the screen. In the midst of this disorientation, stands the Tyrell Corporation, a mammoth, glowing, golden building, sitting securely and squarely in the midst of this chaos, and, significantly, imprinted with the form of a microchip, the corporation's chief product. In a disorganized world where we have lost our cognitive map, in an environment that defies comprehension, the computer chip stands out as a symbol of order and guidance. The micro-world of the computer is governed by the logic of the program. But we can come to master these rules and construct worlds according to our desires. Beyond offering us a world of order, the computer also holds out the promise of magic. Slide 34 The connections between computers and fantasy are increasingly emphasized today. One can see it in the AT&T ads with which I began. It is also at the heart of much discussion of virtual reality. Jaron Lanier, who coined the term "virtual reality" and developed the "eye-phones" and "data gloves" that allow a computer user to experience simulated, virtual worlds, describes his experience of virtual reality in this way: "There is an 13
experience when you are dreaming of all possibilities being there, that anything can happen, and it is just an open world where your mind is the only limitation.…The thing that I think is so exciting about virtual reality is that it…gives us this sense of being able to be who we are without limitation, for our imagination to become objective and shared with other people… However real the physical world is…the virtualworld is exactly as real, and achieves the same status…but at the same time it also has this infinity of possibility." Nicole Stenger, commenting on virtual reality, writes: "In this cubic fortress of pixels that is cyberspace, we will be, as in dreams, everything: the Dragon, the Princess, and the Sword." The connection between the chaos of this world and the dreamlike fantasy world of virtual reality is most strongly exhibited in Fox Television's new series VR5. Video Clip 3 The physical world of VR5 is dark, threatening, filled with mysterious characters whose intentions are unclear to the viewer as well as the show's main character, Sydney Bloom. Sydney has stumbled upon a way to enter virtual reality and a shadowy organization known only as The Committee forces her into helping it with its plans, which are never fully revealed fully. The Committee may or may not have killed Sydney's father, it may or may not be out to kill her. Those who represent The Committee to Sydney don't even know how it is organized, what it's intent it, or who governs it. VR5, then, constructs a reality which is essentially dark, mysterious, and unknowable. This reality is countered by Sydney's virtual reality. Whenever Sydney needs answers to her questions, she enters virtual reality, which, because it taps into the subconscious, has the look and feel of dreams. Virtual reality helps bring Sydney's fantasies to life. Where in reality she is quiet, reserved, shy, sexually repressed, in virtual reality she dresses provacatively, plays the role of the temptress and the seductress, and lives out her repressed fantasies. In the premiere episode, for instance, her first taste of virtual reality is the torturing of her nuisant neighbor. She also meets two men in a lush, edenic setting for a little sexual tryst, and she is able to meet her mother who has been in a catatonic state since attempting suicide some years earlier. Virtual reality literally allows us to wake the half-dead. 14
VR5 presents us with two competing realities: a dark and chaotic physical world, essentially mysterious, frustrating the desire to achieve some kind of clarity and transparency, and a fantasy, virtual reality defined and ultimately controlled by the logic of the computer. It is this world to which Sydney looks for guidance and answers in life. The computer has literally come to define a new reality and a new cosmology. It assures us of a place in reality that is both orderly and designed to our desires. This computational cosmology suggests a combination of the properties and characteristics of the computer and our attempt to construct an image of the cosmos, a map that defines our place in the universe. The computer comes to serve as a metaphor or image defining a new cosmology that is tailor-made to our situation and predicament. This same intermingling of human desire and computer properties helps us to understand the explosive growth of computer or virtual communities. Here, too, the computer serves to provide access to something that few people can find in external reality. The sense of solitude and estrangement from the universe that human beings experience and that drives us to ponder the meaning of the cosmos, also drives us into communities. We are, at heart, social animals. Our lives gain meaning in the community of others. Community, though, is becoming increasingly hard to find. As early as 1938, Buber was commenting on the increasing decay of the old organic forms of the direct life of man with man. Buber argued that these forms of direct life, exemplified in the family, the union one finds in work, the community in village and town, were being replaced with an emphasis on the individual and the collective. Individualism sees only the human being in relation to his or herself while collectivism sees only society or the group. Both stifle genuine community and lead to a growing solitude and despair. More recently, Ray Oldenburg has also noted the waning of community in this country. In Oldenburg's book, The Great Good Place, he argues for the significance of cafes, coffee shops, community centers, bars, and other hangouts. These are "third places", informal places where people can gather, putting aside the concerns of work and home, and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation. They are, Oldenburg argues,the heart of a community's social vitality, the grassroots of a democracy. Unfortunately, the rise of the typical suburban neighborhood, has led to the loss of many of these traditional third places. 15
We've witnessed then, a decline in community. But simultaneously, we've also witnessed the growth of computer networks and computer communities. That the two occur almost simultaneously is, I think, no accident. For as third places disappear in the real world, we are told that one can find their digitial equivalent in the virtual world. In The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold draws explicit parallels between Oldenburg's notion of third places and virtual communities. Writing about the Whole Earth Lectronic Link, or WELL, a computer network Rheingold champions, he writes, "It might not be the same kind of place Oldenburg had in mind, but so many of his descriptions of third places could also describe the WELL. Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall" (26). The parallels that Rheingold constructs between physical and virtual third places is also exploited in the construction of more mainstream online services. With their emphasis on connection through the net, these ads promise to provide the connection to the world and to others that many are sorely missing. Slide 35 The sell the promise unity and harmony in an increasingly fragmented and balkanized world. Procomm Plus promises us a totally connected "one world" Slide 36 Delphi Internet, an internet provider, trades on the image of world harmony, spanning the globe to reach out and touch some one. Slide 37 A number of bulletin boards, internet providers, and computer networks focus on nostalgia and the yearning Americans seemingly feel for
small towns and villages. Compuserve's information highway includes visitor centers, shopping malls, town squares, and world travelers. Slide 38 Visually they treat us to the sight of a world full of people, all out, walking among the town's squares, seeing and being seen. Slide 39 Similar images are used in Apple Computer's e-world, their on-line communication and information service. Slide 40 And in ImagiNation's network. The ImagiNation map, what one sees when logging on, shows us a rather rustic, perhaps western scene, a town square with a shop, post office, inn, and casino. It is the kind of town we would all like to visit, a third place for the imagination, for the virtual community. Slide 41 The Internet, then, promises us what we can no longer find in real life, a community, a town square in which to hang out, connection and the fellowfeeling of community. Computer networks represent a response to this lack of community. But they are also a response to the changes that are taking place in our community, especially their growing diversity. In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues argue that what passes for community in contemporary America are actually enclaves defined by one's individual lifestyle choices. Bellah writes, "Whereas a community attempts to be an inclusive whole, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life and of the different callings of all, lifestyle is fundamentally segmental and celebrates the narcissism of similarity. It usually explicitly involves a contrast with others who 'do not share one's lifestyle.' For this reason, we speak not only lifestyle communities, though they are often called 17
such in contemporary usage, but of lifestyle enclaves" (72). The substitution of suburbs and subdivisions for neighborhoods are emblematic of Bellah's lifestyle enclaves, communities that include only those with a common lifestyle. Bellah points out, "The different, those with other lifestyles, are not necessarily despised. they may be willingly tolerated. But they are irrelevant or even invisible in terms of one's own lifestyle enclave" (72). We want to be surrounded by people who share our lifestyles, and often this translates into being surrounded by people like us. Our communities become enclaves in which we surround ourselves with people just like us. And this is what computer networks promise: the capacity to surround ourselvs with people just like us. Rheingold points out that in traditional communities, finding people who share our values and interests can be difficult and time consuming. "In a virtual community," he writes, "we can go directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with people who share our passions or who use words in a way we find attractive.…Your chances of making friends are magnified by orders of magnitude over the old methods of finding a peer group" (27). Computer virtual communities are often described as a self-selected populations of people sharing similar concerns. Amy Bruckman, a researcher in virtual communities, draws a parallel to Oldenburg's third places: "The population of third places are self-selected—people go to a cafe because they want to and not because they must. From this self-selection process emerges a group of people with some degree of common interests and values. Traditional third places draw people from the local geographic area. On the Internet [virtual communities] draw people with common interests from all around the world.…It is a strength of the medium that the community is self-selected —everyone who is there wants to be there." Virtual communities, then, serve to strenghten the sense in which our communities are becoming lifestyle enclaves, communities of individual's who associate on the basis of personal choice and a shared lifestyle. This aspect of virtual communities is further underscored by the fact that virtual communities are often described as "communities of the mind" in which what you look like doesn't matter. As John Coates, one of the founders of the WELL, writes "The great equalizing factor is that nobody can see each other online so ideas are what really matter. You can't discern age, race, complexion, hair color, body shape, vocal tone, or any of the other attributes 18
that we all incorporate into our impressions of people." Wes Cooper, in an essay on virtual communities, points to a subtle subtext here, "The complete or partial masking of identity in many [virtual communities] is one reason why members of visible minorities are well-represented in cyberspace: they aren't visible. The tolerance and understanding this teaches is a welcome counterpoint to the increasing splintering of North American society into socio-economic, racial, sexual, and religious enclaves." Invisibile minorities are a fact of this life, real communities. What's fascinating about virtual communties, is that they have found a way to make minorities truely invisible. If in our lifestyle enclaves, we lack a certain amount of control over who lives next door or across the street, our virtual communities or virtual enclaves guarantee that that control is reaffirmed. If issues of diversity, multiculturalism, and affirmative action trouble us in this world and threaten to disrupt our carefully self-constructed communities, our virtual world at least holds out the promise of a carefully crafted community of like-minded citizens. In a fashion similar to that in the case of computational cosmology, the computer has become an image of an alternative reality which offers us something that we are looking for and cannot find in the physical world. It banishes the disorder of this world in the promise of a self-designed virtual world. In our discussion of cosmology and community, we have seen how the computer boths feeds off of and transforms culture. This same is at work in the definition of the self and human nature in the computer culture.