RIP John Perry Barlow. The rancher who made cyberspace his territory.

John Perry Barlow has died, age 70. When I was writing Technobiophilia I often referred to his ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, written in 1996. Mentions of his contribution to the development of the idea of ‘cyberspace’ are scattered throughout the book, but here’s an excerpt about the way it became a foundational narrative not just for the internet, but for the United States. It’s followed by the 1996 Declaration in its entirety.

Have we created ‘a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace’? Your thoughts are welcome.

Cyberspace as a foundational narrative

‘Cyberspace did not appear … from nowhere,’ wrote the London-based Islamic scholar Ziauddin Sardar in 1995. It was ’the conscious reflection of the deepest desires, aspirations, experiential yearning and spiritual angst of Western man’. He saw it as ‘the American Dream writ large’, marking the dawn of a new ‘American civilisation’.

It was also a reflection of the need for a foundational story with which to understand the new world of the internet. Historian David Nye explains that in the early days of colonisation there were no technological creation stories, but after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 the former colonies began to re-imagine themselves as a self-created community and it was then that technology became an important part of the national narrative. Two hundred years later when the frontier re-opened in the form of cyberspace, that foundational narrative would weave itself back in and battles over territory were inevitable.

One of those leading the way was John Perry Barlow, born in Sublette County, a former fur-trading community in a sparsely-populated area of Wyoming, who later became a California adoptee. He might be the only countercultural internet pioneer who was also a cattle rancher, a career he combined with writing lyrics for The Grateful Dead and being an advocate for internet freedom through the Electronic Frontier Foundation. No one, writes Andrew Kirk, better captures the world of hybrid politics, technophilia, environmentalism and western regionalism than Barlow. He was also responsible for coining the term ‘electronic frontier’ and for being the first person to migrate the term ‘cyberspace’ from Gibson’s cyberpunk writings and apply it to virtual space. ‘Imagine discovering a continent so vast that it may have no end to its dimensions’, he wrote ‘Imagine a new world with more resources than all our future greed might exhaust, more opportunities than there will ever be entrepreneurs enough to exploit, and a peculiar kind of real estate that expands with development.’ Cyberspace, in its present condition, he believed, ‘has a lot in common with the 19th Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.’

Passionately protective of this new territory, he was infuriated by the 1996 Communications Decency Act which embodied a first attempt to regulate pornographic material on the internet. Emailing from a fastness somewhere in Switzerland, he dashed off the lengthy ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ which seized the opportunity to declare the freedoms which seemed to be ‘natural’ to the internet. ‘Our identities have no bodies,’ he wrote, ‘so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge’. And ‘We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth’, a world where ‘anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity’. Most importantly, Barlow stressed what many at the time saw as the trump card of life in cyberspace: ‘Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.’

From Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace, Sue Thomas, Bloomsbury, 2013. See book for references.

Continue reading RIP John Perry Barlow. The rancher who made cyberspace his territory.

Come to the first Digital Wellbeing Retreat- “NOT a Digital Detox: How to feel better without logging off”

Happy New Year!

Now that the celebrations are over and you’re making plans for the year ahead, I’d like to invite you to join me at a weekend retreat by the sea this coming May. I’m really pleased to have been invited to design and run “NOT a Digital Detox: How to feel better without logging off”,  a chance to reflect on our online lives and our place in nature. It takes place at the wonderful Othona Community in West Dorset, UK over the weekend of Fri 11 May – Sun 13 May 2018.  £140 for two nights full board. Bursaries available. See the website for full information.

Othona House

I attended a retreat at Othona a couple of years ago and really enjoyed my stay there.  It’s friendly, secluded, and just a short walk from the sea.  It has a long tradition of being a contemplative space and is the perfect place to gather and think together about how to live with the digital today.  Find out more about Othona.

This retreat also, it seems, mirrors the current zeitgeist! Some time after we had completed our planning, the New York Times ran a piece about the West Coast Esalen Community taking a similar approach. I’ve visited Esalen several times and always loved it, but it did occasionally come over as  fairly anti-technology. However, it now has a new approach and is working directly with Silicon Valley to address the challenges of the digital life.  The winds are changing, friends!

Please note that you will not be asked to leave your kit at home because this isn’t a detox. It’s more like a balancing.

I’d be very grateful if you would share this announcement with your friends and colleagues to help spread the word.

Check out these photos of Othona and read on for the Catalogue entry.

Continue reading Come to the first Digital Wellbeing Retreat- “NOT a Digital Detox: How to feel better without logging off”

Find Time To Meditate This Holiday. Tip 7/7 Series 2

Do you meditate? If you’ve often thought about it but never made a start, or it’s something you used to do but now neglect, the winter holidays might be the right time to begin (again).

Those lovely dark afternoons when you’ve already taken a bracing walk outdoors and you’re ready to settle by the fire provide the ideal opportunity to spend some time chilling out on your own if you can. If you’d like a little help to begin, I recommend using an app like Insight Timer, which offers all kinds of experiences from guided meditations, to music, to silent periods punctuated only by bells at the start and end. And if you don’t want to be totally alone, its map will show you who else is meditating alongside you right now, across the world.

meditate

To help you get started, here’s an excerpt from ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’ which describes using Insight Timer and tells the story of my online meditations with a group called the Buddhist Geeks.

Coming to your senses: meditation

The practice of meditation stands outside biophilia and environmental psychology, yet it seems to be so obviously relevant to everything in this book. The state of mind it produces is very close to the way we often feel when we’re focused on nature, a feeling which can only be enhanced by mindful and conscious awareness of the moment.

In the autumn of 2013 I decided to learn mindfulness meditation. Years before, I had enjoyed reading ‘Zen Computer’, a light-hearted spiritual guide for the wired user, in which the author Philip Toshio Sudo advises: ‘Don’t ask where the path is. You’re on it.’ In that spirit, I decided to try two different paths for my explorations: Insight Timer, a smartphone app which maps and connects fellow meditators across the world, and The Buddhist Geeks, an online community producing podcasts about dharma, technology, and culture. For both, the chosen spot for contemplation wasn’t a temple or a church hall or a sitting room, but cyberspace.

Insight Timer can be used in a number of ways. At the simplest level, you set the timer and get started on your own. Alternatively, you can choose from a large number of guided meditations. Not only will it log your meditations in a tidy graph, but every time you start a session you appear as another yellow star on its little world map. On my first day, I learned that I was meditating alongside 438 other people across the world. Although it was impossible to pick out individuals, I could see that my fellow meditators were in the US, Europe, down the coast of China, in Australia, and in Africa. I used the app at home most of the time, but occasionally listened with earbuds at a quiet spot outdoors.

So how does it feel to meditate with invisible people? If you have spent a lot of time in virtual worlds, gaming online, or even just chatting in Facebook, you’ll know that there can often be a strong sense of co-presence. I’ve also felt that connection while spending time ‘on the cushion’ next to others in the virtual space of Insight Timer. It’s not so much a sense of connecting with individual people, but more of a mind-meld moment with everyone involved.

Working with the Buddhist Geeks turned out to be intimate in a different way from Insight Timer. At the daily Open Practice sessions, we switched on our webcams and logged into Google Hangout to meditate in small groups. Each thirty minute session was usually attended by around half a dozen members. At the scheduled time we logged in one by one, greeted the others with a smile or hello, then someone quietly tapped a bell and we settled down to our individual meditations.

We sat together but not together. Sometimes we turned off our microphones to avoid making distracting noises, sometimes we kept them on and listened to each other breathing. We were thousands of miles apart, sitting in front of computers, tablets or phones, logged in from homes, offices and gardens. Although we were in different countries and time zones, I somehow felt very close to my companions. We were side by side on the path, being mindful in cyberspace. In many ways it wasn’t very different from the physical meditation meetings where I had shared similar silences.

My experiences of online meditation have made me wonder whether, if we can be together like this in virtual space, can mindfulness be extended to cyborgian or machine space? In other words, rather than meditate in Google, might we some day meditate with Google? Imagine that: entering a mind-meld with the great consciousness which is Google itself.

This is the last of a series of tips I’ve posted every Tuesday for seven weeks, highlighting Christmas gifts and activities which promote digital wellbeing. There are gifts you can enjoy making yourself, as part of your own tech/nature practice, and gifts to buy for the geeky people in your life.

Season’s Greetings and Best Wishes for 2018!

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Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital AgeBuying for geeky friends or family? Here’s the perfect fireside read:  Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age: how to feel better without logging off.

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