Tag Archives: cyberspace

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.

Mass online meditation lets you zone out in cyberspace

First published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A shorter version appeared at The Dish and includes a great video about Insight Timer.

Mass online meditation lets you zone out in cyberspace

By Sue Thomas, University of Bournemouth

For the past year I’ve been experimenting with meditating live online with people around the world. Their chosen spot is not a temple or a church hall or a sitting room, but cyberspace.

Meditation is fast becoming this year’s favourite personal development tool. You can meditate alone, in face-to-face group sessions – both offline and online – or you can switch on an app. Arianna Huffington recently cemented a business partnership between the Huffington Post and the Hankyoreh Media Group in South Korea with a meditation session. And Google has been offering its employees “Search Inside Yourself”, a mindfulness meditation course, since 2007. Many other technology companies provide similar perks.

In Zen Computer, a light-hearted spiritual guide for the wired user, 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 is an app which maps and connects fellow meditators online, and The Buddhist Geeks is a subscription-only community based in Google+

Insight Timer works on iPad, iPhone and Android. With black text on an unattractive blocky yellow on a white background, it’s not the prettiest app in the slick world of mobile design, but it has lots of great features. At the simplest level, you can set the timer, close your eyes, and get started on your own. Or, if you’re in the mood, you can choose from 61 guided meditations of various lengths. Register, and 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. As I write this, the map tells me that “438 people are meditating worldwide”. Although it’s impossible to pick out individuals, I can see that my fellow meditators are in the US, Europe, down the coast of China, in Australia, and in Africa.

So how does it feel to meditate alongside invisible people? Well if, like me, you’ve 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. During research for my book on technobiophilia, our love of nature in cyberspace, I found that as early as 1995 the Californian magazine Shambhala Sun described the internet as an esoteric place for meditation which provided “a feeling of complete and total immersion, in which the individual’s observer-self has thoroughly and effortlessly integrated”.

I have felt that “experience of the moment” many times while using Insight Timer to spend time “on the cushion” alongside others in virtual space. It’s not so much a sense of connecting with individual people, but more of a mind-meld moment with everyone involved. Much of this comes from the imagination, of course, but is no less potent for that.

Media theorist Sandy Stone calls this kind of tightly restricted communication “narrow bandwidth”. It has startling effects, she says, because it reveals “a deep need to create extremely detailed images of the absent and invisible body, of human interaction, and the symbol-generating artefacts which are part of that interaction.”

The Buddhist Geeks broaden this bandwidth in their daily Open Practice sessions, when members turn on their webcams and log into Google Hangout to meditate in small groups. Each daily half-hour session is usually attended by around half a dozen members. At the scheduled time we log in one by one, greet the others with a smile or a hello, then quietly settle down to our individual meditations. The leader may tap a bell to begin, or the start might happen organically.

We sit there. Sometimes we turn off our microphones to avoid making distracting noises, sometimes we keep them on and listen to each other breathe. We are thousands of miles apart, sitting in front of computers, tablets or phones to log in from our homes, offices and gardens. Although we are in different countries and timezones, we somehow feel very close to each other. We’re together on the path, being mindful in cyberspace. It’s not so very different from physical meditation meetings which share a space in silence for a while each day.

But Buddhist Geeks do much more than meditate. They are, they say, working to discover how to serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture. Theirs is a thriving online community which also hosts physical conferences and meetings in Colorado, US, where it has its headquarters.

So here is a question for them to think about. If we can already be together like this in virtual space, can that 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: a mind-meld with the great entity which is Google itself. It would be as if sci-fi writer Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought machine had finally come alive inside our heads.

It’s late afternoon in winter and you are weary… so begins ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’, out today in the US & Canada

streetlightIt is late afternoon in winter and you are weary. You have been reading and writing emails for hours; now you raise your eyes from the screen just as street lamps start to come on outside. Beyond the window, cars and buses glide by, their headlights catching the pale faces of shoppers and children coming home from school. You feel trapped in a grey world. Turning back to your device, you sigh, slip in your ear buds, and open a web browser to search for some relief. Just for a moment, you need to be somewhere else, somewhere bright and warm. As you click around, a video catches your eye and you discover…

…deer wandering through a sunlit forest glade. Birds sing, a stream rushes by, people are quietly working. You notice an odd wooden structure, a complicated camera rig, and a man with a megaphone. He says ‘Take One’. Someone sets a wooden ball onto a series of carpentered rails built like a long thin staircase. The ball alternately rolls and falls from one step to the next. Every time it drops, the impact generates a single musical note. Then another. You realise you are looking at an exquisitely-designed giant marimba and it is playing a familiar piece of music — Bach’s cantata ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. Eventually the ball rolls to an exact stop on a wooden ledge where two mobile phones stand side-by-side, one facing to the front, the other to the back. It is a surprise to find these hi-tech devices in this woodland grove. The screen of each phone is rectangular just like other smart-phones but the case is unusual in that it is made from real cypress wood and smoothly curved to fit perfectly in the palm. The grain of each is different from the other because, of course, no two slices of wood look the same.

This is a promotional video for the Sharp Touch Wood SH-08C, filmed in a forest on the island of Kyushu, Japan. The combination of wild nature with state-of-the-art technology may at first appear incongruous but in the pages ahead we shall come to understand how thousands of years of human experience lie behind the design and marketing of this very contemporary piece of kit which has been encased in an ancient material and ‘discovered’ in a stand of trees.

As the movie comes to an end there is a brief moment when your imagination places the phone into your hand and you can almost smell the tangy aroma of the forest. Then another email pops up and you are back in the real world of any desk anywhere. But your brief excursion has made you feel just a little refreshed and before opening the mail you follow the link in the video to check out where you might be able to buy such a phone. Maybe it would be good to own that piece of real wood, to gaze at its patterns and feel its warmth between your fingers.

This kind of momentary reverie at the computer transports us into natural spaces which are very different from the industrial plastic and glass of modern life, and an increasing number of technology companies know that appealing to our love of nature in order to sell high tech products is both powerful and influential. But how did this apparently incongruous synergy come about?

It seems to be connected to the fact that as the internet developed it generated new kinds of experiences and encounters, such as ‘being online’, and new kinds of innovations then grew up alongside them. But all these tools and designs needed names, and many of the names we gave them drew upon metaphors from the natural world. These terms were not imposed on us and there was no single person directing them; rather, they seem to have evolved as part of the haphazard lingua franca of cyberspace. If the idea seems unlikely, consider this: just as the town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was ‘so new that some things still lacked names’, so it was too with cyberspace. And even today the language of computers and cyberspace is still saturated with images from nature: fields, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, and islands; flora, including apples, blackberries, trees, roots, and branches; and fauna, such as spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, not to mention the ubiquitous bug and mouse. This is somewhat surprising since internet culture is an entirely new construction built by human beings who mostly live in cities, and until very recently our engagements with it have taken place largely indoors because computers have needed to be close to an electricity supply. The advent of better batteries and mobile technologies is now changing that, but why should cyberspace have any relationship with nature anyway? As we shall see, the reasons are both unexpected and comforting in a world riven by anxieties about the effects of technology on our health and well-being.

The problem with cyberspace is that we love it, and we fear that we love it too much. When it comes to our phones, tablets and computers we are constantly torn apart by passion and guilt in equal measures. Are they making us addicted? Anti-social? Brainless? But how can that be when they also make us so happy? Strange as it may seem, there could be a connection between our passion for cyberspace and our affection for the natural world. Extensive research by environmental psychologists and social biologists has already demonstrated that exposure to nature helps us in many different ways such as relieving stress and restoring attention and concentration. Author Richard Louv, who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’, writes ‘The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need to achieve natural balance.’ It might seem important, therefore, that we turn off our machines and go outdoors, and there are certainly many times when this is advisable. But the situation is more complicated than that.

My research shows that some of the features we so value in the natural world can also be found online; indeed,our subconscious has already imprinted nature into cyberspace. Now we need to recognise how that is happening and harness it for ourselves.


tbjacketbloomsburyYou’ve just read the first two pages of my new book Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace.

It’s published today in the US & Canada. Find out more here.

Also published here at Medium.