In a course I teach at MIT on democracy and the Internet, we were talking about the social impact of migrations in cyberspace (i.e., the capacity to move freely into networks and services that had previously existed as unconnected, self-contained islands). For example, America Online (AOL) had been a self-contained cyberspace continent whose users were confined within its borders. However, with the immense growth in popularity of the Internet, service providers have hastily constructed bridges…In a course I teach at MIT on democracy and the Internet, we were talking about the social impact of migrations in cyberspace (i.e., the capacity to move freely into networks and services that had previously existed as unconnected, self-contained islands). For example, America Online (AOL) had been a self-contained cyberspace continent whose users were confined within its borders. However, with the immense growth in popularity of the Internet, service providers have hastily constructed bridges so that their customers can migrate, say, from America Online to the Internet. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of AOL customers found they could migrate to the Internet, for there is no customs or passport control there.
Now consider what happens when two previously separated populations suddenly mix together—in this case, inhabitants of the Internet and those of America Online. Each has its own culture and norms for civilized behavior, and each is ignorant of the other’s customs. In “real” discourse, these ingredients would be fuel for volatile confrontation.
One of the students remarked that he was a participant in an Internet discussion group in which a new user from AOL announced his presence. The student said emphatically, “I knew he was going to say something clueless before he even posted two words.”
I replied, “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You believe that all America On-line users are clueless. You know nothing about this person other than the fact that he has an account with America Online. You haven’t seem him write anything, yet you judge him. Let me ask you a question: If you did this in the real world, what would it be called?”
The students immediately got my point. It would be some kind of ism. To distinguish it from racism, sexism, and the like, let us call it domainism, a stereotypic negative judgment based purely on which side of the cyberspace tracks a person comes from.
I think this vignette offers a profound insight about the nature of life in cyberspace. What matters in the end is what we bring to cyberspace, as much as what cyberspace offers us. The endless new possibilities of the medium—greater decentralization of authority and control, and empowerment of individuals and communities—are worthy and worthwhile subjects of our attention, but first it’s important to acknowledge that there is no escape from being human in this new realm.
This is the First Noble Truth of cyberspace: We bring our baggage with us. All the ways of being what we are, as individuals and as a society—whether enthusiastic, idealistic, romantic, naive, ambitious, impatient, practical, bigoted, selfish—all will manifest themselves in the nonmaterial reality called cyberspace. It is a non-place where people come together not in body, but through words alone. Because cyberspace strips away markers of age, sex, race, and class, all of which heavily shape our social interactions, one might think it provides a completely neutral space where we are devoid of self and can engage with each other in a wholly fresh, unmediated way. The First Truth gives the lie to this charming but naive notion. We seem bound to use whatever cues we can find, however slight, to guide us.uth of Cyberspace
This, I think, is where a Buddhist grounding can help us—in avoiding being caught in an endless display of forms of virtual realities. If we are able to put aside our preconceptions, cyberspace appears as just one more realm, full of opportunities for awakening or sinking further into illusion. The choice is ours.
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