The First Noble Truth of Cyberspace

by Mitchell Kapor

Tricycle Magazine
c. early 1990’s

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 for their customers to 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 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 are 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 A0L announced his presence.

Emphatically the student said, "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 Online users are clueless. You know nothing about this person other than that he has an account on America Online. You haven’t seem him write anything, but yet you judge him. Let me ask you a question: If you did this in the real world, not in, 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 of a person based purely on which side of the cyberspace tracks they come from.

What did the students learn? Actually they already knew that domainism existed. I just gave it a name. What this provided for my students was a better understanding of the dynamics of racism, sexism, etc. which they could relate to., Maybe they didn’t yet know how the real world works, but they knew how cyberspace does.

For the rest of us, though, 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 for 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 escaping from the basic condition of 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 that we are, as individuals and as a society, whether enthusiastic, idealistic, romantic, naive, ambitious, impatient, practical, bigoted, selfish, all will manifest themselves in the non-material 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. This Noble Truth is what gives the lie to this charming but naive notion. We seem bound use whatever cues, however slight, to guide us.

This I think is where a Buddhist grounding can help us — in avoiding being caught in an endless display of forms of virtual realities, or in thinking there is some essential experience outside of ourselves which is terribly important to obtain (or of which we are terrified).

If we are able to put aside our preconceptions, Cyberspace appears as just one more realm, full of opportunities for awakening as well as for sinking further into illusion. The choice is ours to make.