"Virtual community" seems a cure-all for isolated people who won't give up their isolation. Locked in metal boxes on urban freeways, a population enjoys socializing with fellow humans through computer networks. Shopping, learning, and business are not far away once we enhance our telepresence abilities. The prospect seems so exciting that you see the phrase "virtual communities" mentioned next to McLuhan's "global village" or Teilhard's "Omega Point." Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist, envisioned the convergence of humans in a single massive "noosphere" or "mind sphere" (Ionian Greek "noos" = mind). This giant mental network would surround earth to control the planet's resources and shepherd a world unified by Love. For Teilhard, the mental sphere held out the meaning of history, the Omega or End-Point of time, much as the Christian Rapture at the Final Coming of Jesus.
Others are less impressed. I know people in rural communities who hear wishful thinking in the phrase "virtual community." It sticks in their craw. For many, real community means a difficult, never-resolved struggle. It's a sharing that cannot be virtual because its reality arises from the public places that people share--not the artificial lots you choose but the spaces that fate allots, complete with local weather and a mixed bag of family, neighbors, and neighborhoods. For many, the "as-if community" lacks the rough interdependence of life shared.
No surprise, then, when the Internet Liberation Front brings down the Internet's Pipeline for six hours, when Anti-Semitic hate groups pop up on Prodigy, or when Wired magazine gets letter-bombed. The utopian "communitas" exists as imagined community, as the Mystical Body. Real community exists where people throw their lot together and stand in face-to-face ethical proximity. Computer hardware may eventually allow us to transport our cyberbodies, but we are just beginning to learn the trade-offs between represented and primary realities. Put the New Jerusalem on hold until we phone security.
We sometimes disguise our everyday identities with tuxedos, masks, or nicknames. But electronics allows us the illusion that we can "have it both ways," keep far away while still "putting ourselves on the line." Online existence is ambivalent, like the purchased passion of the customers in "The House of Blue Lights" in William Gibson's Burning Chrome: "The customers are torn between needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time, which has probably always been the name of that particular game, even before we had the neuroelectronics to enable them to have it both ways" (p. 191).
Having it both ways might mean that we are split--perhaps without even being fully aware of being divided. Western philosophy has developed a peculiar problem. The puzzle of our computerized life is nothing new. Only the hardware and software shine like new.
Leibniz designed a proto computer, a stepped-wheel calculator. He also developed a binary logic that would later support the switching circuits of microcomputers. Leibniz worked as a scholar-diplomat to foster an international network of academies. These royal academies, he believed, would multiply scientific discoveries and facilitate Universal Progress. Behind Leibniz's activities lay a complex metaphysics or reality map, which he called "The Monadology."
What puzzled Leibniz was how the "real human being"--defined as a reasoning animal--could exist in anything so irrational and limited as an animal body. The human being appeared to be an amphibious creature, a composite stretched over two separate worlds. The animal body, Leibniz thought, develops irrational attachments to local space and time. From the body flow affections and affinities that have no rational basis. At best, the emotions arise from fuzzy reasoning that we have not yet been able to analyze.
Three hundred years later, we inherit a culture that has absorbed Leibniz's first postulate of Enlightenment. We are installing a network of minds across the planet. We have pressed ahead with Progress to where we now spend hours a day linked by the hardware and software dreamt by rationalists. The mind / body split no longer seems abstract but erupts in the ergonomics of backaches and in the irresponsible flames of online chat.
Maybe there's a richer solution. Consider the second postulate of Leibniz's metaphysics: Life consists of many possible worlds. As we continue upgrading the hardware and software, we are approaching--in the not so distant future--multiple virtual worlds. Online virtual worlds will be 3D immersive, interactive sensory environments. Our cyberbodies will leap out of the bland alphanumeric code as we jump from symbols to virtual reality. Our minds will no longer disconnect from the neck down.
We can draw on past cultural worlds. For centuries, Asian thought walked a different road. Eastern thinkers indeed found conflict within the human being. But they approached conflict as an ongoing challenge rather than a problem to solve. Every individual must train to harmonize mind with body. Conscious attention must return to autonomic systems like breathing, balance, and proprioception. To train, the Eastern sages built Yoga, Tai Chi, and the martial arts.
How shall we juggle on-line worlds? We need not choose between beaming ourselves up to the noosphere or rejecting virtual communities as decadent. We can acknowledge that we inhabit more than one possible world at a time, that life is multi-tasking. We can learn to overlap worlds. The worlds of the primary body and the cyberbody need to reinforce one another. Disconnecting them endangers our roots. Our virtual communities thrive only if we regularly touch down to our primal source. Our primary bodies only return to us as we use virtual worlds to re-train ourselves. ¤
Michael Heim is a freelance philosophy teacher who has designed many real-world conferences about the interaction between traditional and techno culture. He is the author of The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Oxford U. Press, 1993) and Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (Yale U. Press, 1987). He teaches graduate seminars in the Los Angeles area as well as ongoing classes in Tai Chi Chuan.
Copyright © 1995 by Michael Heim. All Rights Reserved.