If The Beats Had the Internet – or, A Place in Digital Space

In the forties and fifties the Beats created a geography of the American imagination that continues to attract new generations. At the same time, a group of Soviet researchers wanted to re-engineer society with computers and communications. It remains to be seen whether either group’s intellectual heirs will shape our digital future, or whether real change will come from somewhere else altogether – like the Islamic world.

Fifty years ago Soviet and American cyberneticists were creating the theoretical framework for the Internet – or something like it – as an engine of social design. At the same time, the Beat writers were challenging the entire concept of social engineering in favor of more spontaneous ways of living.

So, a thought experiment: Would the Beats – those old American freethinkers – have taken to the Internet as a new medium of expression or rejected it as too dehumanizing? Would they have been bloggers?

Yeah, I know. It sounds like the set-up for a satirical piece: “Beatnik Blogs.” Or better yet, Beat Twitter. The 140-character limit might have attracted them the way that haiku did:

DULUOZ is watching his friends burn burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders

POETGUY is wondering how many windows Moloch has for eyes. Am figuring a thousand, give or take.

Blogs? They're linear, static. They're old lit. Twitter is new lit.

But these are questions of form. What about content? The Beats were drawn to geography – the road, the mountains, the rivers, and the cities.And there may never have been a time in history when it was possible to feel less connected to your actual geographic location than you can today. You can live large chunks of your life without it much mattering whether you’re in Los Angeles, Dubuque, or Teheran. Virtual “worlds” like Second Life and massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, are total immersion environments that absorb large amounts of time, money, and energy for their participants.

If aliens wanted to reprogram humanity for extraterrestrial slavery, they might have created something like the Internet. It severs us from daily interaction with the Earth, releases us from the need for face-to-face social contact. So, doesn't that make it dehumanizing? Wouldn’t the Beats have rejected it?

Well, Gary Snyder is still alive. I’d ask him, but the last time I tried to interview him for something his assistant said he was “too busy with chores.” Presumably that’s still the case. Don’t want to interrupt a person’s chores. Snyder’s are the product of his close connection with his surroundings, and of what he calls “re-inhabitation” – the notion that in order to survive as a species we need to re-connect with the specific geography we inhabit.

That’s the polar opposite of the Internet, isn’t it?

But if we can assume Gary Snyder isn’t happy about all of this, there’s always William S. Burroughs. Burroughs once told an interviewer that it's “time to look beyond this rundown radioactive cop-ridden planet.” One suspects he would have both loved the newest technology and been profoundly disappointed with the limited and unimaginative ways it’s being used.

In one sense, Burroughs seems to have had less geographic sensibility than any other writer of his century. Even the physical space of the printed page was violated, rebranded, remixed in his work. And the physical environment of Tangier was transmuted into “Interzone.” (Interzone … Internet. Interesting.)

Burroughs had a lifelong fascination with cutting-edge and frequently fringe experiments in brain reprogramming, like Soviet experiments in blending word and music audio to teach languages. He probably would have wanted to use the Internet the same way. Reality was always being hacked in Burroughs’ work.

It's easy to picture Burroughs' reaction to the literally-rendered and mundane environments of Second Life, Warcraft, or The Sims. He much preferred dark spaces like the one inhabited by Hassan i Sabbah, the assassin who he often quoted: “Nothing is forbidden. Everything is permitted.”

One might have expected those words to become a slogan for virtual spaces. Moral, social, and physical rules can theoretically be suspended in virtual life. But our cyberworlds have turned out to be limited by everyday rules, by and large. Hassan i Sabbah has not proven to be a cyber-prophet, even though he was one of the first people to create a “virtual reality.” (Reports say he built a simulated Paradise, where he allegedly drugged young recruits as part of their indoctrination.)

It's probably a good thing that we bring our real-world moralities into virtual space. “Nothing is forbidden” probably isn't as fun as it's sounded to generations of college freshmen. But what about the rules of physics, or logic, or the senses? Why haven't those been suspended or rewritten to create more challenging and interesting alternative realities? We could become more supernatural, more surreal, even more godlike. In World of Warcraft or Second Life people make imaginary versions of themselves – “avatars.” Isn't that what the Beats did, with their self-mythologizing and their desire to ritually enact their own lives?

Snyder writes admiringly of Burroughs in “A Place in Space.” He describes their shared view of mass media. “The mass media,” he writes, “… are indeed an exteriorized nervous system: a planet-circling social consciousness where a delighted laugh or a wrenching groan can ripple across a population within minutes.”

That's no accident. While the Beats were trying to redefine postwar American culture, a movement of Soviet cybernetic reformers wastrying to hack society. As Richard Barbrook writes in Imaginary Futures:

“Led by Axel Berg, a group of reformers within the Communist Party realized that cybernetics provided a superb metaphorical framework for talking about formerly taboo subjects such as economics, genetics, and psychology.”

Rather than pursue Artificial Intelligence, which was the initial goal of Soviet computer science, Berg and his associates envisioned a cybernetic society – one in which every worker was part of a wired world that was self-regulating through constant feedback and communication. But their efforts presented too much of a threat to the centralized power structure of the Soviet Union, and their research was eventually stopped.

There was a competing group trying to do the same thing in the US, too, as part of a Cold War “cyberspace race.” Barbrook documents the role that Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” thinking had on Daniel Bell and other leading thinkers of the American Cold War left. Where Communism was threatened by the decentralizing effect of new technology, mainstream postwar liberals saw an opportunity to revitalize capitalism. In 1964 a commission led by Bell and supported by hawkish think-tank researchers identified three key technologies for building a free-market utopia: computing, media, and telecommunications.

Bell's commission help lay the groundwork for the development of the Internet. Is it any wonder that the virtual realities produced from these origins have turned out to be so ordinary, so consumeristic, so like their real-world counterparts? That was the idea. How conventional is Second Life? It's even had its own banking scandal.

Whatever the untapped creative potential of these worlds might be, where is the reconnection to the Earth, to the ground. Where's the grounding? Some say it's not needed, but Robert Duncan’s lines come to mind, as quoted by Snyder in one of his environmental essays:

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos

But if the natural world contains boundaries against mental chaos, why are the virtual worlds we've seen so far so conventional? Maybe Islamic cultures, which are increasingly adopting the Internet, will create new and more liberating forms.

The Islamic world has always embraced technology. Ayatollah Al-Sistani communicates with his followers via the Web. That’s a logical extension of Ayatollah Khomeini’s innovative use of unauthorized audio cassettes – the “Internet” of 1979 Iran– to motivate and organize his followers during the Revolution. These cassettes were secretly listened to, studied, and duplicated.

The duplication part means that, unlike those Internet phenomena, the Ayatollah really did go “viral.” Now a new venture is creating a virtual reality where Muslims can gather to socialize and pray, as well as doing many of the other things non-Muslims do in their online environments. It's called “Muxlim Pal,” and it might catch on. Islam is a community-based religion, after all, and lateral social structures are part of what makes it so successful. (And banking shouldn't be a problem in this world, given Islam’s restrictions on lending.)

Wherever online communities gather, subversive forces have an opportunity. Those forces usually include the positive and peaceful as well as the violent. For Muslims, those two poles translate into Sufic spirituality and literature on one hand (call them the Islamic Beats), or insurrection and assassination on the other. Muxlim Pal will probably be carefully monitored, but who knows? It could turn into a complex world of rebels and mystics, a blend of Sufism and subversion. A world, in other words, not unlike that of 11th Century Islam. That culture gave rise to great scientific discoveries, to saints (or “avatars”) … and to Hassan i Sabbah. Come to think of it, it was a world not unlike mid-20th Century Tangier.

Or Interzone.