I was on my way to California to be an under assistant West Coast promo man for Warner Bros. Records when I came back to the ranch and found things in a terrible state. So I decided to stay there for a few months and get the place sold and go on about my business. Now I assumed that it was going to have to be sold because at that point it was about 3 quarters of a million dollars in debt. We were already getting into a state where we were competing against people who didn't have to make a living in agriculture. (My father always use to say that there was nothing that so improved the look of a man's cows like having a pump jack to rub on and that's basically true. A pump jack, for those of you who've never seen one, is one of those large, rocking things that they get oil out of the ground with.) As it happens, most people in the ranching business are actually in the oil business or the debentures business or some other business where you don't have to make any money ranching. So I knew it was a hopeless cause, but I decided that I'd at least see to its dispensation in some orderly fashion and then go on about my business. But instead of taking 6 months to do that, I took 17 years.
So for 17 years of my life I was very tightly involved with the physical world. Unlike most people in the modern age I made my living from things that I could touch. And generally speaking if you make your living from things that you can touch, whether it's pig iron or macramé, you're in economic trouble. There's not much economic room in the physical world unless you're an Asian or a machine. It turns out that the future that Popular Science used to promise us when we were kids-you know, that someday the machines would do all the work and the rest of us would be sort of hanging out and talking philosophy in our plastic togas -- has sort of come to pass. But they haven't figured out how to pay us all to hang out and talk philosophy--except for a few exceptions that I am familiar with. So they created the Information Age as a kind of make-work project to give us something to do.
Something interesting happens when machines enter the office. Instead of forcing the human beings out, as machines do when they enter the factory, office machines cause more people to come. They make for a lot of additional work that nobody even considered necessary or useful before. One wonders whether it is now, but people are at least doing it and getting paid for it and that's good.
In any event, I struggled along as a rancher and enjoyed very much a tangible connection with what I was doing. I mean, if you go out and build a half mile of fence, you know whether it's a good half mile of fence or not because if it's good, the cows stay on one side of it. It's not a debatable point. Writing is not like this. Nor is speaking. Nor is much of what we do in the Information Age.
I enjoyed being in the physical world and I would be doing that still if I had been able to, but at a certain point I had to bow to the same historical inevitabilities which have reduced what was, at the turn of the century, fifty percent of the American work force in agriculture to less than one per cent today. I became part of that statistic. I sold the ranch. I didn't know what I would do for sure after that. But it did occur to me that there was a lot more money in bullshit than there had ever been in bulls and I would get into information. And here I am.
At that point, I had the idea that I could move into town -- my little town of Pinedale, Wyoming -- and through the aid of one these things [holds up a Macintosh PowerBook], it would be possible for me to leave my body there in that fairly nice place while my mind travelled the planet freely and made a living. The curious and interesting paradox is that precisely the opposite has come to pass. I live at email@example.com. That is where I live. That is my home. If you want to find me, that's the only place your liable to be able to do it, unless you happen to be looking at me at that moment -- physically. I mean some of my friends have talked about setting up a new series of kid's books called `Where's Barlow?'.
There really is no way to track me. I have not been in one place for more than 6 days since April. I like this condition, but it's a very thin context. It's certainly no Amish barn raising in there. If you'll allow me a short diversion, I'll tell you a story. I went to Xerox PARC a few years ago, and there I met a fellow named Ranjit Makkuni -- who is a wonderful Hindu gentleman about this tall [indicates height of about 1m from the floor]. He was in charge of creating their video conferencing room. There was one room in Palo Alto and another in Portland, Oregon. These two rooms were so electronically mapped into one another that you can essentially locate others in the distant room in virtual relation to yourself. You could see their body language and you could hear them speak with great clarity. It's a lot like being there. And I said, Ranjit, does this actually work?'. And he said, Oh no. And I said Why not? What's missing? Oh, he said, the prana is missing.
Well, prana is the Hindu word for both breath and spirit. I think the central question of this conference and perhaps for the 21st century is whether or not prana can fit through a wire. It's certainly become the central question of my life. Because I'll tell you something -- speaking as somebody who remained in the 19th century as long as he possibly could -- we cannot go back. All of our atavistic desires to return to the bucolic myth that I grew up in are doomed.
In the United States, our effort to recreate that myth contributes to one of the most pathological cultures on the planet at the moment, one in which we have now reached a condition in which it is considered immoral to tell your children anything real about what it is to be an adult. I try to be perfectly honest about adult life with my kids and I'll be sitting in a restaurant telling them about some perfectly customary facet of being grown-up and I'll see the other people at their tables looking at me like some kind of a leper. In America, you don't talk to your kids that way. Because you're trying to preserve the Ozzie and Harriet televised notion of what home is. Which does not admit any of that kind of reality into itself. Home is not a place where you'd find AIDS, or homosexuality, or parents who get divorced a lot, drug addiction--none of these things happen at home and if they do happen they're supposed to be aberrations. Well, in the United States they're not aberrations at all, they're the custom about which nobody speaks lest they disrupt our notions of home.
I saw a wonderful bumper sticker recently which said, One nuclear family can ruin your whole life. That's about right. Because the home that we have created in the United States is a tightly sealed hermitic little enclave that has as little as possible interaction with the larger human condition except through the glass tit of fear which tells you every evening that the rest of the world is terrifying and dangerous. TV, the fear altar, has a vested interest in creating that map of the world because what it's selling really is your attention and there are a few relatively short routes to the human brain stem, one of which is terror. So for example, we in the United States are terrified of terrorism because the television tells us we should be. This, in spite of the real world reality that we lose fewer than 10 Americans on average to terrorism a year. That is considerably less than are killed by a lightning while golfing, yet we don't want to do anything about the golfing and lightning problem.
We are now edging out the People's Republic of China in prison population. We now have 1.1 million people in prison and they have 1.2. The numbers are even more startling when you realise that People's Republic of China is 5 times bigger than we are. They're a police state, by the way, and we're a free country; I just thought you ought to know that. And our Congress has just passed a dynamic new crime bill that proposes to make it possible to put 2 million of our citizens in jail! Now why is that? Well, because crime has swept America supposedly. But in fact, if you look at the statistics, crime has not swept America. The crime figures for the last 20 years are dead flat. And in many cases they are down. Crime is down in large metropolitan areas. But television has no vested interest in conveying that information. So instead it creates a world in which crime is everywhere; the streets are unsafe and you'd best stay home and hide. I believe this is no way to be home.
It's time to go out, and be at home everywhere. And that's the solution that I'm trying to make work. Because in a situation where you can't go back, the best thing to do is to go forward. And to take the very thing that has destroyed what you love and use that to re-create the new thing that you need. There's an old English nursery rhyme that might apply:
And I think that's essentially what we have to do with information. We have to peer through the fog of information until we can again see the reality. Right now we are unclear about the difference between information and experience, and I'm here to tell ya -- there's a big one. This is not known to many people who have grown up in the informatized world. The average American lives in a condition where the majority of his or her cognitive activity is stimulated by information and not experience. But experience happens to you. Information is about what happened to somebody else. Information therefore sits between us and the Thing Itself. It separates and, as Nietzsche told us, `that which separates is sin.' Information puts you at a distance, it makes you passive and helpless. Experience is something that you can probe interactively and question in real time.
Cyberspace, thin as it still is, may have the capacity to generate experience. Because when I'm trying to find out about something somewhere in this world, the Net gives me the option of asking further questions in real time of people who are actually there. For example, when watching TV coverage of the War in the Gulf a few years ago, I found myself getting fed a virtual reality which, though shared by most everybody else on the planet, nevertheless had damned little to do with what was going on the ground. But I had another option, which was to have e-mail correspondences with soldiers in the field. What they told me about what was going-on was very different from what CNN told me. Not to say that CNN was lying, but they did have a different filter than these guys with their laptops out sitting on their armoured personnel carriers somewhere in the desert. It was a very different thing. And I'm hopeful that what we are going to be able to do eventually is to re-experientialize information. If not that, at least create a sense in which there is prana in there, at least create the sense in which there is some heart. I see some opportunities for that arising already.
I recently had a tragedy befall me. A woman who was the great love of my life, and with whom I was planning on spending the rest of it -- suddenly and without warning dropped dead, 2 days short of her 30th birthday. The interesting thing was that in Pinedale, where people knew about this since they know about everything, almost nobody said anything to me about it. First of all, there was a lot of community uneasiness and ambiguity about the that fact that I had gone off and was living much of the time in New York with a woman who was not the mother of my children. And I had to deal with all of that and the local social opprobrium of that... things that are attached to home.
But I suddenly started to get e-mail from the Net. I got over a megabyte of e-mail over the next couple of months from people I don't know, who didn't know her, and yet were generally touched and moved and wanted to help in some way. It was extraordinarily helpful. Because I felt like humanity in some undifferentiated form had risen to put its arm around my shoulders, here in Cyberspace; in a way that it never could have done before. And I felt at home in that condition in a way that I could no longer feel at home in the very homey environment where I had always lived up to that point.
I don't know where we're going here. I don't have a clue. I think the one prediction that I'm willing to make is that anything I predict is going to look pretty silly in about 20 years. But I think that we're headed over the cliff of a great paradigm break. The very notion of home will change fundamentally, along with the very notion of the self or the very notion of what it is to be an individual human being.
Back in the thirties, Teilhard de Chardin wrote about the great teleological process of mankind, the phenomenon of humanity. And he said that the whole point was to create a global collective organism of consciousness that would be sufficiently smart to keep God company. I think we're actually headed there. And I think that's what digital communication is about. We're about creating the great ecosystem of Mind in which it will become much more obvious that mind is continuous and not discrete and not something that you have, or I have but something that It has. Bodies may be discrete but mind is not. Homes have seemed discrete as bodies live in them, but I think home with a capital H -- the real Home -- is where the mind lives as well as the heart and it is not discrete. It is continuous and extends to all that is human.
That's the most optimistic future I can project and I suspect many other things will come to pass that will be nightmarish, alienating and horrible. We're not going to get through this without a few rough scrapes. It's going to be heavy weather. In fact, if you don't like confusion and ambiguity, you're going to have a hell of a time over the next 30 years. If you don't like irony, you're already missing most of the fun. But as you think about the consequences of the great human leap in Cyberspace, not only in this conference but the weird years to come, I encourage you to approach the cliff with an open mind and an open heart and a sense of optimism. You might as well be optimistic. I don't think you've a choice but to jump and optimism will make the fall more pleasant.