Writing about John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence from dealing with the hard problems of humanity last night, I was reminded of this conversation between Barlow and bell hooks for Shambhala Sun magazine, published in 1995, six months before his manifesto.
I’ve probably read this half a dozen times over the years, it sucks me in every time I come across it. Barlow is such a white-guy Buddhist1 and I’m always reminded of hooks’s compassion and insight. Take this exchange about alienation caused by what we used to call “the ‘net”:
bell hooks: I’ve been involved with a project called “Digital Diaspora,” and a lot of what people fear about computers is that they will simply intensify this privatization and alienation from body and spirit that you’re talking about. Do you see that?
John Perry Barlow: We’ve already been separated by information to an alarming extent. The difference between information and experience is that when you’re having an experience, you’re in real-time contact with the phenomena around you. You’re able to ask questions with every synapse in your body of the surrounding conditions. What I’m hopeful about is that because cyberspace is an interactive medium in a human sense, we’ll be able to go through this info-desert and be able to have something like tele-experience. We’ll be able to experience one other genuinely, in a truly interactive fashion, at a distance.
bell hooks: One of the things I think about is what it means to be communicating when you’re not aware of the specifics of who people are. You can’t respond to their looks, which are so central to the mechanisms of domination in our society. We judge on the basis of what somebody looks like, skin color, whether we think they’re beautiful or not. That space on the Internet allows you to converse with somebody with none of those things involved.
John Perry Barlow: There’s something problematic here, and I go back and forth on it all the time. I want to have a cyberspace that has prana in it. I want to have a cyberspace where there’s room for the breath and the spirit.
bell hooks: Well, that’s what I haven’t found, Barlow.
Barlow’s jabbering on about “info-desserts” and “tele-experience” and hooks is cutting to the heart of matters we’re still dealing with today. As in so many things, I can’t help but think how different the world would be if we’d listened more to Black women.
I’m probably being overly critical, this is a small part of a much broader conversation that is often quite insightful.
He also feel compelled to use a racial epithet in this conversation with a Black woman and she graciously and generously continues the conversation. hooks is a true bodhisattva. ↩︎