Activism, Freedom, Apocalypso, and Zen

By Jon Lebkowsky

One thing I can say about CFP 97: No Big News. The threat of censorship, the government's evident bad faith re. First Amendment and privacy issues, its bogus crypto policy and widespread cultural confusion about hot and cold running information age...CFP reiterated these, the usual complaints by the usual suspects, and focused additionally on virtual commerce and virtual community, but somehow forgot to address hot topics/potential threats like the potential for the death of Usenet in the wake of a successful Netpics prosecution, or the controversial Internet filtering by an increasing number of public libraries.

The conference was heavy with journalists and attorneys, a few activists added for seasoning; the few hackers present had become computer professionals with corporate agendas, and nobody on or offstage seemed at all whacky: it was sane, boring, and quiet. Though Presidential aide Ira Magaziner did say the administration would back off on the issue of censorship if the CDA is defeated, but it's not clear he was speaking for his boss, who at the time was being hauled off to the hospital, his knee strained, perhaps by a confusion over which direction to jerk.

For me the best part was after the conference: with old friend & bohemian prankster Bruce Grobman I headed for the hills, literally, to a verdant valley called Green Gulch in Marin County, one point of presence for the San Francisco Zen Center. We found the center silent but for a slight wind and subtle was Saturday and a big weekend sesshin (sitting quietly for hours on end) buffered sound but for a few drifting conversations, volunteers and visitors who weren't sitting, including Bruce and I with our rants, scams, and revisitations.

We wandered the trail through the garden to Muir Beach and talked about our lives, loves, and commitment to family and friendship, and I was realizing that the best of CFP was in the relationships I'd been forming over the years, not so much working the hallways and the bars, though there is that, but sitting wherever and sharing not party lines and political agendas but personal visions, hopes and fears, quirks and rants, between-the-lines, the stuff of community.

And as I walked the beach, watching the crashing waves and the snowy white birds as they skimmed the ether, watching lovers embrace and children cavort and a group of neon punks klutz through an ad hoc stream in the sand, as I thought about my life, my wife and children and grandchildren who are at various odd angles to this virtual world I inhabit, I realized that this virtual world we are building in cyberspace, with our passionate commitment to freedom of information and open communication, our growing sense of individual empowerment and collective disavowal of violence, hate, and oppression; is an infrastructure which, though it exists in virtual space, is a foundation for evolutionary optimism everywhere. That is, if we can survive the `good intentions' of our leaders..

Fearing an unregulated free space, politicians portray the Internet as a threat to our children, who will find pornography online, they say, and recipes for building bombs. The implication: we will lose control of our world as children learn to Take Liberties.

So now it's Easter morning, and since I wrote the few paragraphs above the Supremes have heard CDA arguments (their questions at the time considered by many a cause for optimism), the library filtering controversy is still hotter than a bygod, recently we had a full lunar eclipes on one side of the sky while Hale-Bopp was cruising the other, and around the same time 39 bodies wearing pungent odor and clean shoes were found at Rancho Santa Fe..

The media hypesters were ready for this cult suicide: they couldn't quite make the Internet connection to Waco or Timothy McVeigh or Richard Jewell, but there was a clear link to Heaven's Gate: the cult members designed web pages every day as their source of income, they posted to usenet, they published their whacky Hale-Bopp ideology at a web site which has become a kind of digital archeological ruin for net.anthropologists to wade through. So, finally, *clear indication* of Internet danger: suicidal UFO cults live here, spreading their dangerous memes far and wide, recruiting from among the thousands of innocent children online. Never mind that none of the cult members were children, never mind that there's no evidence of successful online recruitment, never mind that there were just 39 cult members, never mind that they seemed happy as clams (ARS jammers will catch, and hopefully pardon, the pun).they clearly represent the danger posed by . .

. . . . FREEDOM. The Internet is free-flowing information, and the "electronic frontier" metaphor was prophetic of a time when "settlers" would move in and seek regulation. However I never would've predicted the current level of net hysteria, fed as it is by power- grubbing politicians and security-grubbing status-quo `average citizens' and `concerned parents.' I have sympathy for the latter, those whose complicated consumer-manic lives, already out of control, are threatened by the many strange attractors operative in a chaotic free space. But my sympathy doesn't extent to legislation, and it doesn't extend to those who would use average-joe fear and loathing as justification for a legislated information anesthetic. No pain, no gain: numbness is so much like death.

Months ago, before the CDA was attached to the Telecommunications Act and around the time Mike Godwin was slicing and dicing Marty Rimm's disinformation report on Internet porn, I was writing a piece, never finished, called "Bombs and Bondage." In it I asked this question: if we could move all the supposedly objectionable stuff (e.g. bomb recipes and bondage photos) off the public spaces of the net, would the call for net.regulation be dropped?

The answer is clear to me now, a resounding no: the calls for regulation will come independent of any single, particular issue. Freedom is never going to be easy, and in fact it shouldn't be: consider that my freedom ends where your freedom begins, and there are 250 million of us in the U.S. alone, billions on the planet, so we should expect sometimes tough negotiations. But we should negotiate in the interest of the least restrictive, understanding that unnecessary constraints on freedom, especially in a complex cultural environment, imprison the human spirit. During the cold war era our leaders pointed to the stultifying effects of broad restriction and oppression on the Soviet Union, China, and other countries with totalitarian regimes. Are we now to adopt broad restrictions of our own?

To be free is not to be totally unconstrained, but to be without undue constraint. The trick is in determining how much constraint is "due" vs. undue. Libertarians talk about the desirability of noncoercive structures, e.g. communities in which force is never necessary to compel right action. I'm not completely sure how to create such an environment, but it's a laudable goal. How much "coercive" regulation results from fear rather than from any real need to protect?

jonl 3/30/97