William argues (and his argument is an appealing one), that we need to
reject the Manichean views of those (like myself, I’ll admit), who tend to
see the new electronic communities as an assault on the physical world and
the domain of face-to-face communication. “It’s rather fruitless,” he
writes, “to argue the respective merits of the theoretical extremes… and
more interesting to consider the… hybrid conditions that are emerging as
cyberspace overlays physical space.” The future, he suggests, will be less
either/or than both/and.

I think he’s right. How much of this and how much of that the both/and will
include, however, is still an important question. What worries me is that
the balance will keep tipping, with increasing speed, toward simulated
worlds. This century, after all, has been marked by the rapid encroachment
on what we might call the territory of the real by the forces of electronic
representation; most of us today spend the majority of our time behind one
kind of mediating buffer or another. Why do we do this? Because it’s easy.

My concern, therefore, is that, seduced by the ease of the new technologies
(and the boosterism currently in vogue), we will accept abstract space as
unthinkably as we accepted the easy abstractions of the radio and the
television; that the computer will finish what the television began. Is
e-mail or Echo infinitely preferable to “Married with Children”? Of course.
Does the virtual community have its legitimate and humane uses — as an aid
to the ill, the handicapped, or the lonely, as Howard argues? Undoubtedly.
Can it, at the same time, help to isolate the majority of us from what’s
left of our natural landscape and the physical community we inhabit? Can it
ghettoize our relations and inhibit the messy, consensus-forming work of
democracy? I think it can.

My gut feeling is that the real-world problems nudging us into cyberspace
(Howard points, rightly, to the millions of citizens afraid to go out at
night, etc.) will only grow when we are gone, and that once accustomed to
the relative ease of a-physical space, returning may not be an option. Walk
on the flat too long, and the muscles you need to climb a mountain will
atrophy; spend too much time in virtual realms, and the ‘muscles’ required
to exist (and be effective) in the physical community will fade as well. A
by-product of virtual communities, in other words, may be a new breed of
couch potato, a tuber simultaneously (and paradoxically) more aggressive
and less adaptable than the one that preceded it.

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