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Out of Control

John Perry Barlow's exact mission in life is hard to pin down. He owns a ranch in Pinedale, Wyoming. He once made a bid for a Republican seat in that state's Senate. He often introduces himself to boomer types as the B-string lyricist for that perennial underground cult band, the Grateful Dead. It's a role he relishes, particularly for the cognitive dissonance it serves up: A Republican Deadhead?

At any one moment Barlow may be working on getting a whaleboat launched in Sri Lanka (so environmentalists can monitor gray whale migrations), or delivering an address to an electrical engineers association on the future of privacy and freedom of speech. He is as likely to be sitting in a Japanese hot spring in Hokkaido with Japanese industrialists, brainstorming on ways to unify the Pacific Rim, as he would be soaking in a sweat lodge with the last of the space visionaries planning to settle Mars. I know Barlow from an experimental computer meeting place, the WELL, a place where no one has a body. There, he plays the role of "hippie mystic."

On the WELL, Barlow and I met and worked together years before we ever met in the flesh. This is the usual way of friendships in the information age. Barlow has about ten phone numbers, several different towns where he parks his cellular phone, and more than one electronic address. I never know where he is, but I can almost always reach him in a couple of minutes. The guy flies on planes with a laptop computer plugged into a in-flight phone. The numbers I hit to contact him might take me anywhere in the world.

I get discombobulated by this disembodiment. When I connect, I am confused if I can't picture at least what part of the globe I'm connected to. He might not mind being placeless, but I mind. When I dial what I think is him in New York City and I wind up with him over the Pacific, I feel flung.

"Barlow, where are you right now?" I demand impatiently during an intense phone call discussing some pretty hairy, nontrivial negotiations.

"Well, when you first called I was in a parking lot. Now I'm in a luggage store getting my luggage repaired."

"Gee," I said, "why don't you just get a receiver surgically wired into your brain? It'd be a lot more convenient. Free up your hands."

"That's the idea," he replies in total seriousness.

Barlow moved from the emptiness of Wyoming and is now homesteading in the vaster wilds of cyberspace, the frontier where our previous conversation technically took place. As originally envisioned by writer William Gibson, cyberspace encompasses the realm of large electronic networks which are invisibly spreading "underneath" the industrial world in a kind of virtual sprawl. In the near future, according to Gibson's science-fiction, cyberspace explorers would "jack in" to a borderless maze of electronic data banks and video-gamelike worlds. A cyberspace scout sits in a dark room and then plugs a modem directly into his brain. Thus jacked in, he cerebrally navigates the invisible world of abstracted information, as if he were racing through an infinite library. By all accounts, this version of cyberspace is already appearing in patches.

Cyberspace, as expanded by hippie mystic Barlow, is something yet broader. It includes not only the invisible matrix of databases and networks, and not only the three-dimensional games one can enter wearing computer-screen goggles, but also the entire realm of any disembodied presence and of all information in digital form. Cyberspace, says Barlow, is the place that you and a friend "are" when you are both talking on the phone.

"Nothing could be more disembodied than cyberspace. It's like having your everything amputated," Barlow once told a reporter. Cyberspace is the mall of network culture. It's that territory where the counterintuitive logic of distributed networks meets the odd behavior of human society. And it is expanding rapidly. Because of network economics, cyberspace is a resource that increases the more it is used. Barlow quips that it is "a peculiar kind of real estate which expands with development."