Humanizing Hyperspace

Hyperspace is the new media frontier,
and these pioneers are working to develop
a more human way of living there

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 52
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute


Hyperspace is not science fiction – it’s a computer reality, and its territory is expanding all the time. It presents us with enormous possibilities and equally enormous risks: we could, for example, go there to retreat from a decaying earth into a world of computer-generated dreams. On the other hand, hyperspace could become the new "global village green" where we meet to explore how to be better human beings and care for ourselves, our culture, and our planet.

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz, founders of the on-line learning community Awakening Technology, are pioneers of the second type. They introduce us to the modern "New World" being opened up by computer conferencing and hyperspace and to their vision of what we can do there. For more information on the programs they describe below, write them at 695 Fifth Street, Lake Oswego, OR 97034, Tel. 503-635-2615.

In April 1977, we were introduced to computerized conferencing and the Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES), located at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. A new world – and career – opened up to us through the magic of telecommunications. From our home office in Lake Oswego, Oregon, we met new friends and colleagues on EIES, did research, wrote papers, facilitated on-line groups, played games, consulted with clients, and even meditated with others – all electronically.

In those early days, the potential of computer conferencing seemed vast and imminent. Some believed that the technology itself would have a transforming effect on society. Others believed that the key was connecting people with common interests and purposes in leaderless electronic networks to share information, interact quickly and easily, and support each other.

We believed and fostered that vision of easy connectivity ourselves, and it is still a dominant vision in many computer conferencing circles. Because electronic networking encourages lateral communication, these systems seemed egalitarian and cooperative. Groups and networks, some expected, would be self-organizing – just provide the electronic meeting spaces and people would do the rest.

Now, after twelve years working on-line in a variety of settings, we no longer believe in these simple visions of connectivity and self-organizing activity. Connecting people without clear purposes, processes, and norms to guide their interactions results in scattered and sporadic activity. It’s naive to expect them to self-organize consistently for much beyond casual conversation.

We all know better in face-to-face settings. Unplanned and unfacilitated meetings, workshops, conferences, and even parties are usually unsatisfying and unfruitful. Computer conferencing – and new computer-generated realities that lie just around the corner – challenges us therefore to look deeply within ourselves for the knowledge and wisdom accumulated over many generations of living and working together, and to apply those insights in this new medium.

To that end, we’ve recently been exploring new ways of incorporating into our on-line work such elements as active listening, explicit group processes and activities, emotional safety, mutual encouragement, and reminders of the sacred. Before we describe this in more detail, some background about the technology and its current application is useful for understanding the subtleties of our approach.

COLLAPSED SPACE, COMPRESSED TIME

Computer conferencing includes many forms of information exchange and human communication. Usually it’s asynchronous – that is, communications are sent and received at different times. Each person participates whenever and wherever it’s convenient.

As a result, computer conferencing changes our sense of space and time. Space seems to collapse: our electronic neighborhood includes anyone using the same computer network, whether across the globe or down the block. Time also gets compressed: electronic communications seem more immediate than even the telephone. They can be very fast paced, and there’s no need to coordinate schedules or consider time zones.

Electronic mail (e-mail for short) is the simplest form of meeting via computer. The computer stores a message from one person to another until the recipient does the electronic equivalent of picking it up. E-mail is like a very fast version of surface mail, with the computer acting as the post office.

But computer conferencing goes further. It enables a group of people – in the same building or in distant locations around the world – to meet together. The computer organizes the interaction and acts as the central meeting place. But wait, that’s not quite accurate: although people use terminals or personal computers and modems to connect with a "host" computer, that isn’t really the "place" where they meet. When you talk with someone on the telephone, where are the two of you? You’re not in either location. You’re brought together somewhere else – electronically.

The technical term for this "place" is "hyperspace." (Some people prefer "cyberspace.") Hyperspace is a frontier we are beginning to inhabit. For example, most of our money is already in hyperspace; as economist Hazel Henderson puts it, "millions and billions of dollars are sloshing around the globe" electronically. Business and economic events that happen in hyperspace already have an enormous impact on our lives – the stock market plunge on Black Monday is just one example.

How, then, can we create a compassionate, sustainable culture through our use of telecommunications? And how can we create that culture in this new frontier of hyperspace?

After ten years of slow growth, computer conferencing recently entered a new phase. Existing systems are expanding and many new systems are starting up in at least five areas: education, business, social change, on-line communities of common interest, and municipal systems. [See sidebar following this article.]

Do these systems realize their potential? Not really. While deep connections are often made, and lives and organizations changed for the better, this result is not reliable. For example, one international computer networking system has over 1,000 individual and organizational users, but their average time on line is just under one hour per month. Something is missing.

In most public systems, the missing factors are often shared purpose, focused activities, facilitation to help groups cohere in sustained dialogues, and on-line editors to organize material and reduce information overload. Open and shifting membership makes coherent group work difficult. Most of these systems still reflect the vision of easy and loose (and self-organizing) connectivity.

In most business systems, there is virtually no support for intuition and other forms of inner knowing, encouragement for the human qualities that assist team building, or medicine to heal the "time disease" of our accelerating lives and ever-faster use of the computer. These systems still reflect the view that rational decision- making, control, and efficiency are the only essential ingredients of good business and effective team work.

In most educational systems, what’s often missing are support for different learning styles, self-directed learning, education for the whole person, and learning how to learn. In these systems, education still tends to be institutionally based and comprised of a fixed body of knowledge to be transferred from teacher to student.

But all these on-line systems are the foundation for a social architecture of the future. Eventually, the disparate pieces of communications technology (including computers, video, audio, graphics, fax, and optical disks) will be integrated into one system with many different faces and uses, all connected into a vast global network. Will that be the planetary nervous system, or an electronic tower of Babel? To help us survive as a species, to reliably evoke and support deep and lasting social change, our current systems need to embody more of the values of a sustainable culture.

DICTATORSHIP OR DEMOCRACY?

Early on in our work, EIES designer Murray Turoff introduced us to the concept of "structured communication." (Robert’s Rules of Order is a familiar example.) As Turoff is fond of saying, it’s as easy to program a dictatorship as a democracy in the electronic medium. The questions are who has access to what information, who can communicate with whom, and what rules govern their interaction?

The EIES system has its own high-level programming language for designing new communications structures. We were very intrigued with this capacity to "tailor" the system to meet the needs of different groups, and in 1978 we coined the term "groupware" – the combination of intentionally chosen group processes and procedures plus the computer software to support them. Groupware is now a buzzword in corporate computing; Business Week describes it as a hot investment for venture capitalists, and there are academic and professional conferences on the topic. But tailoring groupware is not yet well understood or practiced.

Most conferencing systems have a fixed communication structure that cannot be tailored. The typical structure organizes the conversational flow into discussion topics with multiple responses, separating it into sub-topics or "threads." This is useful for ongoing conversations among people who self-organize around common interests, but it’s a limited use of the medium – like having only one arrangement of chairs in a multi-purpose meeting room.

The most important part of groupware, the human part, is still largely overlooked. Groupware is more than software. It also includes myths, values, purposes, styles, norms, processes, procedures, set and setting. These human elements give it meaning. Whether consciously chosen or not, they’re always present. Groupware is the embodiment of social organization – team, group, and organizational culture – in hyperspace. That’s what we’ve been exploring in our work with Awakening Technology.

HYPERSPACE VS. FACE-TO-FACE

If you were organizing a face-to-face conference, you would spend time designing and preparing its set and setting. The set is the mindset of the people participating and includes purpose, norms, styles, and expectations of what’s going to happen. The setting is the environment – the physical arrangement of space, furniture and other equipment, decor, exhibits, refreshments, and other logistics. These factors have electronic equivalents in computer conferencing, and we are just beginning to learn how to address them.

But computer-based communication also has many characteristics that cannot easily be duplicated in face-to-face settings, largely because of its asynchronous nature. People participate at times of their own choosing, with the computer maintaining the group’s connectedness in between. Group process is very different, because participants are free from the bounds of time and schedules; they can reflect on the messages they receive, take their time in responding, and write a well-considered statement rather than doing everything in the heat of the moment. And in some systems – very unlike a face-to-face group – messages and comments can be entered anonymously or under pen names.

However, it’s also more difficult to create and maintain a sense of group and activity that has some regularity and coherence. Each person’s experience of the flow of communication is punctuated differently. There may be bursts of activity and then more quiescent times. Some people (called "lurkers") tend to read but not participate. If many people are actively involved in a discussion, overload is a potential problem.

So far, little research has been done on asynchronous group process. In the new world of hyperspace, we are like astronauts experiencing zero gravity for the first time – we still have many things to learn.

We founded Awakening Technology in 1986 to explore using computer technology in the service of personal and planetary awakening. Since then we have developed our own tailorable groupware toolchest, used it to create an inviting and supportive on-line environment for self-development education, and created on-line workshops, seminars, and other learning activities – what we consider baby steps toward groupware for a sustainable culture.

In the fall of 1988, we convened our Virtual Learning Community(TM). The term "virtual" means in essence and effect but not in form, and it has come to refer to the electronic equivalent of face-to-face organizations, groupings, settings, and even whole "realities." There are virtual classrooms, communities, libraries, academies, and more.

Our on-line learning community includes workshops and seminars on topics such as right livelihood, living on purpose, ways of knowing, beyond polarization, and cultural transition. Each is four weeks long and includes a mix of personal self-discovery processes; group sharing; focused discussions; and a "hypertext" (knowledge web) of quotes, information, perspectives, and resources for going further.

We also have holiday and solstice celebrations, a dream group, book and movie discussions, a healing circle, wide-ranging informal conversation in the lounge, and more – all on-line.

The theme of all Awakening Technology activities is living on purpose – discovering what really matters and finding the courage to risk living it. We encourage participants to use their inner sense of what is most appropriate for them, and then to act in the world in ways that will make a difference. Our community provides intimate and supportive groups for learning and growing together. We share our pain and despair, as well as our insights, joy, and creative edges.

VIRTUAL RITUAL AND TIME MEDICINE

Participants in our learning community sign a covenant with each other "to create a safe, supportive, and vital learning community together." We agree to keep others’ items confidential, participate regularly, and inform our group when we are absent for whatever reason. We also agree to accept and be patient with the parts of ourselves and others that are not yet clear, to listen with care and compassion to each other, to speak our truth as well as we can, and to remember and acknowledge everyone’s personal wholeness and connection with the sacred.

The covenant expresses our shared intent to create a sanctuary – a safe and sacred place – where we can explore being ourselves as we learn, grow together, and deepen our understanding of and connection with ourselves, each other, our Mother Earth, and what we call the Mystery. The covenant is one statement of our shared myth, values, purpose, norms, and style in our Virtual Sanctuary(TM).

At the heart of the learning community is our on-line Virtual Circle(TM), where we meet to share our truth with each other. We use the circle (based on a simple, powerful ritual found in many native cultures) for opening and closing ceremonies and weekly self-discovery processes in our workshops. Our circle meets around an imaginary fire in hyperspace where we pass an imaginary "talking stick" from person to person. It’s a circle in essence and effect, but not physical form – so it’s always available. We each participate when it’s timely and convenient.

The computer marks the sacred place. The four elements (Grandfather Fire, Mother Earth, Grandmother Ocean, and Father Sky) are displayed, marking the four directions. The names of everyone in the group are slowly displayed in a circle, and members are encouraged to speak them aloud. The ritual encourages equal participation, since each person responds only once each round. The structure supports active involvement (rather than lurking) and draws a clear membership boundary for the group. The experience is both private and shared: participants read, reflect, and respond in private, like writing in a journal, and those responses are shared within the safety of the group.

Each circle round usually includes background information, a menu of personal self-discovery processes, and instructions. Participants are encouraged to live with the questions a few days and then return to the circle to respond and share what they have learned. After reading each other’s responses, they have the option of making comments in the group sharing space, sending private electronic mail, or sending a one-line express message to the author.

Each round takes a week and focuses on a new topic for self-discovery. Usually there are several suggested processes, and members choose the one(s) most personally appropriate. A few example processes from the right livelihood workshops are "Your Greatest Success (So Far)," "Revisioning Your Current Work," "Living Simply/Living Abundantly," and "Your Forms of Service."

There are many other activity spaces in our community, including an informal lounge, a "support exchange" for giving and receiving support, several discussions (such as a recent one on "signs of hope"), and a dreamwork group. Each has its own unique purpose and communications structure.

We also designed our system and activities to help heal time disease with "time medicine"- slowing down, meditating, relaxing, and reflecting. Our on-line environment includes guided meditations and visualizations, reminders to relax, and pauses in text to display selected words and phrases slowly and rhythmically. We have no hourly connect charge, so participants are encouraged to take as much time on-line as they like.

Our curriculum and processes are based on the cycle of "integral knowing" – using reflection, intuition, and other forms of inner knowing to discover what really matters to us; and facts, figures, experience, logic, feedback, and other forms of outer knowing to shape our lives accordingly.

These are just a few of the small steps we have taken – but even these beginning steps are yielding more consistently deep and meaningful on-line interactions than we have ever experienced before.

FACING VIRTUAL REALITY

The future is coming at us faster than we might think. Technology is now being developed that will allow us to create and live in the "virtual reality" of our choice.

Using an electronically wired body suit and a helmet, with a 3D display projected into each eye, one can already have the experience of being and moving freely in a virtual (computer-generated) reality. Imagine simulated worlds you can enter into fully and move through at will. Technologist Jaron Lanier says, "The best way to understand what virtual reality will be like in 50 years is to think about your own dreams and imagine that your friends can really be in them with you."

Over the next several decades we will begin creating virtual realities together and inhabiting hyperspace. We are already learning in a Virtual Classroom(TM), conducting business negotiations in virtual meetings, and even meditating in Virtual Sanctuaries. Significant portions of our social interaction will someday take place in hyperspace. Consider how much we take the telephone and television for granted.

The possibility of virtual realities – of being in each other’s dreams – challenges us more than ever before to know what we stand for. Without clear purposes, we will be rudderless in a turbulent, virtual sea. Virtual reality offers us the ultimate escape; but it also offers a uniquely potent educational medium for discovering what really matters to us and encouraging each other to shape our lives and our world accordingly. Used rightly, it will evoke a deeper understanding of who we are.

By providing safe and sacred virtual spaces, we can help to make the often difficult changes within ourselves that are necessary for building a new culture together. We can support each other as we take steps towards a humane and sustainable culture in the frontier of hyperspace.

Connected Education and Connect Ed are registered trademarks of Connected Education, Inc. Virtual Learning Community, Virtual Circle, and Virtual Sanctuary are trademarks of Awakening Technology. Virtual Classroom is a trademark of the New Jersey Institute of Technology.


The On-line World

by Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz

It’s impossible to describe the burgeoning variety of computer conferencing systems – nor even any single system – in detail, but here are a few representative examples:

  • In 1988 Connected Education, in conjunction with the New School for Social Research, awarded the first Master’s degree earned entirely via computer. Some 400 students from 26 states as well as countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America, have attended Connect Ed’s on-line campus housed on EIES. (Connected Education, Inc., 92 Van Cortlandt Park South, #6F, Bronx, NY 10463, 212/549-6509)
  • EIES, the Electronic Information Exchange System, is the home of many projects and groups, including the Virtual Classroom, Connect Ed, and Carinet. EIES2 is the only truly tailorable computer conferencing software currently on the market. (Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, NJ 07102, 201/596-EIES)
  • The Institute for Global Communications (IGC) in San Francisco supports several international social-change computer networks, all using the same host computer and conferencing software: PeaceNet for the peace and global justice movement, EcoNet for the environmental community, HomeoNet for the homeopathic community, and ConflictNet for those working in conflict resolution. IGC is also linked (via the Association for Progressive Communications, a group of independently operated non-profit networks all using the same computer conferencing software) to GreenNet in London for the European environmental and peace movements, PeaceNet Sweden in Stockholm, Web in Toronto, Alternex in Rio de Janeiro, and Nicarao in Managua. Pegasus in Australia will be available in the fall of 1989, and a system is being planned for Nairobi. (IGC, 3228 Sacramento St., San Francisco, CA 94115, 415/923-0900)
  • California-based HandsNet provides news, resources, and information on hunger, homeless, housing and poverty-related issues as well as e-mail and information exchange among its subscribers nationwide. (HandsNet, 303 Potrero St., Suite 54, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 408/427-0808)
  • Also in California, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (The WELL) has almost 3000 people in its on-line community, talking together in over 90 continuous conferences. Each conference has a moderator (called a "host"), and the topics are far-ranging. A few examples: true confessions, parenting, mind, spirituality, Central America, stock market, computer and technical topics, motorcycles, cooking, and The WELL’s largest conference, the Grateful Dead. (The WELL, 27 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, CA 94966, 415/332-4335)
  • The Meta Network in Washington, DC is home to an on-line, international think tank of leaders and change agents who discuss such issues as developments in leadership, management, and human development theory; cross-cultural communication; and the potential of new communications technologies in politics and organizations. It has sister systems in London and Tokyo. Metasystems Design also distributes the popular Caucus conferencing software. (Metasystems Design Group, Inc., 2000 North 15th St., Suite 103, Arlington, VA 22201, 703/243-6622)
  • The Cleveland Free-Net provides free electronic mail, conferencing, and information in areas including health, education, technology, government, arts, recreation, and the law. As a prototype system, it attracted over 6,000 registered users. Eventually it expects to have 12,000-15,000 users in the Cleveland area. Similar Free-Nets are starting up in several other cities. (Community Telecomputing Laboratory, 319 Wickenden Building, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH 44106, 216/368-2733)
  • The City of Santa Monica opened its Public Electronic Network (PEN) in Spring 1989 to provide free electronic mail and conferencing to Santa Monica residents. Users can also communicate directly with city government. (PEN, City of Santa Monica, Information Systems Department, 1685 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90401, 213/458-8381)


Media And Education

by Wilhelmina C. Savenye

One of the many powers of media technology is its ability to make things real and relevant to students, who in many educational settings feel increasingly powerless to affect their futures. Through media, however, they can see new possibilities, experience worlds not previously accessible to them, and encounter role models who encourage them to take responsibility for their own lives. And learning can be made more fun, which motivates students to keep learning how to learn.

Global communications is also making it easy for teachers and students to form partnerships with others at a distance. Not only can this help them learn better and feel more positive about school [see Johnson and Johnson, "Cooperative Learning," in IC #18]; it can also give them a feeling of hope for the future and belief in their own abilities, which are critical in determining what they make of the world.

Media technology refers to more than equipment like computers, television, chalk boards, or projectors. Most media technologists are more concerned with the process of designing and using technology to help students learn than with the hardware itself.

Technology can greatly change the role of teachers, who acknowledge that they are managers but prefer to describe themselves as guides, leaders, mentors, and facilitators of student learning. Appropriate use of technology allows teachers to individually guide learners, mentor their students more effectively, and be more responsive to students’ needs.

Technology does not, however, automatically bring the desired results. Teachers need support and training to make optimal use of its possibilities, and the designers of educational technology need to be sensitive to a host of factors such as cultural norms, economic realities, and even climate. Such sensitivity can be crucial; for example, a multimillion-dollar instructional television project. Moreover, designers did not consult with teachers or parents, who felt left out, uncomfortable, or threatened by the project – and the designers didn’t recognize that the hot, moist climate would cause the classroom TVs to fail frequently.

But the designers, themselves, are learning. And formerly change-resistant administrators and leaders are acknowledging that system-wide change is the only way to handle the tremendous educational problems in many countries. It is often said that creative problem-solving will be the survival skill of the 1990s, and that today’s students must be prepared to adapt to great changes throughout their lives. Information-rich technologies – like multimedia environments based on information networks – are tools which students and teachers must both learn to use. And by using these technologies to answer their own questions, they will both be empowered to improve our world.


Wilhelmina C. Savenye, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of instructional technology in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. She researches teaching with interactive technologies and is a specialist in interactive video.

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