A Historian In Cyberspace

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Tocqueville still speaks to us because he refused to speak in mere disdain. No one today reads the European observers who visited only to sneer, and no one takes seriously those who only doled out praise. Tocqueville admired much of what he saw in America, but he worried about the lack of satisfaction he found here: “In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men, placed in the happiest circumstances which the world affords; it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad even in their pleasures.” He ascribed this perpetual longing to the impossibility of ever acquiring true equality. Each man thought every other man was getting ahead, leaving him behind with no one else to blame. Americans felt alone, adrift, without a place, and without community.

Presented with a blank slate on which to draw our deepest desires and our best plans, Americans seem to be recreating much of what Tocqueville saw. In Cyberspace, we reconstitute both our hustle and our anxiety even as we try to build the perfect community to contain them both. The Web of today contains virtual versions of earlier monuments to these competing impulses. Without much difficulty, a visitor to the Web can see Main Street and Times Square, Brook Farm and Las Vegas, white-steepled churches and storefront ministries, red schoolhouses and night schools. As with many of their predecessors, these places have been put up quickly and often shoddily in Cyberspace, because no one expects them to last very long. We build only to tear down for something better, something that may satisfy our hunger for connection and belonging.

The World Wide Web will not endure in its current state. Today’s most sophisticated Web sites will seem hopelessly limited in just a few years; the technologies that will permit a new generation of Cyberspace are being readied at a feverish pace. Cyberspace may yet grow into the nightmare of Neuromancer , the beloved community of the Well, or something else altogether. Whatever the machinery or landscape, one thing seems likely: A longing for community, as tangible and elusive as always, will hover over Cyberspace, U.S.A.