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issue: 05/15/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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past IT/ECO columns:

Computers and Consciousness

Can Computers Save Resources?

Computer Unconsciouness

Information Technology Meets Global Ecology

PLANETWORK Global Ecology and Information Technology Conference, May 12-14, San Francisco


by Cate Gable

My first and the most pervading impression of Planetwork was actually a feeling. At the conference I had the felt sense that it was OK to be completely and authentically myself. That it was OK to talk about consciousness, the Internet, and business in the same breath or to talk about anything that was of real importance to me. I realized, sadly, in what a small percentage of our lives we are able to speak our hearts. And instead of feeling alone in a 'real world' of laugh tracks and media insipidity, I was joined by others in a place where there were no arguments about whether global warming was real.

Then, even amid the uncertainty of what could happen next in the chaos of a large gathering -Would the technology work? Would the presentation actually go up on the big screen from the website? Who would trip over the mic cord? Would lunch arrive on time?-I had the strong feeling that there were enough smart people together that whatever came up we could probably handle. Looking back, I identify this as confidence in the collective, confidence in community- another too-rare experience.

And only then, on top of these feelings about the alchemy of what was happening, did I perceive the power of clear, precise if abstract, thought: the presence of simple truths that had the power to snap confusing facts and seemingly contradictory impulses into place.

Planetwork was an extraordinary gathering of great minds, and the range of thinking, although broad and deep,-provided by digital artists, biologists, GIS map makers, techies, didgeridoo players, astrologers, e-biz consultants, reporters, radio announcers, librarians, and mathematicians-reflected a synchronicity of themes reminiscent of a piece of music. Our decidedly post-modern opera, with dissonances and simultaneously-performed multi-voiced movements, had a coherence that was tangible and carried from room to room.

Speakers were also participants, often referring to and quoting other presenters in a weaving and layering of information. There was too much to attend to with only one body-four or five sessions happened simultaneously-but the coherence meant that one could walk from one room to another and the thread just left would often be picked up again in the new location. After spending several hours, one found that an accumulation of information began to resonate around a central theme: We belong to the earth, and we belong to each other.

And, yes, there is a crisis-there has never before in earth's history, even with the extinction of the dinosaurs, been such a massive and, in geological time, sudden loss of living species and ecosystems. But don't panic, keep your head above the current and flow with it. We can't go back; we can't fight against the current of technology as much as some of us might like to. In fact, as Jim Fournier, one of the conference founders, puts it, "The only way out is through."

Pierre Levy, Hypermedia Professor and philosopher from Paris University VIII, agreed. Each era in the development of the earth has been built on the last from the beginning of time. Bacteria and algae eventually emerged from earth's big bang gasses to become one-celled organisms; one-celled organisms became multi-celled organisms; multi-celled organisms became ocean creatures, some of whom, sooner or later, tried crawling out onto the land and became, among thousands of other beautiful beings, us. Not that we're the pinnacle of evolution; we just happen to be the most tool-proficient and conscious beings present at this time on earth.

And as Peter Russell and others would say, just as biological evolution is a layered system of stages built one on the next (although the idea of 'progress' is a concept many were uncomfortable with), human civilization seems to be built in a similar structural spiral. The agricultural revolution provided the foundation for the industrial revolution which needed a stable environment and a pool of workers geographically centralized. The industrial revolution provided the foundation for the information revolution. The information revolution needed the industrial materials, the manufacturing and distribution of implements, the creation of wealth, education, and a middle class in order for our digital culture to arise. And it is this digital revolution that will provide the foundation for what Peter calls the next great challenge-the exploration of consciousness. But more about that in a moment.

In the meantime, some large characters spoke large. Bruce Sterling blew on stage as if in a long black virtual cape and handlebar mustache, sneering with his dark uproarious wit about the irony of the fire at the Los Alamos Lab: this 'prescribed burn,' set by a US government official and destroying the birthplace of the US atomic bomb, is as good a metaphor as any for a conflagration of modern civilization. Then Julia Butterfly Hill, dressed all in black but radiating the light of innocence and forgiveness, narrated her two years 180-feet up in the redwood tree, Luna, on a 6'X8' platform with a solar-powered radio-phone and the media as her only other steady companions. Sheri Xiaoyi Liao, founder of Global Village Beijing, struggling with English but perhaps the most effective communicator in the room, was in the awkward position of saying to an American audience "If our 1.2 billion Chinese citizens follow your American ways, we will need 20 more earths....and we only have one." Then she covered her mouth with her hand, embarrassed, maybe, for us.

Other quotable highlights:

"Your body has full employment." Elizabet Sahtouris, Evolution Biologist

"There are
200,000 new users
2 million new web pages
4,442 new web sites
196,000 new connecting devices being added to the internet every 24 hours!" Jan Hauser, Sun MicroSystems

"Of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the world, 7 are in China." Sheri Liao, Founder of Global Village Beijing

"97% of our forests have been destroyed, and of the 3% we have left, only 1% is protected." Julia Butterfly Hill

"Natural species are bigger ideas than most of our ideas, so we are losing big ideas and technologies every time we lose a species. . . .We need to train technology to be a good citizen." Kevin Kelly, Wired

"Don't think you can't do it because you don't have enough time or enough knowledge or enough anything...ask, what can I do with what I have right now." Twyla Wilson, Director of Strategic Alliances for marchFirst (formerly USWEB)

"Things are far too bad and it's far too late to have any sense of pessimism." Dee Hawk, as quoted by Jan Hauser

Peter Russell sounded the most all-encompassing note, however, in his discussion about information technology as the Global Brain and whether this brain will be sane or insane. Peter believes, not as centuries of philosophers and scientists have thought, that consciousness arises from matter but that consciousness is a fundamental quality of the cosmos; that consciousness is the primary source of matter; and that we have gotten stuck searching for freedom from suffering by focusing on the outer world of matter. Hence our obsession with materialism-our love of money, fast cars, big houses and the resulting drive to work in order to have those things. Who was it that said no one on her death bed has ever spoken these last words, "I wish I had spent more time at the office."

Our freedom, one might say the freedom of consciousness, and therefore the freedom of the cosmos is an inner freedom. But how will this omega point, this shift in 'metaparadigm,' be accomplished? Peter answers that information technology will provide the tools of understanding and will deliver the inner technologies that will be needed for this great shift in perception.

He sees three conditions coming together in the near future:

  • technological innovation beyond our wildest imaginations
  • severe crises-climate changes, strife, etc.-the most dangerous situations humanity has ever encountered, and
  • the greatest number of wise people with open hearts and real caring ever assembled on earth

The flash point will be sparked from the combination of these pre-conditions. Levy says that either we'll figure it out or we won't, in which case we won't be around to worry about it again. In either case, Nature will go on, taking another solution path if needed. Ian McHarg, founding father of GIS mapping as an ecological tool, and a professor of mine in the early 70s at Penn used to say, "When the algae get together after we destroy ourselves, they'll come to this consensus-next time, no brains."

Or will our global brain, the consciousness of heart, make the right choice?

For other links and more information about presenters, see

b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher, and President of Axioun Communications International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA; the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her at


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