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Cybercult isolation from Earth


BOSTON -- The experts are parading across my television screen again. A full entourage of authors and researchers and professors are there, following the psychic bread crumbs, the clues that led 39 people from their separate lives to their Rancho Sante Fe deaths.

We are far now along the familiar media route. Last week's tragedy becomes this week's analysis and then -- as surely as black humor survives horror -- next week's entry in some David Letterman routine.

Surfing across the channels now, I can put together a collage of such experts trying to explain why some three dozen souls would willingly, maybe even eagerly, leave their "containers."

There is a hapless pursuit of any common thread that brought a former massage therapist, choir leader, postal worker to the conclusion that if they packed their flight bags and drank their potions, they would be lifted to "the kingdom level above human."

New name

But this time the incomprehensible event has a new name. Someone labels Heaven's Gate an Internet cult. Someone else calls it a cybercult.

What jars the minds of many people is that the folks in Heaven's Gate were technologically sophisticated. And yet stunningly gullible. They worked skillfully in a field that we associate with computer science. And yet believed in science fiction.

Calling themselves Higher Source, they made home pages by day. And read ancient portents from the comets in the night sky. They had skills that outstrip those of us who barely navigate the Internet. But believed there was a spaceship in Hale-Bopp's tail.

Millennialism and megabytes? The World Wide Web and unidentified flying objects? It doesn't compute, many say, as if computing were the ultimate proof of rationality.

It doesn't compute, they say, to find 39 bodies -- pockets filled with quarters and $5 bills, videotape filled with excited talk of spacecraft -- in a lush home crammed with desktop terminals. Compared to this, the Jonestown jungle made perverse horror-tale sense.

Maybe indeed "cybercult" should be an oxymoron. But today, it stands as one more word of proof about how fast and far technology can streak ahead of understanding.

At times like this we are reminded of a vast disconnect between the new tools we create and the old mindsets they may serve. It's as vast as Heaven's Gate's home page that used electronic talent to post the tacky tabloid portraits of an alien creature. As vast as the megabyte transmission of a message, and the gibberish of the message itself.

The Internet is the latest, but hardly the only, example of this gap between hi tech and lo us.

Gap widens

After all, we are the people who made television and show sitcoms on it. We split the atom and made a bomb with it. We built cars that can go beyond 120 miles an hour for people who cannot control the wheel over 80. And in Hollywood, the most advanced technology is used to blow up a miniature White House or imitate a volcano.

To see how much faster technology can move than the human mind, all I need to do is look at the cursor on my screen blinking impatiently for the next sentence to form. To see the gap between skill and understanding, you can talk about life with the 13-year-old installing your Windows 95.

So too, the remarkable new turf of the Internet can, as well, be just another place to show people having sex with each other. Cutting- edge software can be used by people recruiting others to an anti-scientific creationism. It can hook up Marshall Applewhite to a young mother surfing the new way for an age-old way out.

What strikes me about the Heaven's Gate members is not that they were so advanced but so far behind, not that they were part of the great new world of computers but that they were lost in the world of people.

Cut off from family and reason, the authors of these home pages had already left their earthly home.

With all due respect to those who dub this a cybercult, the connecting thread isn't in the tools these people used, but those they lacked. In the end, cyberspace was easy. Life was too hard.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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