There have long been speculations about how the electronic
shadows made possible by the computer and telecommunications revolutions
will acquire the intensity of effect, the immediacy, the complexity
and the depth to become--in a certain sense--real. That afternoon
in the Valley Life Sciences Building was the first time in my
life that I had compared a place in the real world, the UCMP,
to its virtual electronic image in cyberspace--and found the real
world lacking, found that the real world experience lacked, compared
to its virtual electronic image, the intensity of effect, the
immediacy, the complexity, and the depth necessary for reality.
Thinking back, I realized that the electronic world behind the computer screen has been slowly acquiring reality--and the real world losing it--for some years. I check the card catalog for something or other every week; but it has been four years since I saw a wooden or metal drawer with 3 by 5 cards in it. If I say "it's on my desktop," I almost surely mean that a pointer to the computer file exists at the "root" level directory of my notebook computer. As far as desktops and card catalogs are concerned, the "virtual" images have so swamped the "real" objects as to make them vanish from my consciousness.
My cousin Tom Kalil tells me that cyberspace has obtained "liftoff": traffic on the NSFNET electronic network backbone was up from 3.6 billion bytes in March 1993 to 4.8 trillion bytes in March 1995. WebCrawler and Yahoo now index over 4 million electronic documents, and receive more than 9.4 million hits per week.
Some are oblivious to this transformation: I think of a respected academic elder who claimed that all physical discoveries since 1930 (including our current computer and communications technologies) were less significant than the past generation's "discoveries" in literary criticism--and who had the lack of perception to make this claim in an email message!
For two generations people have been talking about how computers will have an extraordinary impact on human society and human knowledge. Our children will think as differently from us as we think differently from pre-Gutenberg monks, who would spend ten years copying and writing a commentary on one single illuminated manuscript. Our children will find our doctrines and beliefs as quaint as we find Socrates' distrust of the written word as an unsuitable tool for education.
The evening after returning from our expedition to the Valley Life Sciences Building I went upstairs to put the five-year-old to bed. He was talking--but not to himself.
"If you want to read books," he said, "click on the bookcase. If you want to play with dinosaur toys, click over here." He was pretending to be a Help System.
"To play with Lion King toys, click on the bottom of the bed."
I have pretended to be many things at play and work--as a child a space explorer and a wise king; as an adult a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and a Berkeley professor. But I never pretended to be a help system.
"If you need help, click on my picture on top of the dresser. I'll be there in a flash..."
Not only is the virtual world behind the computer screen acquiring reality, but the real world is acquiring aspects of virtuality as well...
I posted this to the apple-internet-users mailing list. A version
(well-edited by Adam Engst)
appeared in TidBITS #291 (21-Aug-95):
It has also been electronically published by HotWired (in their NetSoup section), and by the Utne Lens.
It is forthcoming in print in Wired, a small chunk of it has appeared in Harpers under the title A Wired Child, and it has been re-printed in American Art.
Of all the e-mail I have gotten in response, the two most interesting items have been, first, a pointer to Dr. Bombay's Village Voice article about the crime and punishment of Mr. Bungle for virtual rape on LambdaMoo:
It isn't Crime and Punishment, but it comes closer to Dostoyevsky than it has any right to do.
And, second, a pointer to Lenny Foner's sociological analysis of the impact of the MOO-based "chatterbot" named Julia:
The analogies, however, are not exact. In text-based MUD- and MOO-environments, the suspension of disbelief in the "reality" of the virtual environment is not only willing but willed and even forced. While my suspension of disbelief was not only unwilled, but involuntary...
An excellent article on submarine cables by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. From Wired.
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