David Gans, host of The Grateful Dead Hour (the national radio program that our Columbia University hacker taped a few nights ago) is having a strange week. The proposal he's writing for his fourth Grateful Dead book is late, he still has to go into the studio to record his radio show, his band rehearsal didn't get out until close to dawn, and something odd is occurring on the WELL this morning. Gans generally spends at least several hours a day sitting in his Oakland studio apartment, logged onto the WELL. A charter member of the original WELL bulletin board, he's since become host of dozens of conferences and topics ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. In any given week, he's got to help guide hundreds or even thousands of computer interchanges. But this week there are even more considerations. An annoying new presence has made itself known on the WELL: a user calling himself 'Stink',
Stink showed up late one night in the Grateful Dead conference, insisting to all the Deadheads that "Jerry Garcia stinks." In the name of decorum and tolerance, the Deadheads decided among themselves to ignore the prankster. "Maybe he'll get bored and go away," Gans repeatedly suggested. WELLbeings enjoy thinking of the WELL as a loving, anarchic open house, and resort to blocking someone out completely only if he's truly dangerous. Stealing passwords or credit card numbers, for example, is a much more excommunicable deed than merely annoying people with nasty comments.
But today David Gans's electronic mailbox is filled with messages from angry female WELLbeings. Stink has begun doing 'sends' - immediate E-mail messages that appear on the recipient's screen with a beep, interrupting whatever she is doing. People usually use sends when they notice that a good friend has logged on and want to experience a brief, 'live' interchange. No one 'sends' a stranger. But, according to Gans's E-mail, females logged on to the WELL are receiving messages like "Wanna dance?" or "Ifour place or mine?" on their screens, and have gotten a bit irked. Anonymous phone calls can leave a girl feeling chilly, at the very least. This is somehow an even greater violation of privacy. From reading the girl's postings, he knows her name, the topics she enjoys, how she feels about issues; if he's a hacker, who knows how much more he knows?
David realizes that giving Stink the silent treatment isn't working. But what to do? He takes it to the WELL staff, who, after discussing the problem with several other distressed topic hosts, decide to put Stink into a 'problem shell'. Whenever he tries to log on to the WELL, he'll receive a message to call the main office and talk to a staff member. Until he does so, he is locked out of the system.
Stink tries to log on and receives the message, but he doesn't call in. Days pass. The issue seems dead. But topics about Stink and the implications of his mischievous presence begin to spring up all over the WELL. Many applaud the banishment of Stink, while others warn that this is the beginning of censorship. "How," someone asks, "can we call ourselves an open, virtual community if we lock out those who don't communicate the way we like? Think of how many of us could have been kicked off the WELL by the same logic?". "What are we, Carebears?" another retorts. "This guy was sick!"
David lets the arguments continue, defending the WELL staff's decision-making process where he can, stressing how many painful hours were spent deliberating on this issue. Meanwhile, though, he begins to do some research of his own and notices that Stink's last name - not a common one - is the same as another user of the WELL called Bennett. David takes a gamble and E-mails Bennett, who tells him that he's seen Stink's postings but that there's no relation.
But the next day, there's a new, startling addition to a special 'confession' conference: Bennett admits that he is Stink. Stink's WELL account-had been opened by Bennett's brother but never used. Bennett reopened the account and began using it as a joke, to vent his alter ego. Free of his regular identity, he could be whoever he wanted and act however he dared with no personal repercussions. What had begun as a kind of thought experiment or acting exercise had soon gotten out of hand. The alter ego went out of control Bennett, it turns out, was a mild-mannered member of conferences like Christianity, and in his regular persona had even consoled a fellow WELLbeing after her husband died. Bennett is not a hacker-kid; he has a wife and children, a job, a religion, a social conscience, and a fairly quiet disposition. He begs for the forgiveness of other WELLbeings and says he confessed because he felt so guilty lying to David Gans about what had happened. He wants to remain a member of the cyber community and eventually regain the trust of WELLbeings.
Some WELLbeings believe Bennett and forgive him. Others do not. "He just confessed because he knows you were on to him, David. Good work." Some suggest a suspension, or even a community service sentence: "Isn't there some administrative stuff he can do at the WELL office as penance?"
But most people just wonder out loud about the strange cyber experience of this schizoid WELLbeing, and what it means for the Global Village at large. Was Bennett like this all the time and Stink merely a suppressed personality, or did Cyberia affect his psyche adversely, creating Stink where he didn't exist before? Iiow vulnerable are the rest of us when one goes off his virtual rocker? Do the psychology and neurosis of everyday real-life human interactions need to follow us into cyberspace, or is there a way to leave them behind? Just how intimate can we get through our computers, and at what cost?
The evolution of computer and networking technology can be seen as a progression toward more user-friendly interfaces that encourage hypertext-style participation of both the computer illiterate and those who wish to interact more intimately in Cyberia than can be experienced by typing on a keyboard. DOS-style printed commands were replaced by the Macintosh interface in the late 1970s. Instead of typing instructions to the computer, users were encouraged to click and drag icons representing files across their screens and put them wherever they wanted, using the now-famous mouse. But this has all changed again with the development of virtual reality, the computer interface that promises to bring us into the matrix -mind, body, and soul.
VR, as it's called, replaces the computer screen with a set of 3-D, motion-sensitive goggles, the speaker with a set of 3-D headphones, and the mouse with a glove or tracking ball. The user gains the ability to move through a real or fictional space without using commands, text, or symbols. You put on the goggles, and you see a building, for example. You 'walk' with your hand toward the doorway, open the door, and you're inside. As you do all this, you see the door approaching in complete perspective. Once you open the door, you see the inside of the building. As you turn your head to the left, you see what's to the left. As you look up, you see the ceiling. As you look to the right, let's say, you see a painting on the wall. It's a picture of a forest. You walk to the painting, but you don't stop. Y)u go into the painting. Then you're in the forest. You look up, see the sun through the trees, and hear the wind rustle through the leaves. Behind you, you hear a bird chirping.
Marc de Groot (the Global Village ham radio interface) was responsible for that 'behind you' part. His work involved the creation of 3-D sound that imitates the way the body detects whether a sound is coming from above, below, in front, or behind. To him, VR is a milestone in human development.
"Virtual reality is a' way of mass-producing direct experience, "foil put on the goggles and you have this world around you. In the beginning, there were animals, who had nothing but their experience. Then man came along, who processes reality in metaphors. We have symbology. One thing stands for another. Verbal noises stand for experience, and we can share experience by passing this symbology back and forth. Then the Gutenberg Press happened, which was the opportunity to mass-produce symbology for the first time, and that marked a real change. And virtual reality is a real milestone too, because we're now able for the first time to mass-produce the direct experience. We've come full circle."
Comparisons with the Renaissance abound in discussions of VR. Just as the 3-D holograph serves as our cultural and scientific equivalent of the Renaissance's perspective painting, virtual reality stands as a 1990s computer equivalent of the original print culture. Like the printing press did nearly five hundred years ago, VR promises pop cultural access to information and experience previously reserved for experts.
De Groot's boss at VPL, Jaron Lanier, paints an even rosier picture of VR and its impact on humanity at large. In his speaking tours around the world, the dreadlocked inventor explains how the VR interface is so transparent that it will make the computer disappear. "Try to remember the world before computers. Try to remember the world of dreaming, when you dreamed and it was so. Remember the fluidity that we experienced before computers. Then you'll be able to grasp VR." But the promise of virtual reality and its current level of development are two very different things. Most reports either glow about future possibilities or rag on the crudeness of today's gear. Lanier has sworn off speaking to the media for precisely that reason.
"There's two levels of virtual reality. One is the ideas, and the other is the actual gear. The gear is early, all right? But these people from Time magazine came in last week and said, 'Well, this stuff's really overblown,' and my answer's like, 'Who's overblowing it?' - you know? It reminds me of an interview with Paul McCartney in the sixties where some guy from the BBC asked him if he did any illegal activities, and he answered, 'Well, actually, yes.' And the reporter asked 'Don't you think that's horrible to be spreading such things to the youth of the country?' and he said, 'I'm not doing that. You're doing that.'"5
But the press and the public can't resist. The promise of VR is beyond imagination. Sure, it makes it possible to simulate the targeting and blow-up of an Iraqi power plant, but as a gateway to Cyberia itself, well ... the possibilities are endless. Imagine, for example, a classroom of students with a teacher, occurring in real time. The students are from twelve different countries, each plugged in to a VR system, all modemed to the teacher's house. They sit around a virtual classroom, see one another and the teacher. The teacher explains that today's topic is the Colosseum in ancient Rome. She holds up a map of ancient Rome and says, "Let's go." The students fly over the skyline of the ancient city, following their teacher. "Stay together now," she says, pointing out the Colosseum and explaining why it was positioned across town from the Forum. The class lands at the main archway to the Colosseum. "Let's go inside ..." %u get the idea.
More amazing to VR enthusiasts is the technology's ability to provide access to places the human body can't go, granting new perspectives on old problems much in the way that systems math provides planners with new outlooks on currents that don't follow the discovered patterns.
Warren Robinett, manager of the Head-Mounted Display Project at the University of North Carolina, explains how the strength of VR is that it allows the user to experience the inside of a cell, an anthill, or the shape of a galaxy:
"Virtual reality will prove to be a more compelling fantasy world than Nintendo, but even so, the real power of the head-mounted display is that it can help you perceive the real world in ways that were previously impossible. To see the invisible, to travel at the speed of light, to shrink yourself into microscopic worlds, to relive experiences - these are the powers that the head-mounted display offers you. Though it sounds like science fiction today, tomorrow it will seem as commonplace as talking on the telephone."6
One of these still fictional interface ideas is called 'wireheading'. This is a new branch of computer technology where designers envision creating hardware that wires the computer directly to the brain. The user literally plugs wires into his own head, or has a microchip and transmitter surgically implanted inside the skull. Most realistic visions of wireheading involve as-yet univented biological engineering techniques where brain cells would be coaxed to link themselves to computer chips, or where organic matter would be grafted onto computer chips which could then be attached to a person's nerve endings. This wetware', as science fiction writers call it, would provide a direct, physical interface between a human nervous system on one side, and computer hardware on the other. The computer technology for such an interface is here; the understanding of the human nervous system is not.
Although Jaron Lanier's company is working on a 'nerve chip' that would communicate directly with the brain, he's still convinced that the five senses provide the best avenues lor interface.
"There's no difference between the brain and the sense organs. The body is a continuity. Perception begins in the retina. Mind and body are one. You have this situation where millions of years of evolution have created this creature. What is this creature aside from the way it interfaces with the rest of creation? And how do you interface? Through the sense organs! So the sense organs are almost a better defining point than any other spot in the creature. They're central to identity and define our mode of being. We're visual, tactile, audio creatures. The whole notion of bypassing the senses is sort of like throwing away the actual treasure."7 Still, the philosophical implications of a world beyond the five senses are irresistible, and have drawn into the ring many worthy contenders to compete for the title of VR spokesperson. The most vibrant is probably Timothy Leary, whose ride on the crest of the VR wave has brought him back on the scene with the zeal of John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ, or a Harvard psychology professor preparing the intelligentsia for LSD.
"Just as the fish donned skin to walk the earth, and man donned a space suit to walk in space, we'll now don cyber suits to walk in Cyberia. In ten years most of our daily operations, occupational, educational, and recreational, will transpire in Cyberia. Each of us will be linked in thrilling cyber exchanges with many others whom we may never meet in person. Face-to-face interactions will be reserved for special, intimate, precious, sacramentalized events.""
Leary sees VR as an empowerment of the individual against the brainwashing forces of industrial slavedriving and imperialist expansion:
"By the year 2000, the I.C. (inner city) kid will slip on the EyePhone, don a form-fitting computer suit, and start inhabiting electronic environments either self-designed or pulled up from menus. At 9:00 a.m. she and her friend in Tokyo will meet in an electronic simulation of Malibu Beach for a flirtatious moment. At 9:30 a.m. she will meet her biology teacher in an electronic simulation of the heart for a hands-on 'you are there' tutorial trip down the circulatory system. At 10:00 a.m. she'll be walking around medieval Verona with members of her English literature seminar to act out a scene from Romeo and Juliet. At 11:00 A.M. she'll walk onto an electronic tennis court for a couple of sets with her pal in Managua. At noon, she'll take off her cyberwear and enjoy a sensual, tasty lunch with her family in their nonelectronic kitchen."9
What was that part about Malibu Beach - the flirtatious moment? Sex, in VR? Lanier readily admits that VR can provide a reality built for two: "It's usually kind of shocking how harmonious it is, this exposure of a collective energy between people. And so a similar thing would happen in'a virtual world, where there's a bunch of people in it, and they're all making changes at once. These collective changes will emerge, which might be sort of like the Jungian level of virtual reality." Users will literally 'see' what the other means. Lanier's trick answer to the question of sex is, "I think everything in virtual reality is sexual. It's eroticizing every moment, because it's all, like, creative." But that answer doesn't satisfy true cyber fetishists. If a cyber suit with full tactile stimulation is possible, then so should be cyber sex! A conversation about teledildonics, as it's been called, gets VR enthusiasts quite heated up.
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