"Being In Nothingness: Virtual Reality and the Pioneers of Cyberspace" by John Perry Barlow

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The blog will be a journal of my life and work, but also just a place in which I share things I like. Here's one of them:


Virtual Reality and the Pioneers of Cyberspace

By John Perry Barlow

Published in Microtimes Magazine

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily

by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation...A

graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of

every computer in the human system. Unthinkable

complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the

mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights,


--William Gibson, Neuromancer

Suddenly I don't have a body anymore.

All that remains of the aging shambles which usually constitutes my

corporeal self is a glowing, golden hand floating before me like

Macbeth's dagger. I point my finger and drift down its length to the

bookshelf on the office wall.

I try to grab a book but my hand passes through it.

"Make a fist inside the book and you'll have it," says my invisible


I do, and when I move my hand again, the book remains embedded in

it. I open my hand and withdraw it. The book remains suspended

above the shelf.

I look up. Above me I can see the framework of red girders which

supports the walls of the office...above them the blue-blackness of

space. The office has no ceiling, but it hardly needs one. There's never

any weather here.

I point up and begin my ascent, passing right through one of the

overhead beams on my way up. Several hundred feet above the office,

I look down. It sits in the middle of a little island in space. I

remember the home asteroid of The Little Prince with its one volcano,

it's one plant.

How very like the future this place might be: a tiny world just big

enough to support the cubicle of one Knowledge Worker. I feel a wave

of loneliness and head back down. But I'm going too fast. I plunge

right on through the office floor and into the bottomless indigo below.

Suddenly I can't remember how to stop and turn around. Do I point

behind myself? Do I have to turn around before I can point? I flip into

brain fugue.

"Just relax," says my guide in her cool clinical voice. "Point straight

up and open your hand when you get where you want to be."

Sure. But how can you get where you want to be when you're coming

from nowhere at all?

And I don't seem to have a location exactly. In this pulsating new

landscape, I've been reduced to a point of view. The whole subject of

"me" yawns into a chasm of interesting questions. It's like Disneyland

for epistomologists. "If a virtual tree falls in the computer-generated

forest..?" Or "How many cybernauts can dance on the head of a

shaded solid?" Gregory Bateson would have loved this. Wittgenstein,

phone home.

At least I know where I left my body. It's in a room called Cyberia in a

building called Autodesk in a town called Sausalito, California. Planet

Earth. Milky Way. So on and so forth. My body is cradled in its usual

cozy node of space-time vectors.

But I...or "I" in cyberspace, a universe churned up from computer

code by a Compaq 386 and a pair of Matrox graphics boards, then fed

into my rods and cones by VPL Eyephones, a set of goggles through

whose twin, parallax-corrected video screens I see this new world.

When I move my head, the motion is tracked by a a Polhemus

magnetic sensor and the imaging engine of cyberspace is instructed to

alter what I see accordingly. Thus, having made a controlled ascent

back up through the floor of the "office," I turn to the left and I see red

chair with a desk behind it. I turn to the right and I see a door leading

out onto the floating platform.

The configuration and position of my right hand is fed into the system

by a VPL DataGlove, also with an Polhemus attached to it. The

relationship between my hand and the eyephones is precisely

measured by the two trackers so that my hand appears where I would

expect it to. When I point or make a fist, the fiber optics sewn into the

DataGlove convert kinesthetics into electronics. For a decisecond or so,

my hand disappears and then reappears, glowing and toon-like, in the

appropriate shape.

Despite the current confines of my little office-island, I know that I

have become a traveller in a realm which will be ultimately bounded

only by human imagination, a world without any of the usual limits of

geography, growth, carrying capacity, density or ownership. In this

magic theater, there's no gravity, no Second Law of Thermodynamics,

indeed, no laws at all beyond those imposed by computer processing

speed...and given the accelerating capacity of that constraint, this

universe will probably expand faster than the one I'm used to.

Welcome to Virtual Reality. We've leapt through the looking glass.

Now what? Go ask Alice.

The Next Big Thing

Money from Nuthin'

"I think this is the biggest thing since we landed on the Moon," says

Jaron Lanier, the dread-locked CEO of VPL Research. (Who was 9

years old at that time.) I don't choke on that one. Indeed, I'd take it a

bit farther, guessing that Columbus was probably the last person to

behold so much usable and unclaimed real estate (or unreal estate) as

these cybernauts have discovered.

At Autodesk, the Sausalito publisher of AutoCAD drafting software,

they spent the summer of T89 in product development heaven, talking

telephone, automobile, airplane, computer. They invoked Edison, Bell,

Ford, and Jobs. And there was that loincloth-and-machete sense of

enterprise which one might have experienced in the Wright Brothers'

Akron Bicycle Shop or Paul Jobs' garage in Mountain well as

countless less-chronicled shots at perpetual motion or baldness cures.

Neil Armstrong's small step ran about 70 Billion Real Dollars, but

when John Walker, the Hacker King of Autodesk, committed his

company to creating the first commercially-available "world in a can,"

he figured that the prototype "gizmo" could be built for about $25,000.

VPL, the other trading post on VR frontier, isn't much fatter, although

internal synergy seems to magnify output. Since their incorporation in

1985, they've had two Scientific American covers and produced the

DataGlove, DataSuit, the PowerGlove, Swivel 3-D and VPL

EyePhones, the only commercially available head-mounted display.

They've been in a couple of big lawsuits (one, just concluded to their

satisfaction, with Stanford University), and create, at a distance, the

mirage of a fair-sized company going at it pretty hard.

But up close, one can get on a first-name basis with every VPL

employee in the course of an afternoon. They have yet to outgrow the

third floor of their slightly tacky building at the Redwood City yacht


While Apple's research gazillions yield such dubious fruit as

multimedia and the AppleFax Modem, while IBM replicates methods

for chaining bureaucrats to its mainframes, it begins to appear that the

Next Big Thing will begin its commercial evolution as humbly as the

personal computer.

As usual, the Big Guys have neither the means nor the desire to engage

in such open-ended creation as settling the virtual universe will

require. Like the Union Pacific Railroad awaiting the fact of empire,

they prefer to let the rag-tag pioneers die all over the frontier before

they come out to claim it.

When the Altairs and Osbornes of Virtual Reality have made their fatal

errors are headed for Chapter 11, IBM probably will issue forth the

SolutionStation VR Network or some such and accelerate natural

selection in the field.

But as I write this, VPL and Autodesk still have it to themselves.

Actually, they are not the first to make virtual landfall. They are only

the first at financial risk. Unlike the first automobiles or telephones

their commercial fledglings had the advantage of long incubation by

government and Academia.

Virtual Reality, as a concept, found first form at the University of Utah

over twenty years ago in the fecund cranium of Ivan E. Sutherland, the

godfather of computer graphics and the originator of about every Big

Computer Idea not originated by Alan Kay or Doug Englebart. In

1968, he produced the first head-mounted display. This was the

critical element in VR hardware, but it was so heavy that it had to be

suspended from the some peril to its wearer. Damocles was


Besides, once you got it on, there wasn't much to see in there. There

wasn't a computer in existence which could churn out enough

polygons per second to simulate a reality much more full-bodied than

a game of Pong.

So Virtual Reality passed a generation waiting for the equipment to

arrive. In 1985 the Japanese finally (and unintentionally) provided us

with the right video displays when NASA's Mike McGreevy happened

to notice that the Citizen Watch Co. LCD displays in a Radio Shack

mini-TV were small enough to fit two in a head-mounted.

I hardly need to detail what happened to CPU horsepower during that

period. By 1985, graphics engines of appropriate juice were almost

within financial range of entities not involved in the defense of our


Also by this time, NASA had made a strong commitment to VR

research, though mostly in the service of "telepresence," the ability to

project one's judgement and actions into a robot located some real

place you'd rather not be, like space. They were less persuaded by the

attractions of unreal places.

The Air Force was also conducting research at Wright-Patterson under

the direction of Tom Furness, but most of this was directed at the usual

dismal purpose, simplifying the annihilation of non-virtual humans.

Heads up displays and looks that kill were their speciality.

For all this expenditure of tax dollars, Virtual Reality still lacked two

critical elements: a sense of whimsy and a fluid, three-dimensional

method for "grabbing" and manipulating the furniture of cyberspace.

VPL was on the case.

VPL's Tom Zimmerman had always wanted the ability to actually play

air guitar. It was the sort of desire his "boss," Jaron Lanier, could

understand. Jaron had only gotten into computers after concluding

that musical composition was not a reliable day job. And his

ownership of more than 300 musical instruments might indicate, if

nothing else, a probing dissatisfaction with the limits of each one.

Over a two year period, Zimmerman and Young Harvill (also of VPL)

created the DataGlove, a hand with which to strum those invisible

strings. While they were creating this hardware interface (though the

Spandex feel of the DataGlove makes "leisureware interface" seem like

a more appropriate term), Jaron and Chuck Blanchard were writing

Body Electric, the software necessary to map the actual movements of

the DataGlove and eyephones onto the virtual landscape.

The commercial colonization of cyberspace was beginning. VPL's

strategy was to build the most powerful simulations current

technology would allow, without regard to hardware cost, selling the

spin-offs at increasingly affordable prices. Once such item, the

PowerGlove, is a Nintendo game controller based on the DataGlove

which VPL has licensed to Mattel. (Available this Christmas at a store

near you for $85.00.)

Another VPL spin-off product is Swivel 3-D, odds on the best 3-D

modeler for the Macintosh. Young Harvill wrote it as a tool to create

an artificial reality quickly and easily on Mac before integrating it into

Body Electric and sending it over the twin Silicon Graphics CPUs

which blow it up to full size.

In September of 1988, John Walker wrote an internal Autodesk white

paper called Through the Looking Glass: Beyond "User Interfaces." In it

he proposed an "Autodesk Cyberpunk Initiative" to produce within 16

months a doorway into cyberspace...available to anyone with $15,000

and a 386 computer. The project's motto: "Reality Isn't Enough Any

More." (I wondered if they considered: "I'd rather have a computer in

front of me than a frontal lobotomy...")

Since NASA's Virtual Realities were running in the millions and VPL's

in the middle hundreds of thousands, Walker envisioned a significant

discount over previous models, but he knew that his customers, if any,

would be more bargain-conscious than, say, the U.S. Air Force.

Autodesk's Cyberia Project was running hard by Christmas, 1988,

staffed by William and Meredith Bricken, Eric Gullichsen, Pat Gelband,

Eric Lyons, Gary Wells, Randy Walser, and John Lynch. When I

arrived on the scene in May, they had been keeping hacker's hours for

a long time.

And they were ready to make a product. They'd made a promo video

starring Timothy Leary. Gullichsen had even registered William

Gibson's term "cyberspace" as an Autodesk trademark, prompting an

irritated Gibson to apply for trademark registration of the term "Eric

Gullichsen." By June, they had an implementation which, though

clearly the Kitty Hawk version of the technology, endowed people

with an instantaneous vision of the Concorde level.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, things were getting complicated.

While everyone who went to Autodesk's Cyberia agreed that Virtual

Reality was something, there was less agreement as to what.

Part of the problem was the scale of possibilities it invoked. They

seemed to be endless and yet none of them was anywhere near ready

to return an investment. But when something has endless possibilities,

each of them is liable to dilute down to a point where people start to

say things like, "Sure, but what's it really good for." At which point the

devoted cybernut might lapse into random syllables, his tongue heavy

with all that golden potential.

Virtual Reality induces a perception of huge potency underlying

featureless ambiguity. There is a natural tendency to fill this gap

between power and definition with ideology. And the presence of

such unclaimed vastness seems to elicit territorial impulses from

psychic regions too old to recognize the true infinity of this new

frontier. Disputes appeared like toadstools in the rich new soil of


Thus, by mid-November, the Autodesk half of the Next Big Thing was

down to one full-time hacker: Randy Walser. The Brickens had headed

to Seattle to join Tom Furness in a (non-lethal) VR research program at

the University of Washington. Eric Gullichsen and Pat Gelband had

formed their own VR company, Sense 8. (Get it?)

Within, VPL's soulful band remained as tightly bonded as a Hell's

Angels chapter. Without, they found themselves increasingly tangled

in legal hassles. They were in court with AGE (a group of New York

toy developers who are not just in it for their health), trying to protect

their rights to the PowerGlove. They'd just settled a suit with Stanford

University. In general, they were having experiences which made me

question the axiom that you can't cheat an honest man.

Still, everyone realized that a baby this size would be bound to

occasion some labor pains. As the general media began to pick up on

Virtual Reality, its midwives were preparing themselves for interesting

times. It would be worth it. But why?

To the people who will actually make the future, such a question is

beside the point. They will develop cyberspace because, like Mallory's

mountain, it's there. Sort of.

There some practical reasons for the settlement of cyberspace. They

aren't as much fun to think about as the impractical ones, but they

exist. First among them is that this is the next logical step in the quest

to eliminate the interface...the mind-machine information barrier.

Over the last twenty years, our relations with these magic boxes have

become intimate at a rate matched only by the accelerating speed of

their processors. From the brutal austerity of batch-processed punch-

cards to the snuggly Macintosh, the interface has become far less

cryptic and far more interactive.

There have remained some apparently unbreachable barriers between

us and the CPU. One of them was the keyboard, which even with the

graphical interface and the accompanying infestation of mice,

remained the principal thoroughfare from human perception to RAM.

The thin alphanumeric stream which drips from our fingertips and

into the computer is a pale reflection of the thoughts which produce it,

arriving before the CPU at a pace absurdly mis-matched to its

chewing/spitting capacities.

Then there is the screen itself. While a vast improvement on the

flickering LED's of the Altair or even the amber text of DOS, the

metaphorical desktop remains flat as paper. There is none of the depth

or actual spatiality of experience.

After we get past what few documents we can keep on the screen at

one time, we are back to the alphabetized hierarchy. We can't pile it,

as most of us tend to do in real life. We have to file it. And this is not

the way the mind stores information. One doesn't remember the

names of his friends alphabetically. When looking for a phase in a

book, you are more likely to look for its spatial position on the page

than it's intellectual position in context.

The actual operation of human memory works on a model more like

the one Saint Thomas Aquinas used. Aquinas, who carried around in

his head almost all the established knowledge of his simpler world, is

said to have imagined a mind-castle with many different rooms in

which varying kinds of ideas dwelled. The floor plan increased with

his knowledge.

Nicholas Negroponte recreated a modest version of Aquinas' castle in

the 70's. He came up with a virtual office, represented in cartoon form

on the screen. One could mouse around to the "piles" of "paper"

stacked on the "desk" or "filing cabinet," leafing through them not by

the first letter of their subject name but by their archaeological layer of


The problem was the screen. Negroponte created a flat picture of an

office rather than something more like the real thing because that was

all one could display on a screen. In two dimensions, the image of

desktop seemed a lot more natural than the image of the desk. Thence

the Macintosh.

I used to think that the only way around these narrow I/O apertures

lay in such heroic solutions as brain implants. I think I was about 14

when it occurred to me that this was the answer. Brain surgery

seemed a minor nuisance if it left one with the ability to remember


I suppose I'd still be willing to put a Cray in my cranium, but my faith

in technology has moderated since early adolescence. I'm more

comfortable with the possibility of an interface which fills the gap

between keyboarding and neurological hardwiring and involves no

cortical knife-play. Virtual Reality is almost certainly that.

And indeed, Virtual Reality may be so close to the implant side of the

continuum that, as Randy Walser of Autodesk insists, it's not even

appropriate to call it an interface. It more a place...kind of like Fibber

McGee's Ultimate Closet...than the semi-permeable information

membrane to which we're accustomed.

Whatever you want to call it, Autodesk's John Walker puts it this way,

"If cyberspace truly represents the next generation of human

interaction with computers, it will represent the most profound change

since the development of the personal computer." Right.

But that still doesn't tell us what it's good for besides extending human

quirkiness to the storage of immaterial stuff. After all, most of what

humans do with computers is merely an improvement over what they

did with other keyboard-bound devices, whether typewriters or

calculators. Word processing and numerical analysis will be no easier

"inside" the machine than it was outside.

But let's quit being giddy for a moment. We're talking bucks here.

Right now a good working platform costs almost as much as a CAT

scanner. Who's going to buy one without something like Blue Cross

footing the bill? And why?

Alright, there is a reason why Autodesk is involved in this enterprise

besides some daydream of the Ultimate Hack. Whatever adventures

they might entertain they afford by selling AutoCAD, the Dbase III of

architecture. How many architects have dreamed of the ability to take

their clients on a walk inside their drawings before their

miscommunications were sealed in mortar?

Virtual Reality has already been put to such use at the University of

North Carolina. There Sitterman Hall, the new $10 million home of

UNC's computer science department, was designed by virtual means.

Using a head-mounted display along with a handlebar-steerable

treadmill, the building's future users "walked through" it, discovering,

among other things, a discomforting misplacement of a major interior

wall in the lobby. At the point of the discovery, moving the wall out

was cheap. A retrofit following the first "real" walk-through would

have cost more by several orders of magnitude. Thus, one can imagine

retrofit savings from other such examples which could start to make

DataSuits as common a form of architectural apparel as chinos and


Given the fact that AutoCAD is already generating about a hundred

seventy million dollars a year even without such pricy appurtenances

as cyberspace design tools, it isn't hard to imagine a scenario in which

developing workstations for virtual architecture comes to look like

very shrewd business.

Then there is the burgeoning scientific market. Computers are the new

microscopes. Increasingly, they allow us to see into worlds which are

not only too small but too weird to bring to human scale before. For

example, they are showing us the infinitely detailed order of chaos,

never before observable, in a form which makes it possible to

appreciate its simplicity as well as its complexity.

Virtual Reality promises the ability to not only see but to "touch"

forbidden realms. Again at UNC, work is already quite advanced in

which one can assemble complex molecules like Tinkertoys, the

attraction or repulsion between individual atoms in the assembly

modelled to the scale of human tactile perceptions. The drug industry

alone could have uses for such capacity sufficient to sustain a lot of


One can imagine a lot of heretofore inaccessible "places" in which

one's presence might be scientifically illuminating. A Fantastic Voyage

through the circulatory system will become possible (with or without

Raquel Welch). Or travel to alien worlds. (Thanks to JPL, I have

already taken an extremely convincing helicopter ride down the Vallis

Marinaris on Mars.)

Then there all the places which have never before had physical

existence on any scale: the rolling plains of mathematical topologies,

the humming lattice of quantum states, cloud chambers in which mu

mesons are the size of basketballs and decay over weeks rather than


The possibility for less sober uses seems equally fertile. One can

imagine VR salons, video game parlors for big kids with Gold Cards,

in which a central supercomputer provides the opportunity for a score

of people to be Ms. Pacman. Or whatever. Nolan Bushnell, the

founder of Atari and something of an expert on the subject of video

games, is already at work on something like this.

The list of possibilities is literally bounded only by the imagination.

Working bodies for the damaged. Teleconferencing with body

language. Virtual surgery. Hey, this is a practical thing to do!

And yet I suspect that something else altogether, something not so

practical, is at the root of these yearnings. Why do we really want to

develop Virtual Reality? There seems to be a flavor of longing here

which I associate with the desire to converse with aliens or dolphins or

the never-born.

On some level, I think we can now see the potential for technology,

long about the business of making the metaphorical literal, of reversing

the process and re-infecting ordinary reality with luminous magic.

Or maybe this is just another expression of what may be the third

oldest human urge, the desire of have visions. Maybe we want to get


Drugs, Sex, & Rock Tn' Roll

Boot Up, Jack In, Get Virtual

Technology is the new drugs.

Jerry Garcia

Knowing that Garcia is a sucker for anything which might make a

person question all he knows, I gave him a call not long after my first

cyberspace demo. Hell yes, he was interested. When? If I'd told him

6:00 AM, I think he'd have been there on time.

He adapted to it quicker than anyone I'd watched other than my 4 year

old daughter Anna (who came home and told her sisters matter-of-

factly that she been to a neat "place" that afternoon.)

By the time he crossed back over to our side of Reality Horizon, he was

pretty kid-like himself. "Well," he finally said, "they outlawed LSD.

It'll be interesting to see what they do with this."

Which brings me to a point which makes Jaron Lanier very

uncomfortable. The closest analog to Virtual Reality in my experience

is psychedelic, and, in fact, cyberspace is already crawling with

delighted acid heads.

The reason Jaron resents the comparison is that it is both inflammatory

(now that all drugs are evil) and misleading. The Cyberdelic

Experience isn't like tripping, but it is as challenging to describe to the

uninitiated and it does force some of the same questions, most of them

having to do with the fixity of reality itself.

While you can hardly expect people to lay down $15,000 for something

just because it shakes their basic tenets, that's enough to make it worth

the trip for me. I think the effort to create convincing artificial

realities will teach us the same humbling lesson about reality which

artificial intelligence has taught us about intelligence...namely, that we

don't know a damned thing about it.

I've never been of the cut-and-dried school on your Reality Question. I

have a feeling VR will further expose the conceit that "reality" is a fact.

It will provide another reminder of the seamless continuity between

the world outside and the world within delivering another major hit to

the old fraud of objectivity. RTReal'," as Kevin Kelly put it, "is going

to be one of the most relative words we'll have."

And that's just fine with me, since so much of what's wrong in

America is based on the pathological need for certainty and the idiotic

delusion that such a condition can even exist.

Another reason for relating this to acid is the overwhelming sense of its

cultural scale. It carries with it a cosmic titillation I haven't

experienced since 1966. There is also the same dense shower of

synchronicities surrounding it. (I must have run into William and

Meredith Bricken ten times, always unexpectedly and sometimes in the

strangest of places. Today, as I was typing his name, Jaron called me

for the first time in three weeks. Then I felt strangely moved to call

Eric Gullichson after a couple of months of silence. He told me that

yesterday had been his last day at Autodesk. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

Finally, Timothy Leary is all excited again. Now I don't endow every

one of his pronouncements with oracular qualities...I remember the

Comet Starseed... but I have always thought that Uncle Tim is kind of

like a reverse of the canary in the coal mine. Whenever the culture is

about to make a big move, he's the first canary to start jumping up and


He's also, like Zelig, a kind of Zeitgeist chameleon. He spent the 40's in

the Army. In the 50's, he was a tweedy young college professor, a

Jules Feiffer cartoon. In the 60's, he was, well, Timothy Leary. In the

70's, he became, along with H. R. Haldeman, a political prisoner. He

lived up the material 80's in Beverly Hills. Whatever America is about

to do, Tim starts doing it first.

When I visited him recently, he was already as cyberpunk as he had

been psychedelic when I last saw at Millbrook 22 years ago. Still, his

current persona seems reasonable, even seraphic. He calmly scored a

long list of persuasive points, the most resonant of which is that most

Americans have been living in Virtual Reality since the proliferation of

television. All cyberspace will do is make the experience interactive

instead of passive.

"Our brains are learning how to exhale as well as inhale in the data-

sphere." he said. Like our finny ancestors crawling up on land, we are

about to be come amphibians again, equally at home in visceral and

virtual frames.

The latest bus is pulling out of the station. As usual, Leary has been on

it for a while, waiting patiently for it to depart.

Then there is the...uhhhm...sexual thing. I have been through eight or

ten Q. & A. sessions on Virtual Reality and I don't remember one

where sex didn't come up. As though the best thing about all this will

be the infinite abundance of shaded polygonal party dolls. As though

we are devising here some fabulously expensive form of Accu-jac.

This is strange. I don't what to make of it, since, as things stand right

now, nothing could be more disembodied or insensate than the

experience of cyberspace. It's like having had your everything

amputated. You're left mighty under-endowed and any partner

would be so insubstantial you could walk right through her without

either of you feeling a thing. (In fact, when people play tag in Jaron's

Reality Built for Two, one strategy is to hide inside the other person's


And I did overhear the word "DataCondom" at one point... Maybe the

nerds who always ask this question will get a chance to make it with

their computers at long last. (I prefer not to think too much of how

anyone who would want to make it with a machine might treat the

women in their lives...if any there be.)

Fortunately, I think these dreams of cybersex will be thwarted by their

own realization. Yes, it will work for that purpose and it will be easy.

But the real point of Virtual Reality, as with life itself, is contact.

Contact with oneself alone is certainly a laudable enough goal, but the

presence of half a million dollars worth of equipment between that

subject and object is neither necessary nor desirable.

Even if Virtual Reality turns out to provide the format for the ultimate

pornographic film...a "feelie" with a perfect will serve us

better as the ultimate telephone.

Life in the DataCloud

Scratching Your Eyes Back In

There was a man who lived in town

And he was wondrous wise.

He jumped into a bramble bush

And scratched out both his eyes.

And when he saw what he had done,

With all his might and main,

He jumped back in the bramble bush

And scratched them in again.

Old English Nursery Rhyme

Information is alienated experience.

Jaron Lanier

Since the Sumerians starting poking sticks into clay and claiming that

the resulting cuneiform squiggles meant something, we've been living

in the Information Age. Only lately did someone come up with a name

for it. I suppose that was because we quit making anything else of

value. Before that, they just called it civilization.

Indeed, one could make a pretty good case that consciousness, as we

define it, arose simultaneously with the ability to communicate its

products symbolically. (See The Origin of Consciousness and the

Breakdown of the Bicameral Brain by Julian Jaynes for related


The Sumerians had a pretty clear perspective on what this stuff was

good for. The preponderance of their runic tablets turn out to be, on

translation, calendars, inventories, and mnemonic devices for such

data as one might need to remember but which was too trivial to merit

conversion into the other storage form of the era, epic poetry. They

didn't use it to describe anything.

Perhaps they recognized that even the most mundane experience

would beggar any effort to describe it if one were serious about

creating a genuine simulation.

The Egyptians didn't have any such illusions either, but, in addition to

keeping track of cubits and high water, they found symbols useful for

their elaborate liturgical purposes. With so many dramatis personae in

the pantheon, some method was required for sorting out each one's

ritualistic preferences.

The Greeks, as was their wont, expanded the envelope further. To the

previously established (and sensible) uses for writing, they added

commentary, philosophy, calculation and drama.

Still, they restrained themselves from attempting to simulate

experience on paper (or whatever it was they wrote on). One might

argue that drama was an effort to do that, but I think that the likes of

Sophocles probably just found it easier not to have to personally teach

his actors all their lines.

As early as the 5th Century B.C. we hear the first warnings that

information might constitute an abuse of experience. Socrates

suggested that writing things down might damage your ability to

remember them in their proper, full-bodied form. (An admonition we

know about since Plato went ahead and wrote it down as soon as

Socrates was hemlocked out of the ability to stop him.)

It wasn't until the 17th Century that things really got out of hand.

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and fiction was born. From that point,

any experience could be plucked from its holy moment in time and

pressed like a flower in a book, to be reconstituted later in the

imagination of the reader.

The thin, alphanumeric trickle that is language was suddenly thought

to be a acceptable surrogate for the boiling torrent of shapes, smells,

colors, sounds, memories, and context which amalgamate in the

cauldron of a human skull and become there something called Reality.

No longer did one have to "be there." One could read about it and get

the flavor well enough.

This absurd delusion is now universal. The only reason anyone

believes it is that everyone does.

I, on the other hand, began to have my doubts around the time I

started trying to create some of this magical information myself.

Sometime in the 4th Grade, I began to write about the things that

happened to me. For awhile, the approval others showed my efforts

was enough to inspire their continuation.

Gradually, however, the effort became painful. The inadequacy of my

word-replicas for experience was increasingly clear. I tried poetry.

This seemed to work until I realized that it did so because a poem is

about itself and thus has no "real thing" to be compared to.

Writing about something continues to cause me nothing but anguish.

The symbolic tools are hopelessly mis-matched to their three-

dimensional analogues. For example, the word "chair" is in no way

like any chair.

Nor does it begin to imply the vast range of dissimilar objects to which

one might apply it. You can hop it up with adjectives... "big red

chair"...or additional phrases... "big red chair that Washington sat

in"...but the result is usually bad writing without much advancement

of your cause. I mean, "the big, deeply red, densely-brocaded,

Georgian love seat that Washington sat in while being bled by leeches"

is still, for all its lugubrious mass, not a chair.

And if it were, it wouldn't move in the way that real things do even

when they're standing still. Words just sit there. Reality vibrates and

hums. I have a pet phrase for this element of the mismatch: Using

words to describe an experience is like using bricks to build a full-

sized, operational model of a fog bank.

Perhaps it was a subliminal recognition of this fact that caused

America to fall in love with statistics. As a descriptive tool, numbers

are even worse than words. They are very purely themselves and

nothing else. Nevertheless, we now put everything from flowing

water to the human psyche into these rigid numerical boxes and are

especially straight-faced as we claim it fits in them.

In doing this, we usually follow a rule I call, with characteristic

modesty, Barlow's Law of Real Numbers. This states that the

combination of any two speculative numbers by any arithmetic

operation will always yield a real number. The more decimal places

the better.

Computers have hardly been part of the solution in this area. We pass

our measuring grids over pulsating reality, shovel the results into our

machines, thrash them with micro-circuits, and pretend that what

floats up to the screen is "real."


What computers can do, and have done to a fare-thee-well, is to

provide us with a hyper-abundance of such processed lies. Everything

from U.S. News and World Report to Penthouse is now a dense thicket

of charts, tables, graphs, and %'s. All purporting to tell us something

about what is.

But it's all just information. Which, apart from the fact that it's not to

be confused with experience, has several problems which Jaron Lanier

succinctly enumerated for me: "The first problem is that it's in-

formation. The second problem is that it's linear information. And the

third problem is that it's false information."

Or, as we say in Wyoming, "Figures don't lie, but liars can figure."

Virtual Reality is probably not going to cure this nonsense any more

than television, its one-way predecessor, has done. The global supply

of words, numbers, statistics, projections, analyses, and gossip...what I

call the DataCloud... expands with thermonuclear vigor and all the

Virtual Reality we can manufacture isn't going to stop that.

But it may go a long way toward giving us means to communicate

which are based on shared experience rather than what we can

squeeze through this semi-permeable alphanumeric membrane. If it

won't contain the DataCloud, it might at least provide some

navigational aids through it.

Maybe it can scratch our eyes, blinded by information, back in again.