Bruce Damer interviewing Mark Pesce in the Lower Fortress
in the City of Florence, Italy, May 1996. For inclusion in Bruce's
Mark Pesce is one of the original visionaries behind VRML, the
Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a standard way of describing
a three dimensional Cyberspace world. Mark is a published author
and an accomplished speaker. In this interview, Mark casts a wide
net over the issues of living in a virtual world, questioning
why we should see real space and Cyberspace as different.
So what is the book about?
The book is a starter kit for worlds, that will have a CD in it,
and guides, social guides, social etiquette, the events that happen,
a companion website that will be updated all the time on what
is going on any world, even the 2D worlds like the Palace, the
VRML worlds, Moos, although more focus on graphical worlds.
So what's on the score?
The score is that the chapter that I am putting together on visionaries
which is "what is our future in digital space", what
will life be like, what will people do there, what will they do
that's good, that's bad, that's creative, that's crazy, the kinds
of things you see will start happening?
Well, there's big theory here. My current big theory.. one reason
I propose theories is to get them out there so that people will
start talking about them and establish discourse because this
field does not have nearly enough discourse yet.
Lets talk about something called structural coupling. When you
have an informational relationship with another entity, you enter
into what the informational biologists call structural coupling.
One way of thinking about it is we have a relationship, say,
with a teacher, you have an information relationship and in fact
one of the things teachers never talk about but is quite true,
teachers learn just as much from you as you do from them. Its
a structural coupling. Information, in terms of learning, is always
a two way street or always a multi-way street, there is no such
thing as one way learning.
That is not learning, its not programming, it can't happen that
way. This is probably one reason why fascists eventually fail.
Because the whole idea behind fascism is an utter top down form
of government, its not physically possible.
So, all of these mediations are going to lead to all of these
structural couplings which are now no longer based on proximity,
which people would say has been true ever since the beginning
of the electric media, but the electric media, with the exception
of the telephone, have not been multi-lateral and the telephone
is at best bi-lateral, it is not even multi-lateral. So, I am
going to have all of these couplings that are multi-lateral that
are proximally confused. The difference between what is near
and what is far is inverted or reverted or perverted or its changed
utterly. This means that certain people, entities, activities
can become very close even if they are very far away physically
and that means that our entire concept of space and the organization
of space is going to be dramatically changed as a result of this.
I tend to focus when I think and I prognosticate, on our children,
because, we are at best the midpoints of the revolution and that's
at best, we might be the starting points and James Watt and Faraday
and Michaelson were at the beginning for instance of the electric
revolution, of the power revolution. They I don't think in their
wildest dreams would have thought about the computer and yet the
computer revolution results from their work, as is superconductivity,
as is high energy physics, solar power satellites or lasers.
I think in some ways we have that kind of relationships with our
technologies. We are busily creating them and perhaps future generations
will remember that, I don't know, but we aren't ever going to
be fully aware of what their affect is going to be. Remember,
there is two things, there is effect and affect. Effect is the
inventory of things, affect is the way it changes the way you
feel. I tend to focus more on affect, because when you use the
word affect, you specifically mean changing the way it makes you
able to feel.
The experience that I had in the recent virtual wedding [in AlphaWorld,
May 8, 1996, see http://www.ccon.org/events/wedding.html] with
the people that I was on speakerphone with running avatars, there
was a great nervous tension because they knew there was a social
scene happening and they did not want to disrupt it by accidentally
crashing through the ceremony and they were intent on being able
to communicate and not be seen to ignore anyone or snub anyone
was difficult in the medium..
That's because the medium is just not good enough for it yet.
It lasted four hours and it was completely mentally exhausting.
I am not surprised, because you are maintaining most of that construct
in your forebrain. There is not that much of it going on the screen.
That's right, that is an interesting point. The rest of the body
is sitting there and you want to move your body to interact but
you can't and everything is like a laser focused up here [pointing
to his forebrain].
Do you think there will be millions of people using this medium
to interact socially?
Yeah, how can there be any question to that? It's subsuming the
telephone and the television and the computer and the radio. I
am not sure it is going to converge as neatly as some people might
think into a single device. I think that it will converge briefly
and then explode again into an array of different things.
Sort of like Stephen Jay Gould's vision of evolution?
There is punctuated equilibria. Or even more like what we think
of when we think of the Cambrian explosion. Which is really where
I think we are in the information age right, now, in the Cambrian
explosion period, the web being the thing that kicked it off.
Do you think that in these world environments there will be synthetic
organisms evolving, bots?
There are already! Tom Ray's Tierra project. I don't think there
is going to be much choice about that, plus we will grow them
in order to be the most effective knowledge seekers. The best
agents are the agents that are the most independent from you.
Unfortunately they are also the most dangerous. That was one of
the subplots in "ghost in the show" and they had to
get rid of this entity that had gotten too smart at being able
to forage for its own information.
The old classic HAL 9000.. [from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space
No, HAL had a conscience, and that is what got him. He had a conscience
and he had to lie to everyone, so he had a nervous breakdown and
started killing people. Hey, you know it happens!
Do you think that nation states will emerge within, say, a visual
Communities! I think that nation states are a dreadfully Cartesian
concept and that's not particularly Cartesian space. Communities
absolutely will emerge, have already and will continue to. It
is kind of funny, because this whole issue of smut on the Internet
smacks of a fundamental misapprehension that in fact the way we
deal with it in the real world is by zoning the real world. Well,
hello! The only difference between real space and Cyberspace is
in the fact that we think they are different. Because we zone
the real world artificially, its a construct in our heads, we
do things certain things hear and there. Well, I cant see, taste,
hear any difference between that and having an area of AlphaWorld
or whatever as the smut area!
I recently asked John Perry Barlow what he felt about the 3D VRML
and other worlds where people were constructing "stuff"
and his comment was that there should be no ownership, no stuff
in the Internet, it should be all interaction, it should be all
That's sort of like saying the whole universe should be energy
and not matter. And we will leave that there.
Here is a basic question for you: what motivated you to create
and drive VRML, to bring VRML to the world?
Hmm, I am a radical ecologist. As I say on the first page of my
book, Cyberspace is the preeminent environment for planetary management,
it is the way that our children will tend the planet, because
it gives them a reach that we did not have for our parents. I
can stop you from polluting if I can see you doing it in Cyberspace,
dammit! Which our parents could not do. PCBs get dumped into the
environment because we cannot watch.
This is interesting because on one side this is the panoptic mechanism
of Jeremy Bentham which is a mechanism of totalitarianism. On
the other side it is also a mechanism for tending. Our job lies
in finding the balance. That's the thing we leave for the kids.
I don't want to get Marxist about it but the technology has a
momentum but no direction.
Momentum but no direction, sounds like any revolution.
Our responsibility is to give that momentum a direction, to give
it a vector. Because it would take any vector. Some of those vectors
are very pathological.
So, for instance, in the beginning establishing some basic social
Establishing the fact that the social mores that exist in the
real world persist in Cyberspace! That all the pathologies present
in the real world are present in Cyberspace by virtue of the fact
that we are the agents of the pathologies! And when I say "we"
I mean the part of us that can squeeze through the keyhole into
Cyberspace. That's the very interesting point, that Cyberspace,
I call it the mirror of the third eye, because boy does it show
us what you really are! Because if you look in there and you see
dragons and demons and devils then I know what you are full of,
because what you are doing is you are seeing yourself. I don't
see dragons and demons and devils when I go into Cyberspace, I
generally see angels, nominist things, choirs, not always, no
one is perfect but to that degree it is a mirror of what is inside
of you. That's not utopian its not just the only thing that's
in there but it is to say that in the same way you shape your
own life by what you feel and what you do and what you choose
to feel and do, the same thing is true in Cyberspace only its
slightly more visible to everyone else.
And you have the benefit of sometimes being anonymous but perhaps
Well, you have the benefit of being anonymous in the real world
as long as no-one knows who you are! The Japanese have a proverb
that a man away from home has no neighbors, which is often used
the explain the rape of Nanking.
For people who are entering the worlds we are going to feature
and talk about in the book, what advice would you have for them?
First off, don't place your technical expectations too high. This
is an evolution, we are in the middle of the evolution. Second,
to be social is part and parcel of being human. The drive to communicate
is so basic in human beings. We have to understand that culture
is communication. That's what semiotics is, that's what postmodernism
is. So that when you are in any environment is communicating with
you and how you choose to communicate through that environment.
Third, don't be afraid of the dark! Don't be afraid of space that
hasn't been filled yet.
It may be filled but it may be very weird and unfamiliar!
That's another side of it! And as always, mind your own business
and treat others as you would have them treat you. That's one
of the reasons San Francisco is such a fabulous place to live,
in general those two rules are observes, amazing!
So we would really want to have a civil society like a San Francisco,
instead of a..
..a New York of Cyberspace or at least the freedom to go between
And again this is not a Pollyanna, it is clear that Cyberspace
is going to undergo a differentiation just as the real world does.
The beautiful thing about Cyberspace is that it is somewhat easier
to move between communities. I do think communities will arise
that will purposely not let other people in. I think that is to
be expected. You'll get Shaker type communities, Amish type communities,
Mormon type communities.
One thing we've seen which caused a lot of deep emotion was the
question of whether one avatar should be able to block you from
seeing or talking to them. So that you could be standing next
to another avatar and you can't see the person because they don't
want to talk to you and your compatriot can talk to that person
and how that would make you feel that someone has "blacked
You read the Scarlet Letter, that's what that is isn't it? Socrates
drank poison rather than to suffer that banishment.
It's a terrible thing to be cast out of a community!
Well, its a thing anyway. In a sense, communities probably have
the right to do that.. because there is no other practical way.
If you remember the rape in Cyberspace, that was the punishment,
it was death, in terms of banishment, it was the only thing they
So perhaps in the Twenty First Century humanity is going to get
a whole new look at itself, its world and what we are doing to
the world? And we are going to have to deal with what we see.
We're not going to be able to say "I'm here in my cubicle
and you are in your cubicle". We are going to be able to
see all the cubicles and the machine and what the monster is doing.
It's not going to be, if you have read Ian Forster's "the
Machine Stops". Brilliant story by a man who didn't write
science fiction who was just a great writer. Very chilling, very
much way pre Gibsonian cyberpunk. Very advanced society where
people are utterly insulated from each other and only view each
other over screens. It's beautiful and over the whole course of
it the infrastructure starts breaking. But everyone is so removed
from it that they can't really work up more than a sense that
things are going wrong but nobody really knows. So.. that's what
we want to avoid.
Any closing thoughts?
I don't think our children are going to have the same ego boundaries
that we do because the technologies that we have are causing the
apprehension of those boundaries to mutate. Ego boundaries are
always maintained in the psyche, not in the physiology. And ego
boundaries which were impermanent at best are very easily refigured.
I think that we will have as much trouble understanding our grandchildren
as our parents had understanding feudal society. Because there
were as many constrictions on feudal society that were mentally
enforced as we have in our own society. I am not saying that society
of the future will be perfect, I don't expect that, but I do think
that the boundaries of Personhood will be drawn very very differently.
In some ways I think they will expand to fill the whole volume
of the planet. In some ways I think they will narrow down to a
point which will be nonexistent. And I think both are going to
be simultaneously true.