I-Vision News and Newsletter
"History was made on this 8th of May, 1996 at 9pm Central Standard Time as the first ever wedding was held in a multi-user Internet-based virtual world! Alphaworld was the site of this milestone event in human contact and culture in digital space. A couple (Janka and Tomas) were married in a ceremony attended by several dozen of their friends and well wishers, all digitally dressed for the occasion as avatars.
A special pavillion was built for the event by
Laurel. Best man was AlphaWorld Chief of Police NetGuy. Bridesmaid was
Yellow Rose. The honorable minister presiding was New World Times Editor
"The visions of virtual reality given to us by
authors such as William Gibson or Neal Stephenson seem like something from
far off in the next century. In these fictional worlds millions of people
_jack in_ to three dimensional digital realities, move about, interact and
build virtual cities. The surprising thing about this vision is that it is
here today! In the past twelve months inhabited digital worlds have been
launched on the Internet. We believe that this new medium of contact and
culture will be as significant for us in the Twenty First Century as the
telephone, radio and television were for the Twentieth."
Virtual Kiss for Virtual Bride
Bruce Damer, one of the co-founders of Contact Consortium and president of DigitalSpace Corporation, spoke with Darek Milewski of I-Vision about virtual worlds, how they affect society and where this phenomenon leads us. Although the interview was conducted in March 1996, it carries the message even stronger today. Since then we had a virtual wedding, forest and town building, virtual party and recently launched TheU -- A World Virtual University Project. What's ahead in digital space?
This entire interview was broadcast on 8 August 1996 "An Alternative Media View, Darek Milewski Edition", KALX 90.7FM Berkeley (California). An earlier interview, "the Digital Naturalist", was aired on August 24, 1995 and recorded with Bruce Damer ealier in the summer while on a hike in the Boulder Creek Scout Reservation.
BD: Well, we came there, to Sherwood Forest, from virtual world on AlphaWorld, which you can download on WWW http://www.worlds.net/. We are an organization of people who spend time in natural settings: anthropologists, primate researchers, a lot of scientists and writers -- and we felt that if we are going to study the beginnings of a new human community, we should go back to where we all came from, which is probably a forest land or meadows. So we felt that instead structures that look like outlet malls - which is very common in AlphaWorld -- pink false fronts -- we would build a forest and have the human community start within that forest. So we put up around 300 trees, shrubs, lot of lakes and streams, and what not, and placed forest sound there. Now we are ready to build a town. It could be an encampment, could be a proper town or medieval town. Last Sunday (March 24th 1996) a lot of avatars came in and joined us at the front gate for a tour of the land and for discussion, a sort of floating chat discussion of what we would build there. We are planning to really start the construction going on May 4th.
DM: What did you find in this massive human interaction? How did people behave while building? Were they able to agree on where to put the trees? How did this social interaction work?
BD: The interesting thing is that you can build in this virtual world and the other person cannot move or touch or alter the object you've placed down. So, you have to agree to share a common cloak, a common persona -- it is like one individual building. So there is a great deal of trust that you have to have in this process. Someone can come one night and vandalize all the work that has been done, take it apart. The discussion that we are having now with the avatar community is about individuals who want to build in a chaotic fashion - shanty towns and messing around with everything. Others want to have specific plots that are assigned to them that they build on.
DM: How do you agree? Is there a process of voting?
BD: Actually, we want to build a town charter and have the town builders and town fathers agree on rules that we will follow. It is just a matter of trust. In fact, in this town people do not live; avatars do not stay there. When you log off, your avatar disappears. Most of the time the town is abandoned. So, there are no virtual guard dogs there, either. That would be a very good idea, actually -- virtual Dobermans. We just have to agree, as a group, virtually, how to place the town. Actually, we are going to compromise -- outside of the city wall will be the chaotic area, the shanty town. So, this should satisfy both communities. The red light district, sort of, will be there. Inside AlphaWorld there are vandals, there are hooligans. They come and wreck stuff. One, by the name of King Punisher, has been terrorizing AlphaWorld. We have to be aware of King Punisher and his gang. Robin Hood and his merry gang may come to Contact. There is probably a Sheriff of Nottingham somewhere, too.
DM: Do you have any idea who this super-vandal is?
BD: Don't know. He or she has been seen vandalizing properties, caught in the act. Basically, a picture was taken. If you, for instance, want to destroy the site by putting heaps of garbage on it or big barricades or flames - towers of flames that are burning visually on the screen -- some poor person's site is in the ring of fires of hell, King Punisher would leave his name on the object that he or she placed down. That is how you can tell who did it. It is like Pink Panther with the glove.
DM: So, there is rebellion even in this virtual world. What else is coming?
BD: It's a grand experiment. Of course, this started a couple of decades ago with text-based interaction on computers. The first UNIX system was built as a game for people to do this and it's still going on. There are hundreds of such communities based on text chat -- you simply type and you see a thread of conversation. This year they've become visual -- completely immersive visual environments -- and the richness of this text chat has diminished. People are very focused on property ownership and the way things look. So the merging of these two worlds -- the social dynamism of the text world and the visual enrapturement of a virtual world -- is going to produce quite of a milieu for human interaction. We had a meeting -- physical symposium -- recently, where an anthropologist from Apple Computer, Bonnie Nardi, asked us the question, "Why are you doing this? Aren't we already disconnected enough from our natural world? We are escaping. We can't spend five minutes to introduce ourselves to our neighbor, yet we spend thousands of dollars on-line." Perhaps it is a good question to ask; I don't know the answer. But there is a real attraction for people to have instant communication with others, with strangers, all over the planet. In the 1880s the Secretary of Commerce said that telephones are wonderful and every city should have one. They had no concept of the need for higher primates to reach out and touch another primate. And the most harmless way to do it is with words. And when you bring an avatar in the virtual world and property into it, he gets more invested. But this is, perhaps, the fundamental desire we all have. And if we feel afraid of our neighbors -- maybe it is the only option that we have.
DM: The avatars -- they look canned, identical, you have only limited numbers of avatar looks available. What if we had the ability to put our own physique into the avatar, so that it really looked like us. Would it still be so easy to interact with strangers?
BD: In fact, they have scanners now that can scan your entire face and body. This type of avatar is too massive for the Internet to deliver, but it will come. In Neal Stephenson's book "Snow Crash," his rule was that your avatar in digital space could not be taller than you in real life. He predicted that people would use height; and height is probably the key factor of dominance in social interaction, hence, the power of the person on the horseback and the power of the horse. Yes, this is a very open question. Many people who are disabled or disfigured love to be on-line because they have open communication for the first time in their lives. They, perhaps, would not want to be seen as they really are physically.
DM: Isn't it sad if we need virtual worlds to be able to reach out to our neighbors?
BD: I think that in this century the most unfortunate is another virtual medium that has conquered the human mind and human attention -- television. It is immersive, it's magnetic, it's more powerful than the Internet. It is not interactive, and it has done tremendous damage. Hundreds of hours of news reports per year that tell you your neighborhood is full of gangs and violence, that's deep programming. That's made us very fearful. Surprisingly, even moving here to the redwood forest (Boulder Creek, CA), it took me about a year to cast that off; that when someone made eye contact in downtown Boulder Creek, it did not mean that they were going to attack me or anything. It is just the way people are here. If this kind of medium can pull people away from TV, the view of the world that TV gives us, it will be good. Perhaps it is not a substitute for going and talking to the neighbor or taking your dog for a walk, though.
DM: Can't you take a virtual dog for a walk?
BD: Yes. In fact there is a movement to put animals in animate forms in virtual worlds. If you go to AlphaWorld there are trees there. They are nice, but they do not grow, they do not loose their leaves, there are no seasons, no weather, there are no dogs, no bugs, no birds. There is a movement that says that there should be a mechanism to make things to look like they are alive. Perhaps there are computer viruses born in 3-D and just floating around -- artificial life, those kind of things.
DM: Don't you think idea of a virtual world that you can almost live in, comes from our deep longing for paradise? Could that be a paradise?
BD: This topic has come up during Consortium meetings a lot. Because, in sense, you are back to this old Greek ideal of building Utopia -- from the town layout to the social rules in it. It can be clean, it can be really Utopia. It's a fabrication, but it's very, very attractive. Also, the idea of creating a new social movement, not to say revolution, communism or new church, but to create a grouping of people to fabricate a shared idea. I think that is a fundamental dream of human beings. The virtual world let's you play with it. It is a simulation, but as people get more and more vested in the property they build, the communication gets real. You are not communicating with a robot -- you are talking with a person. How deeply involved you are spiritually and emotionally - that's a good question.
DM: What are the dangers of living this kind of life? You mentioned that you met Steven Roberts, who lives his life on a monstrous computerized bicycle. He mentioned something about his fear of being too digital. Do you remember what it was?
BD: It's quite an interesting story. This is a man who has lived for years on his hi-tech bicycle. He is known as a technomad, or the father of this movement of connected nomads. He has a helmet that he wears with a heads-up display. He basically looks through the glass and can see his computer screen, but can also see the outside world. So, he is cycling through a town, somewhere in the Midwest, and he sees a pretty girl. His eyes move over to this girl, and since his eyes also control the mouse, the mouse sails over and lands on top of the girl and his immediate reaction is to click on the girl. So, he is a man totally immersed in the real world, but the mental space that he is carrying with him is virtual space. Steve is very careful, having ridden probably a hundred thousand miles on this bike, but other people have been so completely immersed in their heads from dealing in the digital medium that they have walked out and been run over by trucks, because they are just not aware of what's going on around them. After eight hours of laying down digital sod tile in AlphaWorld, on the floor of our property, as a basis for forest, I came here to hike, met ranger John and said "John, see this piece of concrete and sod? If you pick that up, copy it, and move it over, you'll have more land!" You can get completely sucked in. It's different than just surfing the Web or typing e-mail. This grabs a whole lot more neurons in your brain. It exhausts you. Physically, too. It's a very dramatically different experience than your normal Internet activity.
DM: Where can people start and enter this virtual world?
BD: Our consortium is trying to be a nexus of information and issue building around this new medium. You can find us at http://www.ccon.org/. On our Web site we have links and instructions on how to download these worlds. We have a lot of photographs from experiences in these worlds, plus articles, papers, research on the theme.
Avatar is the way you look in digital space; it is your personal body wrapping and floats through the virtual environment you see on your computer screen; you could be a cat or a dragon or a crazy guy; you can be really seen as anything
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Modified 09-Aug-1996 1500PDT by DM