Chapter 1: A Place Called Cyberspace (continued)
"We are still in an early stage of
"It's not just about new media.
There is something bigger going on."
Interview for New Media Magazine (2000)
In parallel with the development
of Virtual Reality we see the first colonizations of cyberspace
taking place in what are called Inhabited Virtual Worlds,
or IVWs. As we discuss Inhabited Virtual Worlds, it is important
to know that to participate in the community of an IVW does
not require the use of any of the devices being developed
for Virtual Reality. While the use of VR equipment, such as
headphones, goggles, tactile feedback devices, etc., can enhance
the experience of being in an Inhabited Virtual World, the
majority of people who are now inhabiting such worlds use
the same hardware most of us use to browse a web page. That
is one of the reasons IVWs are so popular today. If you can
surf, you can colonize.
What it means to colonize an
Inhabited Virtual World is that one becomes a regular or semi-regular
member of an online community that is constructing a virtual
world made out of graphical objects that give the appearance
of a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional computer
screen. In many IVWs, one does not even have to participate
in the building of the world to become a member of the community.
It does not require deep computer programming skills to help
build these worlds. Many of them have tools available that
make the construction of a cyberhouse, for example, something
a novice can easily learn to accomplish. The primary difference
between an Inhabited Virtual World and a chat room is that
conversations in an IVW take place face-to-face with the participants
being represented by avatars in a space that appears three-dimensional.
some, particularly those who have experienced geographic colonization
first hand, the word colonize may carry some negative baggage.
The dictionary informs us that to colonize means to "establish
a colony in a country or area." A colony is defined as
"a group of settlers in a new country (whether or not
already inhabited) fully or partly subject to the mother country."
I suspect it is the reference to a mother country that carries
the negative emotional weight of the word "colonize."
It is hoped that these negative aspects of colonize can be
left behind as you ponder what it means to colonize an Inhabited
Actually, my hope is that there
will never be anything but colonies in cyberspace. The alternative
is to see both big companies and nations, large and small,
attempt to put fences around parts of cyberspace just as they
have on land, sea, and in our air space. (In subsequent chapters,
this issue and others involving the freedom of cyberspace
will be discussed more fully.) To colonize, in the context
of cyberspace, therefore, is meant to imply a positive activity,
one that is to be encouraged on as large a scale as possible.
Today, we have all been given a charter to colonize as much
of cyberspace as we care to maintain. It does not take the
assent of any nation-state to give you permission to become
a colonizer. You may do this on your own or in union with
other minds, no matter where they may be geographically situated.
One morning, as my wife and
I were walking along a sidewalk in a small town on the Island
of Hawaii, we saw a group of teenagers looking out to sea
through a gap in the buildings that lined the street. Seeing
them made me wonder if these young minds were dispirited by
the fact that all of the land on their island was already
owned, and is very expensive. What hope did these young people
have to ever own a substantial piece of real estate, I wondered.
Then I remembered Bruce Damer's presentation at the conference
we were attending. Suddenly, the enchantment of Inhabited
Virtual Worlds became crystal clear to me. The young men and
women I saw staring at the ocean may very well have been projecting
their minds into cyberspace at that moment. Perhaps their
whispered conversation was about the new world they were building
together. The possibilities of IVWs instantly blossomed before
us as we began to see the promising future these young people
can create if they have unlimited access to the Internet.
(In later chapters we will discuss the issue of Internet access
for the less advantaged members of our species.)
This is not meant to imply
that Inhabited Virtual Worlds are only for people under 20
years of age. The age of one's body is of no importance in
cyberspace. What is important is the age of one's mind. By
that I mean, to fully enjoy an IVW it helps if you still have
that youthful sense of adventure, exploration, and endless
possibility you had when you were young in body. I can think
of no more therapeutic activity for senior citizens than to
spend some time online every day in an Inhabited Virtual World.
I would bet that if a controlled study were conducted to test
the mental acuity of senior citizens who actively participate
in IVWs, it would find these people to be at the top of their
In addition to virtual human
communities, there are other kinds of virtual worlds to be
found in cyberspace. I refer here to digital worlds that are
inhabited by the non-biological life forms known as artificial
life, cyberbiology, or ALife. Formerly the stuff of science
fiction, ALife is already on its way to becoming an integral
feature of nature.
While grammarians may not be
able to get past the seemingly oxymoronic phrase "artificial
life," some of the researchers laying the foundations
for this field no longer have a problem in conceiving of their
creations as a new form of life. The debate, of course, centers
on one's definition of what is meant by life.
The most elementary form of
life we know of on this planet is the cell. In technical terms,
a living cell is a dissipative structure that is not in a
state of equilibrium. To remain alive, both matter and energy
must continuously flow through it. An interesting case of
a cohesive structure that is in such a state of nonequilibrium
is the Great Red Spot on the planet Jupiter. As Stuart Kauffman
explains, it is possible to argue that this big storm is actually
The Great Red Spot vortex, essentially a storm system,
has been present for at least several centuries. Thus the
lifetime of the Great Red Spot is far longer than the average
time any single gas molecule has lingered within it. It
is a stable organization of matter and energy through which
both matter and energy flow. The similarity to a human organism,
whose molecular constituents change many times during a
lifetime, is intriguing. One can have a remarkably complex
discussion about whether the Great Red Spot might be considered
to be living-and if not, why not. (22)
Similar discussions abound
about cyberbiology-digital life. (23)
One of the more impressive ALife research projects is Tom
Ray's "Tierra," a large scale computer environment
in which digital life has been evolving for over ten years.
The basic premise of Tierra is that life, which on Earth is
the result of evolution operating in the medium of organic
chemistry, need not be restricted to carbon chemistry or to
only the planet Earth. The medium used to support the life
of Tierra is digital computation.
Snippets of computer
are used to simulate organisms. These little pieces of software
can mutate through random changes in one or more bits,
or recombine with others by exchanging segments of code. (25)
The operating system, in this case a virtual
computer, provides a Darwinian-like environment in
which this code runs-thus these strings of ones and zeros
can actually evolve. Over time, natural selection improves
the genetically more robust code and eliminates weak code.
Also over time, a true ecology has evolved in the network
of computers supporting the Tierra project.
This system results in the
production of synthetic organisms based on a computer metaphor
of organic life in which CPU
time is the "energy" resource and memory is the
"material" resource. Memory is organized into informational
patterns that exploit CPU time for self-replication. Mutation
generates new forms, and evolution proceeds by natural selection
as different genotypes compete for CPU time and memory space.
Diverse ecological communities
have emerged. These digital communities have been used to
experimentally examine ecological and evolutionary processes:
e.g., competitive exclusion and coexistence, host/parasite
density dependent population regulation, the effect of parasites
in enhancing community diversity, evolutionary arms race,
punctuated equilibrium, and the role of chance and historical
factors in evolution. This evolution in a bottle may prove
to be a valuable tool for the study of evolution and ecology.
It has been over ten years
since the Tierra project first began. During that period,
CPU time on hundreds of interconnected computers has been
made available for the evolution of Tierra. Unlike the pace
of Earthly evolution, digital life forms in Tierra are evolving
millions of times faster than is possible in carbon-based
biology. As these forms of ALife evolve, they are seen to
migrate from one computer to another, sometimes moving their
offspring with them. Eventually parasites emerged and began
consuming their hosts, which in turn developed strategies
to fend off these digital viruses. The implications of this
research are quite profound when one considers that what we
are seeing here is the evolution of pure information, which
could quite possibly lead to a Cambrian-like explosion of
artificial life once a sufficient number of computers are
connected to the Tierra network. (27)
Other than the intellectual
pleasure that projects like this provide, there are some very
practical applications for virtual worlds populated by digital
life. For example, here is Bruce Damer's idea of a way to
build an asteroid killer once we have also developed nanotechnology
devices that can build things one atom at a time:
That creature could have evolved the equivalent of a hundred
million years in a cyberspace world. The world would be
capable of modeling what asteroids are like and what the
hard vacuum of space is like and solar flux and all that.
Then you could attach your nano-spinner to the virtual space
and actually make some of them out of atoms. And make sure
they don't eat the earth, but allow them to evolve.
Then you jam your little creature factory on to the surface
of a big local asteroid and put a receiver on it and send
the creatures to it, and then suddenly you've got an uncounted
number of creatures out in the solar system that are going
to create environments that they need to live in. Because
we are never going to expand off the earth with our current
stuff. Space ships have to be alive and have to repair their
own bodies. Virtual worlds and cyberspace may be key for
life's next step, and the key may necessitate the most dangerous
imaginable tools and the most powerful imaginable tools
that apes have ever made.
So, it's all like a big metaphor for what's already happened
over billions of years, only this time, it'll take maybe
a couple years? The virtual world plays precisely into how
we've evolved. (28)
After billions of years of organic evolution on Earth, both
ALife and human consciousness are beginning to colonize cyberspace.
Of course, many people cannot accept the possibility that
artificial life has the potential of evolving into a living
form. Yet it should not be difficult to see that even if ALife
never achieves parity with biological life, this new technology
promises to have a significant impact on the future of our
Cyberspace and You
The next time you find yourself
watching a television program, perhaps you might want to reconsider
what the popular press has been saying about the isolation
the Internet allegedly is bringing about. While you are sitting
in front of your TV, ask yourself how connected you feel to
the millions of others who are watching the same program at
the same time. Then, turn off your television, log on to the
Internet, teleport into an Inhabited Virtual World and see
if you don't feel much more connected to other intelligent
members of our species than you do when you are just watching
television. (Some even experience this elevated feeling of
connectivity when they are merely thinking about cyberspace.)
There is an unlimited number
of virtual worlds and virtual communities that can be established
in the densely populated islands of information that are to
be found in the infinity of cyberspace. Perhaps the time has
arrived for you to add your spirit to this growing chorus
of human awareness as it extends beyond the barriers of our
biology. As you will see in the next chapter, there are some
intriguing and very compelling reasons you may want to begin
exploring life in the Inhabited Virtual Worlds located in
deep cyberspace. By deep cyberspace, I mean that almost hypnotic
state of mind that is sometimes experienced after spending
a long period of time in an Inhabited Virtual World.
I call this "deep cyberspace"
because after leaving there and re-entering everyday consensus
reality, it sometimes takes hours, or even days, to "come
back down." Once a mind is in deep cyberspace, it is
no easy matter to extract it and return to the restrictions
of biological existence.
It is in deep cyberspace where
we see the islands of information becoming larger and consciousness
becoming more dense. These islands in cyberspace consist of
the interactions between consciousness, information, billions
of virtual objects, and artificial forms of life, and are
being sustained by the most complex technological artifact
ever built on Earth. It is difficult to imagine what the Internet
will be like a few decades from now, when just one densely
populated Inhabited Virtual Universe, itself composed of a
galaxy of Inhabited Virtual Worlds, becomes the equivalent
of a single page on today's World Wide Web! Which brings us
full circle to William Gibson's original definition of "cyberspace:"
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination
experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in
every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts.
. . . A graphical representation of data abstracted from the
banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.