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Chapter 1: A Place Called Cyberspace (continued)

Virtual Worlds

"We are still in an early stage of world making."
Henry Ford

"It's not just about new media.
There is something bigger going on."
Bruce Damer
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.

     For 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 Virtual World.

     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 age group.

     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 (21) explains, it is possible to argue that this big storm is actually alive:

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. (24) 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 code 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. (26)

     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 species. (29)

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. (30)

Unthinkable complexity!


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