Continuing convergences

In the middle of the 1990s ‘convergence’ is the overused label for the ongoing rapid development and application of what were once seen as three very distinct electronic technologies—computing, telecommunications and audio-visual (AV) media. Because the development of computing’s digital technologies has rapidly surpassed the originally analogue telecommunications and AV media technologies, those two areas have progressively converted to digital—most notably today in the respective forms of ISDN and CD. The impression of convergence is supported by computing’s ready utilisation for its own purposes of these newly digital and thus compatible technologies. At a technical level, the computing-telecommunications convergence has produced the Internet, while the computing-AV convergence has produced CD-ROM, as well as, in both cases, a range of comparable or lesser technologies.

While these hardware and system software products are essential to our story, it is also useful to consider convergence from a functional perspective. Such a step reveals that the computing-telecommunications convergence has produced ‘computer-mediated communication’ (CMC), while the computing-AV convergence has produced ‘interactive multimedia’ (IMM). It is particularly useful to our story to establish where the World Wide Web sits in terms of all these convergences.

At first sight, as an Internet service, the Web is clearly a product of the computing-telecommunications convergence. The contribution from the AV direction appears relatively minor with inline graphics and links to graphics, text and video files being a numerically minor, albeit resource-hungry, aspect. However, from our functional perspective, the Web is not really useful for the point to point communication which is at the functional root of telecommunications, but fits much more naturally into the producer-consumer function of AV media. Further support for seeing the Web as IMM is provided by the essential role of Mosaic in the Web’s success—Mosaic’s introduction of a graphical user interface to the Web is much closer to the style of CD-ROM based IMM than to the style of the Internet’s other CMC services.

Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace is of a virtual reality where individual cybernauts share similar perspectives of the “consensual illusion” while maintaining the person to person communication that is essential to the conduct of joint missions. The illusion is IMM and the person to person is CMC. The major functional gap between the Web and the dream of cyberspace is the Web’s difficulty with CMC, but that is a difficulty which is being seriously addressed through current attempts to combine the most advanced CMC on the Internet with full Web functionality.

Computer-mediated communication in various ways breaks down some of the limits of earlier forms of communication. Electronic mail is ubiquitous and fundamental. E-mail’s capacity to efficiently carry forward the context of a series of communications underpins the emergence of the CMC phenomenon of ‘threads’. A wish to attach multimedia data to text-based e-mail led to the MIME specification which has proved much more important to the Web than to e-mail itself. Beyond personal e-mail, CMC has grown in various directions. Common interest groups of various sizes are served by ‘mailing lists’ and ‘news groups’. The latter employ a special method of low priority communication so that additions to the contents of thousands of specialised bulletin boards are efficiently distributed to the many news servers around the Internet. While these may be seen as a step back to the one-to-many function of traditional media, they are also the source of further emergent phenomena, such as ‘flame wars’ which often far exceed the worst excesses of letters columns or talk-back radio. The Web provides connections to the news groups, e-mail and almost every other major information resource on the Internet. The one notable gap is the major Internet services for real time ‘conversation’—the person to person CMC that provides an essential complement to the visual images of cyberspace.

Current person to person communication on the Internet is dominated by text, although pilot projects also provide videoconferencing and person-to-person voice communication. To have a text based conversation, you must establish just who of the millions of Internet users is intended to participate in the conversation. While one to one text conversations can theoretically be established between any two people on the Internet, overwhelmingly such conversations only occur in a well defined context. While context can be and is defined by coordinated access to ‘Internet Relay Chat’ channels, it is much more richly defined through systems of virtual ‘rooms’ which you can enter and leave through virtual ‘exits’ and within which everybody sees what everybody else in that room types. Multi-user dungeons (MUDs) have provided such contexts for a decade and have become increasingly popular and addictive. MUDs started out as a multi-user extension of text-based adventure games which provide the basic room with exits metaphor. Importantly, rooms and exits and ‘players’ and other virtual objects have descriptions and other properties which enrich the context. The early MUDs were developed just for game playing until users discovered that they can also provide a conducive setting for social conversation, and ultimately for serious person to person communication.

One variety of MUD has become particularly relevant to efforts to fill the realtime conversation gap that stands between the actualities of the Web and the popular vision of cyberspace. MUD Object Oriented (MOO) has been Xerox PARC’s major recent contribution to the use of the Internet for collaboration.20 The inclusion of a full object oriented programming environment within MOO has enabled programmers at the rapidly growing number of MOOs to give their objects, including rooms, exits and even players, some very interesting behaviour. MOOs, as exemplified by Diversity University, have been particularly important to the application of the Internet to Open Learning, a subject we shall return to in the final section.

With the contemporaneous rise of MOO and Gopher in the latter part of 1992, one of the early interesting MOO objects was the ‘Gopher Slate’ which enabled anybody in a MOO, where they could be holding a conversation with other MOO users, to simultaneously browse that substantial subset of Internet-based reference information that is known as ‘Gopher space’. But then along came the World Wide Web, absorbing Gopher space into the much larger Web space, and forcing upon the MOO community two vital lessons. Unlike the Web, MOO did not contain the multimedia hooks nor a Mosaic front end to make it easy to use for the neophytes, and unlike Web users, users of a MOO were confined to the set of rooms that would fit on one MOO server computer and could not bounce around from server to server all over the planet. However MOO is a much more powerful programming environment than the Web’s intrinsic HTML, so during 1994 Sensemedia developed a fully functional Web server in MOO and called it, naturally enough, WOO.

Having followed these developments closely for more than two years, I see the potential of WOO—it is still at an early but operational stage—to underpin the next step in the digital convergence. The Web combines computer and AV media functionality to provide globe-spanning, hypertextual IMM. MOO combines computer and personal communications functionality to provide strongly collaborative CMC. And WOO is converging IMM and CMC to bring us one more step closer to the cyberspace dream.