Dreams of future culture

The things we are now finding in today’s primitive cyberspace have long been envisaged by radical thinkers. From Nelson to Xerox PARC to Gibson, the future has been invented. Before getting into a more detailed history of the development of information services, it is useful to recall those three great influences on the current and future culture of electronic media.6 With those visions in mind, this history points to reasons why the Web has succeeded while more deliberate attempts to build this common vision remain incomplete.

Ted Nelson’s 1974 magnum opus Dream Machines concluded with his description of Xanadu (a name he had taken from the Coleridge poem Kubla Khan):

Xanadu, friend, is my dream. …

I have been working on Xanadu, under this and other names, for fourteen years now.

Originally it was going to be a super system for handling text by computer. But it grew: as I realized, level by level, how deep the problem was.

And the concept of what it was to be kept changing, as I saw more and more clearly that it had to be on a minicomputer for the home. …

Now the idea is this:

To give you a screen in your home from which you can see into the world’s hypertext libraries.

(The fact that world doesn’t have any hypertext libraries—yet—is a minor point.)

To give you a screen system that will offer high-performance computer graphics and text services at a price anyone can afford. To allow you to send and receive written messages …. To allow you to explore diagrams. To eliminate the absurd distinction between ‘teacher’ and ‘pupil’.

To make you a part of a new electronic literature and art, where you can get all your questions answered and nobody will put you down.

Nelson 1974: 56

Twenty years on, the World Wide Web allowed production of the world’s hypertext libraries to start in earnest, and in almost every way Nelson’s vision has been realised. Certainly if you ask a ‘frequently asked question’ on a Usenet news group you will most likely be ‘flamed’, but that kind of ‘put down’ has nothing to do with who you are, rather it is an impersonal response to what you did.

After a brief discussion of implementation issues and its planned availability in 1976, albeit at somewhat more than his target $3,000 price point for the home market, Nelson concluded this announcement of Xanadu in buoyant and provocative fashion:

So, fans, that about wraps it up. I’ll be interested in hearing from people who want this system; many hardheaded business people have told me nobody will. Prove ‘em wrong, America!

Of course, if hyper-media aren’t the greatest thing since the printing press, this whole project falls flat on its face. But it is hard for me to conceive that they will not be.

ibid.

In earlier sections of what was virtually a hypertext on paper Nelson makes the mandatory foundational reference to U.S. President Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannever Bush, for the first description of hypertext: “As We May Think” (Atlantic Monthly, July, 1945), and to the efforts of the “saintly” Doug Engelbart on “The Augmentation of Intellect” through Engelbart’s work at Stanford Research Institute on the fledgling ARPANet.

Nelson’s vision attracted a few disciples, but their combined efforts to implement Xanadu always lagged that vital fraction behind the ongoing refinement of its definition and the possibilities being opened up by the micro- and personal computer revolutions. Conceptual revolutions are usually subject to a significant generation time, and it ultimately took almost another 14 years for Nelson’s vision to be gain broader recognition.

Xerox PARC was started in 1970 when leaders of the world’s dominant maker of copying machines had a sinking feeling that paper was on its way out. If people started reading computer screens instead of paper, Xerox was in trouble, unless the company could devise a plan that would lead it to a dominant position in the paperless office envisioned for 1990. That plan was supposed to come from Xerox PARC, a group of very smart people working in buildings on Coyote Hill Road in the Stanford Industrial Park near Stanford University.

Cringely 1992: 80, his emphasis

The dominant LAN technology which we met earlier, Ethernet, is just one of several early products of PARC—a facility Cringely attributes with “inspiring the culture of the personal computer” and the growth of Silicon Valley.

With Engelbart’s work (the computer mouse) as a start, the folks at PARC moved toward prototyping more advanced systems of networked computers that used mice, page editors, and bit-mapped screens to make computing easier and more powerful.

ibid: 82

The failure of Xerox to commercialise the early developments of PARC is legendary. These included low-end laser printers and the Smalltalk programming language that was the early flag bearer for object oriented programming. What has become known as the WIMP7 user interface was also developed at PARC and demonstrated on the Xerox Alto workstation in the early 1970s. However the world had to wait for the release Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh personal computers in 1983 and 1984 for WIMP to reach the commercial market, and wait for Microsoft Windows a decade later for WIMP to become the dominant way of interacting with computers. However, the eventual availability of a WIMP user interface on each of the three dominant platforms for computing within universities was a vital factor in the success of the Web.

Researchers from PARC have continued to take a high profile in the academic forums which focus on the usability and usefulness of computers, forums such as the Association for Computing Machinery’s special interest groups on computer-human interface (SIGCHI) and graphics (SIGGRAPH). Of even greater relevance to this story is the more recent focus of PARC on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) which has been the subject of biennial conferences since 1986 and Hypertext which has been similarly blessed since 1987. As part of PARC’s CSCW commitment to the use of networked computers to support collaboration, Pavel Curtis has developed and maintained the software supporting a landmark Internet social space called LambdaMOO, which is commonly identified as a ‘networked virtual reality’ even when it lacks the graphics that are normally associated with virtual reality. Following the public success of the Web, work is underway on the Internet to bring the Web and MOO technologies together to further realise the visions of Ted Nelson and William Gibson.

Cyberspace. A consensual simulation experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data extracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding….

Gibson 1984: 51, quoting a “voice-over”, his ellipses

Within a few short years of William Gibson’s original definition of ‘cyberspace’ in his science fiction classic Neuromancer his vision had not only infected a substantial community of software developers but the progress of that community had, in turn, become a subject for serious study.

Cyberspace, … as described in this book(,) does not exist.

But this states a truth too simply. Like Shangri-la, like Mathematics, like every story ever told or sung, a mental geography of sorts has existed in the living mind of every culture, a collective memory or hallucination, an agreed-upon territory of mythical figures, symbols, rules, and truths, owned and traversable by all who learned its ways, and yet free of the bounds of physical space and time. What is so galvanizing today is that technologically advanced cultures … stand at the threshold of making that ancient space both uniquely visible and the object of interactive democracy.

Benedikt 1991: 3

Michael Benedikt’s anthology Cyberspace: First Steps attempts to ground, report and project the cultural phenomenon that cyberspace has rapidly become. By looking just at the possible grounding in the mythology, in both senses, of primitive culture, it would be easy to gain a false impression that cyberspace is some giant leap out of nowhere rather than just the next but one big dip on the ever accelerating roller coaster of electronic media technologies. However, a more measure view of progress is made in Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s included postmodernist critique. Film and television have certainly made “that ancient space” clearly visible (and audible) but it certainly does rely on the convergence of audio-visual media with computing and telecommunications to reveal a potential neo-Athenean revival of “interactive democracy”.

Beyond popularising one possible future, Gibson’s use of ‘cyberspace’ has been a vital force supporting the adoption of the ‘cyber-’ prefix as a sign of the times: ‘cyberpunk’ for the literary genre of which Gibson’s work is archetypical; the revival of ‘cybernetics’ as a preferred gathering term for the sciences of complexity and systems; ‘cyberia’ for remote and uncomfortable parts of the Internet; ‘cyborg’ for Donna Harraway’s hybrid of woman and machine; and ‘cyberculture’ for what follows the postmodern.

The World Wide Web in 1995 falls far short of Gibsonian cyberspace, but this story reveals how the influence of that vision played an essential role in the Web’s achievement of breaking the ‘chicken and egg’ barrier that constrained earlier information services to much more narrowly defined market niches. The influence of Gibson’s depiction, alongside Nelson’s vision and the work at PARC continue to shape cyberculture and the converging technologies as they dance to each other’s cybernetic feedback.