Mobilising minds

Our notion of progress, be it in biological evolution, social systems or technology, can be seen to be largely coincident with increasing mobilisation of mind.29 From the first primitive eyes which enabled equally primitive brains to act in response to events at a distance, to the eyes of our space probes bringing us close up pictures of the outer planets; and from the first act of parental nurturing by one of our presumably reptilian ancestors, to the latest educational multimedia title on CD-ROM; minds have extended their reach in leaps and bounds. The story I have told here is about what appears to be the greatest and fastest leap of all, from Varella et al’s Embodied Mind to the capabilities for individual human minds to reach instantly all over this planet, via virtual places which are the products of similar minds.

This leap has been building throughout more than a century of new technologies, but until very recently we have had to share the eyes and accept the schedules through which we might look around the world through television programming. The telephone system allows us to talk to and, in recent years, to exchange document images with other individuals around the world, but stripped of the rich interactive context that is available to those communicating in a shared physical space. However, we can now be certain that the imminent joining of the global hypermedia Web to a networked collaborative space will enable our minds to reach anywhere the Internet reaches, to see anything that other individuals have made available, and to communicate with whoever we might encounter in this rich collaborative context.

In late January, Pavel Curtis released his view of that future to the community that follows his every effort in the further development of MOO:

We have for some time been planning a new project here at PARC to design, build, and freely release a system we call the Fabric, a fully distributed, robust, secure, and powerful computational and communications substrate. The Fabric will be designed and implemented specifically to support a single, Internet-spanning social virtual reality; you wouldn’t be far off to think of the Fabric as being the SVR equivalent of the Web, with literally many millions of independent servers loosely cooperating to create the illusion of a vast, seamless virtual space that eventually encompasses the whole of the Internet and all of its available information and service resources.

Curtis’s team at PARC hope to make Fabric available around the end of 1996, well after it is expected that the Sensemedia group will have delivered their major step in that direction. However it comes about, complete delivery of the visions embodied in Xanadu, Intermedia and the PICA System is not far away—the steps to be made are finite and those working with unmatched dedication and voluntary collaboration are many and capable. So it has become my task, through a series of consultancies on technologies in education, to advise Australian authorities as to what should be done to prepare Australians to effectively exploit this great mobilisation of minds.

During the latter part on 1992, I rebounded from the decade of non-achievement of the PICA dream through our discovery of the “central role of networked computers” “in the delivery of higher education”[Tinkler et al, 1994]. My view of progress “towards a knowledge network”[Smith, 1992] was appended as part of the published report of the first of that series of consultancies. After more than a year of finally immersing myself in the Internet, the reconciliation of my dream with reality enabled me to identify the “economic justification for low cost supply of broadband services for educational purposes”[Smith & Tinkler, 1994] and to suggest that:

The greatest contribution that the Australian Government could make to ensuring our national competitiveness would be to support the establishment of an open gigabit data link between Sydney, Melbourne and the U.S. by 1997, and similar channels connecting each major Australian centre with each of the three main international economic zones by 2000.

A subsequent consultancy on “Computer-Based Education and Communications” for the Open Learning Agency of Australia [Sandery and Smith, 1994] was in a large part built around introducing Open Learning to the use of the Web and highlighted the applicability of educational MOOs to open learning. The story I have told in this paper amplifies those recommendations to Open Learning and sets the scene for work I have since commenced as part of an extended team charged with surveying “technological infrastructure in education and the professional development and support of educators and trainers in the information and communication technologies” for the National Board of Employment, Education and Training’s “Employment and Skills Formation Council Project”[ESFC, 1994].