An Afternoon with Mark Pesce: The Uncut Version

An Afternoon with Mark Pesce:
The Uncut Version

Emerging Geeks
Mark Pesce
Inventor of VRML

On my way to meet Mark Pesce, the code-kid behind VRML, I stop off at the Horse Shoe Cafe on Haight Street between Fillmore and Webster to grab a Skeleteen’s BrainWash soda and go over my notes. On my way in, I am, as usual, accosted by several homeless people asking for change but I assiduously manage to avoid each one by staring resolutely at the ground and pushing past them with a shrug. In my memory, lower.haight has always been like this, but each time I pass it seems to be getting a little worse, there seem to be more people down here looking for change to fill their bellies for a few hours more before they call it quits for good.

In front of the church next to the Horse Shoe, some of the more enterprising of the homeless in this neighborhood have set up their own little store, a detritus sale of the more salvagable street items they’ve managed to comb from night-time raids of dumpsters and people’s trash. And from people like me – why give old clothes to the Salvation Army when there are so many homeless people right before your eyes on every street on which you walk?

Mark Pesce: In some ways, I believe that we are moving into a post-historical period, for lack of a better term. A time when whatever functioned previously will cease to function, or at least will have to be re-thought and re-considered.

Gregory Pleshaw: If we are actually moving into a post-historical period, then what we are actually saying to people is that they need to throw out everything that they used to know.

MP: No. Not throw out everything you know. Subject it all to test. Don’t believe your prejudices. It’s not that our models are irrelevant, it’s much more like “Nothing is True. Everything is Permissable.”

GP: Crowley?

MP: “Do What Thou Will Shall be the Whole of the Law.” It’s much more clear that this is an active truism for significant numbers of people, and that it is for those people. I’m doing my job to put it to the test. Despite the fact that I think that sometimes people think I’m some sort of weird mystic, I’m really very much of a rationalist within its proper domain.

Reason exists in order to provide testability. You don’t hold to it. It’s not a philosophy but it’s a way to determine if you’re just kidding yourself. It’s a means of survival, a means of improving your selection advantages.

GP: Does evolution fit into any of this?

MP: All of it.

In San Francisco, every creative person has a cafe they call their own, the place where they hatch their schemes and plot their pathways to success. Mark Pesce is no different, and he instructs me to meet him at Jumpin’ Java, a dark wood and bohemian latte palace in the Castro District. His head is completely shaved, giving him the look of an alien being, or a spiritual seeker, or perhaps just another weird San Franciscan with another pile of weird San Francisco ideas. And yet, he seems pretty integrated, a rare trait in any cafe in any town, as he sits peering into his little screen from behind a pair of thick lensed, horn-rimmed glasses.

Armed with an ancient cassette recorder, (on loan from Jenny Cool), which probably left the factory in about 1975, Pesce took one look at it and asked me if what I was doing with Jurassic technology. I replied that I happened to like Jurassic technology, which I thought would be augmented by a rather up-to-date lavalier that I’d last used at sometime in the summer of 1993 and whose batteries no longer worked. Surprised? Nah.

So we got ambient background on the tape. Lots of ambient background, and as I sat in my apartment about a week later trying to decipher the words of the VRML master amidst the clatter of dishes and the conversations of people around us, I realized I’d have to get better tech if I was ever going to call myself an emerging geek.

GP: So basically, today being October 18, 1995, we’re sitting now with Mark Pesce, the co-inventor of Virtual Reality Modelling Language. And we’re here today to cull information about the man behind the machine…


GP: The kid behind the code?

MP: There ya go…

GP: …and basically try to establish some idea of where VRML comes from in the the mind of this person and what has gone into the creation of this particluar language beyond just the code beyond just all the cool bells and whistles of what it can do, but what kind of philosophicla angle went into this.


Pesce: I would almost consider myself a canonical child of Generation X… because I think there is an ethic and aesthetic that goes along with that generation, it may have something to do with the fact that “Never Mind the Bollocks” was released when we were 16-years-old and that was really the album that crystalized a generation.

GP: So Mark, let’s start with a little biographical information. Surely, you’re not from San Francisco?

MP: No, but this is definitely my home. I was born in Everett, Mass, and I grew up in North Kingston, Rhode Island, which sits across the bay from Newport. Very nice, upper-middle-class “Heathers” sort of town.

I often think I am an invader from another planet, but I’m not really sure, but on the other hand I think I’m an earth man, but on that I’m not really sure, either I am almost 33 years old, and I would almost consider myself a canonical child of Generation X, within six months of the D-Date of Doug Coupland, he’s six months older than me. And I would definitely place myself very squarely within that generation even though it is the generation that resists labels, because I think there is an ethic and aesthetic that goes along with that generation, it may have something to do with the fact that “Never Mind the Bollocks” was released when we were 16-years-old and that was really the album that crystalized a generation.

GP: I think I was nine, no, seven, actually.”

MP: You were nine, seven, whatever. But there they were. I grew up in a sleepy little suburb in Rhode Island and I realized pretty early that I was different from most of my peers. But I had some friends, some of whom I’m still friends with, and we realized we were all pretty different from our peers, we were sort of from another time and we really didn’t know what that time was, and then Never Mind the Bollocks came out and we realized what we had been waiting for, sort of had a touch stone.

GP: Have you read Greil Marcus’ “Lipstick Traces”?

MP: Yes, I have. It’s a fabulous book.

GP: What do you think punk rock contributed to the GenX aesthetic? Is it the DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic?

MP: How about the shock troops?

GP: Shock troops of the Apocalyse?

MP: As it were. What punk rock was about was people who were tired of over-produced music and who wanted a music of their own. I think the DIY ethic is being effected in that respect. But the detournement of punk was also a reaction to the fact that as a generation, we’ve been advertised at since The Brady Bunch on up.

In fact, you’re probably too young to remember The Brady Bunch when it was originally on in prime-time, but it’s been interesting to watch the Brady Bunch evolve from being everyone’s favorite Friday night show to becoming this icon of an era gone by that never actually existed.

GP: Interesting. So you’re saying that there never really was a time like that, that it was a time created exclusively for a television audience?

MP: Oh yes, that’s absolutely true. Well, there was a time certainly when I perceived that the world moved more slowly, and I think in fact that it honestly did, there was a lot less going on during my childhood. And I think The Brady Bunch is a hankering for a time when things were very stable, or at least, were perceived as being more stable. Because you have to remember that The Brady Bunch was going on at a time when there was all this turmoil, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when people were questioning gender roles, race roles, class roles, and redefining them in the process. And the Brady Bunch was happening in the midst of this, yet it appeared totally oblivious to all of it, though it was a family created by both a death and a divorce. So there that one small nod to the reality outside of the house. But then, on the other hand, you had this enormous family of six or eight or nine if you count Alice, ten if you count the dog…I think we’ve spent enough time on the Brady Bunch, don’t you?

GP: Yes, I think so. But you could go on?

MP: I suppose I could….

Imagine a world before the microprocessor revolution. There was Polaroid. That was probably it. There wasn’t an Apollo Computer. There was no Lotus Corporation. There was barely an Apple. There wasn’t a Sun. There wasn’t an IBM doing micros at that point, so… This was all before, before, before…
GP: So you went to MIT…

MP: I went to MIT and I was thrown out fair and square three semesters later.

GP: For non-attendence?

MP: Academic performance, officially, I believe, is the reason they gave. it wasn’t even that I was thrown out. I was put on academic probation and told to come back when I was ready to be serious. Which never happened, I might add, because as soon as got out I started working and I thought, “Whoa, real life sure beats that shit!”

I still maintain close contact with the Institute and the people I met there. Many of my friends are graduates of the Institute. But it was a part of my life that was much more interesting for the things I was exposed and the process I went through with the evolution of ideas.

For example, one of my friends was working with Danny Hills , helping to build the first connection machine, which later became The Thinking Machine. Are you familiar with The Thinking Machine?

GP: No, I don’t think so…

MP: It’s a massively powerful 64,000 parallel co-processor machine. The problem with it was that people didn’t really know how to program it. But they do use them, they are useful, especially for designing bombs and things, strangely enough. But it is the first example of a fine grain mesh parallel processor, and it represents the way computers will work, eventually.

And another one of my friends was working with Nicholas Negroponte on the Architecture Machine, which was the prototype virtual environment, or one of them.

And another one of the people that we just happened to know was this guy just kicking around Cambridge who’d graduated from the Institute the year before – a young man by the name of Eric Drexler, who was talking about this weird shit he was thinking about called nanotechnology.

GP: Which is still vaporware, correct?

MP: Oh no, it’s not. No, no, really. Not at all. There are two ways to attack nanotechnology, one is from the bottom-up, the other is from the top-down. If it’s from the top-down, it’s biology. Biology is just nanotech by nature. When we construct things with biology, we’re using nanotech, we’re just being more clumsy with it.

We’re getting pretty good at top-down, because bio-engineering is really just top-down nanotech. The bottom-up is the part that takes longer, but there have been some small structures that have been made and some that are being made now. For the past decade, people have mostly been researching, thinking, and talking about nanotech, but I think in the next five years we’re going to start seeing the first few applications of nanotechnology.

So I was exposed to an incredible set of memes, an incredible set of ideas which sorta formed the foundation of everything I ever cared about after that.

GP: I suppose quitting MIT is a better pedigree than a lot of people with degrees.

MP: Well, after I got thrown out of school, I started hacking for a living, which was all I really know how to do. I got into communications pretty early on, and I just decided I liked it so much that I was going to stick with it. I saw communications as being a real growth field, and it seemed like an economy-proof field, one where I’d be less likely to get laid off. Plus, I also get a kind of sick thrill out of seeing humans (ed: computers?) communicate successfully with one another. It’s just one of those things.

GP: When were you first exposed to computers? Was it at MIT?

MP: God no. When I was like eleven, one of my friend’s fathers ran a computer center and we used to go to work with him on the weekends and play Star Trek games on the computer. They had these text-based Star Trek games way back then on the teletype machines. And when I was fourteen, my high school starting offering computer science courses.

GP: This was in 1975?

MP: ’77, ’78. When February rolls around, I’ll have been programming computers for 19 years. I don’t really know why I took the course but I found it enjoyable. And when i say I’m a hacker, I mean that in a broader sense than just a computer hacker. When I was a teenager, I used to like to set up electronic circuits in the basement, big systems of lights and circuits and just hack away, hack away, hack away, and at this point I was learning everything I wanted to learn just by playing, which seems to me the most sublime way to learn, just play play play play!

So my teenage years were just about hacking and playing with systems. We got a TRS-80 about six months after they came out, and I learned how to program BASIC and assembly language on that, and I had all that under my bely before I went to college. but being able to program a computer at MIT wasn’t anything spectacular at that point, even in 1980. By then, everyone knew how to code. The Institute is just like that, and it’s been that way for twenty years.

GP: What was Cambridge and MIT like in 1980?

MP: Run down. It was before gentrification, before all the money poured in. I remember walking through Central Square and thinking, “Wow, this is a dangerous place!” And then ten years later I’d be living there…

It’s interesting because the microprocessor revolution hadn’t really exploded yet. It was just on the brink. There was a video game company called GCC, General Computer, which had just been formed as a spin-off of Warner, which was formed, as I found out later, so that employees of Warner could be paid a lot less than if they were working for Warner. I had some friends at MIT who worked there, so that was interesting. But the campus was…quiet. There was Polaroid. That was probably it. There wasn’t an Apollo Computer. The was no Lotus Corporation. There was barely an Apple. There wasn’t a Sun. There wasn’t an IBM doing micros at that point, so… This was all before, before, before…

GP: Before everything we’ve come to associate with Cambridge, Route 128, and even Silicon Valley, for that matter.

MP: And there wasn’t any software, either. Because what would you put the software on…your mainframe? You know, there were a couple little software companies here and there, but that was it. There wasn’t really any micro industry until after the PC came, and that was late ’81. So Cambridge was rather…sleepy.

So I did a little hacking, here and there, writing software and stuff, throughout my early twenties, and that was basically all I did until Black Monday, October of 1987. the stock market had crashed and suddenly I found myself out of work.

Myself and the other senior engineer at the company we were working for had been reading MacWeek magazine. We were both very into the Mac, I’d been into the Mac since it had come out because it had a very nice user interface. When it first came out back in ’84 I’d done a little programming on it at the company I was working for, and I remember taking it home for the weekend and just playing with it for endless periods of time. That first Mac had this very simple little application called “Hendrix” – you’ve probably never even seen it. With Hendrix, you’d drag your mouse across the screen and it would make these wonderful sounds come out of the speaker, because the Mac had all this great cound synthesis stuff. It really sounded like you were fuzzing a guitar, and you could even sorta play things. I could play with that for six hours because it was just so cool! No one had ever thought to do this with a computer before and this mouse thing was just really great!

GP: Insanely Great?

MP: Right, Steven Levy. But it was really just amazing. Before the Mac I’d never even really heard of using a mouse on a PC, and here it was. So I became a hardcore Mac devotee almost immediately, and I started spending time learning how to program the Mac.

“Ted Nelson’s Literary Machines was the first technical text which absolutely blew my mind.”

Now, back in 1982, one of the other things I managed to get exposed to through friends at MIT was Ted Nelson’s work on Project Xanadu. Xanadu, of course, was the to be the epitome of the system, global, indexed, backwards, forwards, sideways, publishable, privishable, da-da-da-da-dah! – you name it! Something The Web isn’t and probably never will be –

GP: But it’s what we’ve got….

MP: But it’s not Xanadu. Not at all. On the other hand, it’s a hell of a lot more useful, because it exists… that Husker Du? Right on, this is one of my favorite records. Do you remember vinyl?

GP: Vinyl? Didn’t they used to make couches out of it? After the hydes of naugas became scarce and naugas became an endangered species?

MP: Never – to be heard from – again….

GP: Naugas? Or vinyl?

MP: Both. Either. Where were we?

GP: Xanadu. Perhaps you could offer a little clarification of the difference between what the Web is and what Xanadu wanted to be?

MP: Oh God. Well….Xanadu wanted to be everything and the Web isn’t everything. How’s that? The Web is, “Go get documents, go get .gif files…” With Java, the Web gets better, but it’s still not Xanadu…

What Ted wanted to do is he wanted to create a system that could preserve authorship, so that it would be possible for me to compost a document out of things you’d written and out of things I’d written and be able to do that seamlessly within a document. That’s called tranclusion, or that’s what he called it. He invented a lot of words, one of the words he invented was transclusion. Another word he invented was dildonics….

GP: As in teledildonics?

MP: Yes, that Ted’s work. That’s a Tedism.

And it was an idea that he would be able to do this in such a way that the entire document space would allow you to publish any part of it you wanted and anyone that transcluded would then be paying your royalties, so it actually took care of a lot of the publishing and copyright issues which the Web is starting to have to deal with now.

In 1982 he wrote a book called “Literary Machines,” which was the first technical text which absolutely blew my mind. “Literary Machines” gave me an entire vision of why I was bothering to use a computer at all. It talked about the fact that the universe is made up of documents, that all human knowledge is documents and all documents are related to each other. No document is singular, but all documents are intimately related to each other . It’s the fundamental concept behind the question, “Why Hypermedia?”

GP: So basically, everything is related to everything – it’s kind of like an acid epiphany, yes? Only replacing “the inter-connectedness of all things” with “the inter-relatedness of all documents,” yes?

MP: Yes, that all texts are inter-related. The Post-Structuralists will tell you exactly the same thing, but Nelson said, “Let’s create a system that allows this to explicit rather than implicit.”

Now, according to WIRED magazine, he did this because he’s got an Attention Deficit Disorder, and he needed Xanadu for himself. And it’s clear that Ted needed it for himself, because he writes down everything and puts all the notes in a file. He really wanted some system which would help him keep track of all the things he’s learned, which are enormous, which he can’t keep track of himself because he’s got “ADD.”

GP: Does he really?

MP: Yes, evidently. I haven’t asked Ted.

GP: That was a very mean-sprited article.

MP: Yes , it was very mean-spirited, and Ted got very upset by it. But you know what? Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, and there were a lot of people who were very disappointed in Project Xanadu, and I’m one of them. I waited 13 years for it. No, actually, I waited 11 years and then I just said, “fuck it.”

So in fact, before hypermedia’s useful, it has to be planetary, or at least really really wide-scale. Because scale is the thing that gives hypermedia meaning.

GP: At what point did people realize that Xanadu probably wasn’t going to happen?

MP: I was told in 1982 that it was in beta! In 1982! And it was still in beta in 1992! Okay? It won the Vaporware Award, no question about it. Dvorak’s All-Time VaporWare Award went to Project Xanadu. A lot of us bought it, dumped money into it, but there are a lot of reasons why it didn’t work and I don’t particularly want to go into any of them, but I don’t think the problems were particularly technical. I think it had a lot to do with personality. That’s why the WIRED article is perceived as being mean-spirited because it underlined personality. But it doesn’t matter that it failed in and of itself because what it did is it inspired people with a vision. It inspired Tim Berners-Lee, for instance, with a vision to create a hypermedia system. So he goes in and invents the Web. It inspired me, in 1986, to write a complete hypermedia system for the Macintosh.

GP: Which was?

MP: It was a system that would allow you to link documents together on the Macintosh.

GP: Like Hypercard?

MP: It was before Hypercard, but whereas Hypercard would only allow you to link within a stack, this could link documents on the hard disk together any way you wanted – it was a real hypermedia system. I’d been teaching myself Macintosh programming for years and I wanted to do something really interesting with it.


So I was inspired. But there was one big problem with hypermedia as we understood it. Just linking your own desktop together isn’t really enough – there’s not enough there to make it really interesting. Only linking one set of documents together, like text documents, that’s not enough. You have to be able to link every thing across your operating system in any conceivable way; and not just your operating system, but every other one. So in fact, before hypermedia’s useful, it has to be planetary, or at least really really wide-scale. Because scale is the thing that gives hypermedia meaning.

So that was in 1986. We put this little system together, and it didn’t really work out the way we wanted it to, but we learned a lot. So then I went back to work for a couple of years…and then the stock market crashed and one day I noticed these ads in the back pages of MacWeek magazine for these two products called the net serial and the net modem, which were products of this company called the Shiva Corporation. And they’d figured out a way of taking your Local Area Network and dropping a serial port on them, and the serial port would act as if it were attached directly to the computer but it wasn’t. It would fake it out and act like a virtual serial port because it would use the serial port to send data across the network.

And not only that, but with the net modem, you could take a Macintosh and call the net modem on the network in your office and it would connect you to the office network as if you were there. This was Dial-Up Networking, which, of course, is totally commonplace now, but did not exist before they invented it.

GP: This was 1986?

MP: Mmm..yeah, 1986.

GP: Wow!

MP: Well yes, of course, today, this is totally commonplace…

GP: Before 1986 – this didn’t exist! {giggling gleefully}

MP: Now these are two programmers who previously had been at the aforementioned GCC writing video games and weird shit for the Macintosh. My supervisor at Shiva wrote Ms. Pac-Man, which at the time was the top-selling video game of all time.

GP: This is great…

MP: When I started at Shiva, there were five people, and three and a half years later there were 150. So we rode the rocket ship. That was my turn on the rocket ship. For the time, more or less, we did the Netscape thing. Of course, not as big as Netscape, but we started at $1.5 million in sales and three and a half years later we were a $300 million company.

GP: So you rode the rocketship?

MP: We rode the rocketship.

GP: And how does that feel?

MP: It’s an interesting ride. What I learned is that there are structural points…”Small is Beautiful”, you know? There are a whole bunch of guidelines for what the right size of a company should be. And it’s very clear that when you grow between 30 and 60 people, you pass two structural points that allow bureaucracies to form. You don’t have a bureaucracy before 30, and after 30 no matter what you do to prevent it you do, because it’s just a structural function of people, I think. It’s an emergent property. So I think bureaucracies are an emerging property among large groups of people.

What I also learned is that it’s much better to grow well than to grow fast. For instance, in the engineering department, where I worked, we would hire on total unanimity before we would hire another engineer. That means we didn’t staff up as quickly as the other departments, but my goodness, our hires were wonderful and we had a great time. And we just continued growing and growing and growing. And we would do the thumbs up, thumbs down method…other departments didn’t always do this. And they fucked up. And so while the company always grew fast it did not always grow well.

When I was there, it was a time within my own personal life when I was establishing stability. I hadn’t been particularly stable as a person or as a friend in my own life because there were internal things that were going on. At Shiva, I finally had the time and the space to go into therapy, get the shit out and start working on it, and figuring out what made me tick. I got to figure out what was driving me, and then, knowing that allowed me to get in the driver’s seat and ask myself, “Okay, where do I want to drive the car?”

Pleshaw: “What did you see when you read Neuromancer?”
Pesce: “I saw a lot of things. No question – I saw the future.”

Pesce: After I joined Shiva, we started working with a network protocol called TCP/IP, which is what runs on the Internet. Now, at this point, in 1987, ’88, the Internet is very small. You couldn’t really send e-mail to anyone because no one had an address. There were newsgroups, and in fact, at that point, it was entirely possible to check out most of the newsgroups everyday because there were only a couple hundred of them. You could safely ignore the ones you were definitely not interested in, but even still, there weren’t so many postings everyday that you couldn’t keep up with all the newsgroups. Of course, it’s inconceivable to even think about doing that now, right? But seven years ago, it really wasn’t all that hard.

So my work at the time was a lot about developing user interfaces, for configuring network devices, with the central question being, “You take this box that’s arbitrarily connected to our network, it might be in another city but you’re sitting at your desktop and you want to make it work differently – how do you do that?”

The problem with networks for most people is that they’re very abstract. You can’t really see what’s going on so it’s hard for you to even think about what’s going on. I worked on developing techniques to make things easier for people to see, and make it easier to visualize what was going on. And I was working with others on another project called the Shiva Network Manager, which was and is still considered to be one of the best pieces of management software even now, years after I finished working on it. What we would do is we would listen to the people who’ll be using it and ask them, “Well, what do you want to do with it?”

Pleshaw: When you say you saw the future, do you mean to say that in your mind you said, “In the future, there will be multinational corporations controlling everything and whatever is left over will be street drek.”
Pesce: Pardon me, but why are you using the future tense?

In the meantime, all this TCP/IP and all this AppleTalk were kinda colliding in my forebrain, and I was learning both of them and figuring out how they both work. And, in the Christmas time of 1990, I sat down and read a science fiction novel which had been recommended to me by a number of friends, who told me I’d relly like it and I finally just broke down and bought it. The book was called Neuromancer by William Gibson.

GP: Who? What was the name of that book?

MP: Very funny. {Leans into tape recorder} “Neu-ro-man-cer” by William Gibson. “N-E-U-R-O-M-A-N-C-E-R.”

GP: Oh! You mean, “The Bible.”

MP: Ace Books, 1984. Winner of the Philip K. Dick, Hugo, and Nebula Awards.

GP: I gotta stop you for just a second. I just wrote a review of “The Cyberpunk Handbook”….

MP: Ah, The Real Cyberpunk Fake Book…

GP: …written by R.U. Sirius, StJude, and Bart Nagel…

MP: The holy trinity of cyberculture…

GP: And in the course of the review I tried to offer a bit of differentiation between

MP: A new and improved bad attitude.

GP: Precisely. So, what exactly was it about Neuromancer that made the floodlights go on for you?

MP: The one thing that is really true about truly classic science fiction is it’s ability to use fanstastical times or realities to offer commentary on the present day reality. For example, 1984, the book by George Orwell. What was that written about? It was written about 1948, which is the year in which it was written. Even though it was set in the future it was really a commentary on its present time, where Big Brother was really the Burma-Shave Man. Then, in 1984, at the height of the Reagan Era, when it’s “Morning in America,” William Gibson sits down and pens Neuromancer, which is talking about social stratification, it’s talking about this disembodiment in a conceptual field, which might be media…

GP: Style over substance…

MP: Perhaps style over substance. But he’s also talking about the eternal battle between the soul and its entombment within the body. In other words, between the soul and the meat, as Case would say. So there are all these issues that converge in Neuromancer to make it the kind of novel that it is.

GP: But what did you see in it?

MP: What did I see in it? I saw a lot of things in it. I saw the future.

GP: Seriously?

MP: Absolutely. Without a doubt. No question – I saw the future.

GP: When you say you saw the future, do you mean to say that in your mind you said, “In the future, there will be multinational corporations controlling everything and whatever is left over will be street drek.”

MP: Pardon me, but why are you using the future tense?

GP: {Long silence, then quietly} Yeah, I know…

MP: I’d been to Japan already by that point too and so considering the novel opened in Chiba City, where I believe is where my sister was living at the time I read the book…

GP: It exists?

MP: Chiba? Oh yeah, it’s right outside of Tokyo.

GP: So it’s a real place…

MP: Oh yes. {lowering his voice} It’s where Tokyo Disneyland is.

GP: That’s too perfect. Very interesting.

MP: Right! So Chiba City Blues opens in Chiba City and I already have some familiarity with the context he’s citing, because I know what a Japanese city looks like and Japanese cities are a riot of neon, in this really profound sense. Asian countries use neon in ways that we do not, even Vegas doesn’t really compare with Hong Kong or Tokyo in its use of neon. Neon is ubiquitous in those places, used garishly in ways that accentuate everything. And Johnny Mnemonic, the movie, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what a Gibsonian landscape looks like, to my mind. It’s Newark, so maybe that’s a good excuse, but if you were to mix Newark with someone like Nathan Road in Kowloon, then you have something what I think Gibson was talking about…

GP: So you saw the future. How did it make you react?

MP: Well, I was already living in a headspace of ubiquitous networking, because we were already making it happen at Shiva. So I already thought both computers and networks were going to become ubiquitous and I was now faced with this problem of how do I make these things easier to use so that people can use them automatically? Well, you make them invisible, obviously, and that was Gibson’s answer. I mean, who knows where he got the idea, maybe he was talking to space aliens or whatever, but once you encounter the idea it makes perfect sense. This thing called Cyberspace was totally natural.

Now, at the time, I didn’t understand any of the theory behind Virtual Reality. I wasn’t even doing anything with Virtual Reality at that point. I was just sitting there trying to figure out how to make good user interfaces for people who were managing these things where it was very hard to understand what was going on.

So then I started thinking crazy thoughts. I started thinking, “What if you were to go around the Internet and instead of seeing a Unix prompt you saw a doorway, and if you walked in the door you’d see files lying around and you could just grab them. Wow, what a concept!”

GP: I remember the first time I saw America-On-Line and I was totally blown away, because everything was all laid out and I didn’t have to search for data – if it were there, I could find it. I didn’t even have to know I was looking for it. I couldn’t believe a BBS could look this cool, but I didn’t even think there’d ever be interfaces to make the Internet look like that.

MP: Except that AOL evolved out of AppleLink, which I’d been using for awhile as a Mac application. And I thought AppleLink was pretty cool too, and I figured that it was the way things were going to go. But if you could create an actualy space, not just a series of folders but an actual space, in the Gibsonian sense of the word -

And as long as we’re on this subject, I want to emphasize this one point – cyberspace is a space. It’s not a telephone call, it’s not a telegram – it’s not a tv set. if you can’t move around in 3-D, it’s not cyberspace. At least, not in the Gibsonian sense of the word. And unfortunately, people can get so muddy about the use of the word. They call absolutely everything “Cyberspace” these days…

GP: So you don’t think the place where we speak when we are on the telephone is cyberspace?

MP: That’s John Perry Barlow being cute, but he is right in a sense. But it’s not what Gibson meant when he wrote the word. Gibson meant this “consensual hallucination” of computers and people.

GP: So then we’re only talking about cyberspace if it’s something that interfaces with the brain…?

MP: No, no. It doesn’t matter whether you wear the ‘trodes or you use stims, it doesn’t matter. People use different interfaces all throughout the Gibson books. I wouldn’t worry about all that so much as that once they got in to cyberpsace, it always looked the same way. You’d always see the pyramid of the Eastern Fission Authority, or whatever that is, and the data would all look the same. It would have shape. And depth.

GP: So let me see if I can get this perfectly clear: In creating the protocol of VRML, and in coming up with the other applications to make cyberspace what you think it should be, you are using a very literal interpretation of Gibson’s Neuromancer as your blueprint?

MP: Yes. That’s true.

GP: So you see Neuromancer as prophecy?

MP: Well, no, but…

GP: Okay, perhaps not so heavy…

MP: What I’m aiming for is to enable the creation of protocols to allow Gibson’s cyberspace to become real. Whether or not it ends us being precisely , chapter and verse, the way Gibson envisioned it – no, that’s crazy. I don’t foresee it happening that way. But I’m positive, now that I can see it happening, that we are building this collaborative hallucination which is this shared 3-D space, which Gibson first articulated.

GP: I’ve just always found it so fascinating that someone like William Gibson, who was just a writer on an Underwood, didn’t even own a computer, was completely outside of the computer realm…

MP: Well, you have to understand that nearly all of cyberspace had been invented – or at least designed – by literature. This is the kind of weird relationship between literature as a field and the other sciences…

GP: Maintaining Ted Nelson’s assertion that the universe is comprised of inter-linked documents…

MP: Precisely! The people who’ve done the best design work are actually the imaginative artists. Neal Stephenson, who wrote Snow Crash and William Gibson being the two finest designers when it comes to discussing cyberspace. Sandy Stone writes about this in Cyberspace: First Steps, when she talks about the fact that in any era, there are certain texts, which because of their position within the era, crystallize a set of relationships which come to define the foundation of that era. So in this era, or the era we are heading into, it looks like the defining texts are Snow Crash and Neuromancer.

GP: Does any part of that frighten you?

MP: Frighten me? Why would it frighten me?

GP: Well, Neuromancer isn’t exactly a cheery kinda book, is it? To me, it’s a rather frightening interpretation of the times.

MP: It’s dystopic.

GP: To say the least.

MP: Well, he gets the girl in the end, right?

GP: He’s alone on the beach by himself!

MP: Well, Molly pops up at some point…

GP: But the social stratification within the book is quite scary.

MP: Pardon me, but please feel free to take a look around. Take a walk on over to Haight and Page.

GP: I used to live in that neighborhood. I see what’s going on.

MP: There you have it. Gibson was making what I thought was a very accurate commentary on the Reagan era, in the same way that Stephenson was making a very accurate commentary on the Bush era.

Pesce: So there. There’s our side-track on government. Basically, to sum up: We’re a generation of anarchists, and we just haven’t gotten our hands on the means of production yet so we can fetter the wheels. We haven’t been handed the controls yet except to the Internet, which is why it looks like it does.
GP: Here’s a question that’s kind of off-topic: Why are the best and the brightest in the machine?

MP: {silence}

GP: The social stratifications are such that it seems that there should be demands being made by the more literate and well-educated members of the populace to be calling for justice, and yet… It would seem to me that the best and the brightest would rather build cyberspace. Why is that?

MP: See, I’m not really sure what you mean. You definitely have a political bent in even asking the question. Can you repeat it?

GP: If Gibson’s universe/reality within Neuromancer is true, and we take it as a given that Haight and Page are the reality we can come to expect in the future…

MP: It’s an evocation. Some parts of are true and some parts of it aren’t.

GP: Then why – you are obviously someone who cares enough about where the planet is heading to want to create a computer protocol that can model the universe – or at least the world. I would call this a scientific approach to what is a rather humanistic question.

MP: Right…

GP: And yet, the socio-politcal action which is being taken today takes place within the box…

MP: But why? And there’s a perfectly rational reason for that. Who’s on the cover of The Real Cyberpunk Fake Book?

GP: Eric Hughes and Tiffany Lee Brown.

MP: Thank you. Now what does Eric do?

GP: Eric is a Cypherpunk.

MP: Not a…

GP: Okay, the cypherpunk.

MP: Thank you. And what does that mean?

GP: It’s all relative?

MP: Eric is in the process of constructing the mechanisms by which the government will dissolve, pretty much automatically, within about five to ten years time.

GP: Why do I think I’ve heard this before? Do you really think it’s all over?

MP: Think? I don’t think there’s anything to be done – I think it’s just some time before it becomes apparent. In fact I’m positive of it. Earlier this year, he and I were both invited to PC Forum, which brings together the 500 most important people in computing every year. He got up on a stage in front of them and told them exactly what was going on. And I was sitting there smirking, because I know Eric and I know his rap but I have no idea how these really straight people are going to react at all. And they ate it up. They know what’s going on, and they also know there’s not much they can do to stop it. In order to do anything about it, you would have to turn back the hands of time.

GP: So, if governments are out of of the picture, that leaves the multinational corporations. In a multinational state, who wins and who loses?

MP: It’s not clear to me there are going to be multinationals either. It’s not clear to me there’s going to be a company larger than three people in the about five or ten years.

GP: What?

MP: In manufacturing, yes. In software, no. In software, there really won’t be companies larger than three people.

GP: Has anyone mentioned this to Bill Gates? Do you think Microsoft is going to go away?

MP: Yes.

GP: Really.

MP: I’ll say this for the record. {Leans into microphone} Java ate Microsoft’s lunch. {Sits up again, beaming} There. I said it.

GP: Java ate Microsoft?!?

MP: With a sea of floating applets, what do you need a monolithic operating system for? You don’t – I’m sorry. It all went away.

GP: It’s just going to be terminals with everything else floating around on the network?

MP: Thank you. Well, not just terminals. Hopefully, we’ll all have nice graphics work stations and super fast Internet connections.

GP: Hmm. Well, where does Tiffany Lee Brown fit into all of this?

MP: She’s a cool chick.

GP: Yes, so I’ve heard.

MP: She taught me what it means to be a goth.

GP: Really? Me too.

MP: And she’s also an anarchist. I think anarchy is the default political agenda of our generation. Libertarianism, anarchism, for myself I don’t really see that much difference between the two philosophies.

MP: What does it mean to be a goth?

MP: Ask Tiffany. She knows better than I do. I had a boyfriend last year who’s a goth, and I spent weeks trying to understand what they see in The Hunger I mean, it’s a good movie, but it’s not a religion…So what can I say?

GP: So, socially-politically speaking…

MP: That’s why they’re all in here, {points to laptop} Because this ends all that. I think that’s how they probably see it, they see it as the gateway.

GP: The gateway?

MP: It’s the technological gateway to power because the older generation simply doesn’t get it. They really don’t get it. Have you ever seen The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle ?

GP: Of course. In high school, we used to rent it as a double-bill with The Decline of Western Civilization…..

MP: And what was Malcolm McLaren’s guiding ethic for selling a lot of records?

GP: “Create tension…and exploit you own useless generation…”

MP: Create generational dissent. Don’t consider me beyond that. It’s brilliant. Our generation has not yet had any real dissent within it yet, but just wait.

It’s because the prevailing ethic of our generation is either Why Bother? or Nevermind. Which basically comes down to “I’m not going to bother fighting with you. If you can’t see it, that’s fine, but I’m going to go off and just do it.

GP: Right.

MP: That’s what’s going on right now with the cypherpunks. They’re like termites, with Phil Zimmerman probably being the largest termite of them all, but they are termites of Western Civilization. When they released Java six months ago, they destroyed Microsoft. Do they know this? Yes, they sense it, they just haven’t seen it happen yet, but it’s going to and Bill Gates can’t do a thing about it. It’s just the tide and he knows this. He knows he’s not going to be on top forever, and he’s said this. There’s an ebb and flow to everything, and Microsoft if now on the ebb, not the flow.

But five years from now computing will be radically different. We’ll still use computers as hardware, but software? No one knows what software is going to look like in five years – period. I’ve been polling the experts and they don’t know. We don’t know.

GP: Gee…

MP: Yeah, it’s a big change we’re going through right now.

GP: And the de-centralization of data, power and control, the non-hierarchical flow of power that the Internet represents, you see that as toppling the existing governmental structures?

MP: No, not toppling. It’s much more gentle than that. Eroding?

GP: Ignoring?

MP: Declaring irrelevant, essentially. Or just working around it as if it didn’t exist. Toffler talks about adhocracy.

There are some anthropologists studying the way Usenet and listservs work, and someone is actually doing a paper on the VRML specification process. Now, I chair this process, sort of anyway, because nothing’s official. I have absolutely no power. I have authoring authority, but no power. It’s an adhocracy. It’s a completely open process. It’s a meritocracy – people will listen to you if have good ideas but they will tell you to shut up if you don’t. And it’s all based on the Internet, it’s all based on the fact that we are operating on this many-to-many communications system. I think it’s a good example of creating a process that works with thousands of people, worldwide, in an open forum in a public area, that allows everyone to reach group consensus on good approches to problems. And I do this, primarily, because in the beginning when I set up the list I was very strict with what people could say and how people could say it and how they could treat one each other. But once that happened, once there was a system set up, it obligated everyone to do it that way and it perpetuated because it works. It’s a self-government – it’s a Temporary Autonomous Zone.

GP: A lot of people feel completely mystified in terms of what to do with what’s been happening with government and with what’s been happening with the public sphere…

MP: Ignore it. It’ll go away.

GP: Well, I think that –

MP: Is that facile?

GP: It’s a little flip.

MP: I think of it as being Taoist, not flip.

GP: Well, I don’t know. In light of what was going on yesterday with the The Million Man March, it seems as if the public sphere had completely eroded as any kind of common space…

MP: That’s a myth, though. It always was, at least, in America. Because there was never any one culture in America, there was never any great melting pot. It never existed. We were told it did, though, because European Americans could melt into that pot. But not if you were Chinese. Not if you were a Latin or a Black. And certainly not if you were Indian. So I think what we are seeing is that this myth that we were fed is not true, and never was true.

GP: Where does that leave us as a nation?

MP: Us?

GP: Well, you may not see this as the forum to discuss this, but the reason why I’m doing this column, why I’m seeking out people like you who are in the machine, is because I want to know and I want to get some kind of answer…my basic premise behind this series is that the best and the brightest are in the machine and I want to know why. And I have some ideas, of course – journalists never ask questions that they don’t already know the answer to, if they’ve done their fucking homework – and when I say the best and the brightest, I mean those who are most likely to want to either change the world or make an effect on it.

MP: No, yes, I understand what you’re saying. It’s absolutely what Eric Hughes is doing.

GP: Precisely, but so what? In other words…

MP: But we’re here because this is the arena we’ve been given. It really is the only arena. I think in a different day or age I would’ve been an explorer, discoverer, perhaps a weird cross between Bruno, Tesla, and Columbus, never mind that Columbus gets a bad rap these days, Bruno got a bad rap when he was alive, and Tesla, well, we all know what happened to Tesla… But this is the world of discovery now, here in the machine. And in all our discovering, all we find is that we can see our own reflection…

GP: At 72 dots per inch…

MP: Everywhere we look. So, essentially, in discovering what’s inside the machine, we are really only discovering ourselves. “That’s the place I managed to walk to after five years of walking…I managed to walk home again.”

So there. There’s our side-track on government. Basically, to sum up: We’re a generation of anarchists, and we just haven’t gotten our hands on the means of production yet so we can fetter the wheels. We haven’t been handed the controls yet except to the Internet, which is why it looks like it does. And when we get inside the machine, all we really find is ourselves. Now do you understand why we are here?

Pesce: Now, let me re-capture the moment: The movie The Doors by Oliver Stone had just come out, and we bought the CD and played that CD over and over and over again. And I ended up getting pushed into cyberspace, and that’s about the only way I can put it. I could look around and I knew, instinctively, how to make it all work.
MP: So, I’d just finished reading this book Neuromancer and this friend of mine who worked with me at Shiva gave me a copy of this magazine he found down at Tower Records called MONDO 2000. It was issue #2, and in it was an extensive interview with a fellow named Jaron Lanier And I’d heard of Jaron because he’d invented this thing called Virtual Reality. And I really just ate this issue up. It might’ve been the very best issue of MONDO 2000 ever.

GP: This was the summer of 1990?

MP: Yeah, it was the summer 1990 issue, so by the time it got to Boston it was probably the Fall or the winter of 1990.

GP: Knowing MONDO.

MP: Yeah, their schedule was pretty erratic, but I got this thing within days of finishing Neuromancer, so the timing was perfect. And I’m sitting there reading what Jaron is saying and he says, “VR is not the television of the future – it’s the telephone.”

There is a structural break in my life from the moment I read that passage. There is my life before I read that quote and my life after I read that quote – it’s that simple. Then I knew and understood what was going on and I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t know how but I just knew where things were going.

GP: I just have to share that the first time I ever read MONDO 2000, I knew I had to be here.

MP: In San Francisco?

GP: In San Francisco, Berkeley, whatever. I knew I had to be near these people and I had to find out what they knew, because they knew what was up but I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying.

MP: Within a month of reading MONDO, I came to San Francisco for the first time in my life – and promptly moved here a few months later. There were other reasons, of course, namely that all the really important VR work was being done here.

So I kept thinking about what Jaron had said. A couple of months passed, and on March 17th there was a bloodletting at Shiva that was particularly nasty, whereby the director of marketing got fired. And it wasn’t really surprising that it happened – it was just disheartening, and especially because, again, when you’re that long with a company you have an intense emotional relationship with the company itself as a being and so any pain that it goes through pains you. It’s really like a child, and you do what you can to take care of it. This is a constant occupational disease with entrepreneurs, which is forgetting where their boundaries end and putting their boundaries everywhere else.

GP: Boy, that’s so true…

MP: Now, the next day, after much pleading, begging, crying, and weeping, I managed to get myself some real, live, LSD, for the first time in eight years. I had done quite a lot of it as a teenager and it hadn’t done me one little bit of good, because I ended up knowing all sorts of things that didn’t make any sense to until I was in my thirties.

GP: Why does it seem like all really good stories involve psychedelics?

MP: In my case, it’s true. I can’t speak for anyone else, but psychedelics seem to make all the connections clear to me…

So while I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to use psychedelics, they work for me. But again, I would suggest waiting until your head’s in order, and that’s what I did, finally. And I was ready, and I was willing, and boy, was I able.

Now, let me re-capture the moment: The movie The Doors by Oliver Stone had just come out, and we bought the CD and played that CD over and over and over again. And I ended up getting pushed into cyberspace, and that’s about the only way I can put it. I could look around and I knew, instinctively, how to make it all work. Which, evidently, no one else had been able to do prior to that. I knew how to make it work. It was absolutely tangible to me.

And I took notes. And I brought it back with me.

The key behind all of it, was something that we now call, because we have been able to identify what the archetype is – Indra’s Net. Indra’s Net is a concept in vedic Hinduism, whereby every jewel in the net reflects every other. Cyberspace works the same way. It has to. It’s the network equivalent of holography.

And I saw it all. I saw the whole goddamn big picture. I was with a friend and I guess it was leaking into his head as well and he kept saying, “This is going to be so huge!” And that really sums up my feeling about it too, because it’s unfolding now and we can see how huge it’s really going to be. But in 1990, who knew?

And that’s only five years ago but it seems like forever. As of today, I’ve been on the Web with a server and a browser for two years. That’s 2000 years in Web-time, because of the speed with which the Web has grown and the exponential growth makes time move in a very different way.

And there’s something else you should know, about speed and about the Internet’s development. Because Java’s portable anywhere across the Web, anyone who does anything once in Java does it for all of the Web. Think about that. That means that all development is purely additive anywhere on the Web.

GP: Meaning that nothing ever has to be duplicated, ever?

MP: That’s correct.

GP: That’s the same as html, isn’t it? People steal code from each other all the time – people, hell – if I see something I like, I steal it.

MP: Well, it’s a little different with Java. No development ever has to be duplicated, and very little will. But I’ll get back to that…

Every time I drop acid, I go back to that space. I can visit and make more notes. It’s still there. It’s always been there, of course – I just happened to end up in it and started interpreting it from my own frame of reference, because it is referring to things that are very mystical, very concrete, very abstract, all simultaneously and all I can do is absection the part that I understand, which is how it relates to computer communications. Because essentially, what I’m trying to do is teach the computers how to understand their own own hostile nature. That sounds really strange, alright, but it’s true.

The fact that space doesn’t make any difference on a network. On mystical terms, we call that astral travel. Well, how do you have that make sense for the computers? How do you have that make sense for the people?

GP: Excuse me, but…I think I’m having a panic attack. I felt the exact same way the first time I ever tried VR, at the CyberArts Conference in Pasadena in 1991. It’s an odd sensation that I sometimes get, the closest thing I can feel to Future Shock… and in my head there’s a voice saying, “All that is Solid, Melts into Air,” and I think maybe I need another cup of coffee or maybe a bread stick or something…

MP: Gotcha. It’s weird. So, let’s come down from the mountain, shall we?

It’s the next morning, a Saturday morning, and we go down to Central Square because my friend Michael has to buy cigarettes. And guess what’s on the cover of The Village Voice? An article called, “Lost in Cyberspace” with someone in a full VR get-up, first time that idea’s probably ever been mentioned in the Voice or any other non-computer related publication. It served as a sort of confirmation that this was what I was supposed to be doing, and I never really looked back.

All there’s been since then is just a weird series of those confirmations that serve as checkpoints to let me know I’m moving in the right direction.

So I spent some time trying to get Shiva interested in my ideas of what this would mean. I thought about attaching a net modem to a LAN and adding a head mount display so you could run around on your network in 3-D. Now, instead of using a computer, we can use VRML. But eventually, we got to the point where we started talking to venture capitalists and we formed a company to go around and expound these ideas and we called the company Ono-Sendai, after the company in Neuromancer that makes the cyberspace decks. Because we knew we were the company that was going to make cyberspace happen. It was going to happen. And we were going to do it. So we moved to San Francisco to be where the action was.

GP: So you knew it was here?

MP: Oh, there was no question about that. Because all the companies were out here. Everyone in the VR industry was in the Bay Area in 1990. Howard Rheingold had just written Virtual Reality and we used it as a resource directory to get in touch with people in Bay Area VR. Except for the people at UNC – whom we knew – everyone was here, so it made sense to come here, and we did.

Pesce: As I pointed out in the title of my paper, it was my feeling that VR could be the nuclear weapon of the human mind, no question about it…It’s the end of the cycle, it’s the end of humanity, period, because it’s possible for me to completely override your being and put something else in there.
Now, we don’t really want to go into the details of what happened with that company, but as one friend put it, “You didn’t really have bad ideas – you had bad partners.” The company had problems, and I ended up being fired by my co-founder on February 2, 1993, my day of liberation, I suppose. [Editor’s note – Imbolc.] Though it didn’t feel that way at the time. Because I refused to do what he wanted and instead wanted to do what I wanted. And he wasn’t technical. So he slayed the goose that was laying his Golden Egg. And the company fell apart and I was back out on my own.

At the time, I had the great luck to have been exposed to a set of ideas that helped describe the way out systems work and why they work and what they do. Including a set of ideas called “Perceptual Cybernetics.” Dr. David Warner at the Medical Research Center for Really Neat Research spent some time explaining these ideas to me.

Essentially, in Perceptual Cybernetics there are three pools of information in human experience: there are the things outside of you, the things inside of your psyche, and then there are your interfaces – or meat, as Gibson would put it.

Eyes, ears, nose, mouth. They’re things that allow you to know. These are the interfaces you are given. But what’s interesting are the two types of interfaces represented. There’s the interface between the outside world and your phyiscal biology, and then there are interfaces between your biology and your cognition.

So, to give an example – if I have a remote control for the cable box, and I point it at you and press the buttons, there’s data coming at you but you can’t perceive it because you don’t have an interface for it. Your physical biological interfaces can’t recognize this data. But imagine if I say something in Japanese, your biological interfaces can pick that up but your cognitive interfaces can’t interpret it, unless, of course, you do speak Japanese.

GP: Nope.

MP: So there are two kinds of interfaces that VR deals with, because VR’s all about massaging the interfaces so we can get what’s out there in here, with higher and higher degrees of fidelity. So you get more of what’s out there in here and suddenly, you’re not a human being anymore, you’re a cyborg.

Oh dear! Look what we’ve done! Oh my!
So I walked down this path and I said, ‘this is where that path ends up. ohhh!’ And for all those people out there who laughed at LawnMower Man for being a silly film – it’s not a silly film, and I think in 15 years people will have a better understanding of what they were aiming for in that film, because they tried to point out all the dangers they could find with VR and I think they did a very good job. Especially in the Director’s Cut, which is a much more subtle film.

So I said, “Okay, I’m building a bomb here, I’m not going to play Robert Oppenheimer in this scenario. I have to know what’s going to happen when I drop the bomb. I have to know.” I considered that my responsibility. Because if I’d been given the ability to make the bomb – which I thought I had -it made sense to alert people about what the bomb does.

So I wrote a paper. It’s called Final Amputation: Pathogenic Ontology in Cyberspace. The title comes from the fact that McLuhan thought all technological advances required a metaphorical amputation. In other words, if you drive a car, you’re going to have to amputate your legs. You have to not use your legs for locomotion, in order to use a car. You have to replace the internal interface for walking with the control interface of driving. To use a TV set, you have to amputate your eyes because you’re not seeing the depth the TV presents but instead you’re staring at a box three feet away.

VR, of course, amputates everything.

GP: So it’s kinda pathological.

MP: Well, not necessarily…it is an amputation of everything, hence the title, “Final Amputation.”

Now, it’s well-known in simulator circles that there’s a malady called simulation sickness, where people get motion sickness from poorly synchronized inputs. In other words, if your eyes aren’t doing what your head’s doing, you’ll puke.

So. My thesis was that, if there is always a physical pathology in these simulations, there must be a psychological pathology at work as well. And perhaps VR is a dangerous place “to be.” Pathogenic ontology roughly translates into “a dangerous place to be.”

And what I did was that I constructed a model using Perceptual Cybernetics to explain why this is the case. And showing particular zones where ther were probably going to be problems, including dildonics.

And there are other zones. There’s a complete scenario whereby you can actually join yourself in some relatively profound sense. In a neuro-linguistic sense, with a bunch of other people simultaneously gathered to evoke something,, that can happen in real-time through singing or drumming or creating something collaboratively, but it’s a metaform of humanity, it’s something we don’t experience right now, so in certain states it may mean heightened consciousness. But it’s not normally a part of our diet of perception as human beings.

That paper was accepted and presented at the 3rd International Conference in Cyberspace, which was at the University of Texas, Austin two and a half years ago, and as it was my first substantial work recognized by my peers, it really marked my entry into the field. This began my work as a critical theorist, and I’m of the opinion that any critic should be able to do as well as criticize, because a lot of people are critics because they cannot do, and I really believe in a put up or shut up kinda mentality. So critical in two sense: 1) In pointing out what is wrong in the work that exists, and 2) in coming up with examples of what is right. So I see that as my role because I have a vision for things that can be useful in moving things along.

GP: I kinda feel the same way about journalism, actually – it seems that he who wishes to cast his lens on the world and declare the mirror cracked must have an idea of what he wished to see in the mirror…

MP: Which is what I’m doing in my latest book, actually. I’m reviewing eight existing VRML browsers with the intention of pointing out the strengths and showing the weaknesses with the intention of giving VRML designers a touchstone about what they could do better.

Where were we? Oh yeah…As I pointed out in the title of my paper, it was my feeling that VR could be the nuclear weapon of the human mind, no question about it. That’s it. It’s the end of the cycle, it’s the end of humanity, period, because it’s possible for me to completely override your being and put something else in there.

GP: With VR?

MP: Absolutely. I could change your whole reality, your whole world-view, and reinsert new aesthetic meaning into your being. And we’re only getting better at that.

GP: This is sounding rather dystopic….

MP: Well, let’s say it this way: I put you in a VR system. Now let’s say I enter a set of inputs into the system that would cause you to become increasingly uncomfortable and then you transition out of that state called Psi, and you do that to avoid the increasing stimulus. Now I could mutate the stimulus to the point where you were completely overwhelmed and began to accept the incoming stimulus as perfectly normal, despite the fact that it was very uncomfortable. In essence, I could train your mind to continually walk into situations that were bad for you, continuously, time after time after time. You’d have a psychotic break in a very short time… That’s Pathogenic Ontology. I used that in one of the mock experiments in the paper.

The point being that it’s possible to manipulate your psyche to that degree of fineness, that it’s possible to put you in a place where you are not supposed to be, because of the construction of your own psyche and I can keep you there, and keep you off balance and I can put your cognition in a state where everything is unrecognizable. That’s a psychotic break.

I’ve seen psychotic breaks before so I know they’re composed of. A roommate of mine, unfortunately, had a full psychotic break, whammo, in the hospital, the whole nine yards. And in fact it gave me some grounding while I was writing this, to give me some understanding of what was going on.

We have something inside of us, you can’t call it ego because it exists even without ego, that persists in maintaining the image of fluidity of events, the idea that one thing follows the next, even though it doesn’t necessarily work that way. We have something inside us, the film-making machinery inside of us, that makes that happen. Because we need it in order to feel solid. We need it in order to feel like things are happening correctly. So it’s something that’s inside of us, something that’s part of our own concrete machinery. And if I mess with that, you go mad, okay?

And, in essence, this is what happens with people who have certain types of mania, certain types of schizophrenia, that machinery becomes fettered, so that they cannot form a world-view, or when they do, it will be faulty.

GP: Any ideas as to how that situation can reverse itself?

MP: Generally, through psychotropics, things like thorazine, and the anti-psychotics. And they’re not even sure of the mechanism, but they know, especially with psychotics, that they have to medicate them very heavily until they get down to the area where all functions are normal again and they can start backing off the doses again, sometimes…

Pesce: I started surfing all over the Web and within about two weeks, two things occured to me: one was that the Web needed a 3-D interface. The other was that if I could take the 3-D interface that can show I know how to put all the data inside the space and I can pull up all the data inside the Web with it, then I’ve solved a fundamental prolem – which is “What if you build cyberspace and there’s nothing inside? Will anyone come check it out?”

GP: Hmm. So, you wrote this paper in the summer of 1993?

MP: Yes, and it gave me some grounding of what I was after and served to introduce me to the field of VR. I was totally burned out from the Ono-Sendai experience, and so I spent some time getting my head back together. Around this time I started finishing the work I’d started two years before on my cyberspace protocol, which had been my main project throughout this time, which was to produce a class library – which will now be created with Java within a few months – which allows you to create a 3-D database that uses machines on the Internet to talk to each other, because each one converges with each other to create a piece of the while and each one also acts to create a model of the whole.

So it’s this hologram. This 3-D hologram. It’s the thing that I saw on my acid trip in 1991, and we finally got this up and running in September of 1993. But I could only show it to mathematicians, because it was just numbers going by on the screen. And I was thinking that I really needed a 3-D interface for this and I was wondering how I was going to write that.

Then October comes and I downloaded NCSA Mosaic and NCSA’s Web Server down into my Sparc station and I set it up and behold! I’m WebServer #300 on the whole goddamn Internet! And I’m sitting out there surfing the sites…this was also a time when it was possible to surf the entire Web.

GP: Now there are probably over a million home-pages?

MP: As of last count? Oh no. Last census I checked there are over 8 and a half million pages and its doubling every couple of months..

GP: Lotta space.

MP: Lotta space. Lotta documents. I started surfing all over the Web and within about two weeks, two things occured to me: one was that the Web needed a 3-D interface. The other was that if I could take the 3-D interface that can show I know how to put all the data inside the space and I can pull up all the data inside the Web with it, then I’ve solved a fundamental problem – which is “What if you build cyberspace and there’s nothing inside? Will anyone come check it out?”

Without content, cyberspace is probably not a place you’d visit. Black holes are very interesting, but there’s no there there, hence few people want to visit a black hole. But if I could add the cyberspace interface to the Web – a 3-D interface – then there would be lots of content in there from day one. And people would use it.

So, in the ultimate sense of wanting to kill two birds with one large, flat, rock, I decided to build a VR, 3-D interface for the Web, and that was the birth of what we now call VRML.

I started working on this in October. In December of 1993, Tony Parisi and his wife Marina moved to town, and struck up contact with me. They were moving into their apartment on New Year’s Day, 1994. And they invited me over and I brought a bottle of wine and we had a little housewarming. And Tony said, “So Mark – what do you do?”

Three hours later when I was done explaining what I was doing, Tony had gotten a bit of the vision, and through my persistent pestering – I can be very persistent – I got him to help me write the first VRML browser, which we wrote in two weeks in the beginning of 1994, finishing on February the 14th – Valentine’s Day.

He actually took the language that we defined and turned it into computer objects, and then I wrote the code that allows you to get those objects out over the network and also display those objects on the screen. So those are the three basic pieces that go into a VRML browser.

It was a great collaboration. He claims he did it to humor me, but he really didn’t think it was going to be anywhere hear this big.

GP: So you coded the browser before you coded VRML?

MP: VRML was part of the browser, but we didn’t call it VRML back then. We called it Labyrinth. The Labyrinth Scripting Language. The word VRML had not yet been coined.

So. We got it up and running, around about Valentine’s Day, and it worked. You could go around and determine your location – it was still more advanced than any of the VRML browsers around today. I could say, “this is where I am in cyberspace, tell me what’s around me?” Because that browser used cyberspace protocol, which was the thing I was working on in the first place. So the first VRML browser had Cyberspace Protocol integrated into it, which none of the current crop do, and probably won’t for another six months. So it was a little bit ahead of the technology that exists today, because I was really trying to show off Cyberspace Protocol rather than this scripting language for the Web because I figured anything could work for that.

I wrote to Tim Berners-Lee and told him what we’d done, and we were invited to present it at a conference in Geneva. We really blew some people’s fuses. This whole idea of having this contiguous space on the Internet was too much for people, it shorted them out. I shorted out a room full of 200 academics – I’m not kidding. One of them said, “Very Impressive…” and then raced out of the room. I’m not kidding!

GP: I believe you – I’m siting right next to you and I feel shorted.

MP: That’s when I knew I was going to have to start turning my act down in public because I tend to blow people’s fuses, so I try to introduce them to all this a little more gently these days…

But what people were really interested in was this language that Dave Raggett, the father of HTML, called the Virtual Reality Mark-up Language – we changed it to modelling language later on because it made more sense.

Pesce: People say I’m a master propagandist and that’s because I know my netlogic. I very much consider the Internet a garden, and I’m a gardener, and I plant things in it and I work within the framework of the soil, the seasons, the climate, and the temperature, to produce plants.

We decided to use this as a 3-D scripting language and so we started an open Internet process to define that because Tony and I were so in love with the work that we’d done that we couldn’t throw it out and start over again. And this was a part of out commitment to give everything away. Because we knew that this was the way the Internet worked, this is the netlogic that Kevin Kelley talks about in his book Out of Control. When I read his book last year it confirmed everything I’d been thinking about netlogic, and the idea was to give it away, give it away, give it away now. Because not only does giving it away mean a collaborative process involving a lot of different people, but it also encourages a standard and it creates a setting for the creation of path dependence.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with path dependence, but it’s a new type of economics. If you’re selling, for instance, a particular platform of computer, what counts is for you to get as much platform penetration as possible, because the more platform penetration you have, the more pathways you have to move your product. The more people who own a particular type of computer means that more people will own that computer because more software will be developed for it…it’s like an economic snowball effect. That’s called path dependence. Brian Arthur, a visiting fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, does a lot of work on this.

That’s what we really wanted to get going with VRML, and then we got SGI to back us, which happened after Siggraph in August of ’94, where we demonstrated VRML publicly.

At Siggraph, I had wanted to show people something VR had never done before. So we created a virtual walk-through of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. And we did this for Sig Kids, and we used Daniel’s story, three rooms, one from the Warsaw ghetto, one from Berlin, and one from Aushwitz. I ended up explaining to a six-year-old why the Nazis were so bad, which was pretty weird – interesting, but weird. You really don’t want to have to expose them to that. But the kids liked it. And the adults liked it too. Here was a VR simulation that wasn’t showing people running around shooting each other. It was something useful, and it was connected to the Web, so you could click on things in VR and up would come Web pages. So it was a really friendly utilization of the technologies.

GP: Did you project all of this on the wall?

MP: No, it was just on a big monitor. So it was showing it’s potential as an educational technology, and the press that was there ate it up and the were all like, “Hey, where did this come from?”

And it’s funny, you know, because a lot of people like to argue about who invented VRML. Without a doubt in my mind, there is no valid reason for such an argument. You can argue about a lot of things but you cannot argue about who invented VRML – it was Tony and I, because we were showing it off to people before anyone else knew it existed. And people only argue about it because they have an economic interest in being associated with its invention. And even SGI…I think most of SGI still thinks they invented it.

GP: And that would be VRML+?

MP: No. That’s a bunch of IBM hype. SGI put together VRML 1.0, which is just the compilation of a set of standards developed over the Internet. But before that, the proto-VRML that we were using which is the Labyrinth Scripting Language, that was created by Tony and I. All the features in VRML were originally prototyped by work that I did and that Tony and I collaborated on. So what you have now is something better than what we put together, but not different. It’s an evolution – not the revolution.

GP: I understand that there was some discussion, some dissension from within the VRML list…

MP: Like what?

GP: Well, to be honest, it was a pretty technical discussion so most of it went right over my head, but the argument ran like, “Well, we wanted to do it this way, and Pesce wanted to do it his way, so he just went off and did it.”

MP: But Pesce doesn’t do anything by himself. Pesce moves with consensus, and that’s one of my jobs, which is to marshal consensus on an issue. And if we don’t have consensus, I’ll back off of things. You know, that all it is, it’s very simple. I marshal consensus, and if there’s consensus then we’ll do something, and if there’s not consensus, we don’t do something. But if there’s consensus and you’re pissed off – then so what?

GP: When we last spoke you said that Kevin Kelley’s book Out of Control has been an influence on your work. Can you elaborate on that?

MP: The full title of the book is “Out of Control: The Balance of Neo-Biological Civilization” and I like to think of it as the Godel, Escher, Bach of the Network Age. It covers biology, networks and artificial life and it shows how they all share a common trait. And what it shows is that there is a common nature to living things.

Nature takes what works and uses it as a building block for the next thing. It doesn’t bother perfecting that which does not work. It honors its errors when it makes a mistake. It works from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down. And in the book, Kelley coins the word netlogic, we’re in an era of netlogic. Well, Tony and I had been really working on netlogic. People say I’m a master propagandist and that’s because I know my netlogic. I very much consider the Internet a garden, and I’m a gardener, and I plant things in it and I work within the framework of the soil, the seasons, the climate, and the temperature, to produce plants.

It’s that simple. I put things out there. I let them grow. I let other people come in, and I get an ecology going. Because that’s what I was trying to create.

So I knew that if we had hackers, and we had commercial types, and we had interested entrepeneurs from all over the world working on VRML, then it would be an ecology of toolmakers, tool users, and world-builders. So you put all of it together and it blows up. That’s what happened.

And it was very important to get Silicon Graphics in on it, because it was a co-opt of the commercial community. Because they would all just come along after that. And it was very important to get the Web community, which we didn’t really have much of a problem with that, because that was also the hacker community. And that was also the Web, and I knew then, in October of 1993, that the future was here. It had finally happened. I swear I wandered around with a shit-eating grin on my face for weeks because it had finally happened and I knew it. All those years in computers and we finally had something worth using!

Pesce: In the beginning, I was a very strict list moderator, and I wouldn’t let anyone be impolite. In fact, when I saw someone being impolite I would write them and say, “Please don’t talk this way or I’ll throw you off the list.” Once we got that down? Exemplary behaviour…Yes, you get fifty pieces of e-mail a day, but fuck you if you don’t like it. We’re doing work here. We have to. And yes, it’s hard. And yes, it takes time to go through mail everyday. But that’s the price you pay to belong to the community.

GP: Where does Brian Behlendorf fit into all this?

MP: We were in Geneva and he was the sysop for WIRED. After I delivered my paper, a cabal of us went up for dinner and we were running through the streets of Geneva, looking for a place to eat and screaming to each other at the top of our lungs about the best way to do VR. And Brian was one of those people. And he had just taken a class at UC Berkeley in 3-D graphics and he thought it was an excellent idea and he really wanted to see it happen. And he said, “Let’s set up a mailing list, let’s set up a Website. We have to get people talking about this.” And so WIRED volunteered the machine space for the Web site and the mailing list and the mailing list still runs on WIRED’s machines. But that mailing list is the place where VRML happened. Brian and I co-administer the list and I moderate it.

GP: I’m on a list right now called Anti-Web and the paper you wrote about Java ended up on it the other day. What struck me about it was the tone of it, which was the way you stated what you had to say. You said, “This is our community. We have to do this. If we don’t do this no one else will.” I just read it and I thought, “Oh wow.” It was like what you were saying about being a gardener – this was a cultivating letter. It was very much designed to cultivate friends and not enemies, to pull people along and not shut anyone out. And that’s what I really liked about it.

MP: {Leaning into tape recorder} If you ask me , I think the entire Internet should be forced to take a Dale Carnegie course. Sorry about the shouting.

GP: It can take it. After all, it’s Jurassic technology.

MP: Because people don’t know how to behave. Rudeness is counter-productive.

GP: Flame-war!

MP: And it takes so little to actually encourage people to be polite to one another. The big secret of the Internet is that flame-wars are simply counter-productive. They’re self-defeating.

But in some cases, flame wars are a self-correcting behaviour. It’s pure cybernetics. Flame-wars drive everyone away.

You take a look at soc.moss, a Usenet group, Members of the Same Sex. It was the queer group before we could call it or soc.queer. It’s one of the oldest newsgroups, so back when being queer was a bad thing.

GP: Which time? The early ’70s? Last year?

MP: About two months ago. {smiles} Anyway, they have regular flame wars in this group, when Christian start wandering in to state their views about faggots, and it would get so intense that after awhile, people would just stay away until it was safe to come out and play again.

Well, I just wouldn’t tolerate this sort of thing on my list. It’s one reason why we don’t go to Usenet, and it’s one reason why when people talk about moving to Usenet I don’t respond. I don’t want to give it it any energy. I don’t want to see it happen and I don’t want to stop it either – if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen, my attitude about it is passive resistance, not because it’s out of my control but because it makes it much more difficult for us all to act as a community. People actually have to go to the trouble of subscribing to the list. Yes, you get fifty pieces of e-mail a day, but fuck you if you don’t like it. We’re doing work here. We have to. And yes, it’s hard. And yes, it takes time to go through mail everyday. But that’s the price you pay to belong to the community. And it’s not an official price. It’s not meant to be an exclusionary barrier. But in order to be a part of this community you must read all the mail that’s posted in the village square. And so far, it’s really working.

Initially, I put out three documents when we first started. I wrote a Letter of Etiquette, a Letter of Our Goals, and a Letter of Visions. As it turns out, the Letter of Visions has been circulated all over the universe, but in the Letter of Etiquette I simply stated how dissention could and coult not be stated.

In the beginning, I was a very strict list moderator, and I wouldn’t let anyone be impolite. In fact, when I saw someone being impolite I would write them and say, “Please don’t talk this way or I’ll throw you off the list.” Once we got that down? Exemplary behaviour. Because once the list members knew what proper behaviour was, they would then enforce it on the other members. Once the conditions were in place, they were consistently met.

GP: That’s really interesting. Right now, I’m on a GroupWare system for this project that I’m working on, and it’s been a really interesting model of how artists across great distances can collaborate effectively over the phone. And it seems implicit that since we are working, we would be kind and good to each other, but the sysop put up LOTS of notes about what we can and cannot say, and very stern-sounding notes at that.

MP: “Be Excellent to Each Other – Or Else.”

GP: Exactly! And it seems implicit that since we are definitely working we wouldn’t start flame wars or curse each other out or whatever, but if you’re on-line it is sooo easy to send something nasty off without even thinking twice.

MP: Yes, but if you let people know what needs need to be met, generally they are pretty pleased to comply, because they know the rules pertain to everyone, and no one likes to open up their e-mail and find people shouting at each other.

Pesce: “Through that experience I really became aware of the spiritual sense that I have to help another person, and that really opened a doorway that just kept getting wider and wider, until about two years ago when I just stopped dead in my tracks and said, “I’m not going to fight it anymore. I’m a witch.”

GP: What, if I may ask, is your religious background?

MP: I was born a Rhode Island Catholic, which means little more than that church was the place we went to Sunday and kids went to Sunday School until they were old enough to not go. I was confirmed because everyone was confirmed, but I never really believed.

In 1983, I became a born-again Christian for abut 14 months. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself over the past fifteen years , it’s that I have a tremendous capacity for belief – I’ll believe in anything. But it took me a really long to learn how to effectively believe in myself.

GP: And you were a born-again as a teenager?

MP: No, actually, right around the time I was 21, and I guess I really got into it due to conflicts over my sexuality.

GP: Which you repressed while you were born-again?

MP: Not actually repressed, just abstained.

GP: Did you think maybe Jesus could save you?

MP: Yes, sort of. It was more a question of discovering where my danger areas were. Actually, as hard as it might be to believe, my born-again days were really helpful to me and helped me to get my head on straight for a little while. It didn’t last, but I became something of a Bible scholar as a result, which has come in handy over time. And then, for a long time after that, I guess I didn’t really believe anything.

GP: You became a nihilist?

MP: Oh no. I still believed in a God, but I didn’t bother to articulate it, really. Not until I came here. Once we were here, a good friend became deathly ill, and my friends Rosy and Kevin and I did some work that I would consider ritual work, though I wouldn’t have used that word then. Through that experience I really became aware of the spiritual sense that I have to help another person, and that really opened a doorway that just kept getting wider and wider, until about two years ago when I just stopped dead in my tracks and said, “I’m not going to fight it anymore. I’m a witch.”

GP: As opposed to a queen?

MP: Different ballparks, {smiling} What that meant is that I believed I was blessed with a sensitivity, or that I had a sensitivity, for the way things were and the way people were feeling. And what I discovered was that the essence of witchcraft lies in timing, in knowing the right time to do things and because of that the choices of a witch are unusually effective.

GP: Was there a source text that you used to master these arts?

MP: The craft is a craft, and therefore must be learned from others. It isn’t written, it must be handed down. And the process of learning how it all works is really just a process of learning to read the clock and learning to read yourself.

At the same time I was taking a lot of yoga, and between the yoga and the psychotherapy, by the way, for people with lingering psychological problems I consider that combination to be the one-two punch for curing yourself. Good therapist. Good yoga instructor. Because psychotherapy will bring the issues up, and yoga helps you to pass through them. It worked for me, and in fact, my therapist kept saying, “Why is this working so well?” And I kept saying, “It’s the yoga.” I took to both of them like a fish takes to water. With the yoga, the results were immediate, and by the end of a session I felt really fantastic. And it wouldn’t be a fake fantastic, it would be a “I feel fantastic!” And then it would wear off and you’d have to go do it again.

The thing about yoga is that you get better at it each time you do it, and you become more in tune with it, and I refer to this as “cleaning the waxy build-up on the soul.” At the time a lot of my friends were taking yoga, and we would have gatherings on Thursday nights where we’d do yoga and then have dinner. These days, I do yoga every morning to set the tone of my entire day.

After seven months of doing yoga, I experienced the opening of my heart chakra. The opening of the heart chakra gives you the ability to read other people’s emotional states. When people around me are in severe emotional turmoil, I know it, and it’s not because of the body cues, necessarily – I can actually feel it. And when this happened to me it was extremely upsetting because I wasn’t aware of what was happening and I hadn’t been expecting it. And I didn’t know what it was until a couple of days after it had happened, and then it became impossible to establish what was going on. It’s often difficult when we go to places where there are residues of bad energy – certain neighborhoods, empty seats on the bus, are very difficult fr me to be around.

GP: So it’s still open?

MP: Oh yes, absolutely. No, the ability never went away – now I’ve had to learn how to deal with it.

GP: Is it possible for it to close?

MP: No. Well, I suppose it could have, if I hadn’t kept at it. I think. See, I’m not even sure about that, I don’t know if that’s a two-way operation…

GP: But at some point you just realized you were highly sensitive to your environment.

MP: Well, at some point I have to just take a look at the symptoms and say, “Oh gee, that’s what happened. And it’s supposed to be a function of doing yoga. It’s a good sign. It means it’s working. So from that point of view it was almost like acquiring another set of eyes, or another sense. And that allows me to work more effectively as a human being within the world. And as you go further into it, you begin to experience the clarity of the third eye, which means better intuition. You can see through things, so you know what you’re supposed to do in any situation.

So, that’s pretty much the day-to-day minutia of my life. I’m guided by those senses, as well as by reason. The two inform each other. It’s not the western paradigm, whereby reason is it. But it’s the reason that lets the intuition know what is reasonable.

GP: Thanks Mark. Now I get to transcribe these suckers. And then do whatever write up is needed.

MP: How do you think you’re going to do it?

GP: Well, I figure I’ll just write a “tip-of-the-iceberg” feature about you and all the stuff about government…that’s what I was really after, as you know. But then I guess I’ll just throw the full text of the interview up there as well, to let people know what else you have to say.

MP: And deconstruct yourself in the process?

GP: {pause} Yeah. I guess I will.