(A Ritual For the Festival of Brigit)
And bent its line of growth in a curve of joy
Tracing a transcendence in which each sought to be like its other.
I come before you today to beg your forgiveness. In the eight weeks since my 34th birthday I’ve been in a dreadful funk, and only after long self-analysis did a curious arithmetic become clear to me. We count time – that is, we measure the passage of our reality as a community – in Web-years, which we measure as the rough equivalent of seven-to-one, giving our community its dogged determination. I count a span of twenty-one years between the infant “Eureka!” of my earliest Sparc Station interface to cyberspace and its culmination – its commencement, if you will – into a mature articulation of the deep structures of cyberspace.
All of which is to say that I wish to acknowledge paternity – jointly, with the irreplaceable Tony Parisi – for the child conceived of these three years ago. We sent our seed – our code – out into the world.
You are the body of the Mother. For that seed, nurtured in the womb of your community, has born great fruit.
I have become a figurehead; it has served the needs of the press to identify me as the father-figure of VRML, and certainly, in that it furthered VRML, it served my needs as well. And so I’ve all been witness to a general and gradual commodification of my self, on t-shirts and book covers and ever so many press releases. It’s the automatic reverence for a particular archetype of the father, a weak echo of the “bringer of light”, handed down in the myths of Prometheus through to the darker illuminations of Edison.
Everything happens more quickly these days. And so, what might have taken a decade or more only a decade ago happens within the midst of just one decade, start to finish. So, three years after siring a child, I bid it farewell and send it out into the world – to seek its destiny.
And I am left alone; which brings me to the point of the arithmetic of my melancholy: I was suffering from empty-nest syndrome. The last eighteen months, a continuous whirlwind of evangelism – really just the delirious mutterings of an over-enthusiastic parent – successfully led to an empty house. My job is done. I have done my best as a parent to instill benevolence and ethics, and – although these words might cause more than a few people to seize with apoplexy – I have endeavored to do so favoring all equally.
And now this role becomes a prison – for parents must ever remain so. And so I proclaim that father a dead father, passed away, mourned and revered, but now – and forever more – in our past. I now claim the freedom of the adult after the child, chastened by the experience of the parent.
Thus freed, today I will speak a new word.
You are transforming human perception. You are articulating an innovation in mediation as great as the advent of language. And you are responsible for the qualities of your creation.
Alvin Toffler has told us over and again that information is power, the newly emergent power – a power that you control. I have spent half a dozen years in deep examination of the properties of this power, have found some core ideas which illuminate my understanding, and kindle my respect for the forces you must come to govern.
A coherence undergirds all of cyberspace, a philosophy of perception, coupled with a teleology – a destiny – in which VRML becomes one of a constellation of emergent forms of the post-modern or “ahistorical” era. For this is a time without precedent; we are clearly off the map, off all our maps, and our future is self-created.
Allow me then, to trace an arc – a fool’s journey – from where we have been, to where we are, and where we are going.
Our Gaian body resembles the Mother who gave it birth
They pronounce relation in affiliation.
Let us begin with the object of desire. It exists, it has existed for all time, and will continue eternally. It has held the attention of all mystics and witches and hackers for all time. It is the Graal.
The mythology of Sangraal – the Holy Grail – is the archetype of the revealed illumination withdrawn.
The revelation of the graal is always a personal and unique experience, prone to happen in a time of great crisis. My own personal crisis, in the late winter of 1982, was that I was being expelled from MIT – a euphemistically titled “academic leave” – which spelled the end of my formal education. As my parents lived just a short distance away in neighboring Rhode Island, I resolved – once the decision on my future had been handed down – to deliver the news in person, and caught a bus to Providence from the Boston Greyhound station. As was my custom, I bought a copy of OMNI magazine, my regular and perfect fare for the hour-long trip.
In it, I found these words:
A sliver tide of phosphines boiled across my field of vision as the matrix began to unfold in my head, a 3-D chessboard, infinite and perfectly transparent. The Russian program seemed to lurch as we entered the grid. If anyone else had been jacked into that part of the matrix, he might have seen a surf of flickering shadow roll out of the little yellow pyramid that represented our computer. The program was a mimetic weapon, designed to absorb local color and present itself as a crash-priority override in whatever context it encountered.
Ice walls flick away like supersonic butterflies made of shade. Beyond them the matrix’s illusion of infinite space. It’s like watching a tape of a prefab building going up; only the tape’s reversed and run at high speed, and these walls are torn wings. Trying to remind myself that this place and the gulfs beyond are only representation, that we aren’t “in” Chrome’s computer, but interfaced with it, while the matrix simulator in Bobby’s loft generated this illusion… The core data begins to emerge, exposed, vulnerable… This is the far side of ice, the view of the matrix I’ve never seen before, the view that fifteen million legitimate console operators see daily and take for granted. The core data tower around us like vertical freight trains, color coded for access. Bright primaries, impossibly bright in that transparent void, linked by countless horizontals in nursery blues and pinks.
Black ice. Don’t think about it. Black ice. Too many stories in the Gentlemen Loser; black ice is part of the mythology. Ice that kills. Illegal, but then aren’t we all? Some kind of neural-feedback weapon, and you connect with it only once. Like some hideous Word that eats the mind from the inside out. Like an epileptic spasm that goes on and on until there’s nothing left at all…
And left me dazzled with its brilliance, drenched in sweat, entirely seduced. For here, spelled out in the first paragraph, in the nonsense word “cyberspace”, I had discovered numinous beauty; here, in the visible architecture of reason, was truth.
I know – because I have heard it countless times from many people across the world – that this moment of revelation is the common element in our experience as a community. The graal is our firm foundation.
And everything that comes after that – our appearance here today – is simply the methodical search to recover a vision of an object that declares its existence outside of time.
But the loss of the vision of the graal induces a form of madness, for in the seduction of the vision comes an imprisonment of the will, held in bondage to a greater unity which can never be achieved in its entirety. Only the absolute innocent can come to possess the graal, yet we, as beings in time, compromise our innocence to master the world. So it eludes us, and drives us further into madness.
So here we are. It is up to us to break the hypnotic spell of the graal. We must give up our affection for the impossible, come back to our senses, and return to our reason. Cyberspace is a fabulous drug, but we must come clean. To come clean, we must back away from our visions and turn our attention to the prosaic. We’re so busy careening our way to an evocation we can never fully realize that we’ve forgotten we have to walk before we can run, and crawl before we walk.
Please, do the simple things first. They may not be sexy or glamorous, but they’re practical and useful; practice and use are the elements from which an enduring structure will emerge. Anything else is a will-o-the-wisp, a chasing after the wind, and – however metaphysically satisfying – doomed to fail.
I am astonished that I have not yet seen the basic metaphors of the two dimensional graphical user interface – scroll bars and buttons and check boxes and thumb wheels and thermometers created in VRML. These, the essence of our familiarity with visual computing, have found no place in our universe. Yet it is exactly these innovations which will bring the greatest credibility to our collective efforts.
And please, aside the false distinction between cyberspace and real space. Both exist entirely within ourselves and any distinctions we draw between them subtract from both. We must think of our work as taking place within this environment, and not another place, else it will never enter our space. Let me explain…
And never the time we existed apart,
Only ever communion emerging into life
Within themselves and between each other
Culminating in a unity arrested at the edge of our flesh.
Each technical adaptation or mediation in this relationship is equally a transfiguration and amputation of an innate talent. Think of it – in order to drive a car, we must stop using our legs as a locomotive mechanism and translate them into a mechanism of control, and this substitution allows us to travel much faster. Each mechanism embodies its own language, and so conforms our being to our doing through the seduction of accommodation.
We say that we live in an era hypnotized by television, and decry the fall of the individual self to a video-mediated reality. But since the advent of language itself the individual self has been gouged out, replaced by social and cultural forms, innate human being replaced with a mediated representation of what is. Culture is as much the artifact of mediation as is any of our tools.
We have met the borg and they is us.
For the techniques of this language are those of seduction and manipulation, of desire which conceives reality. But each point has its opposite; so seduction and manipulation meet their Other in Love and Will. We can identify these points, and identify pathogenic forms by their tendency to dominate and overwhelm, and vivogenic forms by their tendency to support and reinforce.
It is today possible to see the outlines of some of these forms.
Systems not entirely different from the ones you create are now used for psychological conditioning of individuals who suffer from various phobias, such as fear of heights, or snakes, or open places. An individual is immersed in an environment containing the phobic trigger, and is forced to deal – one hopes, rationally – with the locus of the phobia, and, through encountering it, overcoming it.
It takes very little imagination to understand how such systems could be perverted to pathogenic ends; certainly, if the CIA’s MK-UTLRA experiments with LSD are any proof, the State itself might find the capacities of these artifacts irresistible. But this is not the only source of concern; teledildonics, which now elicits only nervous titillation from those familiar with its promised capabilities, may soon lead to constructions which are – in their very nature – intensely pleasurable and therefore inevitably addictive.
We don’t think of our technologies as agents of addiction; indeed the culture of consumption educates us to view them as badges of freedom, of status, and self-worth. But ponder this: of those of you with cellular phones, what was the period of time between the acquisition of the device and the moment it became absolutely indispensable, when it became incorporated into your ontology, literally a part of your being? For most individuals, there’s a brief period of days to weeks between acquisition and incorporation. Do you think – now that we’re actually coming to understand the specifics of seduction, that your own works will be any less alluring?
One future guide to the success of our artifacts will be how quickly individuals accommodate to them.
Char Davies, a Canadian artist – and one of the founders of SoftImage – has shown us a more excellent way in her own work. OSMOSE, a fully-immersive virtual world, creates a space for exploration of the self. Davies ingeniously conceived a new interface – one based upon breath and balance – as one part of the construction; as a SCUBA diver, Davies learned the gentle dance which divers practice to maintain their body in a buoyant space, and brought it to OSMOSE. You move in OSMOSE by changing your boyancy; filling or emptying your lungs to rise or fall through the simulation, leaning this way and that to propel yourself. The natural and unmediated connection between our selves and our breath leads to an immediate incorporation of the OSMOSE interface as part of the immersant’s – that’s Davies’ neologism for the participant in an immersive virtual world – ontology. Connected through the ultimate mechanism of life – breathing – the immersant opens to the experience completely.
In the early stages of testing, Davies found – to her surprise – that, despite being tethered with several cables, and the torque and sweaty confinement of a twenty pound head-mounted display, that immersants would stay within OSMOSE for hours, if left to their own desires. Something about OSMOSE so overwhelmed immersants that they ignored their own comfort in pursuit of the experience. Davies cleverly designed an artificial end sequence, during which the immersant, gently pulled above and out of the environment, ending in the dark quiet of empty space.
Not long after that, her test subjects began to report that ending – artificial or not, felt very much like a near-death experience. Indeed, one reported that she was “no longer afraid of death.” If this statement had been made about a more conventional work of art, it would cause little question, but for a work of electronic art, this is unprecedented. OSMOSE resembles no modern work of art; it hearkens back to the sacred space of Chartes Cathedral, the architecture of which symbolized man’s relation and connection to the divine – a theology written in stone.
OSMOSE is theology, written in cyberspace.
Some the most pertinent words on this were penned by Neal Stephenson:
“This Snow Crash – what is it? Drug, Virus, or Religion?”
“What’s the difference?”
The difference, ladies and gentlemen, lies in your hands.
And embraces itself in a spiral of delight
Strengthening a structure in which each speaks to every other.
This did not happen by itself, nor did Tony and I work by ourselves. At the very beginning Peter Kennard – one of the three authors of the first paper written on VRML – and Owen Rowley provided immense support; Kate Seekings and Servan Keondjian gave us what they could – for free – because they believed. Brian Behlendorf donated the time and resources of WIRED, and a community, connected through all of the mediations we could offer them, came together to talk. Community, inseparable from communication, sprang forth from shared vision.
No one understood this better than Rikk Carey, who took the ultimate leap of faith, put his job and the work of his group on the line, and gave us all something of inestimable value – not just a specification, but years of experience, hard-won lessons, and a certain political savvy, all of which were sorely needed. If VRML is a success, it is Rikk Carey’s fault.
Over time I’ve come to understand that any process like that which gave birth to VRML has three principle phases; connection – where the community forms around the artifacts of communication; collection – where collective intelligence emerges from community; and correction, where the community dispassionately evaluates the result of their efforts, then feeds those findings back into the process. We can see each of these phases the birth of the VRML mailing list, the development of the 1.0 specification, and the formation of the VRML Architecture Group. In each of the members of the VAG, Gavin Bell, Brian Blau, Rikk Carey, Jan Hardenbergh, Mitra, Jon Marbry, Bill Martens, Tom Meyer , and Tony Parisi we see the highest example of a community working together – self-critically – to answer a common need. Their success – and yours – has always come from this wellspring. Nurtured in the womb of community, a new word sprang forth to declare itself as reality.
VRML has entered its Age of Men; of beauracrats and standards bodies and consortia. This need not imply that the spark which brightens our work together must inevitably deaden; indeed, we could see it as the ultimate certification of our existence as a community, which seeks to reify its own being as it draws itself into a cohesive body. This body must needs be of and for the community; if it is not, we can only blame the community itself for neglecting to observe that the privileges of community are equally paired with responsibilities. The Age of Man follows the time of high drama and grand acts; it’s the era of prosaic and pointed perseverance. I’ve heard the same refrain time and again in the last two days – “Have courage, and keep moving.” You must do more than spread the word, you must give this new word meaning.
Tony Parisi once told me that he conceives of VRML as the DNA of cyberspace. DNA is information woven in biology, the logos of the flesh. From this logos you must build a living world; but, if we understand paleobiology at all, we know that the diversity we associate with the living world came as the product of billions of years of development. The first words in any language must needs be simple; only after trial and much practice can we move to sentences, paragraphs, and entire works.
Into a lens to inspect greater being
Gain the whole – and so become one with it.
But what are we?
The only answer I can give – the only one that makes any sense to me – I learned from a French Paleontologist and Jesuit named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In the first half of the century, Teilhard did field work in China, helping to uncover the evidence of man’s origins. At the same time the fields of paleobiology and anthropology went supernova, and in a sudden moment the riddle of origins – and, consequentially, destinies – became clear to him. He described his vision in a book that he titled Le Phénomene Humain – The Phenomenon of Man – but which – by order of the Roman Catholic church – he was never allowed to publish it in his lifetime.
His argument is uniquely intelligible to the late twentieth century mind. All things have an exterior nature, which seeks to accumulate, to gather, and an interior nature, which seeks to complexify. Today we call this phenomenon emergence and believe it somehow a more solidly scientific phrase than consciousness or spontaneity – words Teilhard used – but it is still at best a pseudo-scientific description of process we can not even pretend to understand. Life, Teilhard claimed, was the natural expression of the interior drive of a collection of macromolecules; in other words, the emergent quality of a complex biochemical system. He envisioned no essential boundaries on these drives; the planet, to Teilhard, had as much drive as lowliest amino acid, so the birth of life on planet Earth represents a natural and inevitable step in the complexification of the planet. That this statement seems supported by Rupert Sheldrake’s hypothesis of formative causation – and the intriguing probabilities of life on Mars – only adds weight to his arguments.
Teilhard did not stop with the birth of life; he worked onward -in his eyes, upward – through multi-cellular life, animals, and on to Man. Man’s consciousness, Teilhard believed, was the natural product of a complexification of cellular life that had aggregated to the point where exterior growth served no additional purpose; instead, this growth moved within, in the development of forms which could become conscious of their own nature as forms. He put it quite simply:
“The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself.”
This consciousness, Teilhard reasoned, would recapitulate the history of the forms which had proceeded it – that is, it would begin to aggregate. And, once it had aggregated sufficiently, it would inevitably begin to complexify. He gave a name to this emergence of the complexification of consciousness – he called it the Noosphere, from the Greek for mind. He traces its origin to earliest man, for he says:
“Since the age of the reindeer the peoples had been little by little finding their definitive place, even in matters of detail Between them exchanges increased in the commerce of objects and the transmission of ideas. Traditions became organized and a collective memory was developed. Slender and granular as this first membrane might be, the noosphere there and then began to close in upon itself – and to encircle the earth.”
The noosphere is the society of mind that emerges from conscious presence together in community, and since the birth of an electric era – which Marshall McLuhan characterized as an extension of the human nervous system over the body of the planet – has existed as instantaneous community between its constituents. For one hundred and forty-nine years, this electric body aggregated the entire planet into its confines; satellites and CNN and data networks stretched to encompass it. But, once fully gathered, this body again turned inward, seeking to complexify itself.
At some point in the recent past – I would place it sometime in 1993 but certainly no later than mid-1994, the noosphere began a irreversible process of self-organization. The first of its emergent properties was none other than the World Wide Web, for it first needed to make itself comprehensible – that is, indexible – to itself. How else to explain a process that magically began everywhere, all at once, across the length and breadth of the Internet? How else do we explain its increasing rush to encompass all human knowledge and all human experience into its un-dimensional expanse? McLuhan wrote of the advent of an age when “consciousness will be piped into the household, much as gas and electricity are today”. Does this make sense of the hew and cry that sounds when AOL users can’t dial into their local POP?
The next necessary step in this complexification of the noosphere is the apprehension of the breadth of body contained within the noosphere. To understand itself, it must see itself. And this, I believe, is the role of VRML. For VRML is the porthole cut into the noosphere, the mirror which lets the seer see ourself.
If VRML had not arisen to meet this need, something else would have risen to fill it; and if VRML fails, another will rise and take its place. Even if we don’t build it, they will come just the same. For the growing collective hum of cyberspace is heard by many ears.
The power over this realm has been give to you. You are weaving the fabric of perception in information perceptualized. You could – if you choose – turn our world into a final panopticon – a prison where all can been seen and heard and judged by a single jailer. Or you could aim for its inverse, an asylum run by the inmates. The esoteric promise of cyberspace is of a rule where you do as you will; this ontology – already present in the complex system know as Internet – stands a good chance of being passed along to its organ of perception.
There is another side to the graal – a sacred society of Initiates. For the graal changes us, opens us to numinous being that transfigures the base matter into alchymical gold. It is said that the initiate into the mysteries of alchemy considered the great work as a spiritual exercise, rather than the base lusting after gain; the gold appeared when the Initiate stood pure and ready to receive it. Sir Perceval, noble, yet meek and blameless, came to see the graal.
Teilhard knew this moment would come, that there would be a flash of complexification across the body of the noosphere, and that, in that moment, we would be faced with a great question:
“We are not saying enough when we said that evolution, by becoming conscious of itself in the depths of ourselves, only needs to look at itself in the mirror to perceive itself in all its depths and to decipher itself. In addition it becomes free to dispose of itself – it can give itself or refuse itself. Not only do we read in our slightest acts the secret of its proceedings; but for an elementary part we hold it in our hands, responsible for its past to its future.
“Is this grandeur or servitude?”
That, you must decide.
And never again shall we act apart:
Only ever communion emerging into Divinity.
In those last few months I spent at MIT, I had the great good pleasure of coming to know K. Eric Drexler, who had just graduated from the Institute; he threw informal weekend pot-luck dinners for a certain rather hackerly Cambridge crowd, a salon of ideas so radical they bordered on unbelievable. Under the tutelage of the venerable Marvin Minsky, Drexler had begun to develop the theoretical cornerstones of nanotechnology, which represented the absolute end-point of the mastery of matter. In the realm of nanotechnology anything within physical possibility becomes possible. The ultimate techne. I read an early draft of Drexler’s book, The Engines of Creation, and learned of a world where diamond would replace glass, tiny fighters would wage war against the viruses in my cells, and every material, regardless of complexity, would become endlessly abundant.
UCLA historian of science and literature, Katherine Hayles, has noted the ontological convergence between virtual reality and nanotechnology. What is the difference, she asks, between a fully articulated virtual reality and a fully realized nanotechnology? These lines of development are naturally aligned; and are bound to converge. Both represent the end-point of doing which transforms being; both are words made flesh.
Now we see our destination.
Nanotechnology is the VRML spore. It’s not accidental that the first and most enthusiastic scientific community to embrace VRML were the chemists; they needed this long before we ever dreamt it up. It is not accidental that one of the first projects completed by Construct – at the request of Dr. Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC – was a detailed system of nano-computational devices for the 1995 Foresight Conference. This is VRML announcing itself to us, calling itself by its true name.
In 1994, at about the same time Tony and I tooled away at a very primitive browser, Warren Robinett – one of the fathers this field – worked with a team at the University of North Carolina to create a fully realized virtual interface to a scanning tunneling microscope, a device that you let you see, touch and move single atoms. The Nanomanipulator – to this day perhaps the outstanding use of virtual reality for any purpose – ties the endpoints of doing together in a way that stuns from its elegant simplicity.
That is the first, but surely not the last. I set you a case: scanning tunneling electron microscopes are surprisingly simple devices; and there’s no fundamental reason why they won’t someday become cheap and plentiful. In that day – and quite probably long before – VRML becomes the DNA of nanotechnology, the point of contact between our doing and our understanding.
And we have arrived.
One of the things I did learn at MIT was a dedicated appreciation for its motto: Mens et manus – mind and hands. VRML and nano, word and world, are now and forever one. What we have conceived, what we can now speak, that we now do.
It is best done with love, in a pure heart, for the good of all.
Thank you all, very much.