The author of ‘Avatars’ talks about cyber cocktail parties and the concept of shared virtual worlds
Bruce Damer, a pioneer in the field of virtual worlds and author of “Avatars,” spoke with me by phone in advance of the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.
Have you been to PopTech before?
This will be our first trip. My life partner, Galen Brandt, will be coming, too. I’ve heard so much about it.
What have they asked you to talk about?
I was brought into PopTech by Ray Kurzwell as our organizations (the Contact Consortium and DigitalSpace) have been doing virtual worlds stuff for seven years now. I even wrote a book on the subject. I have to say I’m a little skeptical of the notion that some day AI’s will replace us and we’ll fall in love with them or upload our consciousness. I agree with Jaron Lanier that in fact we are as a species pretty bad at writing code and that in 25 years we will still be buried under the weight of legacy systems. I have a whole barn full of computers on our property here in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California that bears living testament that progress in software is painfully slow. I wrote a lot of code for 15 years giving me a healthy respect for the gap between expectations and reality in technology. In response to last year’s debate among folks like Bill Joy, Jaron, Ray and others, I wrote a piece for Ray’s site that pretty much spells our my views on this.
In the ’80s I wrote a GUI-based environment for Xerox, but got very tired of the metaphor of windows and pages, links, lists and trash bins. In fact, our museum is crammed full of working systems from the ’70s and ’80s that exhibited the beginnings of the user interface.
What’s the museum and its message?
The DigiBarn Computer Museum just opened in July. It’s about 5,000 square feet of weird old computers, from Xerox Star to game systems to the Cray 1 supercomputer. It represents the Cambrian explosion of innovation that occurred from 1975 to 1990. It’s also about the realization that we may be coming into a period of less innovation, which I think we are. And it looks at the speculators from the investment community who came in during the ’90s and wrecked the industry. And now with software patents and large monopoly players, where are we gonna go from here, folks? You can’t so easily go out, form a company, and design and build something that’s kooky and innovative today.
Are you bringing any of your avatar toys to PopTech?
We have gathered together a bunch of technology that was generated in the first wave of the concept of a shared virtual world. One such system, called Traveler, works so that when you talk, your avatar representation lip-syncs with you. The company that created this tremendous environment was going into Chapter 7, so we picked up its assets two years ago, and now it’s growing virally. People are hosting their own world and utilizing it around the clock. Traveler teaches you what an avatar is: You see a window on your screen and giant floating heads and one of these giant heads turns to you and talks, and you talk back. An avatar is therefore your personification, your visual agency in cyberspace. I hope to give a tour of several other avatar and biologically inspired worlds for the audience. The entire medium is pretty well documented at the Contact Consortium site.
— Bruce Damer
Do people use this for games, or chat, or other applications?
For the user, Traveler is a cocktail party, a huge social scene. They play instruments through their avatar heads, they dance. It’s amazing. In some virtual worlds, you’ve got people who like to talk, or build, or make social organizations happen, or who are simply flirting, or who are shy and become less shy in these worlds.
A lot of people over 30 scratch their heads and say, Why? People over 40, like me, scratch their heads and say, Not another bloody thing to learn! Let me out of here. I don’t want to learn how to navigate 5,000 acres of virtual space. But in a sense, these worlds are the frontier in the interaction between humans and technology. A lot of kids can build worlds together with whole social organizations. They can do that in cyberspace but can’t do that at school because they’re stuck in a bloody 19th century classroom setting. These kids are using virtual worlds to learn how to live in the 21st century. There are many stories to tell here.
So you’ve run into kids who are into these kinds of virtual worlds?
Plenty. We’re working with a large number of teachers now on the Adobe Atmosphere project, and the teachers tell us that in some instances up to a third of their class are into a multi-user online space, and they come to school and that’s what they’re talking about. Like, what happened last night in XX world. But it can also come into play in the classroom: the Adobe Atmosphere platform lets them build their own spaces.
Will your virtual worlds presentation at PopTech be hands on?
We’ll try to get a conference world built and then jointly talk to the audience about it, even setting up a public workstation if the conference will permit it. I hope we get a reasonable amount of screen time to show the group what it is we’re talking about.
Tell me about your new Intercommons initiative.
Virtual worlds are an example of a refreshing innovation in high technology. Many of the companies that tried to bring these worlds to the public are gone, although there are now many successful multiplayer gaming environments (that Amy Jo Kim and others will discuss at PopTech). Along with the demise of many innovative startups, we are now seeing unprecedented organizational failure across the world. Organizational failure, at the corporate or governmental level, is possibly the biggest factor that will prevent us from becoming better planetary stewards and averting a global eco-disaster.
I think it is fair to say that today we have to try different business models that are more dynamic, less hierarchical, give people stakeholdership and are not subject to the same risk as shareholder companies, where a hundred-year-old company with a Trojan horse full of freebooter raiders can bite the dust in a couple of years. So what I’ve done with a few colleagues, and working in parallel with Larry Lessig’s Creative Commons initiative, is to begin to form a new type of company we call a “commons.” A commons is a merger of Deek Hock’s VISA “chaordic” governance model with the online economic community and reputation system of eBay with Ray Krok’s shared intellectual property in the McDonald’s system and finally, with the collective buying power and quality control of a Costco. This commons is being designed to serve the needs of the cyberspace software and services community in the area of free speech and collaboration.
The commons is aimed at solving a key business problem, which is that even an open-source or other independently produced piece of software is not much use to you unless you can find someone who can help you install it, support it, and customize it. Well, how do you find these people? How can you trust them to do a good job? There have been things like guru.com, but most of those efforts are gone, and no marketplace or agora has ever really been formally instituted for people who are into software and interactivity. That is what the Web was supposed to have brought us.
The Intercommons marketplace will have four concepts at work: (1) people, or the members; (2) opportunities, that is, I need a voice server, or I have an idea about how to do X; (3) projects, which are what happens when opportunities and people connect; and (4) the resultant tools or products, the ongoing innovation owned by the community members or in the public domain as open source. Each one of these categories will have a reputation system so you can sort through and say, ‘OK, this is the most experienced member X who knows about highly regarded tool Y, and I’ll hire her.’ Needless to say, this will take some time to build. My co-presenter at PopTech, Jordan Pollack, will have more to say about this topic, I’m sure.
The fundamental core focus of the Intercommons is to create independent networks of communications and collaboration to secure free speech and organization through cyberspace. Instant messaging (IM) is a key technology for the benefit of society in the future. One day you may request an ambulance through IM, or people’s heart monitors may report in through an IM system. Today, most messages are sent through private, proprietary corporate networks not regulated in the public interest. One of the independent networks who have used the Intercommons IM tools is about 100 rabbis, and their community is all about discussing how evangelical Christians are converting Jews, and what to do about it? They can’t use proprietary systems such as AOL IM, Yahoo Instant Messaging or anything else — because their topic area is just too darned sensitive. They ask, who’s monitoring them? They want to run their own servers and have guarantees about independence. There simply have to be alternative, independent networks or cyberspace will be completely coopted by commercial entities that are increasingly undergoing catastrophic failure themselves. Cyberspace and its future potential for good cannot be put to such risk.
Over time, that’s what seems to have emerged as a common theme for the Intercommons mission: services, people and tools providing free speech and guaranteed privacy. After 9/11 there are those who fear that there are entities who would mount further attacks and others who fear the curbing of human rights and free speech by organs of our own government. Regardless of the source, fear motivates people to look seriously at their networks of communication online and say, “There is a presumption of privacy, but the only guarantee of privacy is really having the independence of administering all of our own tools.” I think this is an important theme that ought to be taken up at PopTech.
So you’re guaranteed privacy if you control your own tools?
We’re saying that you have a better shot at it if you are sitting next to the box that’s carrying your private voice channel and monitoring what’s going in and out. Besides, many people don’t want a free service that’s pushing banner ads and collecting their profiles or allowing someone or some agency to monitor their conversations. It’s unfortunate that we’re in this kind of mindset, and perhaps a lot of it is really “X Files” stuff and not actually happening.
Or perhaps it is. Is the target audience of Intercommons made up of individuals or businesses?
It’s aimed at free agents, who may represent themselves or small or large companies or universities and even government agencies. DigitalSpace, our little company of 16 people which is being transformed into the commons, has done every type of software and content project you can imagine from open to proprietary source and has built up a great clientele. We’re using ourselves as guinea pigs for this experiment. By the time Galen and I are at PopTech we will be “The Digital Space Commons” and be working hard on the Intercommons marketplace. We’re pulling in a bunch of indie world-rock musicians who are going to be beta-testers for Larry’s Creative Commons, and at the same time, indie coders, visionaries and marketers to build the Intercommons.
Any thoughts about the need to expand the public domain with efforts similar to Creative Commons?
We were involved in consulting for the Creative Commons project before its launch. One of the original ideas kicked around was for the creation of some kind of software or innovation repository where you could say, “This piece of technology is declared to be in the public domain.” After several months of discussion about this, everyone involved decided that this was a highly risky approach, and that any entity that purported to be a repository of such stuff, upon the first legal attack by patent attorneys, would probably just go bust.
So Creative Commons took a different approach, then.
From that discussion, Larry Lessig and his folks decided not to pursue a patentable code repository. The Creative Commons is a licensing generator, it’s not a repository. If you’re an indie musician you can go there and go click, click, click, and attach a license to your music, and the license can say, “This is in the public domain for the following people: college radio, indie stations, but not for commercial buyers.” The only protection it seems for software innovation is to either have a floor of lawyers, or to distribute stakeholdership in the innovation as widely as you can.
Larry Lessig is the Paul Revere of our times. We’re still looking for the George Washington. You know, the English troops are here, and they’re big, powerful and all around us.