Hello World: Travels In Virtuality

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Sue Thomas

Hello World: travels in virtuality By Sue Thomas

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Hello World: travels in virtuality

About the author Sue Thomas was born in Leicester in 1951. Her parents were from The Netherlands but the de Vos family settled in England, moving house many times during her growing up and forming a tiny foreign island which drifted through English culture but never quite joined it. Although she has lived in the North, the South, and the Midlands, only cyberspace has ever really felt like home. Her books include the novel Correspondence, short-listed for several prizes including the Arthur C Clarke Award; Water, a novel of fluids, imaginations and passions, and an edited anthology Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories By Women Celebrating Women. She is Artistic Director of the trAce Online Writing Centre and a Reader in New Media at The Nottingham Trent University, England. For more information about Sue and her work visit her web page at

About the publisher Raw Nerve Books is a small, not-for-profit feminist press publishing controversial, under-represented or experimental work. We publish a range of material within the arts and academia and are developing writing that spans print and web media. Whatever the genre, our aim is to inspire new discussions, asking questions that might indeed touch a ‘raw nerve’ with many readers. The company is based at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York, England, and is supported by both the Centre and the Department of English. Thanks especially to Ali Neilson and Julie Palmer for their help with Hello World. For further details of Raw Nerve and our publications, see our web site on

Sue Thomas

For my daughters Amber and Erin

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Hello World: travels in virtuality

Sue Thomas

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Acknowledgements This book has taken several years to write because the online environment changes so rapidly that any commentary must be constantly revised. For that reason this volume can do no more than represent a slice of my understanding as it was at the end of 2003. During the writing period, I had so many conversations with so many people that it’s difficult to know where to begin my thanks, but the obvious place to start is with my colleagues at the trAce Online Writing Centre. From 1995 I have shared the online space of trAce with Simon Mills, Helen Whitehead, Randy Adams, Catherine Gillam, and many others including Teri Hoskin, Christy Sheffield Sanford, Alan Sondheim, Carolyn Guertin, Claire Dinsmore, Kate Pullinger, Tim Wright, Simon Widdowson and Kate Wilkinson. Others who have generously given their time over the years for significant discussions about who and what we are in cyberspace include Mark Amerika, Paul Brown, Gill Chesney-Green, Cynthia Haynes, Kate Hayles, Jan Rune Holmevik, Marjorie Luesebrink, Alan Liu, Talan Memmott, Jack Ox, Francesca da Rimini, Barry Smith, Scanner, Stelarc, Charles Stivale, Nancy White, and many others who contributed new angles to my ideas or textual excerpts for this volume. And although they don’t know it, Laurie Anderson, Bjork, and BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction assisted my offline thinking time whilst driving or late at night. Without Ann Kaloski-Naylor and Hilary Kay Doran of Raw Nerve this book would never have been made. Both were endlessly tolerant as I fitted and re-fitted the final pieces and I am repeatedly surprised and delighted by the ways in which Hilary’s design skills have realised my text. Ann’s critical vision introduced me to new viewpoints and sharpened up my thinking. It has been an immense pleasure to work with them. I especially want to thank those close to me who patiently endure my fascination with wired life. My sister Carolyn Black and my brother Steve

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de Vos, my good friends Catherine Byron, Martine Hudson, Bill Lockley, Kathy Page, Sue Sareen, Stevie Vanhegan, Tom Wilson, Julie Woodin, and Greg Woods. My daughters Amber and Erin have been wonderful, as ever, and this book is dedicated to them with all my love. Sue Thomas, East Leake, January 2004.

The New Media Movement Digital society connects many areas – science, academia, commerce, arts, politics, entertainment, education – yet there is still no single banner which unites them all. We are however, united by our very connection - the internet itself. The 19th Century British Arts and Crafts Movement was inspired by Ruskin and Morris to look to Nature for its forms and philosophies. Today, many of us add to Nature the potential of digital technology, finding within that combination a potent force for enrichment and empowerment. I wonder, therefore, whether we too are part of a Movement? And so I tentatively offer this volume to the New Media Movement, which might exist, and to all of you who might therefore consider yourselves to be part of it. Hello World online Inevitably, since finalising the typescript I have come across new material I would have liked to include. To compensate, the Hello World website is sporadically updated with information, further thoughts, reflection and reader comment. If there is a url or project I should know about, or if I’ve got my facts wrong somewhere, do let me know via the link on the site.

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CONTENTS Acknowledgements ......................................................................................... 5 Foreword ........................................................................................................... 9 PART ONE : 2002

PART TWO : 2000


1. ................... page 13 2. ............................ 19 3. ............................. 21 4. ............................ 25 5. ............................ 38 6. ............................ 42 7. ............................. 51 8. ............................ 55

9. ............... page 59 10. .......................... 69 11. ........................... 87 12. .......................... 94 13. ........................ 101 14. ........................ 107 15. ........................ 124 16. ........................ 138 17. ........................ 146 18. ........................ 151 19. ........................ 156 20. ........................ 164 21. ........................ 170 22. ........................ 174 23. ........................ 190 24. ........................ 208 25. ........................ 212 26. ........................ 217 27. ........................ 219 28. ........................ 223

29. ................ page 227 30. .......................... 231 31. ......................... 240 32. ......................... 249 33. ......................... 264

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Foreword I spend my professional life working with the trAce Online Writing Centre, a thriving international community of writers who have made the internet their creative milieu. I owe them a huge debt for the inspiration and energy of their companionship. But this book does not tell the story of trAce, nor does it discuss new media writing. They will be dealt with at another time and quite possibly by other people. Nor is this the story of me, although parts of my life are embedded within it. It is a collection of fragments – my own thoughts and meditations plus items found on and off the web. The experience itself is the journey. As Philip Toshio Sudo writes in his wonderful Zen Computer ‘Many people mistakenly think of the internet as a destination but, like zen, it is merely a pathway. As the zen masters say, “Don’t ask where the path is. You’re on it.”’1 Computers have been my muse since the mid-80s, when I became fascinated first by my own intense engagement with my Amstrad 6128 and then by peoples’ emotional responses to machines at a time when the personal computer was fast becoming ubiquitous in homes and offices. In 1992 I published my novel Correspondence,2 which explored the allure of ‘machineness’ and what it might mean for one human to be connected to one computer, but I had not thought beyond a one-to-one monogamous relationship. Then in 1995 I discovered the internet and suddenly it was no longer oneto-one but one-to-many and even many-to-many. Overnight, it seemed, I went from being one person with a single name to existing as a number of identities created by me but not always recognisable as me, even by myself. And these bodies inhabited new and varied landscapes, enticing me to spend my days constantly travelling without leaving my desk, moving from websites ○


Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Computer (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999), 179.

2 Sue Thomas, Correspondence (London: Women’s Press, 1992; New York: Overlook Press, 1993).

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to message boards to the exotic textual environment of LambdaMOO and back again into the comparatively vanilla world of plain email. Since the World Wide Web came into widespread use, the internet has prompted passionate advocacy for everyone around the globe to take it up, and equally passionate calls for it to be taken down (as if that were possible). It is seen by a few as a force for evil and by many as our last best hope, a tool for international understanding which just might eventually bring us to our senses. As an entity in itself, it has been analysed, theorised, sexualised, personalised, counted, audited, mapped and generally obsessed over. Network artists roam its highways and habitations, feeding off the code and using its binary physiology as both tool and artefact. Writers are experimenting with hypertext and other types of new media works, and readers everywhere are becoming literate in clicking, browsing and navigating. I wrote my first book about computers as a novel because it seemed at the time that fiction was the best way to explore the solo human-machine experience. However, fiction is not suitable for this book for the very good reason that, in the connected world, it ceases to apply. If these pages make any argument at all it is that virtuality disables the potency of fiction. In my opinion (and others will no doubt disagree) there is no room for self-conscious storytelling in cyberspace because in that environment everything is essentially not-real anyway. Fiction relies on a pact between the writer and the reader in which the author says something like ‘what I’m about to tell you is being presented in the guise of its not being true even though we both know that parts of it are ‘true’ since they are drawn either from my own life or those of others who you may or may not recognise. But what will hold it all together is not the truthfulness or otherwise (that is largely immaterial) but my artistry in spinning the tale for your reading pleasure and edification’. Now, in cyberculture, the first part of this contention, regarding the immateriality of ‘truth’, is already taken for granted. For example, I already know that things might not really be as you say they are and so there is no need for any pact or literary convention to flag that up. So the first part is easily declared null and void. The second part, relating to artistry, is changed

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for a much more interesting reason. Cyberspace is a place, a style, a consciousness that we make together. It is rarely the product of an individual creative act produced by a lone genius novelist. Instead, net life is the outcome of a complex sequencing of the collective imagination. Indeed, its very topography depends on the makings of all those engaged with it. And so, this book is not a work of fiction – although it would be wrong to call it non-fiction : ) When Henry David Thoreau built a home by Walden Pond in 1845, his intention was to settle himself in a single physical place for a certain period of time and to reflect upon his subsequent thoughts and experiences. It has to be said, however, that what he related did not always wholly match the truth. For example, although he presents himself as something of a practical handyman, historical researchers found an unaccountably large number of bent nails in the earth around his cabin. Baffled, and after much investigation, they eventually concluded that the only possible reason for the presence of so much superfluous hardware was that Thoreau can’t have been much good with a hammer. Well, this notebook is the story of my own sojourn, not in a cabin by a pond, but in the homesteads and wildernesses of the internet, and it too is ringed around with a substantial number of bent nails. With luck, they will prove to be of interest rather than a distraction. Since I first went online I have struggled to make sense of who and what we are. We? Has the internet created new people? I believe that quite possibly it has. It has certainly brought an entirely new conceptual range into our lives, and we have as yet little idea of the huge social, economic and philosophical changes it will bring about. However, most of the world is not yet wired and possibly never will be. In the year 2000 the continent of Africa accounted for only 0.25% of all internet hosts worldwide, and most of those were in South Africa alone.3 As I write this in September 2003, the 10% of us with access to ○


In their 2000 report ‘Understanding the Digital Divide’ the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development stated that North America and Europe accounted for 89% of all Internet hosts.

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the net have little chance of ever being wired to the other 90% and with that kind of differential it’s difficult to see how equity in terms of connection can ever be achieved. But, as geographically confined as it might be, internet culture is still the most global connection humans have yet experienced. The ‘we’ I speak of in this book, therefore, embraces all those who make up the conservative estimate of 580 million people online in 2002 or the estimated 945 million who will be online by 2004.4 On 11 September 2001, and again in the Northeast Brownout on 14 August 20035, the internet held fast. It did what it was supposed to do, remaining operational despite the extensive demands made on its infrastructure. And ironically, this network which was originally designed for military use showed itself to be a hugely significant force for the sharing of individual news, reassurances, and mourning. We can never be sure what the future holds, but unless there is some inconceivably drastic change it seems inevitable that the internet will continue to function so long as there is a source of power to drive it. But even if the net itself were destroyed, what pathways might it leave behind? How has it changed us, even in the short time since we began to share its infinite space? Could there even evolve a post-internet internet? What would it be like? Now that we are wired, what can unwire us? The power to connect is where the spirit of the net resides. Every node, every cable, every hub, every packet, is permeated with fragments of the animus of this planet. The internet is indeed alive. It is alive with all of us. 10 print “Hello World!” 20 goto 10 ○

4 CyberAtlas staff. Population Explosion! 22 Sept 2003. CyberAtlas. 24 Aug 2003. 5

Net survives power outage, 15 Aug 2003. BBC News. 5 Oct 2003.

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PART ONE : 2002

1. Technology is both a danger and an opportunity with respect to the imagination. It is a danger in so far as it can be the death of imagination through its literalisation. It is an opportunity in so far as it can be an awakening to how the events of the world have an imaginal depth, and how the life of the imagination inscribes itself within the events of the world.6 I look out of my bedroom window at one a.m. to see an odd kind of semidaylight, as if my eyes have been reconfigured to read grayscale only. And yet even within that range there is a huge variation in the intensity of the light. Thus, as the moon bleeds whiteness across the grass, so all pale things acquire a moonbeam-powered glare. And areas which in daylight would have colour now possess only no-colour – a flat absence seeming more like smoke than like solid. White paving stones meander, embedded, across the dark lawn. They curve like a wagging tail all the way to the end of the garden, each one a single step as I mentally follow the trail. 12 paces to the southeast then 12 to the northeast then ○


Robert D. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom & Dream (London: Routledge, 1989), 10.

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10 to the south east then 8 to the north east Perspective shrinks the bleached stone discs to nothing while the night hides everything else, and next door a white-painted wall is blinded by moonlight. On another occasion, sitting at my writing table in the dark and very late, I work on a text lit only by a cluster of small lanterns swinging to the vibration of my hand moving across the paper. This stillness in the night can be like the stillness of online. It is the charm of midnight, the intimacy of the unconscious, to sit here knowing how many sleeping things are close by yet hidden from my view and to be aware that such quiet does not signal solitude, as it might in the daytime, but means simply that this part of the world is in suspension. The language we have given our computers mirrors the language of slumber – hibernate, sleep, suspend. I’m surprised we don’t have a command called ‘dream’ – after all, there is an equivalent, which is when you run a programme in the background. That must be the nearest a computer comes to dreaming. Or perhaps it’s dreaming when it is running a task like the Seti search for extra-terrestrial life.7 Most people only make use of a tiny percentage of their computers’ capacity, so applications like seti@home live in the spaces. While you sleep at night, your computer reads signals from deep space and looks for alien life forms. That sounds pretty much like dreaming to me. I love sleep. I love to be in bed. For me, at least, (I know it is not so for everyone) bed is the place where your body is safe and your mind can wander. When I was a child I was happy to be sent upstairs early as punishment for ○

7 SETI@home uses net-connected computers in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Computer users participate by running a free program on their machines that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data. It uses any spare capacity available to do its own job, in the background and without interfering with the user’s own files and applications. Join in at

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something or other. I would pull the blankets over my head and imagine long scenarios. I wish I could remember them now, but although the stories are forgotten the sense of being under the covers is as potent as ever. Bed is my private den, the place where I can lie and dream without interruption. Is being online like being asleep? Or is it like the hypnogogic moment between the states of sleeping and waking when we are conscious of people near us but they seem so very far away, their words muffled and unprocessable? Is it like evoking some kind of collective mesmerism whereby we all sense each others’ presence and even react to it? To share the sheets with someone else is quite different of course. Then it becomes a collaborative experience, one which whilst enjoyable is really very qualitatively different from being in bed alone. I often find that sitting at my computer can be almost like being asleep. An equally hypnogogic experience, it can feel just the same as laying in bed. My body is comfortable and my mind can easily stray, a flaneur of my own imagination. What is it like to really sleep online? I would love to be able to do this. The nearest I can get is to curl up close to the machine and doze through the tunes of mail popping in all night, but it’s not the same as actually sleeping online. Why? Because being online requires some kind of conscious engagement, even if it’s just staring at the screen and not doing anything, whereas being asleep by definition entails no conscious engagement – at least, not with the physical world. If I log on and then walk into the other room away from the machine, am I still logged on just because the machine is connected to the web? I don’t think so. I mean, it’s comforting to know the web is there, so close, so accessible, but I am not actually in it unless I am engaging with it. So, until I can have a direct link through to my brain, until perhaps I am able to actually dream online, I cannot ever sleep online. But what about the machines which measure REM sleep? Surely when they are online, the whole brain is linked into the network – whatever network that is. The performance artist Stelarc created a project called Stimbod where

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his body was wired up to a computer which choreographed his movements according to the directions given by remote participants via the internet.8 It would surely be just another step to feed those directions from a machine which received its data from a REM reader. So, picture this: electrodes are attached to me as I sleep and they transmit REM data onto the internet. This data is then interpreted by a program which can read it and use it to power something else – to play music, or colour a screen, or even to speak. That way, I would be literally sleeping online because although I would be asleep I would also be simultaneously inputting data. Perhaps at these times I could be delving into the more remote parts of the internet. Some people call this entering the Deep Web, just as if it were a Deep Consciousness. The net is full of spiders and webcrawlers, perpetually creeping from one link to the next and uncovering complex and often long lost pathways. But sites which are unconnected to the main thoroughfares are often harder to find. So, to anyone out there who is planning to experiment with this, allow me to volunteer. I permit you to connect my sleeping brain to those deep search engines which delve further than the more commonplace systems, and through them I will enter the dreamtime of the web. I imagine the machine dozing through the dark in a corner of the room, bathing me in a soothing digital glow, winking and glittering through the long nights while I surf on broad azure ribbons of hot light streaming through the air. ‘Download the latest software!’ click here ‘Send mail messages to all your friends!’ click here ‘Listen to this . . . ’ click ‘Look at that . . . ’ click click click click click click ○

8 For more about Stimbod and Stelarc’s other experiments and performances with robotics


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The bluest blues, the greenest greens. Pink. Yellow. Ochre . . . But for now I am constrained to consciousness, albeit multiple. My computer is set up so that it opens several windows at once, and each holds an application I use every day – word-processor, spreadsheet, email, web-browser. I glide smoothly from one to the next with a simple twitch of the mouse. I direct the flickering arrow and double-click, staring rapt at the screen as my pupils expand, my skin tightens, and my breathing quickens in anticipation. The LEDs glow brightly, searching for a starting point, until . . . Now! Connection is established. I glide forward into the knots and streamers of cyberspace, my brain opening itself wide like a rolling summer sky in cinemascope. The beeps and clicks of my synapses tune in with the fast running machine and together they sweep melodiously through the sea of information parting before them as they approach. This is meat and electricity conjoined, as they should be, as they were designed to be, as they always have been. Now, in virtuality, the partnership is enhanced and extended beyond the physical as it surfs into the realms of pure spirit. Cut loose in the ether, floating adrift in a sea of nothing. My body is buffeted by waves of warm electricity, my synapses tickled and probed. For a while, in this blind dark, the only music is the wavering stutter of modems So many of us are trying to capture electracy, but it will not allow itself to be held. Write, paint, sing, dance . . . yet still it slips from our grasp, shimmering away to that bright intangible boundary marking the edges of the screen. I’m beginning to believe that only the screen can show it, only the keyboard can speak it. That just as Ada Lovelace and William Babbage designed a machine that could not yet be made, so we are sensing a world which cannot yet be expressed. Of course, we’re in a very interim state right now. We’re grounded by

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wires, pinned down like Gulliver, connected to the web and to each other by so many miles of cable that we can hardly move. My modem and power cables form a twin umbilical without which I am not fully nourished. Yes we have wireless technology and we have batteries, but both are still pretty unreliable and short-term. They make me nervous. I prefer to know that the current is secure and data transmission won’t be interrupted. But wireless is spreading daily, from coffee house to hotel, and the Grid is fast developing as a worldwide distributed computing system with which we will share everything, so this insecurity is only temporary. Soon, mobile computing will reach a level where I can run a direct feed into my brain, and my entire sensory array will simply take on an extra dimension to accommodate the new data. A global connection with everyone everywhere. Borg at last. How can I begin to explain my passion for this thing? The internet is my body. It’s an extra set of senses, an additional brain, a second pair of eyes. I can’t function fully without it now. I mean, sure, I can ~function~ . . . but I can’t properly ~think~ It’s as if my knowledge is extensible. Before the internet, my head contained most of what I knew. The rest was stored in my bookshelves, photo albums, video tapes, and filing cabinets, but if I learned something in the traditional sense – a foreign language for example – the majority of the words were stored in my brain whilst I kept the rest in reserve in a dictionary. In day-today terms, I made an effort to remember peoples’ phone numbers. I knew the recipe for goulash. I had various travel routes memorised and stored away for easy access. And if some new piece of information came along, I just filed it away for future use and retrieved it when I needed it. Occasionally data would drop out of my head, never to be retained, and sometimes I remembered things I would really rather have forgotten, but the total amount of knowledge I could hold was limited by the storage capacity of my skull. What does that add up to? A couple of litres or so. OK, I had a couple of litres of data. It’s not like that now. Now, my brain is a single node in a network of nodes. Information passes

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in, and out, and through it, all the time. Every day I’m asked for the answers to all kinds of questions, and every day I ask different questions of others. I provide opinions. Others provide them back. I can ask individuals by email or I can ask the world via a website. Why hold it all in my head? It would be impossible to do so anyway, but why bother? If I want to know anything, I just need to ask the web. ‘What’s the recipe for goulash?’ I ask Google. In 0.26 seconds it gives me 398 addresses to check, including goulashes made from elk, from beans, for diabetics, for slimmers, and for campers. Why do I need to keep my old recipe? It was never so good anyway, and if it had been I would have contributed it to the general pool so I could retrieve it from a search engine later whenever I needed it, and that way other people could enjoy it too. I don’t need to collect data in my head any more. I can find anything I want to. And I can pretty much find anyONE I want to. It feels like the whole world is out there, just waiting for me to connect . . .

2. hello world interj. 1. The canonical minimal test message in the C/Unix universe. 2. Any of the minimal programs that emit this message. Traditionally, the first program a C coder is supposed to write in a new environment is one that just prints “hello, world” to standard output (and indeed it is the first example program in K&R). Environments that generate an unreasonably large executable for this trivial test or which require a hairy compiler-linker invocation to generate it are considered to lose (see X).

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3. Greeting uttered by a hacker making an entrance or requesting information from anyone present. “Hello, world! Is the LAN back up yet?”9 One of the first things a programmer learns to write is a sequence which prints on the screen the message – ‘Hello World!’. And every time a new programming language is invented, it is de rigeur that it should be able to proclaim this anthem using the most elegant code possible. The largest collection of Hello World programs can be found at the website of the Association of Computing Machinery ‘Hello World’ Project10, where over 200 examples are listed in all their complexity. The simplest is probably in Basic: 10 print “Hello World!” 20 goto 10 But since the first Hello World program was written, probably in C, in the early 1970s, the ‘world’ out there has altered beyond all expectations. The machines no longer greet just the eager reflection of a lone programmer in the glass screen, but instead they say hello to each other, in many languages and scripts, but always in zeros and ones, and across a global network. One way or another, saying ‘hello world’ became commonplace. At the turn of the millennium, we emailed each other from country to country as, one by one, we passed into the new century. That night, while I waited to slide into the year 2000, I received a forwarded email which, like so many messages which the recipient sees fit to distribute because they are amusing, or shocking, or insightful, was written by someone I didn’t know. But it moved me immensely: ○

9 The Jargon Dictionary. 20 Aug 2000. The Jargon File, version 4.2.2 5 Oct 2003. 10 The ACM ‘Hello World!’ project. 26 Apr 2001 Louisiana Tech ACM. < http://www2.latech.edu/

~acm/HelloWorld.shtml > Geek Site of the Day: 1st February 1996. 5 Oct 2003.

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Subject: All’s well To all you good people who are still living in the nineteen hundreds - the New Year arrived in New Zealand a few minutes ago. Water continues to flow from our taps. The street lights have not gone out. The sky is still up there where it’s supposed to be. If you get this message, my computer is still working. Come and join us in the new millennium. Jim.11

3. One may liken the English landscape, especially in a wide view, to a symphony, which it is possible to enjoy as an architectural mass of sound . . . without being able to analyse it in detail or to see the logical development of its structure. The enjoyment may be real, but it is limited in scope and in the last resort vaguely diffused in emotion. But if instead of hearing merely a symphonic mass of sound, we are able to isolate the themes as they enter, to see how ○

11 From an experiment we ran at trAce across the millennium. The Traceroute Project (managed by Alan Sondheim) looked at the health of the Internet on 31st December 31 1999 and 1st January 1 2000. During that period, Y2k problems were expected to surface world-wide. In fact, the net ran very smoothly – probably because most people stayed offline just in case. Traceroute created a rough portrait of world-wide Internet accessibility. The result – a series of chartings of connections between computers everywhere – was a new kind of writing / reading – looking at the raw data sent in from viewers, interpreting it as an image of the electrosphere itself.

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one by one they are intricately woven together and by what magic new harmonies are produced . . . then the whole effect is immeasurably enhanced. Only when we know all the themes and harmonies can we begin to appreciate its full beauty, or to discover in it new subtleties every time we visit it.12 Unable to sleep, I get dressed and go downstairs. In the kitchen, the dog snores and the refrigerator turns itself on and off. The fire bubbles its gas-driven flames as the house machines hum. Beyond the curtains the street is black and deserted. Dogs everywhere are asleep. Prowlers prowl. Burglars burgle. Here is Dylan’s night-time town of Llareggub brought alive again. He must have written that play through many darknesses like this one. I put on my coat, close the front door quietly, and cross the dead street. It’s a full moon tonight, and its beams bounce off the windows to light up odd crevices of the buildings. Only a few houses to pass and then I am through the gate and into the field. The groaning of the heavy metal five-bar wakes up some of the nearest sheep, who raise their heads sleepily and gaze around. I stand in the centre of the meadow and raise my face to the moon, which lights me as it lights everything else around. It’s good to be outside on such a night, but a little frightening too. I feel part of something but I’m not sure I understand what it is. Every shape here is the product of something else. The course of the stream is dictated by the geology. The smooth ridges and furrows of the field were created by a hundred years of strip-ploughing. The hedges planted by humans, their forms bitten around by animals. The narrow tracks created by the daily passing of cleft hooves. In the daytime this field looks like bright green corduroy seamed with hawthorn and hemmed by water. Beneath each row of hedging the ground is brown and dead, suffocated by the heat of heavy lanolined ○


W.G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 20.

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bodies dozing in the shade during the day and dreaming their way through the night. Occasionally a ewe or a lamb does not awake - and then scavengers come to remove its eyes, its intestines, and the other softer parts. Generations of flies, or a farmer and a tractor, will dispose of the rest. The stream cleanses the feet of two such meadows, each sloping down toward to the shallow running water where animals and trees dip to drink. Cress rises from the stones, willows bend and reach across. Sometimes, but rarely, children sit in the branches to drop boats made from leaves, twigs, paper and plastic into the sluggish current. Sheep come to scratch and nibble at the shoots they can reach, creating with their grazing an orderly and geometric topiary. I walk for a while in the light and shade of the field, feeling the firmness of the turf beneath my feet and being very aware that I am only the most visible one of many presences moving through the domain of the night. Then, feeling the need for company, I go home and log on as a guest to join the throngs at LambdaMOO where I enter a different kind of darkness. What is LambdaMOO? There are two ways to tell it. Either: LambdaMOO is a text-based virtual world which runs on a very simple programme called telnet. Telnet provides a plain black and white screen into which text and programming commands are typed. It is a text-based system which allows you to log into remote computers and type/talk in real time with people around the world. Telnet can be used to access public databases (like university libraries, for example) but it also provides access to hundreds of Virtual Worlds, each one a permanent and constantly growing imagined environment rather like the ‘consensual hallucination’ described by William Gibson in Neuromancer. The code for a MOO was developed by Pavel Curtis at Xerox Parc in Palo Alto, California, from the code for a MUD, first developed in 1979 by Roy Trubshaw at the University of Reading, England. MUDs provide an online environment for ‘dungeon-and-dragon’ games, whereby the participants play

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out stories and adventures by adopting prescribed roles e.g. Wizard, Warrior, Queen etc. They inhabit worlds and own properties which are all fully-realised via the text-based environment of telnet. Where MOO is different is that instead of allotting pre-written identities and situations, it allows you to create your own from scratch, and then to grow and permanently maintain that identity. Instead of asking ‘where do you want to go today?’ it asks, in effect, ‘who do you want to be today?’. MUDs were originally designed to enable gamers to roleplay online in real-time. Think of the dungeons and dragons games, where you’re given a character to play and various powers and objects to go with it – to be able to be invisible for example or to own a magic saddle (if you think that could ever possibly be useful). Now imagine playing this game with other people not around a board in someone’s front room, but on a computer network. Imagine that the forests and castles you fight and frolic in are pre-programmed so that they’re always there, and your character remains yours for ever, so every time you log on you go back to where you were before with the same spells and possessions etc. Now imagine a similar world but one where you don’t choose pre-designed characters – you invent your own. And you design your own body. And your own buildings. And belongings. And every time you log on, there it is – you just slip into it like a familiar suit of clothes. And of course there are other people moving about in the world too, and generally they’re all anonymous. You will probably get to know some of them very well, and others will simply share the space just like in any city. This is a MOO, and the Mother of all MOOs is LambdaMOO. Or, instead of reading about it, you can find out about LambdaMOO just by going there:

Type the following into the address bar of your browser: telnet://lambda.moo.mud.org:8888. When the plain black and white telnet screen appears type

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connect guest. After that you’re on your own. You might begin by typing help

4. There were other people using the program at the same time and it was possible for them to talk to one another! It is a little embarrassing to admit it now, but it actually took me some time to figure this out. The other thing that caught my attention came up in typed conversation with the first MUD player I met there, when he proudly took credit for having created the very maze through which I was laboriously moving. This program, this place, this virtual world was created by the very same people who were currently visiting it, along with a great number of others. Anybody who came there and explored for long enough was allowed to create more!13 The geography experienced by a guest at LambdaMOO is limited and confusing. Once you have negotiated the Linen Closet – a difficult task on its own – you find yourself in The Living Room and probably in the midst of some bored and boring chatter. The first few times you log on you’ll have no ○


Pavel Curtis on his first visit to a MUD. Fascinated and inspired, he began a journey of research and development which culminated in the design and creation of LambdaMOO. From Pavel Curtis, ‘Not Just a Game: How LambdaMOO came to exist and what it did to get back at me’. Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik (eds), High Wired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOs (Michigan: University of Michigan Press 1998), 27.

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idea what you’re seeing. It’s not pretty and coloured, like a web page, and it doesn’t have a proper menu or instructions. There doesn’t seem to be any guidance telling you what to do or how to do it (though if you type Help you’ll find it.) What you see is a monochrome screen scrolling what looks like conversation. You don’t know where you are, or where the conversationalists are, or even if they actually exist or not. It makes no sense and you don’t much care, but later that night, when you’re drifting off to sleep, your mind might go back to the puzzle of the black and white screen and the strange feeling that while you were there you engaged with somebody somewhere even though you don’t really comprehend how you did it. And the next time you get the chance, you’ll log on to see if you can understand it just a little bit more, and the more you learn the more you realise just how perplexing the place really is. Some people try to make a map, but the complexity of the place always defeats them. Some even make models out of wood or plastic or clay, but this is going in the wrong direction – it’s impossible to physically capture the multi-dimensional nature of virtuality. Some people just get stuck, unable to move without a guide to tell them where they are and where they can go to next, but gradually they come to understand that the geography of a MOO is intuitive rather than physical and that you chart it not so much by what exists as by who and what you wish to associate with. There are programs which tell you where everyone is at any given moment, who they are with, when they last logged on, what they look like, and all sorts of other information. But there are far too many characters for the computer to provide data on each time, so instead players make their own lists of the people who are of interest to them and the system just tracks those few and provides information on their activities. You can find out how many typists are logged on14 but you can’t discover ○

14 Type @USERS or WHEREIS to find out how many players are connected at that moment

and what their player names are.

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their real names, their physical locations, or their email addresses unless you ask them, and even then you can’t rely on the answers because part of the mystique of the MOO is that such questions are outside the social norm. Over 4,500 players are registered at LambdaMOO and between them they own almost 10,000 virtual rooms15 plus around 30,000 virtual artefacts16. On an averagely busy night there may be 200 people logged in at any one time. You don’t know who they are and you don’t know where they are. And that applies both to Real Life and Virtual Life – which in this book are often referred to as RL and VL.17 So how does one begin to chart the landscape of LambdaMOO? There is nothing IRL which compares to it. It is described not with mountains and valleys and oceans – but with friends, neighbours and lovers. And distances are not physical, but emotional– they don’t actually exist in virtuality but we paint them in our heads and that’s easy to do when a room description has named exits, go north, go south, etc. But when it comes to rooms with no connections to anything, then there’s no geography and so we construct it for ourselves. Just as we do when we remember places visited a long time ago. For example, in 1997 I built a room based on my childhood recollections of Holland

15 To create a virtual room in a MOO you must first register as a player by typing HELP @REQUEST and following the instructions. Once you are registered, use the @DIG command to build. For example, to build the Taj Mahal you simply type @DIG Taj_Mahal and there you have it. You’ll probably want to describe what it looks like and so on, but basically you now own a virtual Indian Palace and you can go and ‘live’ there if you like. But it doesn’t have to be a conventional building – you can @DIG anything and it becomes a room, so you can @DIG mountain, @DIG underneath_a_leaf, @DIG the_corner_of_my_eye etc. 16 17


Another popular term is IRL. For example ‘Have you met her IRL?’ translates as ‘Have you met her in real life?’ Such an encounter is also sometimes termed a ‘fleshmeet’.

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– not a real place, but a synthesis of memories. Somewhere to teleport to when I wanted peace and quiet: Warm and dry but shifting underfoot. This land used to be sea-bed but within the last hundred years it has been reclaimed, drained, and planted as new forest. It is littered with white sea-shells and dark pine-needles, both of which can slide between the toes and pierce the skin. Beyond the young trees lies a stretch of shallow water reflecting the summer sky and enclosed by the perfect line of a dike. There are few sounds here – just the occasional bird, or a distant car passing along the elevated road. Everything is geometrically regular: the water is at a constant depth of one metre; the dike is exactly the same width and height all the way along; the trees are equidistant and of the same species, although nature has created some variety of size. Everywhere you see only verticals, horizontals, and the spaces in between. A geometry of newness and calm.18 What makes MOOs and MUDs really different from the multimedia hustle and bustle of the World Wide Web with its RealAudio and webcams and quicktime movies and Flash animations is that they are created solely out of words. There are no pictures.19 Everything which exists there is built out of ○


Derived from memories of childhood visits to Holland, and built as a virtual room #90943 at LambdaMOO. Circa 1997.


My preference is for the plain black-and-white text screen of raw telnet but some textbased virtual worlds have taken on a graphical style and offer image-rich interfaces. Most notable of these is Jan Rune Holmevik and Cynthia Haynes’ LinguaMOO which is excellent for teaching and is not anonymous.

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text alone and indeed, it’s sometimes hard to decide which is more real – the player/character, or the flesh-bound typist who services their needs. The simple act of imagining an identity and putting it into words can bring about a powerful shift in the way we understand ourselves. It's as intense as the act of writing fiction, as structured as the careful articulation of a lie. And when you have written the description of one identity it's easy to invent more and move between them instinctively as the occasion demands. These variations upon the original are called morphs,20 and each has its own name and gender. It's common for players to have several conversations and several relationships, conducted simultaneously by several different identities, all of whom are you. After all, in Real Life we adopt different personalities all the time – one for our parents and/or children, another for our lovers, yet more for our bosses and our teachers and our friends. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the ways in which computer culture has contributed to how we think about these personalities. On the internet, she writes, ‘people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves’.21 In earlier societies this behaviour was restricted to marginal roles by common social mores, ensuring that what she calls ‘cycling through’ was confined to religious experiences like spirit possession and to illegal or anti-social behaviour such as bigamy, impersonation (especially gender impersonation), and split personality. But even within those frameworks there was largely an acceptance that a single unitary self existed at the core of such behaviour and that these manifestations were deviations from the core personality. This is less true in today’s post-modern world where the notion of a single self seems inconvenient and obsolete and where, as Turkle says ‘many more people experience identity as a set of roles that can be mixed and matched, ○




Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1996), 178.

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whose diverse demands need to be negotiated’.22 In her definitive study of internet identity, Life on the Screen, she writes ‘the internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life. In its virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create. What kinds of persona do we make? What relation do these have to what we have traditionally thought of as the ‘whole’ person? Are they experienced as an expanded self or as separate from the self?’ Such personal exposures and transformations can often be difficult and sometimes painfully embarrassing to watch – especially for friends and family who may see their loved ones experimenting with new and unfamiliar personas in Real Life as well as in virtuality. It is reasonable to ask, as Turkle does, ‘Why are we doing this? Is this a shallow game, a giant waste of time? Is it an expression of an identity crisis of the sort we traditionally associate with adolescence? Or are we watching the slow emergence of a new, more multiple style of thinking about the mind?’23 Sometimes it may feel like a game, but if you’ve ever been required to think up a ‘significant’ username or password, you will be familiar with the accompanying mental trawling for a private word or number combination which you know will be unforgettable. A pet name? A birthdate? A lost love from your teen years? The private words we conjure up for such purposes are often of intense personal significance. Or are you choosing a public name for an email list, discussion board, or chatroom? What effect do you want to put over? ‘Blue-eyes’? ‘Dragon Slayer’? ‘Professional Consultant’? And if you’ve ventured into MOOs and MUDs, you’ll be familiar with the requirement to not just name yourself but also to describe your looks and your possessions. The MOO is a new cultural form which has to be lived to be understood, and the only way to even begin to comprehend it is to get a character, build a ○


Turkle, Life on the Screen, 180.


Turkle, Life on the Screen, 180.

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place to live, and step inside. Those who are unaccustomed to this kind of place imagine it to be vast, empty and cold, whereas in fact it is just the opposite, crowded with tiny and intimate regions where people often get to know each other more deeply than they might ever have done had they first met up in the flesh. And when they discover that fact, some are made even more uncomfortable by the anonymous intimacy, whilst others embrace the opportunity to be themselves for the first time in their lives. This may seem a rather ambitious claim, but it has been known to happen, and nowhere more commonly than in the realm of gender. Years ago when I first read Ursula le Guin’s science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness I was intrigued by the notion of a society where gender is fluid to the extent that everyone passes through male, female and androgyny at different times in their lives. If this happened in human society, it would effect culture and society at the very deepest levels. Could we deal with it psychologically? Could we ever escape the chains of gender? Certainly, le Guin’s putatively human envoy Genly Ai finds it impossible. He writes: ‘Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.’24 The anonymity of text-based virtuality offers a unique opportunity to escape such categories, to shrug off gender, and attempt to feel|imagine whether it really is essential to who we are. Some virtual gender identities are less easily transferable to the flesh than others, although they do have physical resonances. The spivak gender, for example, is more representative of an emotional and intellectual state than of a physical configuration. It should be pointed out at the start that the sexuality available to a spivak is a bonus of ○


Ursula le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness [1969] (London: Virago, 1997), 9.

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online life, but it isn’t the raison d’etre. Rather, it’s a subtle notion of a genderfree condition. It’s not androgynous. It’s not unisexual. It’s simply ambiguous. The definition was first coined by the mathematician Michael Spivak in his book The Joy of TeX: A Gourmet Guide to Typesetting with the AMS-TEX Macro Package published in 1986 by The American Mathematical Society. Spivak introduced this somewhat obscure volume with a statement that would prove to be one of the most enabling notions of this New Life as we live it on the internet: Since TeX is a rather revolutionary approach to typesetting, I decided that a rather revolutionary approach to non-SeXist terminology would be appropriate in this manual. I myself am completely unprejudiced, of course. As Mark Twain said, or should have said: ‘All I care to know is that a man or woman is a human being—that is enough for me; he or she can’t be any worse.’ But I hate having to say ‘he or she’ or ‘his or her’ or using awkward circumlocutions. Numerous approaches to this problem have been suggested, but one strikes me as particularly simple and sensible. Just as ‘I’ is the first person singular pronoun, regardless of gender, so ‘E’ will be used in this book as the third person singular pronoun for both genders. Thus, ‘E’ is the singular of ‘they’. Accordingly, ‘Eir’ (pronounced to rhyme with ‘their’) will be the possessive, and ‘Em’ (rhyming with ‘them’) will stand for either ‘him’ or ‘her’. Here is an example that illustrates all three forms: E loves Em only for Eir body.25 Entering circulation just when the very first online communities were coming to life, the spivak gender proved to be just what was needed in virtuality. ○

25 Quoted by John Williams, Æther Lumina References. April 2001.

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Inhabitants of the fast-growing online world were exploring an identity liberation which had never before been available. Most commonly, they were switching between male and female (principally male to female, it has to be said) but it quickly became apparent that this was only the tip of the iceberg. If typed text was your only medium, and if there was no way for your fellowconversationalists to find out whether you were telling the truth or not, then why stop there? If you could conceal your gender by lying, why not just simply refuse to reveal it? Why not adopt a new identity, one which permits you to opt out of the gender thing altogether? Could it ever be possible for individuals to fully relate to each other without knowing their RL genders? Michael Spivak’s category for ambiguity offered the chance to do some interesting experimentation. The Lambda command help spivak generates the following information: The spivak pronouns were developed by mathematician Michael Spivak for use in his books. They are the most simplistic of the gender neutral pronouns (others being ‘neuter’ and ‘splat’) and can be easily integrated into writing. They should be used in a generic setting where the gender of the person referred to is unknown, such as ‘the reader.’ They can also be used to describe a specific individual who has chosen not to identify emself with the traditional masculine (male) or feminine (female) gender. The spivak pronouns are: E Em Eir Eirs Emself ○


subjective objective possessive (adjective) possessive (noun) reflexive26 ○

Generated by the command: HELP SPIVAK at LambdaMOO.

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The original code for the spivak gender was written by a programmer called Rog. He did not realise at the time that his experiment would have a hugely important impact on LambdaMOO society by making life as a spivak a real possibility for those who preferred to sail a little farther away from the shore. I asked him once how spivak came about, and somehow it came as no surprise that this unusual little identity was created as a snippet in order to test the system, then instead of being tidied up and recycled it was left lying around for anyone to pick up. And pick it up they certainly did. The short story is that, at some point back in ’91 (hmm, has it really been 10 years? yikes . . .) when I was overhauling the pronoun_sub code – what’s now $gender_utils was duplicated in about 10 different places and this offended me – I needed to test it out and so I created a bunch of extra, fake ‘genders’. And when I was done, I left them in place, figuring that just having the usual male/female/neuter was boring, anyway. The Spivak set was something I half-remembered from a random textbook of his; though when I went back to check it, the only place I could actually find him using them was in the AMS-TeX Manual, which had a slightly different set from what I remembered (I distinctly recall him using ‘hir’ for the possessive, but the AMS-TeX book has ‘eir’ so that’s what it is, now . . .). And then, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, the Spivak one caught on while the rest have been mostly ignored.27 Although the spivak gender flourished and spread to other MOOs as well, ○


MOOmail from Rog to Lig 26 Aug 2001.

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it is not always easy to inhabit. This is not a complaint – the option is always open to switch genders or morph into another body at any time. But so many people actually object to it that being spivak can become a political act. Other users, who may refuse to interact unless they know your RL gender, force it into the area of politics and then it becomes necessary to defend one’s right to maintain ambiguity. Note that this is not about the right to remain anonymous – that is universally accepted in many MOOs. It is simply about the right to define a gender identity. After all, the argument becomes ridiculous anyway since I could ‘reveal’ my ‘real’ gender online but there would still be no way to prove whether or not I am telling the truth. So the determination to maintain a spivak persona can grow into a dogged nonconformism when all you had really intended to do was play around with it a bit. On occasion people take this this one step further and use an abstract non-alphabet name as well. Named and that is all. Typable but unsayable. Usually a variation of other keyboard characters such as [] or () or or {} or ||. This is often interpreted, by those who choose to do so, as a deliberate and aggressive invisibility, but it is seldom intended to be. The challenge we face here is to decide how far we can accommodate so much unknowing, but we already accommodate a great deal of it in our daily lives – why should this be any different? Consider your colleagues at work or at school. The data so difficult to obtain from a spivak is easy to get from them. Just being in the same physical space makes it simple. One can (usually but not always) ascertain their gender from their bodies – facial hair, breasts, the bumps of a penis and balls – but also from the clothes themselves since in most cultures these are dictated by gender. The sounds of their voices, and sometimes their movements, also quickly inform us of their gender, and odour, whether natural or applied, will provide signals which might enter only via the unconscious but which are nevertheless conveyed loud and clear. Similar data conveys age, class, culture, race, physical condition etc. A meeting with a spivak online deprives us of most if not all of these signals, but this does not make it a null event. Recently I went for a haircut. There before the mirror, I confronted my physical features and encountered the very powerful realisation of just how

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spivak I actually look these days. When I was younger it had always been more of an internalised sense of being neither gender, or both, or something else entirely. But age is changing that. And with my short grey hair, and wearing a black protective cape tight around my neck and flowing across the form hidden underneath, it was as if I were lifted altogether away from my genitalia. My face floated above a constellation of silver clippings scattered on the dark nylon, and I wondered what the hairdresser was thinking as e snipped eir way across the planetary landscape of my skull. But then, from eir vantage point, I suppose this is nothing new. Before eir glass, we are all reduced to this. Sometimes, too, when the light is right, I see my face reflected on the computer screen. The genie in the lamp. Or on other occasions I have taken my picture with a webcam. You can always recognise that kind of photo. There’s something about the upraised eyes reluctant to turn away from the screen for too long. It’s the traditional pose of the self-portraitist, trying to look at the projected image on the screen/canvas at the same time as staring into the camera/mirror. At LambdaMOO, I am described not by flesh but by text. My looks are how I portray myself in realistic mode, or simply in how I come across as a person. I am in your mind and you, my reader, may dress me as if I were a character in your own fiction. I will wear whatever you think I should wear, be whatever you think I should be. I see, I sense, I compute, and I respond. Think of it in terms of a computer programme – if / then / else / goto. Or think of it simply as a different kind of body language. The language of the moment. The body of the now. You, a collaborator in my identity. So what are the Real Lives of MOO players? Who are these typists who spend so much of their time logged on to an imaginary world talking to imaginary people? Their ages range from teenage to elderly. They live in every part of the globe and communicate in many languages. In addition to the English-speaking MOOs there are German, Japanese, Portuguese, French and Spanish MOOs, and the variety is expanding all the time because so long as you have access to the correct character set there’s nothing to stop you from logging into your

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own private space and typing anything you like. Each person’s typing style becomes their own textualised body language, and the way they choose to communicate in general tells you a great deal about them. Some like to whisper, some to page,28 some to speak, and unfortunately there is an idiot few which likes to SHOUT – a practise much frowned upon in a world where upper-case denotes a noisy swagger. Indeed, courtesy and politeness are fairly baroque. They have to be, in this place where misunderstandings can occur very easily and a mis-typed private message can go to the wrong person and ruin your relationship. Technical problems like disconnects and lag mean that everything moves much more slowly than in real life and even though it is technically very easy to just log off in the middle of a conversation this is considered extremely rude. There’s no body language to show you rising to your feet and making for the door – you must first signal your intentions and then leave enough time for them to show on the screen before you disconnect. To get the most out of virtual life one must subscribe to the consensus that nothing is real and yet everything can be believed; that the world around you is a deliberate lie and yet you admire its artifice; that its bodies are invented and yet you can ‘really’ touch them. Virtuality has turned the notion of ‘being in a place’ on its head, and now that we can be in a number of places at once, now that we have presence in a way we could not have before, we have to ask questions about what being anywhere really means.

28 Paging is an early version of private messaging - personal messages visible only to those individuals. In MOOs paging can take place in the same virtual room, acting as a kind of private telepathic communication within the group, or across the MOO between rooms, like a bush telegraph. It allows several levels of public and private conversation to take place simultaneously, and elicits both intimacy and paranoia. Paging errors (mispages)can seriously fracture fragile relationships built up in virtuality.

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5. All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home . . . the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter. He experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams.29 In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard wrote that ‘all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home’. He described the interior spaces of the house – the attic, the cellar, the stairs – and the small spaces contained within it – drawers, chests and wardrobes; nooks and corners and cracks, writing ‘Our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word’.30 When the book was published in 1958, Bachelard was seventy-four years old. A year earlier, the Russian dog, Laika, had travelled on Sputnik 2 for seven days, and in 1961, a year before Bachelard died, Yuri Gagarin would make the first successful orbit of the Earth and return safely to the planet. With Gagarin’s historic journey, our notions of space and the cosmos were changed for ever. Today space has grown even bigger because the coming of the internet has stretched it to mean the area covered by anything which can communicate with anything else, so that the most distant interstellar probe is as hooked into the web as the child in her classroom, and the geography they mutually inhabit is more related than we could ever have imagined. Today we carry ‘our corner of the world’ with us wherever we go, and many of us have adapted to a life where we are seldom established permanently in one physical place. An email address has more permanence than the name ○


Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), 5.


Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 5.

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of a street or building. So now we need a new book, The Poetics of the Network. Perhaps, indeed, this is that book. The Poetics of the Network would use a different set of metaphors, in which nooks are exchanged for hubs; staircases for satellites, cellars for databases. We have an alternative mental geography now. The notion of an interconnectedness of all things has become an accepted conceptual framework for ecology, society, culture – even economics and politics.31 It seems that in our interconnected, technologised and information-rich world there is no longer such a need for ‘the house’ in its physical sense, since so much of that world now is miniature and portable. We are learning to be nomads again. The objects we own are foldable, replaceable or disposable. If they take up too much room, we can throw them away and buy exact replicas somewhere else. Some belongings don’t even have a material physicality – they are simply uploadable. We don’t need to store or carry them - the internet does it for us. Bachelard writes of ‘the hiding places in which human beings, great dreamers of locks, keep or hide their secrets’.32 For dreamers of locks, read dreamers of passwords. His drawers, chests and wardrobes, beautifully carved and handed down through generations, have become servers and databases which we will never see, kept in locations we will never visit. Our money is in banks. Our memory is in digital media. And Bachelard has something to say about miniaturism too – although we must remember that he was writing just before the golden age of the miniature came into being via the development of transistors, later to be followed by microchips. For Bachelard, thinking of psychology rather than ○


Indeed, research has demonstrated that the web itself is already highly interconnected. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi of the University of Notre Dame found that any two random pages are, on average, just 19 mouse clicks away from each other. ‘The WWW is very big but not very wide’ BBC Online Network 10 Sept 1999


Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 74.

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technology, the miniature is generally also the non-functional, a small fantasy of the real thing. He declares ‘One might say that these houses in miniature [written by authors] are false objects that possess a true psychological objectivity’.33 But today the miniature is not a false object. It is commonplace in our lives and necessary to our industries. It functions as well as, if not even better than, the large. However, despite the fact that some of Bachelard’s images now carry a different iconicity, they continue to possess a powerful currency, only today they are less actual and more virtual than he might have expected them to be. His array of physical concepts – shells, nests etc – have moved even further away from tangibility and we now accept that ‘space’ is relative and that the ‘house’ may be inappropriate for our current needs. This may seem too literal an observation, but it’s worthy of mention because technology has not diminished but enlarged our conceptual mental libraries. Hidden places, secrets, comfort, security and protection do indeed remain potent images for us today – it’s just that we find some of them in places other than the built house with all its furniture. Significant personal artefacts today are more likely to be mobile phones, filofaxes, PDAs, briefcases, even the interiors of our cars. Places which hold the mix of flesh and digital fragments making up who we are. And for many of us the house has been replaced by the car or the office, while the domestic base itself has become the place least visited and perhaps used only for sleep. And of course computers have these hidden places too. The hard drive contains hundreds of compartments where we can hide data from each other, although sometimes these things are not quite so hidden as we think they are. For example, if you share your pc with others and you want to know which sites they have visited, just check out the cache. Do Start > Programs > Windows Explorer > Windows > Temporary Internet Files and take a look. You’ll find ○


Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 148.

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cookies in there, which send information back to sites visited by that particular browser, plus all kinds of other interesting files. Cookies are a nuisance but they can be handy too, since they make it much easier to return to websites requiring your password, but there’s no denying that their prime purpose is to gather data about you and pass it back to somebody somewhere. And almost always there is money involved at some point down the line. As a child, I used to adore making secret dens. I would burrow into ruined buildings, wander into sandy caves, make benders with saplings, adopt a small piece of territory for my own and sometimes maybe share it with the other kids. And you can build dens indoors too – there is nothing better on a rainy day than to stretch a sheet across the gap between two beds, weight the edges with books, and then crawl inside the resulting hideaway to lie on your back and gaze at the thin cotton roof above. As adults we do it with camping, lying in our sleeping bags on lumpy ground and being bitten by mosquitoes as the rain patters on the canvas over our heads. Or by inhaling the wonderful warm smell of sun on the fabric of the tent. My computer is a private den which I enter with a secret password, and within it are more doorways and more passwords through which I progress a section at a time, some leading me deeper inside the machine, others taking me out onto the web and then guiding me through other doors in places I will never physically visit. But inside the secret caverns of my computer everything is arranged to suit. I enter its miniature but hugely spacious universe and in doing so I enter myself. Bachelard would recognise this as the intimate immensity of daydreams and the imagination. He likens it to entering a forest: ‘We do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of going deeper and deeper into a limitless world. Soon, if we do not know where we are going, we no longer know where we are’.34 ○


Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 185.

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6. MDC:

Well, I have a hard drive that I re-organise in my head at night. I don’t have nightmares anymore, what I have is whole directories in my head that I don’t recognise. When I wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning there are no ghosts or anything, just these unexplained directories in my hard drive!


Can you describe for me the digital spaces where your work resides?


One of them is situated in front of my left eye, one of them sits kind of behind my right eye, and the other sits off to my left hand somewhere. That’s the CD space, actually, which I feel like a hand space. This is totally subjective of course! Now, my server is a different space in my head. The server sits in front of my right eye . . . I mean, I have all different places in my head, places where this information is . . . 35

If you think you’ve never experienced virtuality, you’re probably wrong. Think back to some episode of your childhood – any will do. Find an object in that memory and focus on it. Remember the colour? Smell it. Touch it. Put your tongue to it and lick it. How real is it? Can you taste it? Most likely it feels ‘kind of real’. There may be an uncertainty about accuracy, but on other details ○

35 Sue Thomas in conversation with M.D. Coverley, hypertext author, recorded Oct 2002 for the research project Mapping the Transition from Page to Screen, a trAce research project exploring the ways in which writers develop new media texts. 24 Feb 2003 10 Oct 2003.

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you are absolutely positive. You know this object was a wonderful deep golden colour even though you’ve been told a million times that it wasn’t, couldn’t possibly have been because . . . . And yet you are convinced of it. Your sense of that remembered moment shimmers in your mind between some aspects which you know to be true and others you may be unsure about or even know logically are incorrect but still you cling to them because in the end surely the essence of the recollection is all that matters? The exact date – is that really important? The season? The place? Irrelevant. When it comes down to it, you are the owner of an indisputably real moment, no matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary. This shimmering of fact, this unshakeable impulse to believe, is very similar to virtuality. It is exactly like the sense of ‘being here’ when you are online. I am ‘here’ at this web page. I can ‘see’ you in the chat room. I can ‘walk’ through this virtual landscape. I navigate. I browse. I arrive. I leave. But where? How? Simply by triggering snippets of code? Yes, simply by that. I am here and I am not here. At my desk and in this space. Sensing you, even though you’re not with me. Leaving you, even though we were never together. Of course, that is not so very different from our everyday experience. Our houses contain pictures and objects of who we are, who we were, and who came before us. We like to visit historical places and imagine the past; or study animals and birds to fantasise about lives so different from our own; or travel to foreign countries to experience an otherness which is generally invented in our heads and has very little to do with the actuality of life there. We see ourselves as embedded in the context of these ethereal moments which, although intended to anchor us, only serve to create a thickening palimpsest of inaccuracies. From there, it is only a short step to understanding cyberspace as an extension of the places we already inhabit. In Walden, Thoreau describes how in his imagination he bought several farms, although in reality he never owned any at all. He explains how he worked so hard to imagine landscapes, buildings and harvests that he was able to fantasise entire sagas of negotiation, purchase and sale. Even without money or legal ownership of a piece of land he still ‘annually carried off what

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it yielded without a wheelbarrow’. In other words, his ability to simply savour a landscape enabled him to reap a valuable harvest – the sheer imagined experience of it. ‘I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk’.36 If it existed in his brain, it was real. Virtual Reality has always been a part of our experience. It is where we are when we think, when we meditate, when we imagine, when we remember. It is a place where we all have been and indeed where we will all end up. After all, what could be more virtual than the unvisited and yet fully imagined place we call Heaven? But let us define our terms. Maybe you’re thinking of people wearing gloves and goggles and navigating their way across an apparently empty room? Well, that’s not the kind of VR I’m talking about. I’m talking about memory, imagination, hopes and inventions. I’m talking about the kind of VR the brain produces all on its own. For example, Thoreau had his farms, and I have the State of California. In early 2002 I visited the west coast of America for the first time. It was a very brief conference trip which would have left me with sparse memories of a single glimpse of the beach and endless dusty sidewalks had it not been that a friend drove me to see the Mojave desert. I gazed out of the car window at the mountain ranges and reservoirs while she told me California stories - the early days of Los Angeles, the cut-throat battles to bring water to the city, the rush for gold, and above all the burning desire to make it which threads through the psyche of the state like the fairy-lights strung along the manicured trees of Rodeo Drive. It was 7th April, the first day of Daylight Savings time, the coming of ○


Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 76.

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summer. On the way back through Westwood our car was caught up in a ProIsrael street demonstration where waving banners proclaimed the somewhat unlikely factoid that ‘Arafat = Bin Laden’. As we sat in the midst of the angry chanting and waited for the road to clear I had the strangest sense of being an actor in the opening scene of one of those movies where the protagonist watches a demonstration just like this (although the politics could of course be about anything). The dramatic language of such a scene, as every audience knows, is that it ominously heralds the beginning of chaos and conflict. If we are lucky, the film will end ninety minutes later with catharsis and redemption. If we are unlucky, it will end like Real Life. I came away from Los Angeles with my head spinning. I had only encountered a minute slice of the place but I knew where I recognised it from – it was just like cyberspace. The intensity, the busy public highways and uninhabited byways, and most of all the blurrings of fact and reality, were already my everyday experience. I knew I needed to return to find out more about this place which is, after all, the cradle not only of the internet but also of cinema as we know it. In essence, California is the epicentre of virtuality. I was fortunate because my professional life did indeed take me back, but before then came the imaginings. The kind of online experience I describe in this book is defined by Sandy Stone as an example of ‘narrow bandwidth’ because communication is restricted to lines of text on a screen or in an email. ‘Narrowing the bandwidth has startling effects,’ she says, because it reveals ‘a deep need to create extremely detailed images of the absent and invisible body, of human interaction, and the symbol-generating artefacts which are part of that interaction.’37 This is certainly true, but it’s also true of the way we use many of our offline day-to-day experiences as fuel for the imagination. Proust’s madeleine ○

37 Allucquere Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 93.

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took him back in time, but we can equally be taken forward into the future by just the slightest stimulus. And so it was that six days in Los Angeles fed upon my hunger for virtuality and prompted me to build an imagining of California long before I was able to engage more fully with the wide bandwidth experience of the place itself. As soon as I got back to England I began keeping a notebook where I recorded not the memories of my recent trip but my future expectations of the next one when I would return that coming autumn as a Visiting Scholar at UCLA.38 The notebook was red outside and blue inside – strong vibrant colours which instantly attracted me. I didn’t want to type these notes, I wanted the tactile experience of putting them down in simple slow handwriting in coloured inks onto a coloured notebook. I even liked the feel of saying the word - cA lif - ORN - ia. The very syllables provided exotic exercise for my tongue, mouth and lips. The English summer dividing my first and second visits to the West Coast brought weather which was balmy and soft. I sat outside in my garden in the warm sunshine listening to the sounds of planes and gentle chattering of birds. Cars passed by on the street at the front of the house. There was a gentle breeze. The sun shone on my writing hand so that as I inscribed my words they were cast in shadow the minute they were borne|born onto the paper. My hand became a shadow puppet upon its own writings, acting out the future, performing my imaginings. Sometimes I played an old vinyl recording of the Beach Boys in Holland – the three-part California Saga with songs of Big Sur, eagles, mountains and the ocean. Or I listened to Eric Burden and The Animals singing of San Franciscan Nights with a sweet naive optimism that made me smile and feel sad at the same time. But when it came to it I found I could hardly put into words the images which were flowing through my head, and eventually they ○


In connection with Mapping the Transition.

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emerged as not much more than an incoherent spider diagram as I scribbled about . . . • Hockney’s swimming pools – so blue – slashes of red, sharp whites • Another song – Horse with No Name, written by Neil Diamond and recorded by America, desert, solitude • Silicon Valley, where a popular tourist activity is to hang around the computer stores and watch the geeks • Death Valley – silence, sunset lighting up towering sculptured rock faces • Califia – M.D. Coverley’s hypertext story of dreamers and treasure-seekers • Yosemite National Park, acres of walking, solitude, sequoias • Ansell Adams’ photographs of western landscapes • The very last page of Grapes of Wrath when they have reached the promised land of California and Rose of Sharon, having lost her newborn baby, offers her breastmilk to a starving old man. When I was fifteen I lay in bed and cried and cried over this scene • Joni Mitchell – so many songs of beaches and porches and lovers • A movie I once saw of Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratories39 – flaming clashing robots fighting on the beach – astoundingly noisy and exciting • Steve Martin’s LA Story • The San Andreas fault – on my trip to the desert I had been amazed to actually see some of this raw welt running across the landscape – had never imagined it would be tangible and visible – always thought it would be deep down • The quality of the sunlight • The colour of the sky • Expansive thinking • The yellow-flowered plant I grow in my garden called fremontodendron, or California Glory • Robert Altman’s The Player - that opening tracking shot is simply perfect ○


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• The lawns of UCLA • The brains of UCLA • Xerox Parc, Pavel Curtis and LambdaMOO • Painters of the American Sublime • And ideas, ideas, ideas . . . . In truth, however, the California I was drawn to didn’t feature a huge degree of objective reality. There wasn’t much to write in words, but there seemed an immense amount to muse upon and fantasise about. When the sun shone on my skin I would think ‘ah, in California this will feel even better’. When I cooked a meal, I wondered what I would be eating if I were in California that very minute. When I read a book, I’d envisage reading it differently, probably understanding it better, if I were sitting in a café in Westwood or on the shaded lawns of UCLA. And so, immersed in the virtuality of these imaginings, I passed through the summer, reading, walking, surfing the web, and voyaging into LambdaMOO when I felt in need of company, but increasingly impatient for the time when I could wake up and find myself on the West Coast again. A friend told me a joke. ‘Lift up the continent of North America,’ she said, ‘and tilt it to the left. Everything that’s loose rolls down to California!’ We laughed at the craziness of the image but after that I secretly nurtured the idea of rattling across the planet to settle there, a silver sphere hurled across the cosmic pinball machine by some gigantic flipper. Ouch. Maybe that’s a little extreme. At the same time, I knew perfectly well that this idealistic view of what Barbrook and Cameron have called The Californian Ideology40 was somewhat naïve. But if you want to understand a culture, you have to get under its skin a ○


For this discussion see: Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron ‘Californian Ideology’ Chaos 25 Oct 1997 10 Aug 2003. This article pre-dates the dot.com crash of March 2000. The picture looks somewhat different today.

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little, and find a way to see the world through its own eyes. As UCLA English Professor Katherine Hayles writes ‘It is a mistake to underestimate the importance of virtuality, for it wields an influence altogether disproportionate to the number of people immersed in it. It is no accident that the condition of virtuality is most pervasive and advanced where the centres of power are most concentrated. Theorists at the Pentagon, for example, see it as the theatre in which future wars will be fought. . . . If we want to contest what these technologies signify, we need histories that show the erasures that went into creating the condition of virtuality, as well as visions arguing for the importance of embodiment. Once we understand the complex interplays that went into creating the condition of virtuality, we can demystify our progress toward virtuality and see it as the result of historically specific negotiations rather than of the irresistible force of technological determinism. At the same time, we can acquire resources with which to rethink the assumptions underlying virtuality, and we can recover a sense of the virtual that fully recognises the importance of the embodied processes constituting the lifeworld of human beings’.41 The West Coast of the US is the crucible of new ideas about virtuality and I wanted to be there. What began as a progressive technology has also become a progressive philosophy. I wanted to feel the heat of that thinking. September. I was woken up one night by the wardrobe rattling and my bed shaking as if a large dog had jumped upon it. It was the biggest earthquake in the UK for the last ten years, and everyone was very excited. The BBC website ran a report saying that 12 people in nightclothes walked into Dudley police station at one a.m., and West Midlands Police had 5,000 calls to their switchboard within an hour of the tremor happening.42 It turned out that the Dudley earthquake measured 4.8 on the Richter scale. By that time I had only ○

41 N. Katherine Hayles, How we became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature,

and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 20. 42

‘Earthquake hits UK’, BBC News 23 Sept 2002. 5 Oct 2003.

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two weeks to go and soon I would be back in Santa Monica, the proud possessor of its own personalised fault line in a region which boasts at least 20 quakes a week.43 Also on the BBC news page, next to the Dudley earthquake and under top UK stories, it said: ‘No rush to war’, says Blair In the morning I went to my health club to swim in the outdoor pool. I try to stay connected with my body by swimming a couple of times a week, and in England this can be something of a challenge, especially in the winter. Thick steam rises off the water at 7am when I shiver my way outside and take the 20 or so steps across the cold flagstones to the pool. Then a slight tensing as I lower myself in and begin to swim. Usually the sky is grey but often the sun will appear as a white disc somewhere in the gloom. The best days of all are when there is a heavy mist but the sun gleams through so that as I swim eastwards I have to narrow my eyes against the yellow glare which cuts into the mist like a laser against my wet face. But that day it was unseasonably warm so, what with the earthquake, the hot sun, blue sky, blue pool, it felt a bit like a California simulation experience – a bit, but not much.

43 Recent Earthquakes: Los Angeles, U.S. Geological Survey, Earthquake Hazards Program. 5 Oct 2003.

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7. An engineer, a physicist, and a computer scientist were discussing what was the oldest profession. The engineer claimed priority. ‘Look at all that matter engineered into amazing constructs like galaxies, stars, and planets.’ The physicist disagreed. ‘Before there were planets, the matter had to be made from chaos. Physics is responsible for all the quarks, gluons, photons, and electrons.’ The computer scientist coughed modestly. ‘Ah, but where do you think the chaos came from?’ 44 The piece of code which makes it possible for us to travel smoothly through cyberspace as easily as we walk around our own cities and homes, is called a hyperlink. For example, a link to Google looks like this: Google The separate parts work like this: < A HREF

opens a command indicates that the command will be to make a hyperlink (it means ‘Hypertext REFerence’) where the link should point to e.g. http://www.google.com ends the command provides the text to show on the screen (in this case Google) opens a command indicates that the whole link is finished ends the command

=”address” > name of link < /A > ○

44 Variants of this joke can be found across the web. This version is at Engineer, Scientist, Mathematician 19 Nov 2003.

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The hyperlink is nothing more than a short hidden phrase which allows you to hear an excerpt from The Sayings of Confucius, read aloud in the original Chinese, or lets you view the Earth from the Moon. Instead of rubbing a lamp, you just click on a mouse, and it’s hard to believe that this isn’t magic. But it’s really not. It’s just a slice of code. The origin of the hyperlink is interesting. It arose out of a post-World War Two desire for scientists who had previously pooled their knowledge to create defence systems and continue their collaborations in pursuit of peace and a better life for all. It all began with an article entitled ‘As We May Think’ published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945 by Vannevar Bush of the Carnegie Institute: ‘This has not been a scientist’s war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership. Now, for many, this appears to be approaching an end. What are the scientists to do next?’45 He called for scientists to find new ways to store, process and access the massive amounts of knowledge available and constantly growing in the world. Libraries and their traditional methods of indexing and classification are no good for the navigation of such large data stores, he said, because ‘The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.’ ○


Vannevar Bush, ‘As We May Think’, The Atlantic Monthly (July 1945). 5 Oct 2003.

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He proposed ‘a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.’ As a result of this new application ‘Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.’ Twenty-three years later, Stanford programmer Douglas Engelbart made it all real. On 9th December 1968, Engelbart and the group of 17 researchers working with him at the Stanford Research Institute presented a 90-minute live public demonstration of the online system, NLS, they had been working on since 1962. This was also the public debut of the computer mouse, but the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day. They showed hypertext as well, and a shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface. It was just about everything Vannevar Bush had asked for. They filmed the whole presentation, then later broke it into sections to be delivered as streaming video,46 so now you can watch a short movie of Engelbart using a mouse and keyboard47 or demonstrating how the hyperlink works.48 ○

46 ‘The Demo’ MouseSite 5 Oct 2003. 47 ‘The Demo’ MouseSite 5 Oct 2003.

Word processing beginning with ‘blank piece of paper’, text entry, Illustrates cut, copy, file creation including header with name, date, creator. Engelbart is shown using keyboard, mouse, and chord keyset. 48 ‘The Demo MouseSite 5 Oct 2003. Example using a file with lists, graphics. Engelbart shows how it is possible to rearrange the items by categories and by invoking hierarchical view control for displaying contents of different levels.

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It’s a fascinating piece of film, not least because he ends the talk by saying that the following year – 1969 – the newly-formed ARPA network hopes to link up 20 computers across the United States in a revolutionary new connection. History has now caught up with this revolution, and at the Atlas of Cyberspaces website you can even find a scribbled drawing of the first node on ARPANET, drawn at UCLA on the 2nd September 1969.49 To watch Engelbart’s movie now, across that very network which has expanded beyond belief, is a thrilling moment. But it’s also an opportunity to scrutinise the typist in action. Engelbart and his team had set up an intimate and sophisticated demonstration, with the presenters at their consoles and projectors showing the results of their keystrokes as they appeared on a magnified screen. On the video, both can be viewed simultaneously, and so we are able to be voyeurs and peek in on Engelbart’s facial expressions as he talks and types. For the most part, he is conscious of the audience and produces a smooth presentation but every now and then the computer claims all of his attention and private smiles and frowns and queries flow over his features as he engages wholly with the system, muttering to himself, talking to the machine, until returning to the role of presenter once more. At those moments he seems unaware that he has been lost to his audience for a few seconds, as if he were taken by a petit mal seizure then returned to normal consciousness without even realising he’s been gone. And as he talks through his demonstration the computer accompanies him with a music of its own. The early machines were much noisier than we are used to today, and his commentary runs alongside a range of system vocalisations including the low beeps, whines, and buzzings which together create the esoteric chamber music of the programmer.


On view at the Atlas of Cyberspaces or the Computer History Museum

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8. To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as a guide – a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted on to take one somewhere.50 A week before I leave for Los Angeles I take a walk on the edge of the village where I live in the Midlands of England. I choose an ancient pack-road broad enough for two carts to comfortably pass, and fringed with a pot-pourri of hedging and trees, some of which are centuries old. Today is the first frosty day of autumn and the ground is hard underfoot, patches of mud encrusted with ice and spears of grass frosted by crystal. The bare foot-printed earth is also studded with fragments of silvery gypsum, each one glinting like a cheap jewel in the pallid autumn light. From up here I gaze eastwards towards wooded hills tumbling gently away in a confusion of complicated greenery. This complexity is not accidental. It’s designed to hem the rough edges of a large and well-tended golf-course, and as I look more closely I can see swathes of smooth turf opening out beyond the young oaks and sycamores. Just beside me, holes in a tangled hawthorn hedge reveal shapes moving in and out of view. Only segments. The hedge won’t allow entirety. One moment a tail, then a rump, then a head. Sometimes eyes looking directly at me. Also long gaps of nothing. There are light brown segments, and black segments. It is likely, but not certain, that they belong to different bodies. Gaps in the lower hedge allow more than the matted branches at head height. Occasionally a taller thinner figure – human – passes across the spaces in the distance. ○


Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (London: Verso 2001), 74.

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Turn to the north, and my gaze is immediately tugged downwards to a flat glacial plain, every square metre seamed with newly-ploughed furrows at this time of the year, and the whole extent nibbled across by Fairham Brook, a meandering stream which from a distance is barely noticeable in the unfeatured landscape. To the west, the village – a spread of post-war houses with greying roofs and white painted walls, each long garden lawned and trimmed with privet, and beyond them the older cottages coiled around the church spire like a snake in its nest. Just outside the village is the source of everyone’s paypacket, catalyst for the building of the council estate once called Tin Town by the locals – a series of long single-storied sheds, powdered with white dust – the gypsum works. The sky begins to fade and soon it will be dark. From up here I can just make out the eddying white dust along the margins of the road below, and the faint noise of heavy lorries entering and leaving the plant. There is a humming of machinery too, making a steady undertone to the rustling breeze and the goodnight calls of wood-pigeons. In the weakening light the pale gypsum glints up from the footpath and I stoop to harvest a lump from the soft mud. I rub off some powder with my finger-nail and blow the tiny glittering crystals out into the darkening air. Some stick to the skin of my palm and without thinking I lick them off. They scatter instantly on my tongue. High above, the tall pylons whirr and drone, echoing the deep-down rattle of excavation conveyor-belts, and I know I am connected to every electron everywhere. Treading the path as the autumn evening gathers itself around me, I elaborate upon a private song which picks up the tones of a humming modem to harmonise with a sonar whistle bubbling up from far inside the earth. And home is not far away. Soon I am turning the key and slipping inside. The house immediately swallows me up whilst former inhabitants of this plot of land crowd in the shadows. As I hang up my coat the brass hook gives out a slight charge, as it does every day. I see, as I see every day that I am home, the place where many others have brushed their fingers against the wall as

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they ascend the stairs. I reach out, feel once again the faint line of grease, and catch a slight luminescence where flesh has grazed against plaster so many times. This building itself is not very old – less than a century – but people have lived on this part of the hill for over 2000 years, and in some sense they are still here and always will be. I stop for a moment and feel them through the coloured wool of the turkey carpet, through the moisture in the air, and through the sudden heat of the desk lamp as I switch it on to light my writing. The chair in front of the computer is spinning very slowly, infinitesimally faster than the spin of the earth. This is quite normal. I smile as I remember how the moment this common-or-garden machine was linked up to the internet it seemed to gather all the strength of the house around it. I sit, feeling the shape of my body pressing against the chair, then lean back and reach for the button which brings the machine out of suspend. I watch, fascinated as always, as the screen whirrs into life in an array of brilliant colours. In my palm the cool plastic mouse sits snugly and as I turn it in my fingers I feel it as another hand beneath my own. While the machine boots up, I entertain myself by randomly accessing my own memory. My mind is so full of California that it’s something of a surprise when, from the billion bits of data, it suddenly retrieves an earlier long distance journey, a train ride across Australia . . .

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PART TWO : 2000

9. Tuesday 21st. March 2000 what’s it like, living in a book? Brigid Tues. 21st March 2000 o mi god until recently i have always lived in a book - first other peoples’ and then my own from beginning to write my first novel in 1988 to november 99 when i resolved to stop writing fiction i have lived in my own books now i am broken from that now i am broken so tonight i choose to write about: what is it like NOT to live in a book? for me at this moment it means clean air; it means no processing; it means i am living in direct experience instead of every moment of my life being assessed for potential material; ditto every moment of everyone else’s life; every moment of YOUR life. It means a reclaimed existence. It means my daily minutiae are no longer art, but just life. It means I am free to think without structure; to feel without poetry; to love without record. Today I took a ferry across Sydney harbour - this is an incredibly knotted city - so many means of transportation, so many trains, buses, monorails, taxis, ferries . . . . as I sat at the bows and felt the wind in my face I demurred for a moment on whether or not to pull out my notebook and pen and record it fresh then and there. I decided against. I chose instead to laugh, to breathe, to lift up my face to the

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evening air and feel the spray on my face. for me, right now, living in a book is like being trapped inside someone else’s mind, or inside my own. instead, today, I am breathing air. Just air. Sue51 My four day journey across Australia in the Spring of 2000 was a rare opportunity to be offline for a while, and I intended to savour it. The Indian Pacific was due to leave Sydney Central Station at 2.55pm. The steward for my carriage was called Tony, and as each person came aboard he showed them their compartment. He always began by saying ‘Hello, my name is Tony.’ Sometimes they replied merrily ‘Hello Tony!’ but more often they muttered only a polite greeting as he went through his script. He seemed a reasonably pleasant man, and no doubt out for a good tip. He wrote down how I like my tea and promised to wake me with a hot drink every morning. He even brought a cup straightaway, half an hour before the train left, with two miniature anzac biscuits. I sipped it as I wrote notes in the tiny single compartment complete with washbasin, toilet, chairs and writing table which would be my home for the next three nights. On the way to the station the cabdriver had asked me what I thought of Sydney. ‘Complicated,’ I replied, ‘very very complicated.’ He laughed. Said nobody had ever given that answer before. But to me, there for just a few days, the city had seemed very complex indeed. So many modes of transport ○


My trip to Australia coincided with an invitation to participate in In Place of the Page, a discourse on place managed by Brigid McLeer and involving an initial email conversation between a group of artists and writers. Brigid provoked discussion and recorded the results. This period coincided with a time when I was feeling very averse to the printed page, and fiction especially. I had a sense of being swamped by the huge number of stories in the world. I felt deluged by other peoples’ imaginations and by my own sense, as a writer, of the pressure to translate my surroundings instead of experiencing them direct.

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– trains, buses, taxis, ferries, the monorail. And the buildings all rabbit warrens of shops within shops within shops, reminding me of Chicago and how I had fruitlessly searched for the stores I wanted only to sheepishly discover days later that they were all hidden inside each other. In Sydney, various trips on assorted modes of transport had shown me the same things from several different angles and the architecture kept me on my toes, always discovering new burrows just when I seemed to have reached a dead end. Even the shape of the city is convoluted, with its looping inlets and harbours. But that was behind me, and the desert lay ahead. A cloistered and pampered journey on the legendary Indian Pacific train, through the lush sub-tropical Blue Mountains to Broken Hill and Adelaide, then across the Nullabor Plain where the desert demonstrates the name amply well – null arbor– no trees – to Cook, then gold rush Kalgoorlie, and finally to Perth, the most isolated city in the world. Each private compartment door had a tiny knocker. If I wanted to, I could invite a fellow-passenger to join me for tea, sitting opposite each other in the cramped space and sipping carefully against the jolting progress of the train. But there would be no friendly chats in my compartment. I was planning a solitary journey. However, at that moment everyone had their door open and were exchanging pleasantries, so I obediently chatted and made the usual friendly noises. It had been warm in Sydney that morning and dry for the first time in 3 days. But now it was pelting with rain again and the sky was grey. It was hard to believe that this train would be passing through one of the most arid regions on earth. It would have been churlish to close the door but that is what I longed to do. Shut the door and cloister myself in this tiny cabinet. Just me, the room, and the landscape beyond the window. And in this moving room, offline and away from any possibility of logging on, I planned to think about virtuality. I wanted to write about the internet as if I were painting it in oils or sketching it in fine charcoal. There have been many evenings when I have sat at the table in my garden, writing, listening to the evening birds, and watching the swallows catch their supper high above the trees. I have gazed at the last

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light glimmering on a corner of the ancient apple tree, and everything has been at peace. It is that sublime moment we know sometimes when we are in the countryside, or with our loved ones, or observing some astounding work of nature or architecture, but I have also experienced that very same feeling when I am flying high in the web, riding its currents, its channels speeding through my veins. Many webartists feel this via a passionate relationship with code - they see themselves as seduced by it, ravaged by it, consumed by it. Of course, code is only letters and numbers but it has the power to make anything, to be anything, to create art we have never seen before. The webartist who is obsessed by code is the painter in love with their brushes, the wood-turner enthralled by their lathe. As for me, I make very little code. Most of what I make is words. But I can still fly on the code of others. I can still feel the buzz. When I first set out to write all this down it seemed like it would be easy. I’d lived the life for so long I thought there would be plenty to tell and explain. But it was much harder than I expected and I realised then, as I tried to think about it, that maybe the most important thing about it is simply that it exists at all. I had planned, for example, to write about the experience of interacting by email, but when you get down to it there’s not much to say. It’s fast. It’s informal. It’s intimate. It’s disastrously vulnerable to human error, viruses and hacks. Oh, and it has transformed our lives. Well, that’s it for email. And as for the World Wide Web (as people like to capitalise it) – it has made possible the sharing and transfer of inconceivable amounts of information between inconceivable numbers of people across the globe. It provides gathering places for new and existing communities and cultures. It has brought the pleasure of hands-on creativity back into the home. Oh, and it has transformed our lives. But I won’t get involved any further in the euphoria of counting. There are plenty of people playing that game – ask them if you want numbers. When I’m online I don’t know how many others are there with me and I don’t listen for their voices – all I do is sense them. All connecting. All connected. And for what and to whom and how much? I don’t care. I just like to be part of it all.

Sue Thomas

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Ok, perhaps this is what it is: Before the internet entered my life I had no vocabulary with which to think about virtuality. But once I had recognised the experience and learned how to invoke it, the way in which I viewed the world began to slowly alter. It was as if my third eye was gradually uncovering and beginning to register connections I had not been aware of before. I felt the multiple and transient nature of the world around me, and I sensed for the first time the electrical world, the ether which is all about us and the vapour of information in which we move. And as time went by, my perceptual and conceptual understandings were radically changed and broadened by the experience of being online and ‘becoming virtual’. It has indeed transformed my entire world picture and my image of my self. I can’t imagine how else that might have been manifested if the internet hadn’t come along. Way before the web, 150 years ago, Nathaniel Hawthorne asked ‘Is it a fact – or have I dreamt it – that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?’52 Well, he was correct. It was and is indeed a fact, and I am now part of that great nerve. I feel the vibrations and, indeed, I hold my breath. So why was I on board that train, living and travelling in this mobile casket? To expand. To shrink. To get some perspective. To wake to the desert. To see some of Australia, albeit through a glass. But most of all, to think about virtuality – to measure it, to write it, to know it – and to do it offline. I had a notebook and a pen, but all my technology – my laptop, my PDA, my phone – was in the luggage car. I wouldn’t be able to connect to the net until I reached Perth, and that was a whole Australia away. That morning at about 11am I had downloaded my mail for the last time. ○

52 Nathaniel Hawthorne, House of Seven Gables (Project Gutenberg Etext 1993)

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I knew I would be offline for three days. It was Thursday when I left and I’d be in Perth by Sunday morning. Probably check into the hotel, then hook up to the phone . . . . I’d already got the Perth dial-up number, made sure I had that sorted out before I left England, nothing worse than being all-dressed up with nowhere to dial into . . . so assuming the hotel telecoms didn’t let me down, I would be ok. Online again by noonish. That’s just about 72 hours offline, give or take a few for time-zone changes. As long as the phone works. That’s the thing. I’ve been caught out a few times and so I know it’s worth checking out all possible eventualities. There’ve been times when I’ve sat patiently trying and trying to connect only to finally call the front desk and discover that they haven’t activated the phone. Or that it needs a special reconfiguration to my settings. Or that I have to enter the number with extra commas to make it dial at the same speed as the hotel system. All kinds of peculiarities. So there was no guarantee that I’d be able to get online straight away when I reached Perth. I’d just have to be patient and expect the worst. I like to think of the dial-up as a zen moment. You can hear the dialling, followed by the connection, a hesitation, and then the hardware handshaking starts as the systems identify themselves to each other. I can feel it in my body too, that connection happening. I know the timings, I know when something is taking just a little too long, and I hold my breath until it moves on and my turn comes to be identified. It takes my password and checks it out . . . . Success! I am accepted. A few more breaths while the final protocols are established and then I’m in. I’m there. I’m logged on. I have never been sure where I belong, but cyberspace is much more comfortable than any other place I know. The PA asked for anyone not travelling to leave the train now. With nobody to wave goodbye to, I gazed out of the window at the rain until finally the wheels moved beneath me and the day started to recede through the Sydney suburbs like an arm shrugging itself out of a loose sleeve. Macdonald Town. Summer Hill.

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Ashfield. The single compartments carriage was so designed that the corridor wove through it in a zigzag shape. Very beautiful, but it must have made the stewards develop a permanently curved walk, unable to stay in a straight line just like sailors struggling to stay afloat on dry land. There was a squealing in the superstructure behind my left shoulder which could drive me crazy over the next 4 days. Strathfield. Hello commuters as we pass you on your crowded and shabby doubledecker train, gliding by inside our silver beast! Hello out there! The suburbs went on and on. There was a choice of radio, music 1, or music 2. None of them were playing yet. Flemington. Lidcombe. Auburn. But already as the train continued to parse the suburbs, I felt a first pang of homesickness. Not for my house, tucked away and distant in the centre of England, but for the network which even then was unbelievably continuing on without me. If I were logged on at that moment, I’d have several windows open. Email, plus a web-browser (probably several sites running); ICQ; maybe chat if I was in the mood; a couple of lists or three plus a community site and, all the time in the corner of the screen, the inhabitants of the Living Room at LambdaMOO nattering aimlessly away from one dawn to the next. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out. I was pretty nervous. Of course it was my decision to make the trip, it was a challenge and I knew I’d enjoy it but right then it was hard to adjust to the knowledge that I’d be completely offline for several days. But it’s always like this. There’s always that sense of going cold turkey which unnerves me for a while, then once

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I’ve accepted it, once I’ve logged off for the very last time, once I’ve let go, I can start to gradually unravel myself from it all. However, I cannot say that I am ever 100% disconnected. There’s always a part of me wondering what’s going on out there. I feel being offline on the left side of my skull, behind the left temple, somewhere in that cavity. That is where the emptiness resides. When I’m offline everything is too bright and too loud. I can be momentarily distracted from the loss but soon it returns again as my mind reaches for connection like a ghost limb feels the shoe which once clothed an amputated foot. At that moment I’m sure my brainwaves would show a blip. It’s a second of distraction followed by retraction as my mind pulls back, unsatisfied and still hungry. Inside somewhere there’s probably a blue-tooth sensor searching, searching for a hub. Of course there are, of necessity, some periods of time when I am offline, and I’m certainly better than I used to be in this regard. At one time I would keep my machine running even when I was asleep, lulled by its tinny email alerts punctuating the night. Like those households which wake up if the grandfather clock ceases its ticking, I was roused by too-long intervals between mails. If I opened my eyes at any time there was always an email to read, always a new site to view, always someone online to converse with. So sleep then was not really a disconnection at all, simply a temporary pause which could be restarted at any time. I don’t do this any more, but I do feel much more comfortable knowing I am always connected. One day, one day, it will be possible to seamlessly blend the two but for the moment people like me live a somewhat disjointed existence which mostly involves a great deal of plugging in and plugging out, a life dependent upon an erratic and scattered network of telecoms and food sources. But sometimes I do like to walk away from the machine. This does not mean going to an unwired location and it’s not about trying to ignore the net. It’s more to do with wiring-up in a different way, by connecting with memory, and imagination, and expectations. It’s about accessing old files, assimilating data, archiving, cataloguing, making sense of things. I do it by

Sue Thomas

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dozing in a Mediterranean olive grove, or walking the English countryside, or wandering through Australia, or navigating the byways of the Americas and Europe. Or simply by staying at home and travelling in my own head. And right then it meant four days watching the desert scroll by from a single sleeper compartment on the Indian Pacific, crossing Australia from Sydney to Perth. As we moved into emptiness, I allowed my mind to recall the keys on my fingertips, the bathing of my eyes by the screen, the running of the code through my brain. And then there is the physical. Logged into my own memory, I recalled the sensation of English fields beneath my booted feet, the smell of lanolin on my fingers, the prickle of blackberries, the shards of stone in my pockets. I imagined the many others who walked before me and will walk after me and visited the people I have known both inside me and inside others, and those I have never met but have heard through their writing, art, programming and histories. Granville: Escapade Hair Studios • Boral Concrete • Delta Rentals More graffiti. RAGE, says one. Harris Park. Hertz - a big shining business development. Parramatta. Suburbia. A little leafier here. In Westmead the kids were coming home from school. Wentworthville • outdoor pool • long gardens • newer houses • Ashmore Motors. Pendle Hill • Cumberland Community Club Ltd • Graffiti • Flats • Grech Real Estate • Fresh Steam Carpet Cleaners • Bungalows spread out. Seven Hills • Woolworths • Bungalows • Apartments • Toyota • Binglee Best Advice, Best Price • Medical Centre Open 7 day. Castor oil plants grew wild by the track. In England it would be lupins.

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Blacktown. More space again. Very very slow moving. Joseph Frank Park. Swamps now, and drainage areas. Saints Medical Centre. Commonwealth Bank. Some kind of long-necked bird like a shining peacock stands in the shrubland The PA rang out with some facts and figures about the train. The carriages were pulled by one locomotive – the NR58 – which had a 4000 horsepower engine and hauled seventeen carriages at a total of 780 tons. The whole thing was 426 metres long. The train was divided into First Class, Holiday Class, and Coach Class. In the First Class coaches, the first sitting for dinner would be at 6 o’clock, the second sitting at 7.45. Here we go again with the numbers. And then we came to a halt. Beyond the windows it was still raining, still muddy outside. We had been warned that throughout the journey the train might stop for long periods in the middle of nowhere - and that’s exactly where we were right then. In the middle of nowhere and being beaten on by a torrent of rain. It was late afternoon in New South Wales. In cyberspace, it was anytime.

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10. Steve Guynup: So what about us – do we control time and space? Well, space I do believe we as builders completely control. Nothing is there or does anything that we didn’t (even accidentally) program. Time on the other hand we don’t control. The user moves through the space at their own pace and in their own directions. They create their own linear narrative, their own timeline of events. In the end, we negotiate time with the user. We do this by creating pathways in which we hope/have to follow our timeline . . . Much of what we do to define space is really to affect time. Tamiko Theil: I agree with Steve: we control space and use it to negotiate time with the user. The user in turn has the responsibility of actively investing their time in negotiating the space that we have provided for them. In doing so they “create” their own narrative – because narrative is basically events happening in time.53 When the internet was first created it was used for many years only by those who knew of its existence and who also had the wherewithal to actually find it. It was small, exclusive, and fragmented. Access to the magic portal tended to be known about more often in the scientific community than in the humanities and arts, with the result that some of the strangest outposts and societies were coded into existence and subsequently populated by scientists and engineers. For a long time the arts community practised self-exclusion by virtue of its refusal to learn the languages of programming, or even to accept that such languages had any validity at all, but today an increasing number of artists are discovering that time and terrain have very different qualities in cyberspace. ○

53 3D artists at Empyre online forum’s discussion of the dimensionalised Internet and the landscape of computer games, June 2003; forthcoming from Cornerhouse, 2004.

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Now we are so connected that we must re-conceptualise what we mean by physical space, and geography is very much a part of that. To begin with, on the simplest level we need somewhere to distribute and store all our hardware. Even though the hardware and software which enable the internet and the cables and satellites connecting it are largely invisible to us, we must not fall into the trap of believing the web is magic. Virtual it may be, but it needs real places to store the equipment; people to design, build, service and administer it; places for them to be educated; places for their bodies to live and be maintained. However, even though we might accommodate the needs of geography by webbing the entire planet with hardware and people to look after it, we are still drawn to a halt by the constraints of time. Working as we currently do within the framework of clocks and planetary rotation, we continue to be bound by our cultural sense of working hours, daylight vs dark, weekends, public holidays etc. No amount of flexitime and shift-working can dispel the sense that time still holds us in thrall, and although professionally many of us now commute between the physical and the virtual, we are often over-ridden by our bodies’ limitations. If it’s true, as cybergeographer Martin Dodge asserts, that we now live in ‘an experiential continuum, running from the materiality of geographic space through to the virtuality of cyberspace’,54 then time remains an unavoidable turnstile in that continuum. You can’t jump over it. Cultural and solar time dictate who is accessible and when, and our own body clocks determine when we are able to produce optimum output and when we are completely unavailable (although this last window is getting smaller and smaller). Live interactions are affected by this even more, of course. The red-eye problem experienced by transatlantic business people, where jetlag and exhaustion can be a powerfully negative aspect of one’s professional performance, has not been eliminated by the web, but merely absorbed into the culture and, it seems, there are now fewer excuses for avoiding it. Indeed, just learning to handle your email load ○


Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin, Mapping Cyberspace (London: Routledge, 2001), 32.

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has become a major priority for many who always wished they could have more instant access to their markets and now that they have achieved it find that the price in loss of personal time is higher than they wish to pay. In the past, when we had no expectation of connecting synchronously with people on the other side of the world, time was not much of a problem. But now not only does the web make it possible, but our sense of ourselves as always-on and wired demands that we do it. That’s when we get stuck in the turnstile of time. Imagine four people, physically based in Los Angeles, New York, London and Sydney consecutively, trying to get together for an online meeting. Depending on the settings for summertimes, which make such a calculation even more difficult, a chart55 which brings together all four personal schedules might look something like this: Office Hours Los Angeles 8 - 9 AM 9-10 AM 10-11 AM 11-12 AM 12-1 PM 1-2 PM 2-3 PM 3-4 PM 4-5 PM 5-6 PM

New York Thursday 11-12 AM 12-1 PM 1-2 PM 2-3 PM 3-4 PM 4-5 PM 5-6 PM


Sydney Friday

4-5 PM 5-6 PM

8 - 9 AM 9-10 AM 10-11 AM

55 A warm thank you to Time and Date.com for providing a place of calm in the centre of an ongoing time trauma.

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I’ve used LA as a starting point because it gives us some small chance at success – but clearly Sydney is out of the loop nearly all the time and it looks as if these four will never be able to hold a synchronous business meeting unless they’re prepared to make some changes to their lifestyle. The easiest option might be for London to interrupt the evening to get online at 10 o’clock at night whilst Sydney gets up early and logs on at 7am. Meeting like this occasionally would be inconvenient but acceptable. However, the purpose of getting together for this online meeting is to work towards defining a single synchronised office day! But creating a regular working day in which the whole office is always online together at the same time is simply never going to be possible unless everyone makes some very radical changes to their entire lifestyles and thus, of course, to the time in which they are available to interact with their own local culture. Is London prepared to work every evening? Is Sydney prepared to rise before dawn every day? And because Australia is a day behind the others, their 5 day working week must be reduced to 4, or someone has to work weekends . . . . Do we really want to live like this? I don’t think so. I believe that disconnection is the future of tourism. In a year or two we will pay to be bound, gagged and kidnapped to a remote place where there is no net access and where we are forced to communicate with each other by the spoken, not the written, word. We will use our fingers not for typing but for tearing open ripe figs plucked from the trees. We will use our eyes not for reading screens but for gazing at the stars (and at each other). After months of sitting, we will regain strength in our legs with walking, swimming and yoga. And most of all we will use our minds to connect not with the whole pulsing world but with just the tiniest smallest thoughts, the finest ideas, the cleanest code we need for living. Note that I do not say this is a permanent substitute for net-connected life. It’s simply a different way to be wired, a different place to be wired to. Somewhere to go. And personally I would like both. Of course. But the two worlds don’t always blend together easily and they take time to get used to. The web has its cultural hierarchies just like anywhere else. It’s natural, of

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course, that a field with such phenomenal expansion will have quickly developed a strata which runs from the super-digerati elite right down to the newbies at the bottom. And like any hierarchy, there has arisen a progression which is directly related to knowledge and experience. Which is to say, the more you know the faster you get on. Some people go online and almost immediately the net is absorbed into their lives as a regular activity, albeit more or less frequent. However it must be said that the user who checks eir email once a week is not properly participating in online life and is likely to get little out of it, since most senders expect a reply within a few days and if it doesn’t come they’re likely to cross you off their mental list of people worth emailing. Soon, to be a person not worth emailing will become the greatest social/commercial stigma of them all. Soon, if you are not worth emailing because you never reply or always reply too late, you will find yourself in a position much worse than not having a credit card account. Far from being simply persona non grata, you will quickly become persona non extans as well. Non-existent. Extinct. The more usual scenario is that the average user does become immersed quite fast and it may not be long before e finds emself totally overwhelmed by the number of emails and the urgent tone of many of them as they demand early and rapid responses to everything. And e will find emself doing the same, reading and answering mails in a fever of speed. The problem here is that we begin to assume that just because computers can multitask a million sub-routines at the same time, we can too. Well, it’s partly correct because we do indeed multitask all the time – not to would be to be dead. If I could not breathe, think and circulate my blood all at the same time my body would blue screen56 very fast indeed. But although the mechanics of our bodies are ○


‘Abbreviated BSOD, an error that can appear on computers running in a Windows environment. This includes even the earliest versions of Windows, such as Windows 3.0 and 3.1, and still occurs in later versions such as Microsoft Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, and Windows 2000. Jokingly called the blue screen of death because when

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highly efficient, the number of thoughts and processes our brain can do at high-speed has its limits. To test this, try this simple experiment. Multiply 3 by 12 whilst at the same time remembering what you did on your birthday last year. Can you do both at the same time? Unlikely. Perhaps you can do a little of one and then a little of the other, alternately, or maybe you can complete one, store it in your memory while you complete the other, and then call up both results of the same time. But you cannot actually consciously remember and add up at the very same moment. However, your computer can and does and thrives on it. And with the internet to provide a constant feed of new data, it can process vast amounts of it (there we go with the counting again) while you are still doing your multiplication sum. But the new user has more to cope with than the mechanics of reading and replying to emails. E has to learn the technicalities of how to get on the net in the first place, and once on it, how to stay online without emptying eir bank account. And e also has to learn how to live online. This is the development of the virtual sensibility. It’s about participating in the culture and understanding how it works, and much of it involves a mental shift which comes easily to some but which others find intensely disturbing. It’s an evolutionary thing. It proceeds along a fairly similar path for everyone but the difference lies in the way each chooses to travel and the side-roads e elects to take. And the machines themselves also play a part by eliciting extreme responses which can take any form from totally estranging the user by way of their impenetrable alien-ness, to seducing them in on an escalator of small rewards. It’s Pavlovian. If the machine punishes you too much, you leave and never return. But if Luck deals you a satisfying interaction you’ll soon be back for more. And there are just so

the error occurs, the screen turns blue, and the computer almost always freezes and requires rebooting.’ Webopedia.com Copyright 2003 Jupitermedia Corporation All Rights Reserved.

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many mores! Always something else to learn, another problem to crack, another technique to polish. Most of us pass through a number of developmental stages on the web although of course not everyone passes through all of them. Many people never use chat, for example, and hardly anyone knows what a MOO is, let alone spends time in one. Most of us don’t have the capacity to download the faster and fancier websites, and people browsing from behind a firewall are excluded from a wide range of activities, especially live communications and sometimes downloading files and software too. Movies and sound are beyond the reach of much of the connected world, though the situation is improving fast as bandwidth increases and more people get broadband connections. But since a lot of us use the web in the office, where audio is considered antisocial, we often browse with our speakers turned off, unaware of a whole world of sound effects, music and voices. But pretty well all of us who are on the web use email. For many of us, email IS the web. In the words of those who know, it is the killer app. So for the Child taking their first baby steps, an email account is imperative. And since we are looking to the future, let us make this one a spivak child, with spivak pronouns to play with

Developmental Profile: Stage 1 • Child Has recently gained access to the web and obtained an email address. Generally enthusiastic but clumsy and doesn’t quite ‘get it’ yet. Has only had time to discover 1% of the features available, so operates in blissful ignorance. Often fails to read email attachments as e does not know that they exist, let alone how to open them. Generally slow to respond to email because e seldom logs on and also because e has not yet realised that email is a two-way medium and senders usually expect a reply. New users often find it hard to grasp that email should be taken as seriously as snailmail or phonecalls. Likely to make mistakes in the setup and operation of eir computer due to simply not being aware of its potential and abilities. Often believes the machine is broken when

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it simply needs preferences altering. Gets very frustrated and blames the machine, the internet, eir ISP, and the designers of sites e cannot access. Worried about: doing it right; being swamped by email and attacked by viruses and hackers; getting addicted; spending too much money; having cash fraudulently drawn from eir bank account; being exposed to pornography. Excited about: access to information; connecting with long lost friends and relatives; being exposed to pornography.

Developmental Profile: Stage 2 • Naïve Adolescent Now e is engaging closely with people online via email, chat or discussion boards. Has made several very close friends and sensed the powerful intimacy online can engender. The desire to connect may have inspired em to create eir own homepage containing personal information and perhaps even a photograph. Doing this has increased eir webskills and e now knows something about writing HTML, creating digital images with a camera or a scanner, and uploading them to the web. Alternatively, e may have sent this material to one of eir new online friends and they have created the page. E now has eir own url, which e releases perhaps to the world or perhaps just to trusted friends. E now sleeps less and stays up late at night, chatting with people in other parts of the world. E always knows what time it is in New York and Sydney. Some relationships have developed into sending letters and parcels by snailmail; talking on the phone; arranging fleshmeets. Some may have moved into online sex, a keyboard variation of phone sex which is at its most effective for the highly ambidextrous. During this time it is likely that e will experiment with groups outside eir usual way of life, including fringe religious, spiritual and political organisations. This stage involves all or any of: euphoria; sex; intensity; fascination; speed; timezones; ecstasy; gender; joy; intellect; community; laughter; mind-expansion; fun; and learning. Worried about: the amount of time e is now spending online; the vast amount of disk-space taken up with emails and logs of online encounters; existing

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relationships with family and friends, which have taken a nose-dive since e met eir online friends; minutiae of squabbles and intimacies in the online world ranging from small disagreements to major betrayals. Excited about: the intensity of online; the new facets of emself now being released show that what were previously only dreams of who e might be are becoming closer to reality; e is discovering a new sexuality / playfulness / level of friendship; the craft of making web-pages and other forms of programming may be capturing eir imagination – e is acquiring a whole new set of technical skills and fluencies.

Developmental Profile: Stage 3 • Hurt Adolescent Hurt and be hurt. IRL adolescents push the boundaries and the result can be car-smashes; drug overdoses; religious and political manias; sports accidents; and suicidal depressions. The equivalents for net adolescents (who can be of any physical age) include being both the victims and the perpetrators of various destructive behaviours: damaging acts of psychological manipulation fuelled by the euphoria of anonymity; the results of uncontrolled behaviour caused by the freedom from RL repression; criminal acts including fraud and abuse, and of course the famous net-stalking which in the early days of the web had everyone in a panic. These days it is mentioned less frequently, though it still continues in both physical and psychological behaviour. Worried about: whether e can ever trust anyone again; whether there is some fatal flaw in eir psychological makeup which creates a vulnerability to abuse (or a desire to abuse); the damage e may have caused to friends and family due to eir immersion in web-life Excited about: restoring and recovering aspects of physical life which have been ignored; revisiting offline relationships; finding a way to keep the best parts of net-life and get rid of the rest.

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Developmental Profile: Stage 4 • Adult Having passed through the passions of net-adolescence and been burned by the wilder edges of the web, e now reaches a level of emotional intelligence wherein e moves through the internet with knowledge and a fluency which could only be reached after a period of learning and development. But some users, especially those who choose never to experiment, will, just as in Real Life, pass from childhood to adulthood and never experience the trials and tribulations of net-adolescence. And as in real life, this is a sad state of affairs, because it means they move through the web with no experiential understanding of its full potential. They may see the logic of it, and know a great deal about it, but if they have never properly lived there they are certainly missing out. The adult on the web either knows how to handle the whole environment or has made decisions to operate in a limited and known safe area. The latter will always be vulnerable to error or attack, but then real life is the same. The adult worries much less; is cautious, sensible and knows how to protect emself and eir system from attack and error. Life may never again be the roller coaster it was for the wet-behind-the-ears naïve adolescent but this is now familiar and well-trodden terrain. Keep to the well-lit areas, don’t speak to strangers, and you’ll be just fine : ) Is there a stage beyond this? I suspect there is but few of us have reached it yet, although many aspire to do so. Perhaps it is the post-human, where flesh and information blend into a single/multiple corpus, a new conception of the body and machine, a new sense of self. Whatever it is, I don’t think it will be shiny and silver, but more probably oily, smelly, and tactile. But for now, we pursue our careers on the web, we have our friends there, we fall in love, entertain ourselves, play games, shop, and make art there. More numbers. I said I wouldn’t do it but sometimes you just have to. As I write, the latest count57 of us is 605.60 million, increasing at a rate of five ○

57 How

Many Online? Nua Internet Surveys, ‘educated guess’ as of September 2002 7 Oct 2003.

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more every second. Yes. Five every SECOND.58 But this figure can only be estimated because for each one of us there are several. What I mean is, we often have more than one identity. One of the many skills of the virtualist is to be fluent in multiplicity. But this isn’t really so different from the norm. We value the importance of being ‘true to ourselves’, of honesty about our ‘real selves’, about the traps of pretending to be ‘someone we are not’, but all of us, in our flesh lives, are multiple – as spouses, lovers, friends, colleagues, parents and children, to name but a few. We travel to work to become one person and travel home again to become another. We are all, already, much more multiple than we realise or wish to acknowledge. Indeed, is it not true that we see a shame in admitting that we are not always quite exactly the same person all the time? But why? Would we not drown in contradiction if we were truly always unchanging? Imagine yourself as a many-faceted jewel on an illuminated turntable. As it moves in the light, some parts of it look dull and jagged whilst others are glorious with colour, then they gradually change until some become lit or move into the shade. In real life, as children and as adults, we present only certain sides of ourselves, sometimes chosen by design but more often by fate, not deliberate facades, but often subconsciously triggered by environmental or personal factors, and these are how we are recognised. It would be impossible for us to show all of these qualities on a single occasion. The theorist Sandy Stone who, as a transsexual knows something about this kind of shift, writes, ‘The social imperative with which we have been raised is that there is one primary persona, or “true identity”, and that in the offline world – the “real” world – this persona is firmly attached to a single physical body, by which our existence as a social being is authorized and in which it is grounded’.59 ○

58 A Billion Customers, Anyone? Nua Internet Surveys, 12 Feb 2001 7 Oct 2003. 59

Stone, The War of Desire and Technology, 73.

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In the binary world of Descartes it was important to know where the boundaries were, but today the new physics is making it very clear that it is much more important to accept flux. The Cartesian unitary self is giving way to the networked self. In its fluctuation and fluidity, the networked self may seem weak and unstable, but those individuals who are comfortable at the points where leakage and osmosis occur are probably the best suited to survival in a networked society. However, paradoxically the net is also giving rise to a rather different kind of unity, created by a coming together on the network. Writing about MOOs in 1995, but still applicable to all networked spaces today, Derrick de Kerckhove said ‘When you share exactly the same space with dozens of people landing there from all over the world at the same time, you have the necessary continuity of data to help you perceive the unity of substance’.60 So, a new kind of unity created from parts of a body which has been blown apart and reassembled into something else? Perhaps. It is too early yet to know. Conversations about virtuality always seem to lead very quickly to the topic of multiple personalities and this requires a certain agility in terms of the way we perceive identity. The perceptual shift required in vl is probably similar to that made by the first cinema audiences, who had to appreciate the translation of 3D materiality into a 2D image. Some people couldn’t assimilate what they were seeing in order to be able to recognise the pictures on the screen, with the result that they simply couldn’t see them. Likewise, visitors to virtuality often can’t disengage their conventional sensors enough to accept that people and places here are both imaginary and real at the same time. I’ve seen it over and over again as I’ve watched them stare at the screen and I know they are not grasping a fraction of what is actually happening there. As new-borns, they lack both the perceptual apparatus to see it and the conceptual ○

60 Derrick de Kerckhove, 3 Oct 1995 Network Art and Virtual Communities 6 Oct 2003.

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apparatus to interpret it. But they learn pretty fast. And then strange things happen to them, as they have happened to all of us at one time or another. I have heard stories of the most astonishingly high levels of psychic interaction. It is common knowledge, for example, that you can fall for someone very quickly just in the space of a few exchanged sentences. And once you’re bonded in that way you might find that you suddenly often log on at exactly the same time, or wake up in the middle of the night knowing they are online and waiting, or find that you are typing the same words simultaneously. You are joined together by the medium. There are countless numbers, growing every day, of people who meet on the net and fall in love instantly and with no regrets. Is this love real? Most surely it is. And it takes place in a new culture with new conventions and phrases, the most potent of which must surely be ‘who are you?’. Who are you? What is your name IRL? The forbidden question. The last taboo of virtual life. The fabric of cyberspace convulses every time it’s asked, and yet it’s asked innocently and endlessly day after day, hour after hour. It’s asked by the person in whom you’ve just confided some terrible detail of your personal history. Or perhaps you will be the person who asks it, driven by post-confessional tristesse and the urge for intimacy. It’s asked (and seldom answered) after the customary threesome - you, your online partner, and the keyboard. It’s asked by people who want to phone, who want to write, who want to meet in airports and cafes and museums. It’s asked by the lover you’ve spoken with every day for six months and who knows everything there is to know about you except who you really are. Who are you? Where are you? We can’t resist asking these questions, even though it’s clear that online there can be no such thing as truth, and the only verity is that nobody can be trusted. It’s logical to take all information given as suspect: women might really be men; youths might really be middle-aged; gay might really be straight . . . The only way to deal with such confusion is to simply accept everyone

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at face value and proceed from there. For example, if a man wishes to present as a woman, why should he be prevented from it? After all, the boundaries of gender and identity have never been clear cut, even IRL, and virtuality offers the ideal opportunity to try on for size some identities which might not be viable in a society restricted by narrow conventions. Of course I myself am only one manifestation of a single small aspect of my personality, whether in my virtual life, my physical life, or as the author of this sentence. Even I am not ‘real’ – whatever that means. But then in that case, where is the part of me which is thinking these thoughts? So, online we are constantly asking questions about who we are and where we might be. After all, meeting people online is very different to meeting them in the flesh. Consider this for example: when we meet a person for the first time IRL, what do we do? We look at them. And in those initial first few seconds, often before any words have been exchanged, we make an assessment using the usual data – gender, age, race, looks and dress – as well as allegiances of culture, sexuality, lifestyle, and education. And as soon as they’re in close enough proximity to activate our olfactory nerves, we smell them too. Often this last piece of data is powerful enough to over-ride all our previous conclusions. So before this person has even opened their mouth they have been categorised and firmly pigeon-holed. And when they do finally speak, we can add further items to our already extensive pool of data. We glean a more solid picture of their background, preferences and priorities. We can add *what* they say to *how* they say it, and almost always this corresponds to the data we have already accumulated. But when the two (what they say and how they say it) , don’t quite match up, we are quickly alerted to the fact that there may be a problem, that perhaps there is some dysfunction, or some attempt at deception, going on here. And so we may begin to pay extra attention to their words. We might ask a few searching questions, and if the answers don’t satisfy us we will almost certainly reassess our interpretations. But in most cases there is no mismatch. We have

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evaluated them with our eyes and nose and backed up the data with our ears. Everything fits? Fine! Then proceed from there. In virtuality, however, one is presented with an entirely different set of information. Instead of a conglomeration of data, we get a narrowing of bandwidth, so that an entire physical body is condensed into just a paragraph of description. It’s like downloading a compressed file and then using an application like Winzip or Stuffit Expander to open it out and make it active – except that in this case we ourselves are also active in changing and contributing to the contents. It’s like listening to a play on the radio, where your information base is only words plus a few well-chosen sound effects – your imagination fills in the rest. What all this compression and encoding means it that you have to concentrate. You must focus hard. And in virtuality, where text equals body, there is a powerful link between the way we breathe and the way we write. Every line, every phrase, every paragraph gets its form and punctuation from the breathing pattern of its typist at the very moment of writing it down. It means that as a player reads the lines appearing on the screen, they are probably breathing in and out at precisely the same points as the typist did during the seconds it took to make the words. So how can the meat be separate from virtuality when even the very act of reading allows the flesh and brain to interact? Many people read each other’s words aloud as they appear on the screen, breathing the rhythm of the punctuation and fitting tongues and lips around the syllables as if each were a cherished part of their beloved’s body. They concentrate hard, pacing themselves carefully through each sentence, counting a beat for each syllable, a one-second pause for commas and semi-colons, two seconds for colons and three for full-stops. An onlooker might imagine that they are reading music, and so they are, but it is a concerto of words rather

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than notes which flows silently through their heads as they sit murmuring at their keyboards renewing every vowel, every consonant, every phrase. Perhaps it is this intense concentration which brings about the powerful mind-meld which sometimes occurs between players. We add our own preferences to the mix to make out of it whatever we will. But the typist does not need to understand all this theory in order to appreciate the delicate manoeuvres between one morph and another, and different bodies are often adopted almost instinctively as the player moves from one mind state to the next. Some players like to present a vaguely embellished physical description which calls on sensuality rather than physicality, whilst others offer not an image but a thought or idea. And often these descriptions are written with deliberate intent to hypnotise, seduce, disempower – or just create some kind of sensorial effect. The MOO is a world of archetypes and fetishized images where typists often describe themselves sensorially – by scent, or by sensation, and often using clichéd images taken from cheap novels: ‘a shiver runs down your back then you turn to see that X has just entered the room’ or, most common of all, especially amongst beginners searching for a vocabulary, by simple eye contact: ‘his piercing blue eyes penetrate your soul’. In the early days of text-based virtual environments there was a heady sense that people were breaking new and exciting boundaries. Suddenly it seemed enormously possible to push through the barriers of male and female, gay and straight, black and white, able-bodied and differently-abled. In real life we’re stuck inside our flesh-bodies and can’t escape them without major surgery, but in a virtual community we can live as male or female, neuter, ambiguous or any other variation we might care to invent. But whilst the adoption of a virtual persona might appear to be just a game, it can have very serious consequences. For some, it can lead to disaster and disillusion, although for others it opens the way to a fuller existence by putting them in touch with parts of themselves they cannot express anywhere else. At LambdaMOO, gender and identity confusions are a normal part of everyday interaction. Places like this are inhabited by registered ‘characters’,

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who have built up a series of established and permanent personas, and by guests, whose life is only as long as the time they are logged on for. The descriptions the guests create for themselves range from quite clumsy attempts at role-switching through sophisticated gender-play to deliberate ambivalence. But can you tell who they really are? What does Lavender_Guest look like in real life? Kim sees you looking, she jumps up and down waving and shouting HI! Kim is very excited to see ya. You see a sweet young high school aged girl, blonde hair...blue/green eyes . . . . 5 6' 110 lbs. Kim jumps back on her bed, that’s where she’s MOOing from on her bed with her laptop. She’s wearing her cat puffy slippers and a robe . . . she just got out of the shower. A sweet young high school girl? Hmm. Yellow_Guest sounds a little more subtle – ‘5’7, long auburn hair, dark green eyes & a captivating smile’ – only one small point – is Yellow male or female? And how about Plaid - ‘A nice psychology student from Minnesota’ . . . And, after all that, does it really matter? Infrared clearly thinks it doesn’t and shouldn’t. Infra’s desc of ‘ . . . + . . .=VI’ pretty well encapsulates the spirit of Lambda. And so finally onto Pink_Guest: ‘a very pale girl with black hair’. How many of these words accurately describe the person at the keyboard? Pale? Girl? Black hair? Virtuality is littered with traumatised teenage boys whose first-ever girlfriend turned out to be male. There have been many occasions in the history of MOOing where people who have lived online as the opposite gender for quite some time (usually men presenting as women rather than the other way around) have suddenly revealed their RL gender and immediately MOOicided. MOOicide, when a player destroys their character and recycles it

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back into the database, is an emotional and lengthy process which involves getting rid of your persona piece by piece and ends with a ceremonial step off the cliff at The End Of The World. An easier way, of course, is simply not to log on ever again and leave your character to run out and be recycled, but often that’s not enough for the player who needs the ritual destruction of persona suicide. It seems that once a virtual identity has been destabilised by the revelation of the real man or woman behind the mask it becomes difficult to sustain a credible existence. It’s so easy to hide in VL that usually the information comes through deliberate confession rather than accidental discovery, and often at a time when the individual has found some self-worth through their character and feels optimistically emboldened to ‘come out’ as themselves. But friends and lovers might not always see it like that, and their wounded anger can come as a huge shock to everyone concerned. So how genderless really is virtuality if it can’t accommodate these kinds of changes? The problem is that no matter how open-minded you are, it hurts to be deceived by someone you have come to trust. Virtual life is breaking new boundaries, but it’s hard to live in a world where new moral codes are in the process of being formed, and there are bound to be casualties. Some players use gender identity as a toy but for others it becomes an intensely serious issue expressing powerful truths about their real-life identities. Online genderplay has enabled some to use virtuality as a trial ground for a new sexual identity which, once it has stabilised a little, can be gently transferred to physical existence. Via this route, countless homosexual men and women have come out in the flesh world as a result of the liberation of the online world. However, it is a tender irony that some typists who come online to escape the constraints of meat life soon find that all they have done is build yet another identity prison for themselves. And so they will often try to escape yet again by returning as an anonymous guest, thus freeing themselves of the character which had originally liberated them. But if they are too ambitious and change identities too often they can become trapped, shattering their core sense of belonging as they spin in a

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recursive loop from one persona to the next. Freedom always has its price. If virtuality allows you to be anyone and to settle anywhere, can there be any single safe place left to call home?

11. . . . even the wildest animals love comfort and warmth as well as man, and they survive the winter only because they are so careful to secure them.61 Finally, almost imperceptibly, the train began to move again. I gazed out of the window at the nearly motionless view. Outback BBQ. Shacks. Camira Street. St Mary’s Senior High School. A running track. Swamps. Fast rivers. Werrington • A white jeep abandoned in a stream. Nepean Motor Auctions. Kingswood. • McDonalds • Penrith High Street • Emu Plains. Penrith • Target. ○


Thoreau, Walden, 227.

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The PA described the big radio telescope at Parkes. We reached the edges of the Blue Mountains. There were fewer houses there, and as the track curved I could see the front of the train snaking ahead. The pass was very narrow, the red-streaked rockface unnervingly close to the window. We went up and up. Lapstone. Deep forest, high waterfalls. I dipped into my food store and munched on Swiss Bakehouse Lavoche linseed crispbread, bought at a Sydney delicatessen only a few hours before. It was dry, of course, and the seeds made it faintly oily, but it made a palatable and somehow Spartan kind of meal for a train-based mountaineer. We passed a pure white clapboard house with a frontage the shape of a perfect 3d triangle. Warimoo Kitchens. High in the mountains now. Gum trees, gum trees, gum trees! Plumes of steam rose from the forests. Huge ferns, and long trumpeted lily-like flowers were everywhere. How did it smell? Cloistered in the train I could not tell but imagined a hot damp sweetness, perhaps a little foetid. As we crawled along (still) I reminded myself that in this day and age it is indeed a luxury to travel so slowly. Clods and Sods (what the hell kind of store is that?) Warehouses. Lawson Community Centre. Blue Mountains Hotel. Peppers. Be our guest at Best Western. Mist. Rain. Gum trees, Gum trees. Rocks. The horizon was disappearing and it was getting dark already. Grand View Hotel. Pokies. Real Estate.

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Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. So slow we were almost at a stop. I feared this would drive me crazy as I was treated to a pointillist’s eye-view through the rain-spattered window. I stared at forest paths lined with peeling gum trees, their bark slipping off like silken clothing, and white stone/grey stone/red stone everywhere. In the distance, through the trees, lay Long View Garden Centre. White sand streaked with sharp red terraces of rock. The layers of colour were very distinct. Everything was hanging and dripping. Then, lawns. Real estate signs. Western Sydney Institute. Bygone Beauty. The Paul Sorenson Bridge. But the forest still went on and on. I thought, I would really rather have desert than this. I’m going to be stuck in this compartment for 4350 kilometres. I must have been insane to book this trip. It’s got to be the slowest train in the world. The first sitting of dinner was called, but I had been allotted the second sitting and so I must wait my turn for that as well. Now it seemed we were running along backtracks. I saw no more stations, only huge wide gardens, often without fences. I stared across the lawns, a mobile lurker passing by. Two black birds rose suddenly above the canopy and as I lost sight of them it felt as if I too was beginning to disappear into the mist. Tearing myself away from the window which had become as addictive as a screen, I left my compartment and swayed down the curved corridor to the tiny kitchen where the tea and coffee making equipment was stored beneath a

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red fire-axe mounted in a glass cabinet. I made myself a drink, carefully disposed of the teabag and milk-carton, and swayed back again to the privacy of my lair. Mount Victoria. Now very high. The train ran through tunnels cut into harsh red-black rock. I sipped my tea and gazed at the rock, often alarmingly close to the window of the train, and idly mused about kangaroos. What sounds do they make? What sounds do emus make? I realised I have no idea at all. (Later I looked it up and found a website for San Diego Zoo which told me ‘kangaroos don’t make many sounds. They have been heard making grunting and coughing sounds, they sometimes hiss, and females may make clicking or clucking sounds to call their young. A more common sound for kangaroos is a loud thumping they make with their feet to warn others of danger’.)62 Zigzag Railway Depot: Welcome to Zigzag railway. The rocks along the track were covered with netting to prevent rockfalls onto the rails. Stetam. Surprisingly, a viaduct came into view. Roman? I laughed to myself at the notion of Australia settled by Romans - and yet, why not? Given the right naval technology it would have been feasible, and if they’d known it was there they most surely would have given it a try . . . Higher still. An abandoned truck in a grassy hollow was almost totally rusted away. How long does that process take in this moist climate, I wondered? Suddenly the view opened out to a huge spread of bungalows and a derelict gas tower. The train stopped. ○

62 What sound does a kangaroo make? 2003 Zoological Society of San Diego 7 Oct 2003.

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A mass of greenery looking a little like sweetheart vine hung down all along the sidings, giving way to ivy further along, then to grass and rock. This was Bracey – the heart of Lithgow. Tandy. Berry’s Discount Tyre Service. Lithgow Quota Club (what IS that?!) Motel. Now we were moving above the treeline and away from the stifling forest. What a relief! I could breathe again. Cows. Monochrome. Golfcourse – seemed oddly calm after the intense forest. Power stations in the distance at the edge of a wide spread of land. It had been much tamed there, and there was water in the pools between the trees, but still no kangaroos to be seen. And then a huge mine – power stations – a geodesic dome – and pylons had replaced the forest. Any trees to be seen there were firs, not gums, and marshalled into neat plantations. Wallerawong. Yes! Finally a kangaroo! A big one, standing and watching the train go by. At last! The height and the unreality of its appearance made it look rather like Jimmy Stewart’s best friend Harvey the man-sized rabbit. Up there it was hillbilly country, with numerous hand-made signs yelling KEEP OUT!, and trash dumps, and wrecked cars. Turning off the cabin light made the outside more visible in the growing dusk but there were no more roos to be seen. Sometimes we passed sparse and stony mountain streams, with little sandy beaches alongside them. Mists again but a totally different landscape – very few trees, short grass, rolling hills. The landscape was reminiscent of the English county of Derbyshire

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except that this place had something Derbyshire doesn’t – the possibility of marsupials. But none could be seen at any stream or waterhole as the train slid past. Tavana. Raining a little and getting dark. A field of ?beehives? Then the train was climbing again and suddenly we were back amongst the gum trees, but only for a brief moment before passing above them and out once more into an emptier landscape. There’s something depressing about riding a train alone at night. Passing by lit-up houses only makes me long to be inside there too. I constructed in my head the fantasies of cosy home gatherings and felt a growing envy at my mental picture of happy families snuggled around an open fire laughing together at their favourite TV show. I was reminded of train journeys in England, returning after a long day’s work when evening is drawing in and the countryside looks as if someone has turned down the colour a notch or two, like the muddy leavings of a palette, where the water swirls, leaks off the edges, and drips to the floor. No man’s land. No person’s land. No-one’s land. Not my land. I would sit mesmerised by the landscape running past, the deserted hedgerows, the rabbits running for some invisible reason, the strips and stripes of the fields, the ribbons of hedgerows and rivulets of streams, and, then, peoples’ backyards and bedrooms. I would stare into as many houses as I could, scooping up tiny details as they rushed by; the woman standing at her window, pale-coloured cat in her arms; a walker alone in a field miles from anywhere, his spaniel running insanely through the stubble. Then pylons would become grey in the distance, fading into the skyline, while lights would begin to appear as across the villages streetlamps came on one by one. How many writers have described this? How many films shown it? How many musical compositions have conveyed the switching on of light? Our oldest pride is in controlling the dark and we still thrill to the coming on of artificial suns. Twilight in England and the countryside slipped between light and dark, night and day. Sheep would begin to gather

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and huddle together under hedges in those spots which are dry and cosy, where the grass is short and brown from so many warm bodies, where the rain does not reach and the fox dare not penetrate and, oh, how I wanted to be there with them, cuddled into their lanolin-scented fleeces, hearing their snores as they chewed cud even in their sleep and dreamed of me, leaping over fences, my hair long, loose and flying, my laughter lighting the wings of evening insects. Now, out there in that foreign land, the train itself provided the sole home and hearth. There was no other. Or at least that is how it seemed. There were not even any lights save the glittering blunt head of the train as it slid around a curve . . . and then all of a sudden a single porch lamp gleamed into view and disappeared again just as fast. Glued to the dark of the window, I stared at the occasional glimmerings. The watcher watched, as ever. Privately I devised a screen in my head and sectioned it into squares – webcam views on different landscapes: bright Mediterranean, subdued English evenings, intense polar light, the continuous sharing and redistribution of colour throughout the world. And then sunset. A horizontal slice of pink appeared for a moment on the horizon, was gone, and it was officially night. And time for dinner. As the PA announced the second sitting, I took one last look out of the window to see a single tall gum tree dominating the horizon. The streams were now no more than strips of darkness, rain was spattering the window again, and any hope of seeing another roo today was gone. But I was in luck! There was kangaroo on the menu, and so I rounded off the day with a generous serving of fillet, well-done, with roast potatoes and fresh vegetables and tasting very good, like a delicate fillet beef-steak. Unexpectedly, I had, after all encountered two roos that day. I returned from dinner to find that Tony the steward had lowered a narrow shelf from the wall behind the daytime seat and made it up with crisp white sheets, a soft quilt, and two pillows. There was just enough space to use the tiny stainless steel drop-down toilet, fold it away and wash in the basin above it. I stored my clothes in the narrowest of cupboards, turned the

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main light off and the bedside light on, and climbed into my haven for the night. The top of the mattress met the base of the window, where Tony had pulled down and closed a set of narrow venetian blinds. But the blinds blocked out the stars, so I raised them, turned off the tiny bedside light, and settled back on the pillows to watch the Australian night. Shapes of trees loomed and receded, and the moon intermittently dove between them to slash a bright light across the bed. I wished I could watch the train from outside as it glittered in the lunar brightness but of course this was impossible because I was inside the body of the train - indeed, inside the bed inside the body of the train. Two favourite places, one nested in the other. Two Russian dolls of pleasure. It was a long night. The train stopped and started. Sometimes it halted for what seemed like hours, then jerkily resumed its journey in sudden bursts of speed. I slept fitfully, restlessly.

12. What makes me liable to great calamity is having the body I call myself. If I had not the body, what great calamity could befall me?63 One of the most notable spin-offs of leaving your body behind is that suddenly it becomes intensely important. We’re accustomed to its always being there for us, quietly collecting data and keeping us informed with instruments which are the envy of many systems designers. After all, it’s our own movement through the world which provides most of what we know. In his study of dis/ ○


Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching 1. Origination

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embodiment, The Absent Body,64 Drew Leder explains Merleau-Ponty’s view that ‘it is our lived body itself, not an intellectual mind, that first perceives objects. And it is the same with place. Our lived body experiences place via the sensorium. Before we know WHAT it is, we already know HOW it is’.65 The irony is, however, that although my own body is an excellent external sensor, much of it is, and always will be, invisible to me. Others may stare, scrutinise, abhor or admire, but I will never see most of my own flesh. The place which is my face remains unknown to me. I might view it in the mirror; I might film and photograph it, but there is always an intermediary whether it be one of glass, acetate, celluloid, pixels, or other formats. I might screw up my eyes and squint to catch sight of the holographic image of the end of my nose. If I had a long tongue I might stick it out as far as possible and cross my eyes to try to catch a glimpse of its damp tip. But this is only one of many parts of my body I will never see directly with my naked eye. List them: Eyes Teeth Eyebrows Ears The adam’s apple The spinal ridges

Nose Tongue Eyelashes Hair (except when it is long) The whole of the neck The posterior

Mouth Cheeks Forehead All of the head The whole of the back The backs of the thighs

As for the orifices – I cannot see inside any of them without the help of a reflecting or filming device. The ear, the nose, the mouth and throat, the anus, the vagina. The only orifice which just might come into the visible category is the male urethra – and even then, such a tiny hole, and not very far in. On several occasions, thanks to modern medicine, I have been able to see my internal organs. I have been the star of my own real-time colonoscopy movie; watched live scans of my gall-bladder as we went prospecting for ○


Drew Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).


Drew Leder, The Absent Body, 7.

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stones; viewed the walls of my uterus countless times and even watched as a needle was pushed deep into my breast tissue to deal with a small cyst. But what is the value of watching? Vision only offers one view of reality anyway. In Technology as Symptom and Dream Robert Romanyshyn explains in great detail how the development of linear perspective in the fifteenth century has transformed and distorted the way we encounter the world. ‘Before we know that we know it, we have learned to see the world as a threedimensional plane where depth is a matter of spatial distance from the viewer and where all objects decrease in size as they retreat from the viewer toward a vanishing point. In short, before we know that we know it, we have learned to see the world as if we were standing on a railroad track looking at the parallel rails converging in the distance . . . linear perspective vision, in making the eye the world’s measure, has transformed the self into a spectator, the world into a spectacle, and the body into a specimen.’66 Windows are nearly always two-way screens. At home, I step out of the building to look in and I see furniture and books and even more screens – TV, computer, the door of the microwave – and houseplants and the dog – all existing beyond my reach as I gaze in. Inside, I stare out at roads and bricks and people and fields and cars all beyond my reach. Through the glass I see one large black speck and two smaller white ones. Many tiny specks, mostly dark. Some smears – insect corpses, other unidentified splashes, all almost microscopic but not quite. No doubt there are thousands of microscopic ones too, invisible to the naked human eye. Always a sense of this double layer between the inside and the outside and it’s true – double glazed, they are indeed separated by a vacuum. Through the glassy divide can be heard the dull sound of cars. Also isolated fragments of birdsong. Soon perhaps the clipclop of local horses out for their daily exercise. A portable concrete mixer stirs itself two doors down. A dog walker with a camera slung around her neck passes by. The dog is a white Westie dressed in red tartan. Two men come out ○


Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom & Dream, 33.

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onto the street to stare at the mixer and discuss its efficiency. No-one else can be seen, but sixteen hundred years ago, Roman farmers also settled and built homes here. Birds sang, and horses were trained, and people sat in doorways and at windows, staring out. But when I am tired and my eyes don’t work so well the world becomes pixellated, broken down into tiny pieces of colours and shapes until it’s no longer possible to identify anything. In recent years I’ve had to buy varifocal spectacles for driving and reading, but for the computer I still need nothing. I joke about this but actually I do secretly really believe that I have mutated (or evolved, call it what you will) so that my sight is now perfectly configured to the screen. [Of course one difference between cyberspace and the physical world is that in cyberspace the colours are as brightly-defined as a Cape Cod summer, but there are no visible shadows – online the darkness is made by deficiencies in people, not light.] Today we tend to think of our senses as mere passive receptors of data, but in the past they were perceived as proactive agents able, for example, to issue rays from the eyes which actively mingled with the object being looked at. Viewed in this light, phenomena like the output of speech are just another of those sensory manifestations, but it is difficult for us to think in those terms because we are obsessed with the elevation of meat above spirit. However, there is also a serious issue here about whether or not we trust our senses at all. Romanyshyn points up the problem: ‘ . . . the human eye as the paramount organ of distance comes to represent a humanity which, in increasingly removing itself from the world, becomes less and less touched by it, increasingly less implicated. Moreover, in becoming increasingly detached it becomes increasingly possible to imagine that one is in charge and in control of things. With increasing distance it becomes easier to believe that one is really at the center. Like the man on the hill above the city, for example, it becomes possible to believe that with a bird’s eye view one now sees it all’.67 ○


Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom & Dream, 44.

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Fortunately Donna Haraway has found a way out of the trap of linear perspective and advocates what she calls ‘a usable, but not an innocent, doctrine of objectivity’. 68 She calls for a feminist writing of the body that ‘ . . . metaphorically emphasises vision again, because we need to reclaim that sense to find our way through all the visualising tricks and powers of modern sciences and technologies that have transformed the objectivity debates. We need to learn in our bodies, endowed with primate colour and stereoscopic vision, how to attach the objective to our theoretical and political scanners in order to name where we are and are not, in dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name’.69 Naming where we are. Is it possible to eschew our linear vision and learn to see differently? Certainly if we didn’t have our senses to tell us what’s going on outside we’d never know anything about the world beyond the boundaries of our own skins. As it is we are forced to rely upon the complex sensor array that evolution has composed for us – the sensorium. The sensorium is located deep within the brain – a palace of smells, noises and sights, of tactile sensation and olfactory stimulation; a huge department store where all types of pain and pleasure are available in intriguing and numerous variety. Without it we’d be imprisoned inside our bodies – blind, deaf, dumb and literally senseless in every way. As we have evolved we have created new prosthetics to reinforce and support the sensorium with spectacles, hearing aids, computer-generated voices and now we have extended that sensorium into virtuality too. We are locating a wider range of inputs, often configured in forms which were previously unknown to us. Or perhaps, only forgotten until now. The configurations of connectedness. ○

68 Donna J. Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books 1991), 189. 69

Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges’, 189-190.

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Consider the virtual player sitting at eir keyboard, eir eyes intent on the screen, eir fingers poised in thought, or rapidly typing. The only noises are those of breathing and of the CPU fan massaging the air. Watch another, the lover of the first, as eir body hardly moves, barely makes a sound, and yet inside that meaty shell blood courses through eir veins, eir heart races, eir mind rushes on . . . They are here and they are not here; they are in separate rooms but they are also together inside a binary labyrinth where their blood is changed into current, their arteries into wires, their brain activity into code. Consider them as they concentrate, most of their major physical sensoria set to idle . . . taste, smell, hearing, touch all subdued and running in the background, whilst other senses take over, entering through the portal of their eyes and using only the medium of sight to trigger the pathways of the brain. And what is this sensorium like? It is not new, although the technology it uses certainly is. In the Middle Ages it was as familiar as the more mundane physical realms of the well-known five. Today we are only accustomed to the type of data collected by the senses of touch, taste, hearing, sight, and smell. Indeed, without these Cartesian quintuplets we would have no way of knowing what is going on out there beyond the prison of our own skins. But over the centuries philosophers have devoted a great deal of time to identifying and quantifying the sensorium and they have come up with an interesting variety of senses: heat, cold, pleasure, discomfort, desire, fear, hardness, wetness, and speech to name but a few. Likewise, when entering the cybersensorium we must be prepared for our minds to jump and twist as they open up to different modes of perception. At first, it might seem that the predominant sense in cyberia is sight – after all, one needs to be able to ‘see’ the screen. But whilst our eyes are obviously very useful, our reliance upon them can often prevent us from taking the imaginative leap necessary in order to enter this unorthodox space. The act of looking implies distance, detachment, objectivity – and often control. It relies heavily upon a collective belief in only three dimensions. But one of the first lessons the novice cyberian traveller must learn is *not*

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to believe the evidence of eir own eyes – there is always more to discover than that which is instantly revealed. In the third century the philosopher Origen identified a set of spiritual senses which twinned the physical ones and enabled the perception of transcendental phenomena such as the sweetness of the word of God. This doctrine of the five spiritual senses was given much credence during the medieval period and subsequently gave birth to the idea of the ‘inward’ sensorium, comprising memory, instinct, imagination, fantasy, and common sense, which acted as a processor for the data gathered by the physical senses. This sensorium could almost correspond to the CPU of your computer. There can be no doubt that both the spiritual and the inward sensoria will prove to be very useful inside cyberspace. There is also another, newer ‘sense’ which comes into play in cyberia, and that is our everyday engagement with an environment dominated by electricity. Already we are used to living inside a crude form of auditory cyberspace, surrounded as we are by the constant hum of domestic machines and urban noise. Our brains are finely tuned to select, comprehend and digest screenfuls of text, complex blends of fast editing, dialogue, music, sound effects and subliminal messaging. Our bodies are accustomed to the emissions of electrical equipment, to the noise, to the changing magnetic fields, to the perpetual bombardment of every type of radiation from high energy gamma rays to the subtlest of radio waves. Cyberspace engages our most intimate intellectual imagination in a way never before encountered. Once accessed by sight, sound or touch, the computer bypasses the physical senses to hook us in directly and soon we are there > Finally released from the gridlock of meat and bone which has held us in thrall for so long.

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13. Why should our bodies end at the skin?70 Those who dislike machines complain of their monotonously unchanging and unceasing activity, forgetting that without the same mechanistic patterns there would be no beating hearts, no breathing lungs, no walking legs, no flying wings, no swimming fins. And other functionalities besides, too numerous to list. But there are certain parts of the body’s hardware (or wetware, if you prefer) which are of great importance to the virtualist. These are the sections which interact with the computer hardware. These often, but not always, work in pairs and each is the prosthesis of the other. Such a twinning does however sometimes cause problems, since evolution is notoriously slow and currently each is as yet imperfectly designed for efficient interlocking. The machine is constrained by limitations of materials, cost and internal systems, and the body is constrained by a traditional configuration of all three which is more appropriate for pulling nuts from trees than for sitting long hours at a keyboard. HARDWARE Refers to objects that you can actually touch, like disks, disk drives, display screens, keyboards, printers, boards, and chips. In contrast, software is untouchable. SOFTWARE exists as ideas, concepts, and symbols, but it has no substance. Books provide a useful analogy. The pages and the ○


Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women, 149-181.

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ink are the hardware, while the words, sentences, paragraphs, and the overall meaning are the software. A computer without software is like a book full of blank pages — you need software to make the computer useful just as you need words to make a book meaningful.71 The pairs of hardware which most commonly go together are: Eyes : screen Fingers/hands : keyboard Hand/wrist : mouse/touchpad Other less common pairs of prostheses include: Voicebox : microphone Ears : sound system (including speakers, headphones, and screen readers) Also to be borne in mind is the relation of one whole body to another. Look, for example, at the way we sit at the machine whether it be at a desk; with a laptop on our knees, or standing at a console. There are even special stools for computer desks which rearrange the body into a sitting position which is more fitted to keyboard use while at the same time, interestingly, mimicking the kneeling posture of prayer. Users whose wetware deviates from the norm can also obtain keyboards of varying sizes and shapes and equipment activated by voice, blinking, or other mechanism. The blind or partially-sighted virtualist can use screenreaders or dictation equipment and increasing numbers of people are trying voice-activated systems which allow for more potential flexibility in the prosthetic interface. ○

71 Webopedia.com Copyright 2003 Jupitermedia Corporation All Rights Reserved.

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As an avid reader who connected with the minds of many authors through their texts, Thoreau firmly believed that we do not need to be physically proximate in order to know and understand an individual. Nor does that individual necessarily need to possess a living and fleshly body. He wrote affectionately about long winter evenings spent with previous inhabitants of Walden Pond when a long-deceased settler who dug the pond and a dame herbalist ‘invisible to most persons’ both entertained him for many hours with their stories of times past. For Thoreau, physical contact ranked low in the rating of valuable interactions, and I would agree with that, although I do still enjoy quite a few of those moments. After all, as he says, ‘The value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him’.72 The hands, and covering them, the skin. Skin is the filmy material between me and my machine, my fingers on the keys, my open palm cupping the smooth humpback of the mouse. Skin. Meat skin. Paper skin. The ‘skin’ of a website. After conception has taken place in a human body, various types of foetal tissue begin to grow, and one of these has a double quality: it folds in on itself to make the brain and spine, and then the rest thins and stretches into the sheet of skin which enclothes us. The skin and the brain are both made of the same substance. Inside and outside. I open my laptop. I feel my fingertips against the keys. Because I am a 2fingered typist that means, for me, the longest finger73 of each hand, plus the ○

72 73

Thoreau, Walden, 124.

‘Finger - a UNIX program that takes an e-mail address as input and returns information about the user who owns that e-mail address. On some systems, finger only reports whether

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occasional punch of the right thumb against the spacebar. Sometimes I use the third finger of the right hand to hit the spacebar. I examine the liquid crystal screen. Some smears and specks. Quite a lot of dust. A finger pressed on it brings a fluid dimple of colour on the white background – pale yellow at first then a ring of dark shadow which floods out and is absorbed by the colours behind. Sustained pressure, dragged across or down, pushes grey before it and drags yellow behind. This movement makes a soft shushing noise, somewhat like a satin dress dragging on the floor. The surface feels like warm skin. There is a gentle humming in the surrounding air. If there is any one place which allows me to penetrate the body of the internet, it is the FTP74 window. Two worlds lie within it – on the left, the inside of my computer. Every single directory, and all of their contents, can be inspected. Every love letter, every photograph, everything inside the trash bin. I go to update my website, and to enter, I invoke my spells: Username: Password:

hereinthisbody ***************

On the right, a new window opens to display another set of directories, but this time in an entirely different machine. These directories are located on a server in an air-conditioned vault somewhere in the state of Virginia. I cannot see all of the files on this huge machine – it contains thousands of them – but my password allows me to view and edit those which I have paid to store here. I keep both my most private documents and also my most public ○

the user is currently logged on. Other systems return additional information, such as the user’s full name, address, and telephone number. Of course, the user must first enter this information into the system. Many e-mail programs now have a finger utility built into them.’ Webopedia.com Copyright 2003 Jupitermedia Corporation All Rights Reserved.


FTP: abbreviation of File Transfer Protocol, the procedure used on the Internet for sending files.

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ones in this abstract place, for this is the location of my website. The ftp window on the screen, although it looks like nothing more than a pair of boring black and white lists, is actually a direct portal into two very physical places – the space inside my computer and the rented space inside a commercial server, five thousand miles distant. Imagine if you could ftp into someone else’s head in the same way. I reach into the right-hand window for the index.htm file and pull a copy of it over onto the desktop of my own machine. Effortlessly it glides from America to England, bypassing sea and air in between, requiring no stamps, no passports, no visas. It’s almost incredible that despite its long journey, the file I am retrieving is on my desktop within a fraction of a second. But the original still remains intact and online and right now, unbeknownst to me, a student at Osaka University is choosing that very url from eir favourites list. E wants to see if there is anything new. Well, not yet, but soon. Come back in half an hour. Soon there will be an update with more news, more data, more to process. Meanwhile I, unaware that someone is waiting, open the file in Dreamweaver to begin my work. But Syojiro has already clicked on to somewhere else. Ten minutes later, the page updated, it is time for me to reverse the process by invoking once again: hereinthisbody *************** I replace the old index.htm with the updated version, press refresh on the browser to make sure it has arrived safely, and close the connection just as the dayshift technician starts work in Virginia. As e removes the lid from eir coffee and stirs in some sugar, e idly notices the most recent upload, but it is no more than a number in a window on eir screen. People are still both fascinated and repulsed by the notion that meat/ machine conjunctions have their own sublime sense of connectedness, despite the fact that they have already been partaking of this themselves for a long time with their cars and other beloved mechanicals. But just as the net is an extension of my mind, so the machine itself is an extension of my body - and

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not just mine. There are many people online whose bodies don’t function one hundred per cent and who come to cyberspace to be liberated from the limitations of their meat existences. I was once told by a man who was extremely disabled and had a very short time to live that for him the internet was like being dead - something he craved. Online, he explained, he could get rid of ‘this’ - he pointed to his crumpled non-functioning body - and really be himself again. He expected to achieve this liberation after death, but the internet allowed him some advance experience of how it would be to interact with people who saw only his personality and not his wheelchair. At LambdaMOO I wrote a cyborg called Semiot who was newly-made and unsure. Eir description read: Recombinant. Organless. Wired. Smile :-} juuust a little crooked. Embrace [] juuust a little tight. Voice – O – juuust a little crackly. But nearly there... nearly there. Eir behaviour was as if e was in permanent reboot - always stuttering, stammering, often totally incoherent. I loved Semiot very much. I saw in em so many similarities with my own self. The unease. The dis-ease. The shyness hidden behind the constant white noise of the CPU. The embodiment of what Donna Haraway calls ‘another science: the sciences and politics of interpretation, translation, stuttering, and the partly understood’.75 Before Semiot, I wrote another cyborg called Oo/||. A deliberately typographical and unpronounceable name. Oo/|| was a beacon of stability and calm. When Oo/|| was close Semiot slowed emself and shone. oOo/|| The meat body in the throes of becoming cyborg. Imagining: ○


Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges’, 195.

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wetdrycoldhot :||: steel/plastic/wire/skin :||: blood^current^fluid^light :||: open|closed|yes|no|in|out :||: flesh-bone-clip-switch :||: Aaahhhhh! If, like Semiot, you are an awkward communicator, you can buy a voice from AT&T.76 There is a range of voice fonts to choose from, or you can have one customised to suit. At the time of writing, the desktop edition is $49 and includes U.S. English Male (“Mike”, 8KHz) and U.S. English Female (“Crystal”, 8KHz) as the default voices. Currently male and female seem to be the only gender choices available in the range.

14. Boot (v) To load the first piece of software that starts a computer. Because the operating system is essential for running all other programs, it is usually the first piece of software loaded during the boot process. Boot is short for bootstrap, which in olden days was a strap attached to the top of your boot that you could pull to help get your boot on. Hence, the expression ‘pull oneself up by the bootstraps.’ Similarly, bootstrap utilities help the computer get started. (n) Short for bootstrap, the starting-up of a computer, which involves loading the operating system and other basic software. A


AT&T Natural VoicesTM

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cold boot is when you turn the computer on from an off position. A warm boot is when you reset a computer that is already on.77 With no sense of when dawn will come and being too sleepy to turn on the light, I dozed half-awake until at last a knock on the door heralded a cup of tea and two tiny biscuits. It was still dark outside, but it seemed that morning was about to arrive. The moon-strafed trees of the night had given way to desert. In the growing light I sipped my tea and watched an eagle with huge silvered wing feathers as it searched for game. Beyond the window was scrubland and saltbush growing in sand whose colours kept changing from red to grey to white and back to red again. As I came awake I was hit by a terrible absence. The first thing I do when I get up is check my email but that day and for the next two risings that familiar ritual would be denied to me. All of a sudden I missed my computer so much it hurt. I shut my eyes and imagined how I would take out my laptop from its padded case and lay it gently on the small table. I know its shape so well. Its geography is as familiar to my fingers as my own body. I slid the latch across to the left with my right thumb whilst pushing the start button with the second finger of my left hand. Still with my eyes closed I gently ran my thumbs across the tips of my fingers, and then my fingers against the insides of my palms, to recall the brush of the keys. I could hear the gentle grinding of the hard disk as it began a cold boot. Behind my eyelids the array of LEDs signalled the progress of our mutual operation. After the usual 9 seconds or so it offered me the password screen and I entered the words I learned many years ago at a meditation class. My ○


Webopedia.com Copyright 2003 Jupitermedia Corporation All Rights Reserved.

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lips moved imperceptibly in the dark of memory as the password was as always transmogrified by the machine into a constellation of stars. Username: Password:

hereinthisbody ***************

Two more seconds . . . and I was received. The pleasure of the bright screen lifted my spirits. It is set to the blue green hue of seawater, and when I reached out and gently pressed my finger against the liquid crystal surface it was as warm as flesh. The colour separated out for a moment just as real skin turns white under pressure and the rim beneath my fingernail lightened at the contact . . . I opened my eyes again to find my nails pressing into my own flesh. The machine was but a mirage. All I had was the fantasy of it. In an attempt to ease the weight of absence I gathered my toiletries and rattled down to the shower-room down the corridor. After a hot deluge in a strangely pristine stainless steel cabinet moving at 40 miles an hour, I returned to my cubicle feeling much better and ready for the day just as the breakfast announcement drew me to the company of the other passengers. We made polite conversation about the trip and the food and the quality of our sleep on board the train, but really I wanted to cut the talking and focus instead on the view beyond the window. It was quite different to the steaming tropical forest of last night. Now we were in the Outback. Flying Doctor territory. Before I came away I’d checked out the website78 to see if the life really is the same as on the TV programme – and it seemed like it was. I found some very helpful information which could come in useful should I find myself stranded out there. The Flying Doctor Service recommends, for example, that when it’s very hot the Outback traveller should carry 10 litres of water a day and drink a ○


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litre an hour. (That doesn’t add up, does it? Presumably it assumes you will spend the other 14 hours either sleeping or drinking in bars.) In case of snakebite, it’s cheering to know that of the world’s 25 most deadly snakes, Australia is home to 21 of them. It’s also very likely that you won’t even feel the bite but rest assured that only six people died of snake bites in 1997. Most intriguing, though, is the advice regarding the kind of fire to make. ‘During the day,’ it says, ‘light a small fire, smoky with green leaves. As night comes, light a small bright fire with dry materials.’ Hmm. Very useful. And finally, ‘Be prepared to wait.’ Well, I was learning about waiting on this train. It was going so slowly I could easily follow the visible kangaroo footprints in the rich red sand. They were interspersed with the remnants of mining - junk was everywhere, as if no-one there had ever thought to tidy up after themselves. Chunks of machinery, bits of railway track, fallen power lines powering nothing, cube-shaped holes of opencast filled with dirty water . . . and despite it all, large white convolvulus pushing up wherever it could. The scattered junk signalled that we were approaching Broken Hill, home of one of the largest deposits in the world of silver, lead and zinc. Also the location for the filming of Mad Max and Razorback, not to mention the town where the girls in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, enjoy a fun night out. We set our watches back thirty minutes as we entered Central Australian time. There should have been a two hour stop at Broken Hill but we were way behind schedule and allowed only half an hour in the town. Not long enough to do anything much. The morning air was cold and clear as we climbed down onto firm land for the first time since leaving Sydney the afternoon before. Uncertain as to what we might achieve in just thirty minutes, we perambulated up and down the single platform in the morning sunshine, taking photographs of the train like anxious offspring with no desire to let Mommy out of our view. I walked to the mess of scrub and rusting iron where the platform petered out, and plucked a sprig of saltbush. Near the waiting room a small group of local women had set out stalls selling second-hand trivia, phials of rock samples, and the home-made chocolate for which the town was

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gaining a reputation. I purchased a rubber-corked test-tube of mineral fragments for $2 and some chunks of almond and sultana chocolate in a plastic bag. The whistle blew, so we trouped back on board to chug away again, past the spoil heaps and the pylons and back out into the desert. It was hard to know what to say about such an isolated and ravaged place. It felt like the end of the earth. As we left the raw exposed walls of rock behind, I was oddly reminded of Manhattan – an unlikely place, one might imagine, to be thinking of with regard to natural geology. But the island of Manhattan stands on a bed of garnets and schist of a rare hardness79 which can take the weight of numerous skyscrapers. A lesser city would have sunk into the sea under the burden of all this architecture – however, despite the protective strength below them, many months after my Australian journey, the Twin Towers would be attacked from above and American earth would never seem so solid again. I closed my eyes to avoid seeing the devastation of Broken Hill and recalled the hotel bus coming off the Jersey Turnpike to queue for a road tunnel. It’s hot and humid and not a very pleasant experience to be stuck in traffic after a seven hour flight. To pass the time, I stare at the rock along the side of the highway. Whenever I come to New York I am fascinated by the geology of this city. All along this road, surrounded by peeling concrete fortress walls, are also jagged ramparts of heavy sharp black stone, and falling around them the ○


‘NYC is primarily composed of sediments that were metamorphosed during the Taconic and Acadian orogenies roughly 500 - 400 million years ago. Garnets can be found in the rocks of the Hartland Formation and Manhattan Schist. It is in these hard rocks that the city skyscrapers have their foundations. During the Pleistocene epoch (the Ice Age: about 1.8 million years ago to 8,000 years ago), large ice sheets bulldozed the landscape. Rocks within the glaciers scraped and scratched the bedrock of Central Park producing long linear striations and grooves. Long Island is composed of rubble that the glacier left behind as it melted.’ New York City Geology 1998 American Museum of Natural History. 9 Oct 2003.

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limbs of broken and dead trees. It’s quite amazing that there are trees here at all. Right at this moment, as we sit in the traffic with no knowledge of events to come, I am staring up at a criss-cross of wire slung overhead to stop things falling onto the road when two girls drive by slowly and whoop their admiration at the young man sitting in front of me in the bus. I can see the blushes on the back of his neck as he courageously waves back. They whoop even more, delighted by his response. I laugh at their energy and feel good about being back in New York City again. Now we’re queuing for the Holland Tunnel and a man walks up the centre of the stationary traffic selling ice water. He wears a white prayer cap, a long pale green robe, and sunglasses. Some people buy from him, others toot their horns in irritation. Further along, someone else – his colleague? – kneels in an empty lot on the edge of Jersey Avenue and prays to Mecca. The direction he faces corresponds exactly with the positioning of the New Jersey Police Department building right across the road. [At the time I found the image amusing and worthy of recording because it seemed geometrically incongruous. Now it takes on a very different resonance.] Later, in the hotel, I am dismayed to find that my room looks out into other peoples’ apartments, just like in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. I once heard one of the actresses relating how she had everything on the set that she needed – her little apartment was fully equipped with food and drink just like a real home. The audience couldn’t know this but it undoubtedly must have had an effect on her performance. Now, my temporary neighbours and I glimpse each other on a regular basis but I am careful to be subtle and I use my glances sparingly as I wonder whether they too have real food in their kitchens. I suppose they must be accustomed to this kind of unavoidable lurking, but our proximity makes me uncomfortable. Lurk To eavesdrop on a chat room or conference. In most online areas, lurking is perfectly acceptable behavior and is, in fact, encouraged

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so that you get the feel of the area before posting your own comments. However, some online areas, particularly ones where participants are discussing personal issues, frown on lurking. 80 The practice of observing people, with or without their consent, acquires a new meaning online, although the word we use for it is an old one. Lurking. In usual parlance, a lurker is someone who spies with some undesirable intention. It has connotations of secrecy, shame, shadows, a dirty raincoat hiding a semen-stained crotch. But online, lurking is a decent and respectable activity, albeit one which should be conducted with some sensitivity. Lurking allows you to learn about the way things are done. It’s the perfect way to avoid making social mistakes. After all, we need to find out how to behave in society. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web81 and opened the door to the internet with all its vast potential and many languages, there was no Ellis Island to sort, filter, identify and organise the newcomers. They just flooded in through all ports of entry and colonised the web in random and chaotic order. Put a map of London next to a map of New York. Contrast and compare. From its early beginnings the planners of New York City, and most specifically Manhattan, took the opportunity to impose structure and shape onto the fastgrowing city. The streetplan grids the inhabitants into place whilst at the same ○


Webopedia.com Copyright 2003 Jupitermedia Corporation All Rights Reserved.


The internet is not the same thing as the web. The internet is a network of networks – many computers connected to each other by cables and more recently by wireless and satellite connections. The World Wide Web is described by its inventor Tim Berners-Lee as ‘an abstract (imaginary) space of information’. In other words, you might say that the web is the virtual manifestation of the internet. For more on this see Tim Berners-Lee Q: What is the difference between the Net and the Web?

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time protecting its heart and lungs in the shape of Central Park, that most precious open space. People say that New York isn’t really representative of America but I would argue that with Central Park it holds in its centre a microcosm of the entire continent, with its miniature beaches and ponds and tiny rocky wildernesses. The Lake could as easily be Walden Pond. I could almost see Thoreau musing beside it. I made those connections in my mind one sunny afternoon in the Park and now nothing can change them. For me, Thoreau will sit by The Lake for ever whilst I recline in a covered bench a little distance from The Ladies’ Pavilion watching fish plop up to the surface and musing on the layered sounds of the Park, each one echoing yet another of the city’s many personalities. The sonar landscape is dominated by the perpetual noise of road-drilling, coming from the street close to John Lennon’s home in the Dakota Buildings, and only a minute’s walk from where I’m sitting. But I can also hear the peawhistles of a film crew ten yards away, the ever-present NYC car horn, and snippets of talk from people walking by. They converse in many languages, which reminds me of how words also separate us. When you’re surrounded by people speaking a language you don’t understand, your mental landscape alters – you’re tuning in to different signals. Turn down the verbal cues and turn up the body language. Foreground the smiles and frowns. Watch for sudden mood changes. [I learned this when I was growing up because all my relatives spoke Dutch around me but we children were never taught it. As a result, the three of us grew up as foreigners in our own family.] Imagine if the internet were arranged like a map of Manhattan, with maps and grids already laid out for us, a Port Authority to manage transport, and a green space at its centre for calm and meditation, all held close by an encircling shore. Or Los Angeles, deliberately laid out for the car to enable Angelinos to live in separate individual communities rather than clustered around a centralised transport system. But the net didn’t develop like NYC, nor was it designed to facilitate independence like LA. It grew up more akin to London, with layer upon layer of dwellings from different times built one on top of another. With cul-de-sacs

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and dead ends and abandoned buildings clustered side by side with new developments. Or like Sydney, which sprawls and overlays itself around the bay, although the river does not contain the city. Rather, it seems the other way around. Sydney was built by convicts, the military, and entrepreneurs who had ventured into the new territories to try to make their fortunes – not so very different from the web, I hear you say. No matter what their origins, what most cities have in common are populations which are multilingual, multinational, multicultural, multireligious, multiskinned, each shaped by their own special configuration of multiplicity and distributed through different architectures and landscapes. Cities permit people to be themselves no matter how many selves that turns out to be. They allow us to experiment with unfamiliarity, they let us go a little wild, test the waters, succeed fantastically and fail miserably. To get a sense of the population of the internet, take all the complexity of a city, multiply the multiplicities multiple times, and you will eventually reach an approximation of the place where I and many others spend most of our lives. This multiplicity is important because the terrain of virtuality is sedimentary and comprised of many different elements. Every minute of every day fresh layers are set down, and as they arrive they immediately react with existing levels, causing further permutations, and for each new home that is built, each new character and morph that is born, each new object which is created, there almost always follows a number of refinements and polishes so that marriages, mutations and evolutions are ceaselessly organised and put into place. Other areas may remain untouched, and there are many hidden places which have lain undisturbed for years, especially on those MOOs whose housekeeping and recycling is less than perfect. Hidden away all over the place could be anything from simple objects, fossilised with disuse, or dwellings which have been abandoned and lost, to still-occupied homes, villages even, where small groups of people carry on their virtual lives independently of the busy areas around the main MOO metropolii. Out in the hinterland of cyberspace it’s like living in the backwoods,

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where small communities thrive despite a lack of running water or piped electricity. Residents put up with lag (time delay), frequent disconnections and occasional server crashes just to be able to participate in virtual realtime communities. Some say these places are just the cyber-remnants of the hippy dream (maybe they are) and you can’t help but wonder whether they’ll survive the expansion and sophistication of the net, where graphical and audio moos are already starting to take off. But there will always be people who prefer a fully textual environment, and who don’t want pretty pictures created by other’s minds when they can conjure up their own in this narrowbandwidth paradise of the imagination. To find these places – and to navigate our way around – we need maps which we understand and which show us the things we want to see. For example, a tourist map of Broken Hill selects for me some places of historical and cultural significance. A street map of Broken Hill shows me every single street in the town without attempting to guide my choice of where to go. A geological map of Broken Hill has no interest in the surface whatsoever, beyond what it might offer in terms of indications and obstructions to excavation. It shows me what’s underground – the deposits of minerals and the formations which dictate how difficult or not it might be to get them out. A weather map for Broken Hill pays attention to the ground only to allow us to connect our physical location to the Heavens. It maps the invisible – the atmosphere, the humidity, the possibility of rain or drought, the temperature, the wind direction, and the chance of clouds. A transport map will show me the roads and railways and airstrips plus their stopping points and termini. All of these are maps of Broken Hill and each one offers only what I decide I need. Unfortunately, there are very few maps of MOOs, and all of them are pretty useless, clogged as they are with too many egos and too many dimensions. My computer does a little bit better. It offers me a map of my files and directories based on the same idea as the London Underground plan, an abstracted representation of concrete reality. What’s more, I can reorganise the contents of my map of files, ordering them by size or date or name or a number of other attributes. I have got used to arranging my world according

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to my needs just by point-click-drag. Note the organic terms, incidentally. Root directory. Tree map. The rhizomatic form of the internet itself. Well, we have leaves of books and branches of libraries. Seed. Fruit. Stone. Twig. My desktop is also like a medieval map, not even pretending to show accurate distances or locations but instead portraying a world based on the significance of things rather than any measured cartography - ‘here be dragons’, etc. Here be ye recycle bin. Even the internet itself can be mapped. As well as storing huge amounts of data, it also generates it in a self-reflective and narcissistic loop. Stare into the pool of numbers and what do you see? There are numbers relating to where and when people are online. Every time you log on, somebody somewhere is counting you. The resulting graphs and charts82 show (as if we didn’t know it) that the world is divided into two – (1) Europe and North America, who log on together at roughly the same time, and (2) most parts of Asia, who work while the others sleep. However, when condition (2) is operative the signals go dark because that side of the world is much less wired. (1) occupies and uses most of the world’s telecommunications and when it logs off the numbers shrink wildly. But ironically although Asia and the Third World may be largely unwired, they play a powerful role in the online life of the west because they make our machines for us and provide most of the hardware infrastructure which connects us via the web. They also pay a price which would be unacceptable in Western society. In his article ‘Capitalism, Computers and the Class War on Your Desktop’ Bob Hughes writes: ‘The machine on which I write this was massively subsidised by the sweat, tears, taxes and poisoned aquifers of the people of Taiwan, ○

82 See, for example, the Cyber Geography Research website managed by Martin Dodge at especially the fabulous Atlas of Cyberspaces . See also the very useful free data resources at TeleGeography

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Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and China. It was assembled in Taiwan’s notorious Hsinchu “science park”, into which $60 billion of public money has been pumped, and from which perhaps 40,000 tons of toxic water is pumped into local waterways every single day. Its silicon chips have consumed 700 times their own weight in water, hydrocarbons, toxic gases and solvents. Its hard disk was made in a factory in Thailand, where women have actually dropped dead at their work benches from lead poisoning . . .’.83 This highly detailed article spells out in graphic detail the consequences of our technologised lifestyle. Mapping the geography of connectivity shows us much more than dry inventories of machines – it illustrates the socio-economic power structure of the entire globe. It’s also possible to chart the terrain of a website itself. Most webpages have a number of links, or exit points, which lead to other pages which in turn contain more links and so on and so on. Imagine the size of the map! Imagine the crossroads and the junctions and the turnpikes! However, there are many software applications which manage intelligent agents who can track this spaghetti and loop it firmly into place. They crawl along the strands finding and fixing broken links, and identifying hotspots – sections of the site which are particularly popular. And they can locate and identify each user. They track your footprints as you wander through the forest of the web from one page to the next. Someone once said that we do not make a mark as we move across the web. They were thinking of the fact that we do not for example leave greasy thumbprints on a webpage as we may leave them on a print page, and that is true. But we do leave prints of a kind. And there are plenty of people who find a use for following them, although we would probably rather they didn’t. Prints are left not just by users, but by data too. Every time we move data around the net, whether it be sending an email, uploading and downloading ○

83 Bob Hughes ‘Capitalism, Computers and the Class War on Your Desktop’ trAce Online Writing Centre, 7 Nov 2003

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files, calling up a webpage or one of many other operations, the item is broken up into small packets of about 40 bytes each, and transported piece by piece from one router machine to the next. Think of ants moving a pile of sugar from Point A to Point B and reassembling it at its destination exactly as it was. Except that instead of making a direct journey, each grain of sugar must be checked in at a number of points along the way and at each check-in a message is sent back to Point A confirming its safe arrival. The trips between check-in points are called ‘hops’, and the time taken between each hop is counted in microseconds – if a hop takes too long, the connection times out and is lost. But to make matters even more complicated, the packets cannot travel direct to their location as the crow flies. Remember that we are not yet in a fully wireless world, and all of these machines are connected to each other by cable (or sometimes satellite). Plus, of course, they are all independently owned by different companies, so the route a packet takes is dictated by who else is in that particular network arrangement and where their router machines happen to be located. Traceroute84 is a technique used to follow this passage of data across the web. When the user sends an email, it is first broken down into packets which are then sent one-by-one to their destination. But they do not generally travel direct – they have to pass through hubs of exchange, and traceroute programs count how long the journey takes between each one. If a journey is particularly slow it means there are problems in that sector, and if a hub is out of service the data-packet will be seen to have not progressed beyond it. It is, effectively, stuck there until it finds another route onwards. For a system with no physical geography, the net is extraordinarily good at mapping itself, and a traceroute report builds its own cultural and poetic landscape. For example, a traceroute run from Bishkek, capital of the Kyrgyz Republic ○


‘A utility that traces a packet from your computer to an Internet host, showing how many hops the packet requires to reach the host and how long each hop takes. If you’re visiting a Web site and pages are appearing slowly, you can use traceroute to figure out

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aka Kyrgyzstan, to CNN.com shows how it passes through all the routing points along the way. But data packets don’t just travel haphazardly through thin air. In this case, it goes through two Kyrgyzstan routers, then three Russian routers, then spins around the Swedish-owned Telia network, passing through six Telia routers in all, then finally eleven Sprintlink routers. This is a slow package, taking a total of thirty hops altogether of which eight almost don’t get through. It’s a tough journey from Bishkek to Atlanta and takes thousands of milliseconds to achieve. Still, quicker than going by horseback ;) You probably never think about the journeys taken by your emails as you negotiate the byways of the internet. Indeed, you don’t even need to know about them. Router problems are not visible to us in the same way that we might be warned of a motorway crash ahead and offered detours. We just trust that our emails will arrive, but sometimes they don’t, and just to prove it Michal Zalewski has set up a Museum of Broken Packets, a kind of Lost Property Office. The purpose of this museum is to provide a shelter for strange, unwanted, malformed packets - abandoned

where the longest delays are occurring. The original traceroute is a UNIX utility, but nearly all platforms have something similar. Windows includes a traceroute utility called tracert. In Windows 95, you can run tracert by selecting Start->Run..., and then entering tracert followed by the domain name of the host. For example: tracert www.pcwebopedia.com Traceroute utilities work by sending packets with low time-tolive (TTL) fields. The TTL value specifies how many hops the packet is allowed before it is returned. When a packet can’t reach its destination because the TTL value is too low, the last host returns the packet and identifies itself. By sending a series of packets and incrementing the TTL value with each successive packet, traceroute finds out who all the intermediary hosts are.’ Webopedia.com Copyright 2003 Jupitermedia Corporation All Rights Reserved. You can do your own traceroutes at

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and doomed freaks of nature – as we, mere mortals, meet them on twisted paths of our grand journey called life. Our exhibits - or, as you wish, inhabitants - are often just a shadow of what they used to be before they met a hostile, faulty router. Some of them were born deformed in the depth of broken IP stack implementation. Others were normal packets, just like all their friends, but got lost looking for the ultimate meaning of their existence, and arrived in places we should never see them. Every time, we try to recover a unique history of their lives, and to make you understand how difficult it is to be a sole messenger in the hostile universe of bits and bytes. If you have uncommon, interesting orphan packets you’d like me to take care of, please contact me. Our reality is interesting enough, do not make up stories; and always look for a rational explanation first... Thanks :)85 How heart-warming to know that someone out there is looking after those vitally important emails we sent last year, not knowing that they would never arrive. And then there is the way we map the web with people and places of our choice. Our Address Book and Favourites list can be the only streetplans we need. We chart cyberspace by the people and places we already know. Meanwhile, the Temporary Internet Files folder is quietly storing away cookie data which allows a reverse lookup – somebody somewhere is mapping the

85 The Museum of Broken Packets, 21 Sept 2003 9 Oct 2003.

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internet using you as a triangulation point. The email address book is an essential element in the landscaping of our interactions with the world, both public and private. Despite our best attempts at organisation, most of us have never managed to store personal and business contacts separately, so they always end up in a single jumbled list. Over the years I have received several mails where the subject line is a person’s name and the body of the message informs me that the person is recently deceased and that this email has been sent to everyone in their address book. In one sense there is nothing new in this – it has long been common practice to search through paper address books after a death in order to alert people to the funeral etc - but in another sense the sheer anonymity and technology of it feels a little odd. A simple ‘Select All’, and your entire life is brought up in a single list which the sender can even choose not to read, but simply to paste into a Bcc line, write a short message, and click Send. You may already have heard that Y recently passed away. The family have asked me to inform you that the funeral will be at 2pm on xxx at xxx. Flowers may be sent to xxx. I am sorry to be the bearer of this very sad news. On occasions, people unfamiliar with the Bcc line will put all the addresses in the To or Cc line instead, so that the mail carries with it the name of every single person the deceased had ever seen fit to add to their contact lists. Some mail applications will even automatically add the name of everyone you have clicked Reply to anyway. Think of the huge lists. Think of the broken privacy. And the shock to some who may not realise this person was ever married, or had kids, or lived at X, or very often, did not know they existed at all. But people are not only identifiable by their email addresses. It’s common to have nommes de plume too - avatars in virtual worlds; aliases on discussion lists; nicknames on chat. Although these personas may appear to be casual in nature, they are often quite the opposite. An ostensibly silly name – Cat_Litter, The_Beautiful_Godlike_Being; ~pigshit~ or No.23 – can be the key to an

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individual’s serious personal life, one which may be lived openly across several virtual spaces, or with the utmost and dangerous secrecy. For example, in the Internet Relay Chat community, nicknames (nicks) and personalities are sacred, no matter how many of them you might have: Because participants can only identify other participants by their nickname, nicks become important social markers. As such, a basic convention is that nicks must be unique within a particular domain of IRC and the deliberate stealing and misuse of someone else’s nick is considered a serious violation of the minimal selfmade social rules of the IRC community. Of course, individuals can and do create multiple characters for IRC, each with a different nick. This encourages the fluidity and instability of personality in chat as people play out elements of their own personality that they would not necessarily feel comfortable doing in real life.86 Recently the peoplemaps of our mental worlds have been hugely expanded by the addition of individuals we used to know but have not seen for years. Websites like Friends Reunited87 which connect old school-friends were the sensation of 2001. Suddenly, you were delighted to grasp the opportunity to contact all those people who, twenty years before, you had been equally delighted to leave behind. There was a flurry of panic, however, when it became clear that ex-pupils were also using the sites to out bullying teachers and peers. Now it was their turn to stand up at the front of the class. What began as a positive reconstruction of social community gradually revealed itself as a disconcerting and sometimes frighteningly disruptive threat. Remember, we are in a binary environment, and so for every positive there must be a negative. ○


Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin, Mapping Cyberspace (London: Routledge, 2001), 144.


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15. Net haikus - to be found all over the web . . . Your file was big. It might be very useful. But now it is gone.

With searching comes loss And the presence of absence: “My Novel” not found.

The Web site you seek, Cannot be located, but Countless more exist.

A crash reduces Your expensive computer To a simple stone.

Program aborting: Close all that you have worked on. You ask far too much.

You step in the stream, But the water has moved on. This page is not here.

Yesterday it worked. Today it is not working. Windows is like that.

Out of memory. We wish to hold the whole sky, But we never will.

First snow, then silence. This thousand dollar screen dies so beautifully.

Serious error. All shortcuts have disappeared. Screen. Mind. Both are blank.

Despite the sprawling topography running through my mind, in physical terms the rectangular view from the window was fast becoming my only world. At mealtimes I left my tiny compartment to socialise and chat for a while, but I was very glad to return to the small landscape of this private space. Measuring by eye, I estimated the size of the window at approximately 4 feet wide by 2 feet 6 high. At that point in the journey its frame held wide dry river beds of pure smooth red sand and clumps of greygreen saltbush. I ran an audit of my private space:

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a foldup table a foldup seat (also doubled as a footrest) an armchair with movable arms a pulldown bed a mirror light a main light a night light a reading light a selection of narrow cupboards and storage a fold-down lavatory a fold-down wash-basin a vanity shelf a mirror a package of Indian Pacific toiletries a selection of white towels a radio a powerpoint Beyond the orderliness of the train lay the orderliness of the desert. The land might have been wild, but the occasional well-kept fences made it clear that every inch of it was owned by somebody. Now the hills had been left behind and the desert was flat and monotonous. A road ran alongside the track, and three pink and orange cockatiels followed it in unwavering flight. There was nothing else to look at Peterborough. A parched hot station in the middle of the desert. Most of the buildings were boarded up. A woman with a limping bulldog. A church. A level crossing with loud dinging alarm. ‘Beware of the dog’ sign.

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Corrugated iron everywhere. For Sale. For Sale. Then out into the open again. A windmill. A single bird. Red red earth. Skeletons of things, all kinds of things. The PA announced lunch and I jumped to realise I had been sitting all that time, just thinking and not writing, my notebook open in front of me but nothing getting done. The solitude was dropping me into meditative mode - it felt good, but it ate up the hours. It wouldn’t be long until we reached Adelaide and I had just been sitting there. Just sitting and thinking and missing my life online. Joining my fellow passengers for yet another meal in the dining car, I picked at my salad and thought about the connections between eating and surfing. Mealtimes, vital markers in the traditional working or leisure day, cease to have much importance online. These days, office workers seldom leave their desks during the lunch break, preferring instead to eat in situ whilst they travel cyberspace messaging their friends, checking out holiday deals, and looking for things to buy and bid for. The most popular break-time activity in the office is now online shopping. In this new mealtime environment, the things we eat while we surf the web must be quick to fetch, easy to hold, and slow to consume. Quick to fetch because you might miss something if you’re gone too long. You can type a quick AFK or BRB88 but you can’t be certain anyone will ○


AFK: Away From the Keyboard. BRB: Be Right Back. Just two of many acronyms used online. Some take the place of physical body language, whilst others facilitate the diplomacies (e.g. IMHO: In My Humble Opinion) and aggressions (e.g. RTFM: Read The Fucking Manual) of text-based interactions.

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notice it so it’s best to be on the safe side and get something that’s fast. Potato chips, chocolate bar, maybe even an apple . . . but no, not an apple. The trouble with fruit is that it’s messy. Think of the damage a juicy Braeburn might do to your keyboard. The best way might be to core and slice it first so you can just pop pieces into your mouth with no mess but that takes a while to do – several minutes probably. Grapes are a practical alternative, preferably seedless so none get stuck between the keys. Cereal is good. Quick to prepare as long as there’s a clean bowl around and some cold milk, and reasonably nutritious too. As for drinks – hot drinks slow you up unless someone delivers them to your desk. I would suggest bottled water and fruit juice, beer, or canned soda. If the person you’re online with is particularly special you might choose wine, hard liquor, or even champagne for a synchronous toast. But of course, with regard to this speed thing, it really doesn’t matter if you do go AFK for a while because in a chatroom or a MOO you can always scroll back to read what people were saying when you were gone. And if the conversation is really important to you, you’ll be logging it anyway so that you can re-read the transcript later. In that sense the whole thing is much less transitory than a flesh conversation. But still, if you stay away too long you lower your level of input and that can be a pain. Remember, e who does not post is invisible. Easy to hold – well, this is the fruit problem again. Typists need tidy food which can be picked up in morsels and popped into the mouth. Knife and fork food is no good – which hand would you type with? Fork alone is ok but then you need to hold the plate. (If you lean across the keyboard too far something is bound to go astray.) Wet finger foods like dips are problematic because they drip. Spoon food is easiest – yogurt can be eaten quite fast and cleanly. Avoid soup unless in a cup. Sandwiches are fine as long as no shredded fillings – have you ever tried to get bits of chicken out from between the keys? Toast is nice but crumby. Bagels are ok as long as you don’t load them too high, and whatever you do, don’t let the jelly fall off. Slow to consume because obviously you don’t want to have to leave the machine again in the near future when it takes so much effort to orchestrate a

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snack. Also, the longer time you give yourself to eat it, the greater the possibility that you might even just taste one or two mouthfuls. It’s easy to become so absorbed in what’s going on in the screen that you forget to notice you’re putting anything inside your mouth. It’s a good idea to try not to do that. Try to notice the taste of at least one morsel. Stay a little connected with the body if you can. After lunch I dozed for a while, eventually waking up to landscape which looked almost English. For a moment I thought I was home again amongst the sheep meadows but there are certainly no black and yellow ‘Kangaroo’ danger signs on the roads! We were now en route from Peterborough to Adelaide. No more steaming forest. No more arid red desert. But huge flat fields of sheep. Extensive cornfields, now just newly harrowed and sown. Calm low mountains in the distance. Tidy well-kept fences and hedgerows. Small groups of sheep cluster togethered in the centre of green fields. Silver grain silos catch the sunlight. The houses in Sydney were clapboard. In the desert they were corrugated iron. Now they were stone. We passed through Mallala and eventually reached first green fields and then the outskirts of Adelaide. Unlike the other major cities of Australia, which were built with convict labour, Adelaide was a social experiment. In the early days of colonisation it had been the norm to give away so-called ‘waste land’ free to newly-arrived colonists, but this resulted in an imbalance of too many land-owners and not enough labourers. This practice was changed by the Englishman Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who proposed that the ‘waste land’ should be sold in lots to those willing to develop it. Wakefield had conceived the idea during the 1820s whilst serving a three-year prison sentence in England for attempting to marry an

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heiress by trickery. Already familiar with the concept of theft by abduction, it was a natural move for him to abduct lands from the indigenous people of South Australia in order to sell them for profit, and of course this thinking was completely in line with contemporary European attitudes to aboriginal (non)rights. Although the experiment failed at first, by the 1840s it was beginning to generate money for the settlers and by the 1860s the start of the boom at Broken Hill brought spin-off industries and communities which grew into a stable local economy based around Adelaide. It is often said of indigenous First Nation peoples that they lost their lands through an inability to conceptually possess them in the first place. This is reminiscent of Thoreau’s poet, who can own a farm simply by imagining it and commemorating it in verse, and it also recalls the early days of the internet when all code was free to make with it what you will. Currently there is a massive struggle for ownership on the web. One of its most distinctive qualities is that by default it makes everything free, and whilst the word free connotes social improvement to some, it connotes economic loss to others. It all depends on what you mean by free. Richard Stallman, the principal author of the GNU free software system upon which the more famous LINUX system is founded, gives a very clear definition of what he means by free: ‘The explanation for “free software” is simple – a person who has heard “free speech, not free beer” will not get it wrong again’.89 Using Stallman’s deceptively simple analogy, it’s perhaps easier to understand that indigenous people might think about the land in terms of ‘free speech’ whilst colonisers think ‘free beer’. There are important ecological implications here. Just as some people interact with the land and always replace what they take, so free software, or ‘open source’, developers create code collaboratively, maintain it, and make it ○


Richard Stallman, The Free Software Definition Copyright (C) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, Free Software Foundation, Inc., 59 Temple Place - Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111, USA, 10 Oct 2003.

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available to all. Others take from the land without replenishing it, and draw ideas from the common resources created by coders then package and sell them. And just like Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the latter tend to get rather wealthy on the practice. But the internet continues to confound attempts to privatise it. It just seems to belong to too many people: The World Wide Web is a collaborative venture and a ‘creation of volunteers’, said Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist credited for inventing the Web in 1989. ‘In developing the Web as a volunteer, I was not alone’, he told a webcast at a UN open doors event late Sunday in Geneva via video conference link from Boston, where he directs the World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Web, he said, was ‘developed by volunteers all over the world’. He said he started out the idea by putting out some software on the Internet. ‘It was picked up by people, who just like me, were really doing it on the side . . . The Web is a grassroots thing. I was not the only person at all, by a very long way, to put in volunteer time’.90 In fact, much of the web is still run by volunteers, people who donate their time and skills because they are committed to their online communities and want to contribute to this new life.

90 Frederick

Noronha [CC] World Wide Web is ‘creation of volunteers’: Berners-Lee 1 Nov 2001 10 Oct 2003.

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Like the alphabet, code in its broken-down components is free. How could it be any other way for either of them? Imagine if you had to pay royalties every time you wrote the letter ‘Z’ or ‘S’ – the entire literacy system would collapse! Imagine how much it would cost you to write just a shopping list, let alone a whole book! Similarly, you can write pieces of code like and you don’t have to pay anyone. Also, you can put those items together into words or phrases, so not only are the letters Z and S free of charge, but you can also write ZEBRAS and nobody will make you pay anything. The equivalent in code might be to write a string which opens a hyperlink e.g. BBC. You don’t have to pay for that either. From here on in, it gets complicated. If I combine lots of letters and make lots of words then collect them all together – as in this book for example – the book can be published and several people including me will, hopefully, earn money from it. If you buy a copy, you can install it in your brain (read it) then give it to your friend, who can install it in her brain and then perhaps give it away to a charity shop where it will be resold to someone else, or leave it on a bench somewhere as part of the new fashion for releasing books into the wild91 and the cycle will continue. If, two years later, something comes up which reminds you of my book, you might want to think about it some more, and that is free of charge. And if you want to scribble in the margins and change words or cross bits out, that’s ok too.92 Not so with software. If I combine lots of strings of code and collect them all together – as in the word-processing software purchased to write this book, for example – the ○

91 92

If you want to republish parts of it, however, that becomes a different story. No space here for those complexities.

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software can be produced and several people including me will, hopefully, earn money from it. But if you buy a copy, install it on your computer, and then give it to a friend to install on her computer, I will sue both of you. I will also sue the charity shop for re-selling without the proper permissions and licensing agreements. In addition if, two years later, something comes up which reminds you of my software and you want to use it some more, you may find that your licence has expired and you will need to pay me again before I will provide you with a new activation password. And if you try to change any of the code in the programme to make it work better or faster, you will find that I have encrypted it so that you cannot get in. No scribblings in the margin, no alterations, are allowed. If you believe this is not a fair comparison because software is more like a tool than a book, think of your power drill. Do your friends have to buy a separate licence every time they borrow it? If the software I created was ‘free’, or ‘open source’, you would be able to alter it to your heart’s content, and although the licensing system might still exist it would be much simpler and almost certainly cheaper. But that’s not all. If I combine lots of letters and make lots of words then collect them all together - as in this book for example - the book can be published online and nobody, including me, will make any money from it at all. If you come across the url, you can email it to your friend who can read it, print it out, give it away, and alter it to her heart’s content. If she wants to download the entire file and re-sort the words and letters into entirely new meanings, that’s ok too. Nobody – except perhaps my ISP –will make any money from it, and no cash will be exchanged at any point. This is called ‘copyleft’ and it drives print publishers wild. Another name for it might be ‘free speech’. The print world is already sewn up by corporate gigantism, but the web is currently providing no more than a very slippery foothold for those publishing corporations intent on finding ways to make money from it. However, for the moment at least it remains the province of experimentalists and, as Mark Amerika observes: ‘There are very few innovative writers or artists today who are able to survive simply by selling their “intellectual property” to the multi-

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national corporate sponsors located throughout the global economy’.93 A recent development to watch, however, is the Creative Commons Web application, developed to help people dedicate their creative works to the public domain or retain their copyright while licensing them as free for certain uses, on certain conditions.94 Perhaps the most famous example of the gift economy of the web is the Napster controversy. In Sonic Boom, John Alderman explores the global impact of people being able to give each other things for nothing: ‘The groundbreaking ability of people across the planet to freely share information is changing the world and our culture, and this presents a scary prospect for those hoping to make money in exchange for the time and resources invested in producing and marketing to that culture. If a band and its producer are accustomed to spending a year and several hundred thousand dollars recording and touring to promote a record, it’s easy to see how they might fear the new ability of anyone to send a copy of whatever they like, for free. Unlike illusionary changes in styles and personae, or even corporate acquisitions and mergers, this fundamental shift changes even the form that music takes. Digital distribution means that music is no longer tied to an object such as a record, tape, or CD, but becomes, as it is being shared and consumed, something more ethereal. Depending on how you look at it, in the online world, music has been either stripped or liberated from its body; only its soul remains, its digital code. If a record company has spent millions to develop and control the works of musicians, banking on their value as consumer goods – marketable, singular objects – company officials might be shocked to discover what they hope to sell and control has become pure information, flowing freely around the globe’.95 ○


Mark Amerika, Culture Without Lawyers: Does Art Want To Be Free? 1999 The trAce Online Writing Centre 10 Oct 2003. 94

95 John Alderman, Sonic Boom (Fourth Estate, 2001) 8 Aug 2001 8 Oct 2003.

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Like music, writing can also be given away free online, but the traditional literary public is perhaps more wary than music fans of accessing anything which has not already passed through the filter of a publisher’s selection process. Have we really lost the confidence to decide for ourselves whether a text is worth reading? The answer seems to lie in a willingness to ride a little way down the path without stabilisers on your bike. It’s not so scary. After all, when Peter Brooke established his experimental theatre company at the Parisian Theatre Bouffe du Nord, they performed free of charge for three years in order to liberate themselves from the demands of the audience. They went by the dictum of ‘People who want to pay can go to the places where they can pay’. Today, art on the web is at a similar place. There is no deal struck with the readership, and no assurance of quality in exchange for the user’s time or money. If you find the work interesting, you hang around. If you don’t, you click on to somewhere else. What could be more simple? It all comes down to how we divide up our resources. Back to the countryside again. In eleventh century England, much of the landscape was wooded and open to all. Historian W.G. Hoskins writes ‘Thousands of square miles were still untouched by plough or beast, thousands more only half-used. The rich natural sources of mineral wealth had hardly been scratched. Great tracts of forest, moor and fen lay awaiting reclamation by pioneers . . . England must have seemed one great forest before the fifteenth century, an almost unbroken sea of treetops with a thin blue spiral of smoke rising here and there at long intervals’.96 But by the 1400s, the somewhat random system of obtaining a livelihood from the forest had been tamed by economics. Peasants had to buy licences permitting them to make assarts (wood-clearances). Assart licences were a natural product of Forest Law, created by the invading Normans after they took control in 1066. Previously, the Anglo-Saxon kings had owned their own ○


W.G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 86.

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Royal hunting-parks which were guarded and protected from poachers, but the Normans saw it the other way around – they decided that instead of separating off pieces of private land, they would make most of the countryside Royal and subject it all to Forest Law. It is said that by the time of Henry II, one-third of the whole of England was Royal Forest. However, this widespread ownership and control did not necessarily stifle growth and development, because as long as the peasants paid the necessary taxes they were free to clear, farm and develop the land as they liked. It’s just that there were an awful lot of taxes. The Lord of the Manor regulated everything and charged for everything. He decided the price of bread and beer (definitely not free beer!) and brewers and bakers would be brought before the court and fined if they did not keep up with their licence payments. He also owned everything that happened to wander into the manor, including stray animals. In my own village, on November 24th in the year 1411 Henry le Par was fined for selling a swarm of wild bees he just happened to come across – his error lay in not handing them over so that the Lord of the Manor could sell them instead. The Lord was also responsible for the general well-being and quality of life in the community, and so in April the following year, the whole village was threatened with a fine of 12 pence unless it cleaned up the mud in the streets by the next court meeting. These days we just complain about it online at the village message-board. My local Courts took place on a hill overlooking the village, now a golfcourse. There is a public footpath along the crest of Court Hill and I walk there sometimes, but the golf-course is private land and I’m not allowed to step inside unless I pay a membership fee. Similarly, I do not allow anyone to walk into my back garden uninvited. But you are permitted to look at my website97 for no charge : ) Natural resources which appear to belong to everybody and nobody – like ○


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trees and bee-swarms, to quote just two examples – always seem to attract novel ways of exploitation which are often so apparently meaningless that we can hardly believe them even as we shell out the money. The Normans simply said ‘that forest is mine, you’ll have to pay me to go in it’ and, after backing up that audacious claim with some military hardware, they soon brought the concept into public understanding. Why, of course they own the trees! After all, someone has to! By the same exercise of the imagination, some of us seem to believe that there are people in Africa we have never heard of who will confer on us millions of $$s. Well, of course! Think of all those unclaimed safety deposit etc. It makes perfect sense. As do the chain letters surely somebody somewhere must benefit from them . . . Fwd: You have to read this. It’s so cool. Need some extra $$$ for the summer? Sure we all do. This program has been going on for 15 summers, by mail, then e-mail. It is really very simple. Attached to this message is a tracking program. Every person you send this message to, you earn $10.00. If they send it to someone else, you earn another $5.00, so on and so on. So basically, the more people you send this to, the more $$$ you will earn. This is funded by National Banks everywhere, that believe that summers should be fun for children, the world’s future and should learn how to manage $$$. Real stories: Okay, I was 19 when I received this letter two summers ago. I was just starting up my own DJ business, and I needed some extra money to get my business started. So I thought, What the heck, I’ll send it to my friends. I sent it to only 10 of

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my friends, who each sent it to their friends. I never send these letters, because I don’t believe in them. The next month, I received a check for $500.00 in the mail. Now my DJ business is well known throughout Kentucky, and I’ve had a great life, ever since I sent this to my 10 friends. All it took was five minutes! Russell Wayman, age 21 I received this letter ten years ago. I had just gotten my e-mail account, and I hated these letters I kept getting, so I deleted this message. In a week, my mother came down with a serious case of skin cancer. I was pretty poor at the time, and had just gotten fired from my job. My mother needed money for her operation, or else she’d die from cancer. My husband and I didn’t know what to do. His monthly income just paid our necessary bills, like electricity and water. That day, when I checked my e-mail again, this same letter had been sent to me again. My mom was about to die, so I decided I’d try anything. So that day I sent it out to 100 people I had met online, and my friends. My mother had been moved into critical condition, and was at the brink of death. A week later, I received a check in the mail for $1,000,000.00, enough money for my mothers operation. She is well now, thanks to this letter. Sarah Murphy, age 43 As you can see, all you need to do, is send this out to as many people as you can. From a week to a month later, you will receive a check in the mail for a certain amount of money, depending on how

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many people you sent it to, and who they sent it to. Good luck, and await the check!98

16. If one were called on to identify the hall-mark of the years which followed the Black Death after 1385, it would be that of a neurotic and all-pervading gloom. The European of this period lived in constant anticipation of disaster (and) perhaps the factor which contributed most towards his demoralization was his almost total ignorance of the workings of his world. From the tiny patch of fitful light which played within the circle of their comprehension our forefathers stared aghast into the darkness. Strange shapes were moving, but what they were they did not know and hardly dared to speculate; strange sounds were heard but who could say from where they came? Everything was mysterious, everything potentially dangerous; to stay still might be perilous, to move fatal.99 Every Spring there is a hysteria of newly-fledged sparrows in my roof-space – I can hear them yelling for food even at night. I’m never sure what to do. They screech so long and hard I wonder whether their parents have gone missing, ○


David Emery, ‘Further Adventures in Email Tracking’ 8 Dec 1998, Urban Legends and Folklore 10 Oct 2003.


Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape, 117.

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whether they are starving up there in the darkness. But I don’t know how to deal with this. I imagine the possible scenarios, the worst of which is that I insert the special pulling-stick into the drop-down loft-door in the ceiling of the upper landing and gently pull it downwards and open - but as I tug on it, a mess of feathers and sticks fall onto my head. The nest has been built on the actual door itself and when I open it they tumble down, showering me with screeching skinny birds all beaks and claws as they fall to their deaths before I can assimilate what is happening. Or the nest is some distance from the trapdoor and I manage to climb up and find them only to disturb the parents who leave the roofspace never to return and the fledglings starve to death and it’s all my fault. Or I slip on the ladder and knock myself out and when I come round my leg is broken and I cannot move and people come to the door then go away again because they think I’m not in and I slowly waste away all alone on the upper landing. And the birds make nests in my hair. When I was a child I always imagined my father had died on his way home from work. Always my father, never my mother. Even today I can point to the road bridges where, in my imagination, his car ran into the central support and smashed full-force into the white concrete. I can remember the ambulances and flashing lights, the phone call, the weeping and the blood. The things that have happened in my head are so painful I can hardly bear to remember them. And the fact that none of them actually ‘happened’, but were simply ‘imagined’, takes away none of their power. More as a child, and less often now I am older, I inhabit a world of horrific life-changing non-existent disasters. Read Patrick Susskind’s novella The Pigeon. A man worries all day about the pigeon he found in the hallway of his apartment block when he woke that morning, but by the time he gets home . . . well, I direct you to the book. Although the sparrow problem happens every year I never do anything about it and the crying up there above my head continues into the night until finally one day it won’t happen any more and I will probably never know why. Computers cause us huge amounts of anxiety and often let us down at the worst possible times. Who has not experienced the crucial document lost in an

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inexplicable manner and always at 1am? Or the online presentation which just won’t load? Or the vital email which continues to bounce no matter how many times you resend it? Or the much feared blue screen of death? In adapting to the frustrations of this mechanical environment where things can so often go wrong we develop a mentality which is flexible and accommodates, nay expects, failure. Moments of completion are so often frustrated. You never seem to get to the end of what you’re doing. Something always – always – goes wrong. I used to get very stressed by computers but now I am totally sanguine because I have found the solution, and it is this: Having largely given up on the fantasy of Heaven (and about time too), we have replaced it with the fantasy that it is in the true nature of technology for things to work. This is of course entirely erroneous, but we cling to it as we used to cling to angels. And when technology lets us down we suffer acute and childish disappointment. Suddenly the entire system is seen as worthless. Our faith is gone. But revise this thought. The truth about technology is that it breaks down. How can it not, with so many working parts? What the hell do you expect from such intricacy? Start to see it this way, and suddenly your glass is half-full instead of half-empty. This might seem a trivial notion but it’s integral to living comfortably with technology. It’s obvious that not only are hardware and software extremely complex animals, but these machines are presented to us with maximum opportunities for throwing a spanner in the works, so that even if the system operates perfectly there are plenty of chances for human error to screw it up. Just think for a moment about how easy this is to do . . . consider, for example, the ‘format’ command. The word’ format’ sounds like something positive, right? Shaping, structuring, forming, that kind of thing. But what it actually means is ERASE. Formatting a disk means erasing ALL THE DATA from that disk. And you can never get it back. Now, this is very handy when you want to clean off a few old floppies to reuse them. Slip them into your disk drive one at a time, find

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Drive A in Explorer, right click and choose Format and bingo your floppy is clean as a whistle. Great stuff. But what if your hand slips and instead of clicking on A: you click on C: ? And you don’t even notice you’ve done it. And you rightclick, choose Format – and bingo! All the contents of your hard disk right down to the actual operating system itself are gone and you will never get them back. Never. This is finito. All you have now is a prettylooking empty box. Well, ok, I’m exaggerating. You can reinstall your operating system and start all over again with what will be effectively a brand new machine. But unless you’ve previously backed them up all your data, all your email, all your documents, all your home movies are gone for ever. Now, is this a wise design feature? Should the command ‘format’ be changed to something more appropriate like ‘devastate’? Was the person who named this function the same character who thinks it’s ok to have 2 entirely different meanings for the word explorer? Or is it just generalised language insanity? This is most definitely a human system error. If humans cannot communicate meaning effectively to each other, how on earth can they translate the language of machines? When we work with computers we work with systems which (like us) are susceptible to error, both human and machine, and rather than fight this obvious fact we should accommodate it in our expectations. We should accept that we are prey to misdirected emails and to losing data which has not been properly saved or backed up, or accidentally deleted, or mis-named and then mis-filed, never to be found again. We should acknowledge that we are vulnerable to occasional loss of connection between the machine and its peripherals (vis. cartoons like this one: Computer: ‘Printer cannot be found’. Irate User, pointing frantically at printer: ‘It’s there, you idiot, it’s there!’)100 ○

100 Jacky Fleming, The Communications Revolution: No. 1 10 Oct 2003.

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And modems which refuse to hardware handshake, And scanners gone blind, And sound systems gone deaf, And movies frozen in mid-gesture. Add human error to the occasional mental instability of the machine and we have a recipe for constantly imminent disaster. The only way to deal with this is to accept it gracefully, give thanks when things go right, and be prepared to calmly reboot as many times as might be necessary to retain mutual sanity. As you press CTRL-ALT-DEL, or push the tip of your biro into the tender hollow of the reset button, think of rebooting not as an infuriation but as a chance for both you and your computer to take a breather and gather your thoughts. This is a moment for reflection. It’s much more therapeutic than you yelling and your machine retaliating with yet another blue screen. As the Zen masters say, the obstacle is the path. The therapists of the computer age can be found at the end of a phone or inside the screen itself. On the phone, certain regional accents are known to have a calming effect. This is believed to be connected both to the degree of variance in the tone and the speed of delivery. Slow speech is (unfairly of course) often equated with low intelligence, and a flat voice with little variation is interpreted as boredom or lack of interest. Conversely, a lilting Celtic tone delivered at a reasonably fast speed makes the caller feel e is connected to an intelligent and efficient operative. In the UK, callers prefer Southern Irish and Northumbrian Geordie, whilst in the US, Jamaican and Virginia Tidewater accents are known to go down well. Most American call centres are located in the South and Midwest – Texas and Florida being the most common – but this figure is related not so much to accent as to the availability of a low-cost and renewable source of labour. Very often, call centre employees are trained to speak in a specified corporate accent, and sometimes they are trained to be someone else as well. For example, call centre employees in countries like India may already speak excellent English in the accent of the parent company, but their name can be a giveaway to their actual location, so that, for example, Anuna must change her name to Anne. It’s important that the caller feels e is

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contacting not a specific geographical location, but a corporation with its own individual and branded culture. A well-trained call centre operative can reduce your stress, be effective in helping you solve your problems, and make you feel loved all at the same time. In fact, it’s maybe not so very different from phone sex. To begin with, you have to be in front of your machine when you make the call. You’ll know that it’s going to be a good experience if the tech support person tells you e is running a simulation of your system and can see everything you can see. Once the scene is set and your needs are established, e will begin: ‘Click on Start — Settings — Control Panel —’

‘Have you done that?’ ‘Yes . . . ‘ ‘Now, can you see an icon called Network?’ ‘Yes . . . ‘ ‘Now click on that’ ‘OK.’ (a little breathlessly)

‘Have you done that? Will you describe to me what you can see?’ ‘It’s - oh - I’m so nervous. I don’t understand what’s happening . . .‘ ‘Don’t worry. I’ll go through it with you step by step. Now what can you see?’

‘Are you still there?’ ‘Yes, I’m sorry, I’m just . . . my hand slipped . . . ‘ ‘No problem. Can you tell me what you can see now?’ ‘Where?’ ‘In the Network window? Can you see ‘Configuration’?’ ‘Network window? Oh . . . I’m sorry . . . I was so nervous . . . it’s disappeared . . . I’m

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not very good at this am I?’ ‘Don’t worry. We’ve got plenty of time. Let’s begin again. Click on Start — Settings — Control Panel—’ Tech support can be fun, but it does usually involve live humans. There are a few recorded humans inside the machine too – for example the famous AOL audio tag ‘You’ve got mail!’ is the recorded voice of Elwood Edwards101 who has grown famous on the strength of it – but if you prefer interacting with machines you might try a bot or intelligent agent. Like the perfect lover, the intelligent agent learns what you like and then makes sure you get it, time and time again. A bot, on the other hand, does have some learning capacity but is generally of a much more limited nature. However, unlike humans, both bots and agents can be tirelessly reconfigured until they get it right. They can always be designed to your specification too, even in terms of how they look. The personal assistant most of us are familiar with is, of course, the MS Office paperclip. This cute little friend will pop up at the most opportune moments with helpful comments such as ‘It looks like you are trying to write a letter! Would you like some help?’ Now, some people do indeed hate this little pal, and have even been known to type abusive comments into its belly. Personally, however, I’m quite fond of it. I rather like it when my paperclip taps on the inside of the screen to get my attention, and its plaintive request ‘You have shut me down three times in this session – would you like me to leave your life for ever’ always brings a lump to my throat : ). The paperclip has elicited such strong feelings in users that some have created spoof sites with Preference Settings like ‘annoy me with that sodding paperclip (1)constantly (2)when I least expect it’102 or ‘the paperclip meets his ○

101 El Edwards, The Voice of You’ve Got Mail! 13 July 2002 10 Oct 2003. 102

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match’103 featuring ‘four well-deserved executions for the smarmy clipster’. Early in 2001 Clippy was finally laid to rest by Microsoft but soon there were moves to revive it104 and it still seems to be around. For those who really can’t stand it, it’s easy to get rid of. Just right click, select Options, and uncheck Use the Office Assistant. Users who cannot even manage that simple task should swallow their prejudices and acknowledge that they are exactly the kind of people it was invented for. The paperclip has evolved into a whole new species of cyber lifeforms which people not only download free but even pay good money for them to evolve on their personal desktops. All kinds of cyberpets have developed from tamagochis, the tiny keyring-sized mechanicals that lived and died at the whim of children who either fed and played with them or allowed them to starve to death. Now, we install them on our computers for the sole purpose of taking care of them just as we do our real pets and real children, and they constantly demand our cyberattention including cyberfeeding, cyberplaying, cyberbedtimestories etc etc. What a nightmare! I’ll stick with the paperclip, thanks. At least it knows its place and shoves off when it’s not wanted. That’s the kind of cyberpet I prefer – the kind that says ‘I can see you’re getting bored with me. Shall I go away now?’ Call centre support, bots, troubleshooting programmes – all are intended to provide personalised counselling in the event of computer-induced trauma, but at the end of the day, hardware and software failures are the least of it. After all, you can always take the machine down to the repair shop or, if it comes to it, throw it out and buy a new one. Or even smash them up. Search the web for badday.jpg and you’ll see what I mean. But you can’t do the same with your head, and living the virtual life is not always easy psychologically. Sometimes the speed and the anxiety can be just ○

103 104

MS Office Helper Not Dead Yet

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too much. In a sense, computers should be classed as a dangerous sport, only it’s your mind and not your body which is at risk. Surfing the web can be like walking in a jungle surrounded by hidden snipers. Sometimes you get hit. Sometimes you don’t. Oftentimes, you’re just watched and you never even find out about it. There are criminals out there and while you are celebrating your new-found webbiness, they are waiting to pounce on your wallet, your security, or worst of all, your mind.

17. WHAT WORRIES YOU ABOUT THE INTERNET?105 Access to personal information • Access to source materials not such a wide range as books • Access won’t be as freely available as a book from the library • Addictive and time consuming • Advertising • All the inaccurate information • Anonymity • Because it’s not monitored (which in a way is good) • Being sucked into distracting and non-relevant enquiries • Being too old to cope. I am not good with mechanical things. I tried to learn to use a word processor and realised I would never write another word. If I needed the Internet I would ask my son • Can be a time waster • Can’t benefit in terms of likely time spent on it • Can’t understand it • Changes the nature of human social contact • Chaos • Charges and computer ownership put the net out of reach to many. We need cheap access • Checking sources for research • Children accessing unsuitable material • Children meeting the wrong people • Complete lack of control over what’s published on it • Copyright infringement • Cost and complexity • Death of the book for more people • Decline ○


Responses to the trAce survey of UK writers and the internet, 2000. The question was ‘What worries you about the internet?’ See also ‘What excites you about the internet?’

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in royalties of print published work • Difficult to sift out material at the correct level for different age groups • Difficulty in getting control • Dumbs down • Dying of boredom with self-styled experts • Easy access it gives to children • Easy access to drugs/porn • Effect on public reference libraries • E-mails, spam – too much • Encourages zombie like addiction in the young • Erosion of copyright concept • Everything • Excellence failing to survive in a flood of vulgar, vacuous and even dangerous material produced to feed the ruling mass market • Exposes me to viruses and junk e-mail • Eye strain • Failures in technology when I’ve planned to work • Filtering out all the rubbish when searching, bad design, ecommerce security • Fraud • Getting known • Getting unwanted material • Government interference • How I overcome my resistance and how to spare the time to get information • I am more interested in the content of knowledge than the form • I don’t understand it. I don’t see the need of it • I don’t want a lot of unsolicited e-mails • I have enough trouble using my computer • I have not mastered my w/p despite a book of instructions. What would I make of the Internet (too old I suppose) • I suspect it will have the effect eventually of insulating/ isolating people one from another and society will fragment • I think children may learn erroneous facts • I wonder if for many people it is somewhat addictive, or too much is expected of it. Numerous misuses, dubious trade, pornography, unchecked mis-information and reprehensible pranks • I wouldn’t want my children to access violence, pornography, etc • I’m already swamped with reading and I don’t need any more, especially trivial and inaccurate information • I’m too old (84) to learn new tricks • Increasing Government controls (or attempts) • Information overload • Intrusion • It impinges too much into my reading, via magazines and journals and too many assume I have it, want it or need it - I don’t • It is overhyped • It is too accessible for pirates • It is unregulated, copyright infringements, it is socially divisive, it is expensive, it discourages social interactivity it encourages fraud, it is becoming too contested and more difficult to find specific information • It is used indiscriminately. It has great value but is for many people a mere toy • It reduces the attention span of its users to that of a goldfish • It would distract me • It would take up too much time • It’s all too difficult • It’ll get commercial and lose its spirit. Irresponsible use (terrorists and hard porn) • It’s a

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big time waster • Its banality • Its enormous power over the world’s most gullible. The generally unquestioning millions who will click in to be manipulated by the most unscrupulous people • Its facilitation and enhancement of paedophilia • Its increasing use as an educational tool • Its tendency to become compulsive. Its capacity for fraud and porn • Its time wasting potential • It’s too much led by advertising. Quality of content is very patchy. Sources are often unknown and may be unreliable • Its vastness • I’ve earned nothing from the net • Junk information overload • Lack of a paper trail • Lack of copyright control – your work is open to plagiarism • Lack of editorial control – easy availability of misleading or erroneous information presented as fact • Lack of historical context • Lack of physical contact between humans makes you less aware of the here and now • Lack of policing (e.g. racist and pornographic sites) • Lack of privacy • Lack of quality control over material made available, ‘published’ • Lack of quality control • Lack of regulation/ controls • Lack of security • Lack of updating of some sites • Loss of e-mails • Makes us sit behind a desk too much • May become dangerous • Misuse of my work, theft, and infringement of copyright • Most working people in the UK have little time to use the net unless in the course of their work • My lack of information about it • My lack of technical knowledge about it • My own skills and expertise are not sufficient • Neck strain • Need for constantly upgrading hardware to maintain access • No checks of accuracy of content • No editing policy makes it possible to satisfy ego & publish rubbish • No editors • Not censored – pornography • Not monitored • Not much, really, except perhaps any dangers in junk mail • Not policed – too much garbage. Too many opinions and not enough facts • Not properly organised – badly run • Not understanding it fully • Nut-cases taking up everybody’s time, too many ads on freebie access, some usage (e.g. porn) • Often difficult to access • Often inaccurate/out of date • On-going and start-up costs • Only my current limitations because it is still a fairly new resource to me. But could be a problem with inaccuracies on the part of the information providers • Overload of info • Paying for calls • Picking up viruses • Pirating • Poaching of previously published material • Porn – base instincts catered for too readily • Porn & the possibility of terrorist & anarchic groups benefiting from it • Pornographic websites and how to stop the children coming across them by accident •

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Pornography • Pornography hackers, theft (credit card), pornography, and paedophilia, criminal activities • Possibility of downloading viruses • Potential for time wasting • Quality of information • Reading difficulties of some web site texts • Reduces interaction • Reduces person to person contact • Reliability of information • Reliability of published material, the fact that it is undermining skills in more traditional areas of research i.e. how to find and use primary source material • Research potential limited by fact that content not vetted for accuracy • Return on investment • Scares me stiff • Security • Shallowness • Sheer quantity and lack of validation of information. Unwanted information being directly dumped at you • Slowness of access (even with fast connection), badly designed web sites, keener to show off than inform. I like plain sites • Slowness of loading and cost • So much on it is rubbish • Sometimes very slow and time wasting • Speed of change • Spending too long on it and getting a huge phone bill • Strangers accessing my personal files • Takes a lot of time better spent on creative work • Technicalities and cost • That for all the fuss it is more of a toy and except in certain jobs isn’t as useful as it pretends • That governments may seek to control it • That it breaks away from other literary media • That it lacks the process of intellectual scrutiny and winnowing of book and journal publication. It is often the equivalent of vanity publishing, it lacks the feedback that referencing provides. It is also used by people who are badly organised • That it will push out all the printed small journals • That mastering technical skill is time consuming and will sap my creative energy • That over-priced shares in dot com companies will crash and bring the global economy down with them • That people are tending to invest it with far more importance and influence than it merits • The amount of garbage on it • The amount of junk and ludicrous freedom it gives to individual people. In addition, the Americanisation of culture • The amount of pornography available • The assumption that speed is the paramount of importance • The availability of undesirable material to the young • The awful feeling that I’ve got to get with it • The bills • The clutter of advertising that confuses access to the material sought • The cost when being connected • The danger of wasting time trying to find information required when there are such inadequate services • The desecration of the English language into a series of Americanisms • The difficulties of separating

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the good stuff from the nonsense • The expense of setting up and the cost of using it • The fact that it is completely unregulated i.e. porn, charlatans, cons • The fact that some like Bill Gates have got rich from it • The fact that there seems to be no way to protect confidential material • The frequency with which it fails and I don’t know why • The illusion of communication • The inflated stock prices for the dot com companies • The Internet discriminates against the poor • The junk • The lack of availability of a high level identifier for personal domains • The mediocrity of information available • The pornography • The real potential may be swamped by fake use/abuse • The risk of losing real book shops • The risk of screen obsession • The sheer volume of rubbish posted • The system getting overloaded. People use it as a substitute for human contact • Time wasting • Too complicated • Too much advertising • Too much information • Too much junk/ irrelevance/American input • Too much naive fascination with techno-realities and declining interest in content • Too much rubbish for you to be able to find the good stuff • Too much time sitting in one place. No need to get out there • Too vast therefore time wasting commercial use, ability to defraud in widest sense. Interference from hackers • Unpoliced • Unregulated creation of underclass of those not able to get online. It’s a global obsession to the exclusion of many other activities like reading and writing • Unregulated sites • Unreliable information • Validity of informative material • Various contamination • Very inefficient research method • Very time consuming • Vicarious living, bad for eyesight • Viruses (I have crashed once) • Viruses. System incompatibilities • Waste of the individual in searching • Who knows? Too much rubbish.

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18. Virus A program or piece of code that is loaded onto your computer without your knowledge and runs against your wishes. Most viruses can also replicate themselves. All computer viruses are manmade. A simple virus that can make a copy of itself over and over again is relatively easy to produce. Even such a simple virus is dangerous because it will quickly use all available memory and bring the system to a halt.106 One day she opened her inbox to find a mail that said Open Me. So she did. It read: Hello. By opening this mail you have released the BlahBlah virus. All the love letters you ever wrote have just been opened, digitally read, and resent to different lovers. All the gossip you passed on about your boss has been forwarded to her, and all the porn sites you stored in your secret H drive have been sent to your neighbours with your face airbrushed into the images. But never fear. The attack is now over, and although you will suffer some embarrassing social consequences, you will overcome them and your life will be better and more honest for the experience. Tomorrow you will receive a mail with the subject ○

106 Webopedia.com Copyright 2003 Jupitermedia Corporation All Rights Reserved.

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line ‘Heal Me’. This mail contains the code you require to purge your system of the BlahBlah Virus. Be happy. The next day her neighbours weren’t speaking to her and every single one of her lovers had emailed their departure notes. As she carefully filed away each one, she received a mail with ‘Heal Me’ in the subject line. She was uncertain as to whether this was a trick, but decided to risk it. After all, healing is such a wondrous thing. She opened it. It was a voice mail. It whispered: Hello. By opening this mail you have released the BleeBlah virus. All the food in your fridge has gone suddenly rancid and your dog just ran under a car. You have forgotten to pick up your kid from school and World War III has broken out down the street. Your lipstick has turned into the colour which suits you least and all the A’s you ever got at school have been regraded to E’s. But never fear. The attack is now over, and although you will suffer some painful personal consequences, you will overcome them and your life will be better and more honest for the experience. Tomorrow you will receive a mail with the subject line ‘Fix Me’. This mail contains the code you require to purge your system of the BleeBlah Virus. Remember – tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life. In the morning her kid still hadn’t returned from school and her boss’s secretary had called to say her services were no longer required. She couldn’t bear to look in the mirror, her lipstick was so vile. The ‘Fix Me’ email arrived but should she open it? Third time lucky, she thought. She clicked on the tiny envelope and immediately the front doorbell rang.

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‘Hello,’ it said, as it wiped its feet on the mat, ‘By opening that mail you have released me. I am the BleeBlee virus. This will be my easy chair. That will be my breakfast. Please make sure the eggs are over-easy. You’ll enjoy having me here, and although you’ll suffer some annoying personal consequences, you will overcome them, and your life will be better and more honest for the experience. I think we’ll be happy together.’ We’re terrified of infection, even online where bodies don’t exist. Most webbrowsers have a range of security settings to ensure that your pc and your emotional health are protected from destructive or offensive content. Couple that with a good virus checker and you can live a clean and pristine existence online, secure in the knowledge that the Badlands are safely on the other side of a very high fence. At least that’s the idea. In practice, unpleasantnesses sneak through all the time. But the notion is a good one. And if only life were like that. Viruses. I’m thinking right now of the foot-and-mouth epidemic in England in early 2001 when it was essential to set your security preferences to Very High. Walks in the countryside were reduced to being walks next to the countryside as ramblers trudged down metalled roads, peering wistfully over the fence at sheep meadows and cattle pastures beyond. The ancient right of British walkers to use public footpaths was curtailed by foot-and-mouth disease, leaving the paths untrodden and overgrown. The nearest equivalent disaster was probably the Black Death of 1347. By the time it wore itself out after scourging Europe for three years, one third of the population was dead. With whole communities gone and no-one left to farm the land, cultivated areas were soon overgrown. Huge swathes of tended forests and pastures returned to being the sole preserve of animals and birds, and human voices were no longer heard. As the population gradually rose again, the paths and trackways came back into use, and 2001 in England

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may have been the first time for many that they had not directed the feet of walkers since the 14th century. In 2001, the smoking heaps of cattle and sheep in England were very reminiscent of the pyres of human corpses which were seen all over Europe 650 years before. Symantec, a leading virus software company, classifies the severity107 of computer viruses using a combination of three metrics: • Wild – the extent to which it is already spreading • Damage – the amount of damage it could inflict • Distribution – how quickly it spreads itself On each of the following occasions, and many more I cannot list here, viruses loaded themselves onto our bodies, or those of our animals, made copies of themselves (distribution), ran (wild) against our wishes, and brought our systems to a halt (damage): • The Black Death, bubonic plague caused by a bacillus virus called Yersinia pestis • Foot and Mouth, caused by a virus, genus Aphthovirus of the family Picornaviridae • The AIDS epidemic, caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus • The 2001 US anthrax attacks, using bacillus anthracis • The 2003 SARS epidemic108 Viruses have become bywords for contemporary society. FMD, AIDS, ILOVEYOU, NIMDA. Each penetrates the system – animal, human, machine – and works to multiply and spread disruption. Each causes panic. Each affects lives around the globe. Sometimes they cross over, so that in October 2001, a computer virus was discovered which used the fear of anthrax to penetrate users’ systems: ○



Caused by the previously unrecognized ‘SARS-associated coronavirus’ (SARS-CoV).

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Virus preys on anthrax scare A computer virus purporting to provide information about anthrax and its side effects has been discovered, computer security experts said on Tuesday. The new computer virus, technically a worm because it is self-propagating, is spreading through e-mail systems and instant relay chat channels on the Internet where people ‘talk’ in real-time, according to Steven Sundermeier, product manager at Central Command, which monitors corporate e-mail systems for viruses.109 So we worry about hygiene. We keep ourselves clean, we keep ourselves distant, we stick with people we know. We’re careful when we have sex, cautious when we get an email or package from an unrecognised source, meticulous when we buy food. We wash and scrub and disinfect, aware that we too could be carrying sickness on our boots, our genitalia, our computers. Some say that all these problems are caused by too much travel, too much cross-fertilisation, and that our networked society is to blame for all of the above and more besides. Travel spreads disease – TB, the common cold, HIV – and dis-ease. The sky contains SARS, deep-vein thrombosis and planes-asguided-missiles. Email and the web distribute infection. The postal service carries anthrax. Our minds are overloaded. We are trying too hard, doing too much. We cannot assimilate it all. It has to stop. We should all stay at home. Keep ourselves to ourselves. The centre cannot hold. Sometimes I wonder if this is actually true, and we should go back to living within a five mile radius of where we were born. Sometimes I really do wonder.


‘New virus preys on anthrax scare’, South China Morning Post 17 Oct 2001

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19. You know you are addicted to the Internet when . . . This list has been circulating the net for years. Use it to analyse the degree of your addiction. Just check as many as apply and total them up at the end: ■ Your bookmarks take 15 minutes to scroll from top to bottom. ■ You find yourself brainstorming for new subjects to search. ■ You refuse to go to a vacation spot with no electricity and no phone lines. ■ You finally do take that vacation, but only after buying a cellular modem and a laptop. ■ You spend half of the plane trip with your laptop on your lap ... and your child in the overhead compartment. ■ You turn off your modem and get this awful empty feeling, like you just pulled the plug on a loved one. ■ You refer to going to the bathroom as downloading. ■ You start introducing yourself as ‘smith@home dot com’ ■ Your partner drapes a blond wig over your monitor to remind you of what she looks like. ■ All of your friends have an @ in their names. ■ Your dog has its own home page. ■ You realize there is not a sound in the house and you have no idea where your children are. ■ You check your mail. It says ‘no new messages.’ So you check it again. ■ Your phone bill comes to your doorstep in a box. ■ You don’t know what sex three of your closest friends are,

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■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

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because they have neutral nicknames and you never bothered to ask (although PsychoBitch is a giveaway). You start looking for hot HTML addresses in public restrooms. You wake up at 3am to go to the bathroom and stop and check your e-mail on the way back to bed. You tell the cab driver you live at http://123.elm.street/ house/bluetrim.html. You actually try that 123.elm.street address. Your virtual girlfriend finds a new net sweetheart with a larger bandwidth. You tell the kids they can’t use the computer because ‘Mom’s got work to do’ and you don’t even have a job. The last girl you picked up was only a jpeg. You start tilting your head sideways to smile. You leave the modem speaker on after connecting because you think it sounds like the ocean wind ... the perfect soundtrack for ‘surfing the net’. As your car crashes through the guardrail on a mountain road, your first instinct is to search for the ‘back’ button.


] out of [ 25 ]

Less than 10 You’re probably not spending enough time online. Try harder. Turn off the TV, stop going out dancing, and log on more frequently. Between 10 and 20 An averagely good score but you could be taking it just a little more seriously. Be honest with yourself. Do you really log on *every* day? Even when you’re on holiday?

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20 and above Congratulations! It must have been quite an effort for you to tear your eyes away from the screen long enough to get over halfway through this book. Or are you emailing while you read? That’s the spirit! In 1970, sociologist Alvin Toffler published Future Shock, a book which would become one of the definitive fin-de-millennium texts. He did not predict the development of the web, nor the explosion of mobile phone technology, but he certainly identified the growth of the information society and the effect this would have on our mental models of the world. It was too early then for the term ‘virtuality’ but he did write this: ‘ . . . what is happening is not merely a turn-over of real people or even fictional characters, but a more rapid turnover of the images and image structures in our brains. Our relationships with these images of reality, upon which we base our behaviour, are growing, on average, more and more transient. The entire knowledge system in society is undergoing violent upheaval. The very concepts and codes in terms of which we think are turning over at a furious and accelerating pace. We are increasing the rate at which we must form and forget our images of reality’.110 How do we cope with these reality shifts, this phasing in and out of identity? After all, one of the most significant cognitive leaps of the 20th century was, in the very last decade, the move from viewing the computer screen from the outside to seeing it as a portal which can be entered and moved through. In the early days of both cinema and TV, many jokes were made about being able to communicate with the tiny humans inside. The notion that a TV set was in actuality a Punch-and-Judy box containing real shrunken people was a popular source of humour. It took a sophisticate to understand that these were just moving pictures with sound. The fact that some of it was occurring in real time, whilst other parts were recorded, was also hard to grasp but eventually ○


Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (London: Pan 1971), 147.

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we did all learn that really we were just looking at, not interacting with, the people on the screen. At first, of course, all TV transmissions were live, whilst in contradiction, all movies were recordings. This slithering between synchronous and asynchronous broadcasting continues today on the internet. With personal computers, and I’m talking here of the average home or office user in the 80s when many people started buying Amstrads and Macs and so on, it was still accepted that the screen remained a one-way experience. Networking was unknown to many of this new breed of users, but now that the internet has come into popular common use we have to do a conceptual turnaround back to those early TV days because now, hey! there really are people inside the screen and we really can talk to them! Although the internet is clearly a null space with no spatial reality, and the world wide web is just a collection of data linked together by computer code, and neither of them can be physically touched or inhabited, we still talk about getting into folders, going to websites, pointing at addresses. We meet inside chatrooms and virtual worlds. We put pictures onto webpages and into emails. It’s hard to shrug off the notion of being somewhere even though you haven’t actually moved. Although then of course there are those of us who really are on the move – the mobile phone callers: ‘I’m on the train, just outside London . . . ’ ‘I’m 20 miles away from Houston . . . ’ ‘We’re boarding now... talk to you from Paris . . .’ ‘I’m in a meeting . . . ’ ‘In the bath . . . ’ ‘Having lunch . . . ’ ‘On the beach . . . ’ ‘Just going out . . . ’ ‘Just coming in . . . ’ And online: ‘I’m at the site . . . ’

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‘Just bringing up ftp . . . I’m in!’ ‘See you in chat . . . ’ ‘Okay, I’ll put it in a mail . . .’ plus ‘I’m at home/the office/in a cybercafe . . . ’ ‘In my pyjamas . . . ’ ‘Grabbing a snack at the machine . . . ’ We’re used to disassociating our physical presence from our work and social roles. When we call someone on their landline we can be certain they are in the physical address connected to that number – an office, a beauty parlour, a home etc, but calls to our mobile phones and emails to our accounts reach us anywhere at any time. Some of us have managed to adopt the habit of two phones and two email accounts but since their usage very often gets switched over at some point it soon becomes clear that one of each tool is more efficient than maintaining two identities. And the price we pay for all that is constant 24/7 availability. There’s no doubt, though, that phones are much more intrusive than email and that’s why the protocol of saying where you are is so important. When someone calls you on your mobile, telling them where you are is a shorthand for informing them as to what kind of conversation they might expect to have with you at that moment. Similarly, although it used to be the case that a typist in a chatroom or MOO is likely to be in an office, or home, or college computer room, now they could be anywhere – in a cybercafe, logged onto a wireless computer on the beach, even telnetting in via a phone. But because that person has already logged on in order to be there, we know we are not catching them as unawares as we might be doing via a mobile phone. Online, because we are not hoping to make contact with someone at a physical address via a letter or landline call, our expectation is that all we need to connect with is the person themselves. We don’t really even need to know where their body is, except for the fact that the location of the body

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drives the type of engagement we can have with the mind, so in turn we have learned to be tolerant and to accept the fact that our correspondent might be distracted by the physical world going on around them. We can no longer expect to have a focussed and concentrated one-to-one interaction without considerable prior planning. Life has changed a great deal since the coming of the telegraph, because before that moment we could not move information any faster than we could move our own bodies, but today we push our thoughts into cyberspace and imagine that we can somehow squeeze our bodies in after them. Like the Borg, we live in a super-connected world of constant and multiple input. Our minds are always buzzing with other people. Names, addresses, words of all kinds are just so vitally important on the internet. When the name of someone or something is all you have, or all you can be, that word takes on its own very precious currency, and then the next most important thing is keeping it safe. This is about storage. Where you put your data, how you organise it, how you look after it, and how you retrieve it. For this we have directory structures, and on top of them we place a ‘desktop’ containing entry points to our files and folders. Does the desktop idea make conceptual sense? Many say it doesn’t, that it rose up as part of the development process but was not necessarily the best design choice. As Brenda Laurel points out in her definitive study Computers as Theatre: ‘Desktops – people didn’t use that word/concept but now they have accepted it and adjusted their sense of space to include it even though really it’s not like a desktop at all and never was’.111 But for the moment we’re stuck with it. My computer provides me with a desktop and encourages me to keep things on it, so I do. And I guess my brain has got used to understanding my files that way. But it really doesn’t need to. Sometimes I wonder whether these systems shouldn’t be a little less transparent. People glibly say ‘oh don’t worry – you can’t break it!’ but actually, you know, you can. In my early days I often deleted the wrong file ○


Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre (Reading, Addison-Wesley 1993), 127.

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and brought the whole system crashing to a standstill. And of course I would never have any idea of what I’d done or how to fix it. The fact is that we like to pretend this environment is all very smooth and user-friendly and that it makes our lives a million times better but this is a lie. It was Apple Macintosh who first came up with the idea of calling what we see on the screen a ‘desktop’. Now the whole world takes this for granted even though conceptually it never quite fitted and we had to adjust our minds to it rather than it being born from our thinking. Laurel explains how the notion of interface metaphors was introduced to provide users with a conceptual scheme that would guard against the kinds of misunderstandings which lead to faulty commands and from there to errors and breakdowns. (See, you can break it!) But, she observes, even ‘good’ metaphors don’t always work, as she describes how an early survey of Mac users showed that none used the word ‘desktop’ when talking about their systems. But the term had already been put into use, so what had to happen was that, far from creating words which reflected users’ conceptualisation of the interface, the designers had ended up creating new words for new concepts and then teaching the users to use them. Today ‘desktop’ is familiar usage, but we did not grow it out of our existing experience of the world, or even of machines. It was planted for us, and now it has taken root. I remember moving from a dos-based system which was simply a set of directories to navigate through, to this thing called a desktop containing little pictures called icons which meant absolutely nothing to me but which were supposed to make my life easier. Well, they didn’t. But they wouldn’t adjust to me so in the end I had to adjust to them and now yes I too have a desktop just like everyone else. Today I use it to access familiar old Explorer but I’ve discovered a few other ways to view my data too. Check out, for example, SequoiaView.112 As you may guess, it’s based on ○


Created at the Faculty of Mathematics and Computing Science of the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven.

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the idea of a tree and it comes from the notion not of a tree directory, as in Microsoft Explorer et al, but a tree map. The designers have also taken it one step further with a graphical patterning looking like heaps of exotically coloured cushions. Each cushion is an accurately proportional representation of a section of your directory and its colour signifies what kind of file it is. Sound files, movies, documents, images and many more are translated into a rich boudoir of colour. Or look at The Brain,113 which allows you to create your own Personal Brain and import all your directories so that they come together in a massive and complex diagram of thoughts. You can click a button and ‘wander’ through your own thinking. You can ‘forget’ things and ‘remember’ them again. You can import old files from your directories and apply new ideas to them. The whole huge matrix is an ambitious attempt to recreate the subconscious mind in software. Some years ago the killer app was going to be HotSauce, a Macbased 3D navigation system in which you would ‘fly’ through your directories and through the internet itself just as if you were in a computer game. HotSauce didn’t make it, but work continues to find an improved method of navigation which will hotwire the contents of the machine to the contents of the network and with luck to the contents of our brains as well. Occasional contenders arise but as yet nobody has yet found the new Holy Grail of conceptual navigation, and anyway one wonders how it will be possible to wean users off the desktop now that we have finally grokked it. Back in real life, on the Indian Pacific, the view had turned into a narrow strip of darkness threaded by car headlights. It got dark so early there – barely 8pm and no moon to be seen in the dense blackness. In the middle of the night we passed through Port Augusta, once a clippership seaport but now stranded inland. In a past life the portal to the ocean, it is now the entranceway to the outback. Beyond it, nothing for ○


The Brain Technologies Corporation

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hundreds of miles to the north and to the west. Here, many years ago, the railroad builders scratched a survey line across the desert from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie and built the longest straight railway in the world. I would come to remember this as the town I slept through. All I knew is that I woke up briefly to the brightness of lights through my unblinded window and it took some time to realise that we had halted in a station – not in some wilderness as I had grown accustomed to – and that my partially covered body was somewhat visible at the eye level of any passing porter. Now I recognised the usefulness of the blinds, so I pulled them down and wrapped myself in a sheet. My eyes closed again and that was the end of my visit to Port Augusta. It entered my memory as the place I never saw.

20. We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it ‘the invisible’. We listen to it, and we do not hear it, and we name it ‘the inaudible’. We try to grasp it, and do not get hold of it, and we name it ‘the intangible’.114 Instructions for creating the Nullabor Desert at LambdaMOO @dig Nullabor Nullabor (#6491) created. @go #6491 Nullabor ○


Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching 1. Origination

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You see nothing special. @describe here as A vast landscape of saltbush and red earth. Description set. look here Nullabor A vast landscape of saltbush and red earth. @notedit here Note Editor Do a ‘look’ to get the list of commands, or ‘help’ for assistance. Now editing “Nullabor”(#6491).description. [string mode] list __1_ A vast landscape of saltbush and red earth. ^^^^ “The desert is inhabited by kangaroos, emus, eagles, and camels whose ancestors were brought here to help carry newcomers and their goods across these arid lands. Line 2 added. list 1: A vast landscape of saltbush and red earth. __2_ The desert is inhabited by kangaroos, emus, eagles, and camels whose ancestors were brought here to help carry newcomers and their goods across these arid lands. ^^^^ save Text written to “Nullabor”(#6491).description. q Nullabor A vast landscape of saltbush and red earth.

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The desert is inhabited by kangaroos, emus, eagles, and camels whose ancestors were brought here to help carry newcomers and their goods across these arid lands. @sethome Nullabor is your new home. A Dreamtime Story about the Nullabor Desert from the Karraur Tribe Once, the earth was completely dark and silent; nothing moved on its barren surface. Inside a deep cave below the Nullabor Plain slept a beautiful woman, the Sun. The Great Father Spirit gently woke her and told her to emerge from her cave and stir the universe into life. The Sun Mother opened her eyes and darkness disappeared as her rays spread over the land; she took a breath and the atmosphere changed; the air gently vibrated as a small breeze blew. The Sun Mother then went on a long journey; from north to south and from east to west she crossed the barren land. The earth held the seed potencies of all things, and wherever the Sun’s gentle rays touched the earth, there grasses, shrubs and trees grew until the land was covered in vegetation. In each of the deep caverns in the earth, the Sun found living creatures which, like herself, had been slumbering for untold ages. She stirred the insects into life in all their forms and told them to spread through the grasses and trees, then she woke the snakes, lizards, and other reptiles, and they slithered out of their deep hold. As the snakes moved through and along the earth they formed rivers, and they themselves became creators, like the Sun. Behind the snakes mighty rivers flowed, teeming with all kinds of fish and water life. Then she called for the animals, the marsupials, and the many other creatures to awake and make their homes on the earth. The Sun Mother then told all the creatures that the days would from time to time change from wet to dry and from cold to hot, and so she made the seasons. One day while all the animals, insects and other creatures were watching, the Sun travelled far in the sky to the west and, as the sky shone red, she sank from view and darkness spread across the land once more. The creatures were alarmed and

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huddled together in fear. Some time later, the sky began to glow on the horizon to the east and the Sun rose smiling into the sky again. The Sun Mother thus provided a period of rest for all her creatures by making this journey each day.115 Dawn over the Nullabor. Pale blue sky streaked with bright pink. Red sand. Salt bushes. My second waking on the train. The dream of the murmuring station at Port Augusta was already forgotten. By then the metal container had become an extension of my body, a silver exoskeleton in an endless sand and scrub terrain. In this still landscape of nothing, the most significant object was the train itself and yet this was the one thing I was unable to see. I could not see it any more than I can look at my own face without the help of a mirror. The most I could have achieved was to catch sight of the tail-end as we swung around a curve, but there would be no curves now for 478 kilometres. This is the longest stretch of straight railway line in the world. In this emptiness, the urge to identify shapes was becoming increasingly stronger. I spotted patterns in the arrangements of stones and paths through the bush where logically I knew there were none. Many of the stones were shaped like stepping-stones, in some places fitting together in what seemed to be the most deliberate of configurations. And surely the swirls of colour in the sand must signify somebody’s paths of desire? The PA system informed me that UFOs have been sighted here. Well, I wasn’t surprised. I just hoped SETI knows about them. But pity the poor arriving aliens. In some places there is no clean running water for one thousand kilometres, and the desert is inhabited by venomous snakes and dangerous ○


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spiders as well as foxes, rabbits, kangaroos, emus, wallabies and camels (the last imported from Egypt). There were also, it seemed, many feral domestic cats roaming the bush. Here Tibby. Other wild-life included prospectors, geologists, drilling teams, scientists, railway workers, stockmen, and bushmen. But despite the hostile territory, Aboriginal people had lived there for at least forty thousand years. We passed through the famous railway siding of Ooldea – the last surface water of the desert and home of the changeling Daisy Bates. In my guide it said: Things to see: Accommodation and Eating There are no accommodation or eating facilities in Ooldea. Next to ‘Things to see’ was a picture of a very straight railroad heading across a very flat plain towards a very flat horizon against a very blue burning sky. I was on that very railroad. Daisy Bates was a well-educated English woman and researcher able to speak forty Aboriginal languages. Employed as a mediator with the Aboriginal people in the Nullabor during the building of the very railway track upon which I now rode, she pitched her tent in Ooldea in September 1919 and lived there for sixteen years, during which time she established herself as a leading expert on Aboriginal affairs and attracted some media attention at times. Daisy Bates proved to be notoriously difficult to pin down regarding the details of her early life and remains a rather mysterious figure with a somewhat romanticised past. Woman’s World magazine, for example, referred to her as ‘The Great White Queen of the Never Never’. Like Grey Owl, of whom we shall hear more later, her public persona was threaded with virtuality. To complicate matters further, in 1994 biographer Julia Blackburn published a life of Bates116 ○


Julia Blackburn, Daisy Bates in the Desert, (New York: Knopf Publishinging Group, 1994).

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which transgressed all the rules of biography. Acknowledging the notoriety of her subject as a well-known inventor of stories about herself, Blackburn compensated for the lack of reliable data by unapologetically making up even more. She filled in the hazy parts of Bates’ history with some imaginings of her own, making for an intriguing blend of fact, fiction, even using her own dreams and personal experiences and attributing them to her subject. Blackburn knowingly chose to blur fact and speculation, and by doing so she also passed through into the shimmering of virtuality. What happens in that minute moment of passage between the flesh and the virtual? That border. That membrane. That slippage. That mantra – magic word – spell – password – That password. That word – mixture of upper and lower case, figures and numbers – which takes us through the moment of transition and breaches the borderland between flesh and imagination. For many users the password is an opportunity to embed something private and dear to you in such a way that you have regular contact with it and noone else need ever know about that thought or memory. Secret lovers past and present, deceased relatives, personal heroes - we encrypt their names into our private daily lives via anonymous and distant computer networks. From the heart, through the typing fingers, these magic words connect us with our most significant people and places. And most of us have not just one password, but many. Bank customers, book-buyers, chat-room users, emailers – we all have multiple identities online. The password allows us to pass through the invisible crossing-point which separates one life from another. As I move through the world I go from places that exist in my memory, to those in my imagination, to my hopes, to my history, to stories I invent for my own pleasure and to invented places that exist for other people too. So I have been to Macondo, Karhide, Gormenghast, Middle Earth and many other such locations. And finally, I build the virtual manifestations of my own imagination and sometimes of my own history.

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21. As we approach the vanishing point, the body increasingly becomes a matter of the head.117 Eventually the train pulled into Cook, a town where there truly is nothing anymore. We climbed down to take pictures of this no-place. Once a busy railway centre, now it is only a source of water for the train and just a photo opportunity for us. Upon disembarking we were immediately hassled by persistent small sticky black flies which clustered unpleasantly around our mouths. There were no birds, only these horrible flies, and two large brown butterflies sashaying casually around as if they had no idea of just how lost they were out there. Some people took advantage of the rare shopping opportunity to buy dusty souvenirs in a shadowy hut on the platform whilst others wandered away towards the edges of the desert as if it were the perimeter of some red shore. We photographed the dead straight rail running in both directions and walked up and down the length of the train, trying to get a conceptual fix on the mechanical body which had already nurtured us for three days. There was a powerful urge to step out into the scrub and just keep walking. But this was nothing like the romantic dunes and rocks of the Walkabout film, this was just clumps of saltbush and sand. What would it be like to be lost out there? To be so far out that even the flatness would not show up a single distant building? I too walked to the edge, some distance away from the others, and as I stood there alone facing out into the desert I was reminded of a meditation room I had once visited, high in the Alpujerras, and I remembered the surge of ○


Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom & Dream, 48.

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power through my arms as I stepped through the movements. I was too shy to do them there in front of my fellow travellers, but I could at least focus on my breathing and remember the words in my head. And so, with my gaze fixed on the red horizon, I did just that. Inhale Exhale Inhale Exhale Inhale Exhale

space, light rising peace space, light rising peace space, light rising peace

Inhale Exhale Inhale Exhale Inhale Exhale Inhale Exhale Inhale Exhale

here in this body now in this moment here in this body now in this moment here in this body now in this moment here in this body now in this moment here in this body now in this moment

Gradually the red horizon faded and was replaced by a memory of the view from my window at home in England. My mind did a slow focus pull from longshot to midshot to closeup, starting with the horizon and working inwards to the house itself . . . Bright blue sky White puffy clouds Midblue Pale blue Whitish blue Line of leafless trees, white-blue behind and through them

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Green fields dark hedges Ploughed fields Hedges Trees Hedges Bright green ridge and furrow meadows dotted with white sheep Single beech tree Telegraph pole Hedges Bright green field, empty Derelict hedging More grass High hawthorn hedge Narrow sunlit pasture containing two horses Overgrown and unkempt hawthorn hedge Wooden bench and small circular white wrought-iron table Lawn Curving paving stones Pantiles on the outhouse roof Upvc window frame Double-glazed window In Inhale Exhale

here in this body now in this moment

A warning whistle sounded, and as one we slowly turned and climbed back into our iron capsule. Just as the train pulled out, a single bird took flight across the shimmering desert. As I settled into my seat again I was reminded of my first book and how I had struggled to write the moment when body and machine finally merge . . . and that the image I came up with was of a desert re-birthing . . .

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. . . sloughing off its skin the snake rubs itself against the rocks. A chrysanthemum sun burns down onto the sand, but in the shadows beneath the stones the ground is damp and cold. You curl up in the shade to protect the delicate new layer. Through the slits of your eyes you can see the dry yellow plain stretching before you. Whirring and humming you glide into action, checking every function as you go. Current surges through and raps out the answers faster than light. Yes. No. No. No. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. – spinning into a loop – goto – goto – goto – IF you can feel it THEN GOTO 20 – rushing from one to the next with a never-ending query – searching for the interface – finding it – hurtling through – on to the next – booting, booting – collecting – retrieving – processing – Ready. Ready . . . Ready . . . Ready . . . Awaiting input in the silence. A vast featureless terrain of nothing.118 Later, at Deakin, we crossed from CST to WST time and our existence shifted by one and a half hours. Shortly afterwards, we moved to a double track. red soil saltbush, low, grey-green bluebush red salt sweep of blue ○


Sue Thomas, Correspondence, 147.

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streak of white occasional tyre tracks flat but not the flat of Holland Holland floats on water the Nullabor floats on limestone caves (apparently there are mysterious blow holes which sometimes emit cool air smelling of the sea) It is as they say: no birds, no animals, no people. Only the railroad’s silver spine from east to west. Nullabor. Null arbor. No trees. No trees at all. But every now and then small cairns no more than a metre high could be seen – people had made them – are they markers? Hearths? Sunshades? The Nullabor is not just a sea of sand, as innocent travellers might suppose. Its surface is a blue-green boucle of tough-leaved bushes. Australia, said the PA system, is the driest continent on earth.

22. Within the erotic, face-to-face occurs within a literally expanding horizon, as one fills the visual field of the other, as lips seal an uncanny materiality distending and confusing the traditional boundaries of the physical body. On the net, the body is as welldefined as its communication – a construct or not, the fingers work the keyboard in a proscribed/inscribed manner. What is constructed is under my control; I fear no violence, and every return is the order of the day. Eyes closed, leaning back beyond the reach of the keyboard, I carry your image which is my own, into the midst of my dreams, wraiths or

Sue Thomas

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ghosts, momentary disturbances, hallucinations. At last, love constructs itself; at last, love wants for nothing whatsoever. With a resonance close to jouissance itself, terminal echo returns my thoughts, intermixed with yours. No matter the poverty, I force you to listen to me, intervene in the game; the machine stops long enough for my entrance. To write is not only to inscribe - or rather, it is only to inscribe, to penetrate; on the net, communication itself is penetrated. I reach out to you in any way I can, bring you towards me. You whisper for my eyes alone . . . lol You knew it was coming. They’d sneer at no one in particular. I existed on a continuous rewrite. I lived naked on the net. I’d present myself clean and ready for discussion on video.voyeur.bisex – one hand on my distended penis. I’d shave my body carefully, corrupt my fair skin which reflected the words dully emerging from the screen. Hello, I’d talk to you, hello, hello . . . 119 It was 10pm and pitch black when we reached Kalgoorlie, ‘Gateway to the Goldfields of Western Australia’. I had spent the afternoon and evening immersed in solitude, thinking desert, thinking quiet, thinking isolation, interrupted only by enforced socialising at dinner. Now suddenly we were all tumbling off the train and being herded onto a shabby coach. They were going to show us Kalgoorlie in the dark. A coach was driven by a New Zealand Maori who cheerfully pointed out points of cultural interest – a large supermarket, the main street, the pubs. Eventually we came to a stop at an observation platform built high above the Golden Mile Super Pit, the richest square mile of gold-bearing ore ever ○


INTERNET.TEXT ii of ii Love on the Internet and More Alan Sondheim

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discovered. We learned its measurements – 290m deep, 3km long and 1.5 km wide – and that it operated twenty-four hours a day. By then it was almost midnight. Far below, so far away that no sound from them reached us, enormous trucks travelled back and forth across the huge exposed section of rock-face, the beams of their headlamps merging with the light generated by numerous floodlights. The pollution of the sky was stunning – surely this pit could be seen from space? The massive and sinister amphitheatre had been cut in regular ledges, each one forming a step down towards the centre of the wound, a series of inverted terraces which instead of bearing green vines and orchards produced a scarification of the landscape on an incredible scale. They gave us more numbers about the amount and value of gold extracted there but it meant nothing to me. Watching the work in progress, it felt like viewing the living drama of the inside of one’s own body being excavated in a high-tech operating theatre. Gold, of course, had brought miners, and miners earned money. They spent a good part of that money on sex and friendship and so it was that our next visit was an obligatory drive along the brothels of Hay Street. The coach rolled slowly past rows of tiny joined-up cabins, each one either with its door firmly closed or featuring the occupant open to view. This street is now promoted as a site of cultural heritage and at number 181, Langtrees boasts that it is the only fully functional historical bordello in the world.120 We rolled on through Kalgoorlie and it was clear that this place with gold in its heart was rotten and decaying. Drunks lined the half-lit streets and I was much relieved when we were allowed to get back onto the train to fall asleep and try to forget we ever came here. I was tired of this wandering, tired of being carried along inside this train. I was ready to go home. I’d been offline too long. ○

120 Nominated for Best Brothel Bedroom Design Australian Adult Industry Awards

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But I couldn’t sleep. As we rattled through what remained of the night I lay awake and thought about Kalgoorlie and how unpleasant, corrupt and venal it had seemed. But more than that, I was finally being confronted with a fact I’d avoided for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to watch the gold being torn from the flesh of the planet or see the drunks on the streets. I hadn’t wanted to think about the endurance and distress of many of the Hay Street working girls. But in truth, there was very little difference between this place and dozens of sites I encounter every day on the web. I may delete the email spam. I may pretend I haven’t seen the ads. But I am assaulted all the time by pimps and get-rich-quick scammers. In many ways I see myself as like the citydwellers who ignore the strip club next-door to their offices and step over beggars in the street . . . But I could avoid it no longer. I had been roughly bumped from the deep meditation of the desert to the harsh reality of profit and exploitation. Just hours earlier, I had seen virtuality at its highest level as a sublime experience. Could I really continue to ignore it at its lowest? After all, there are plenty of Golden Miles in cyberspace, and millions of Hay Streets, not to mention the spam which speaks to even deeper needs than sex and money. It’s all there for the taking, in your email today: Get a bigger penis Start living the good life Real Cash Flow Claim your complimentary Go wild Free screensaver Lose your unwanted body fat Revolutionary debt reduction Lower your payments You have a secret admirer I remember you ... Re your message ... Mail me Meet me Fuck me There, in a darkened train in the middle of the night in a foreign land I faced the fact that despite all of its undeniable benefits, some of my internet experiences have done me no good at all. In my early years online I had been fascinated by the unfamiliar exotica, even though the initial excitement faded fast and it soon became just tawdry and occasionally dangerous. But it was equally so intensely liberating! It can be so wonderful to be so inebriated by the crowded intimacy of the web. To sit alone in your own home yet be connected to so many people! I couldn’t deny the intensity, the insanity, the hunger which permeated the atmosphere of Sensual Respites in

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its heyday at LambdaMOO. SR was the place for anonymous assignations, for advertising your preference, and for pretending to be whatever you liked. After all, what could it harm? It was only anonymous text. I once wrote about PuppetMOO, an imaginary equivalent . . . *** Connected *** %%%%%%%% Welcome to PuppetMOO! %%% Here on PuppetMOO you can be anything you want in as many bodies as you can invent. You are limited only by your own imagination. We ask simply that you respect the wishes and desires of other players, however bizarre or unusual they might seem. Have Fun! %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% *Character Name?* Liis *Password?* ******** You are in The Damp Darkness. The Damp Darkness A clearing in an ancient wood. The patch of short grass in its centre is almost exactly circular in shape, its surface uneven where the remains of trees fallen long ago form humps and bumps beneath the shawl of green. There are rings upon rings of toadstools at different stages of growth and decline, and the trees make yet another circle around this secret place. One is much larger than the rest, an enormous towering sequoia thousands of years old, its bark gnarled and pitted, its bole a mass of whorled crevices. Here, deep inside one of the fissures, lies a red pod. It is no

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relative to the tree, indeed it is not kin to any of the species in the clearing, but for hundreds of years it has lain here in the damp and perfumed dark, making a place of peace and sanctuary for the beautiful Liis. The command to create a self-description is @describe me as First, you create a birth. After all, everything must come from somewhere, even here in virtuality. Soon you have made a tiny hard seed the colour of dried blood, but it is hardly finished and lying in the palm of your hand when something begins to struggle beneath the leathery casing. Then, slowly, it starts to split along the centre rib. A trickle of red fluid spills out until the seed explodes in a burst of light. Liis is here. Liis Her cheeks are flushed, her lips moist. She is wearing a crimson satin evening gown, slightly torn in places and held in place by a silken cord. Beneath the gown her body is curved and full. Her feet are bare and slightly dirty, her toe-nails painted a deep red. She carries the mingling perfumes of roses, honey, and blood. You recline on the cushion of sweet thyme, gazing up at the swaying treetops high above the clearing. As you rise to stand, your movements bruise the aromatic herbs beneath you and release their luscious scent, their tiny smooth leaves pushing up between your bare toes. The gown feels soft around your hips and you can sense it swirling behind you as you move. Your damp skin radiates an intense warmth. The Sensorium The air is hot and flooded with deliciously intimate odours. There are no rules, no doors, no boundaries. Watch and be watched. ‘Someone’s tickling my toes but I can’t see who it is!’ Ah, pleasure! There are hands everywhere. So many people you cannot keep count. Lark_Guest Robert. Searching for adventure

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Weatherman Look at the sky and think of me. I am the rain around you, the thundering in your ears, the searing lightning on your skin. Rosa Dark hair, thick and wavy, bobbed around her neck, with a heavy fringe which falls over her eyes when she talks. She is ruddy-skinned with full lips, a small dark mole on her left cheek, and freckles on her nose which darken in the summer, and plump with strong wide calves and a rounded belly. The tops of her arms are fleshy and powerful, and she is freckled there too. Her breasts are heavy and full and her back is short in length but broad from shoulder to shoulder. They have fallen onto each other like wolves, but now the situation is becoming chaotic, and then to complicate matters more, The_Dog arrives. The_Dog Ever fantasised about playing with a bitch on heat? Now’s your chance 2 do it 4 real. Soon the place is filled with players, some attracted by the rare (biannual) appearance of The_Dog, some longing to tumble in the mix of wet bodies, and a few just curious to watch. The tickling is moving higher up your left calf. And is that a canine tongue licking the tender depression of your navel? You stretch out to prolong the sensation of Rosa’s fingers fluttering on your skin whilst at the same time arching your back against Weatherman as he presses into you from the rear . . . For Heaven’s Sake, it’s only typing! You lean back from your keyboard in the disbelief and embarrassment which sometimes hits. Look at you, sitting there alone in front of a machine, just look at yourself. Then, from a darkened corner across the room, Era blows a kiss which shimmers across your skin like flame. She beckons you to leave the fray and join her. And so you lean forward again, and your eyes are fixed to the screen once more, and instantly you are with . . .

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Era Her mercury-hued skin is engraved and tattooed in glowing colours, decorated everywhere with entwining and arcane designs. Lilies and jasmine, chased in green, white and gold, twine from her forehead to her throat, and her breasts are inset with tiny gems - rubies, sapphires and diamonds. Her eyes, painted round with black, are the clear green of icy waves, and her lips shine like wet carnelian. Her naked silver skull is patterned with incandescent fractals which ceaselessly mutate, and her diaphanous gown crackles and sparks with electricity. You shiver. What? You shiver. The machine is telling you what you feel, but there’s no need – you’re feeling it anyway. When Era’s thin lips break into a slow smile and the machine says ‘beneath your clothes your skin has become as hot and sensitive as an open wound’ it is absolutely correct. At your keyboard, you are surprised by this abrupt surge of serious arousal. You run your fingers from the tip of your earlobe and along your jawbone, trailing them lightly across your lips, alert to the movement beneath your own caress. There in the quiet alcove, in a virtual corner of a virtual room in a virtual world, Era slides her finger around your mouth and slips it inside for you to taste. With a pointed nail, she traces a visible line down your arm and begins to unwrap the length of silken cord around the waist of your crimson gown. As the satin slides away, she rebinds the cord across your closed eyes . . . ‘Just a moment’, you protest, the silken strand passing over your skin, ‘None of this is real . . . ’ ‘Are you sure?’ murmurs Era, and you’re seized by such a mad desire to devour that silver flesh with its fine red and blue markings that when she takes your arm you have no choice but to submit. ‘Come!’ she insists, wrapping the cord between your fingers, ‘bind us . . . ’ You stare past the text and peer into the dark glass to see yourself gazing

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back, your own lover. Your red-rimmed eyes are moist, your ears feel full of water as if submerged in some sensuous ocean. Words, phrases, perfumes, sounds coil through your head like rushing streams of buzzing insects. These are the pleasures of no-body, no-meat, no-flesh. This is the abstract thrill of electricity and the imagination . . . Of course, the whole scene is baroque and ludicrous. This kind of cybersex completely ignores the reality of the body and focuses only on the imagination – and a very limited imagination at that. But there are also plenty of other kinds of sex for sale online and despite the fact that pornography is by far and away the biggest net-based commercial success, people still identify the fear of encountering it as their biggest worry online. But this hardly squares with reality because ~somebody~ must be paying for it! And whilst big business agonises over whether or not e-commerce will ever take off, the porn merchants are out there with their credit card sites making a fortune. In the web development trade it’s well-known that the porn sites have the best-funded most state-of-the-art technologies121 and of course in terms of online usage, porn is Number 1. (Number 2, interestingly enough, is genealogy – make of that what you will. At any rate both, I guess, are related to procreation.) So, online sex is what people pay for most often and it’s also the thing they most want to be stamped out. That’s pretty strange. If nobody wants it, who is paying for it? Must be those damned aliens from outer space again. They’re everywhere these days. Let’s be honest – aren’t we all just a little bit curious about sex on the net? The anonymity means you can safely dip a toe in the water without being recognised, and, as one Golden Labrador said to another: ‘The great thing ○


For an interesting insight into the porn website industry, visit , the premier bulletin board for triple-X webmasters. It’s somewhat bizarre to read the technical and artistic discussions between coders and designers checking out whether their images are working properly, sharing problems about linux servers, or asking for advice about web traffic monitoring.

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about the internet is that nobody knows you’re a dog.’ But can it really be a fulfilling experience? Could you really bring yourself to orgasm whilst typing one-handed with a stranger in a chatroom or a MOO? Well, why ask when you can try it out for yourself? All you need is a net connection plus half an hour of peace and quiet. But if you’re too shy to have a go, here’s the next best thing. Be a voyeur to someone else’s hot moment. The following has been circulating on the web for years. (Just paste any line of it into a search engine and see how many urls you come up with.) This scene hilariously illustrates the contribution of a powerful erotic imagination to really good cybersex, and shows what can go wrong when the imagining becomes just a little too detailed: Online computer users often engage in what is affectionately known as ‘cyber sex’. Often the fantasies typed into keyboards and shared through Internet phone lines get pretty raunchy. However, as you’ll see below, one of the two cyber-surfers in the following transcript of an online chat doesn’t seem to quite get the point of cyber sex. Then again, maybe he does ... Wellhung: Sweetheart:


Sweetheart: Wellhung:

Hello, Sweetheart. What do you look like? I am wearing a red silk blouse, a miniskirt and high heels. I work out every day, I’m toned and perfect. My measurements are 36-24-36. What do you look like? I’m 6’3" and about 250 pounds. I wear glasses and I have on a pair of blue sweat pants I just bought from Walmart. I’m also wearing a T-shirt with a few spots of barbecue sauce on it from dinner...it smells funny. I want you. Would you like to screw me? OK

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Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart:

Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart:

Wellhung: Sweetheart:

Wellhung: Sweetheart:

We’re in my bedroom. There’s soft music playing on the stereo and candles on my dresser and night table. I’m looking up into your eyes, smiling. My hand works its way down to your crotch and begins to fondle your huge, swelling bulge. I’m gulping, I’m beginning to sweat. I’m pulling up your shirt and kissing your chest. Now I’m unbuttoning your blouse. My hands are trembling. I’m moaning softly. I’m taking hold of your blouse and sliding it off slowly. I’m throwing my head back in pleasure. The cool silk slides off my warm skin. I’m rubbing your bulge faster, pulling and rubbing. My hand suddenly jerks and accidentally rips a hole in your blouse. I’m sorry. That’s OK, it wasn’t really too expensive. I’ll pay for it. Don’t worry about it. I’m wearing a lacy black bra. My soft breasts are rising and falling, as I breath harder and harder. I’m fumbling with the clasp on your bra. I think it’s stuck. Do you have any scissors? I take your hand and kiss it softly. I’m reaching back undoing the clasp. The bra slides off my body. The air caresses my breast. My nipples are erect for you. How did you do that? I’m picking up the bra and inspecting the clasp. I’m arching my back. Oh baby. I just want to feel your tongue all over me.

Sue Thomas

Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung:

Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung:

Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart:

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I’m dropping the bra. Now I’m licking your, you know, breasts. They’re neat! I’m running my fingers through your hair. Now I’m nibbling your ear. I suddenly sneeze. Your breasts are covered with spit and phlegm. What? I’m so sorry; Really. I’m wiping your phlegm off my breasts with the remains of my blouse. I’m taking the sopping wet blouse from you. I drop it with a OK. I’m pulling your sweat pants down and rubbing your hard tool. I’m screaming like a woman. Your hands are cold! Yeeee! I’m pulling up my miniskirt. Take off my panties. I’m pulling off your panties. My tongue is going all over, in and out nibbling on you...umm... wait a minute. What’s the matter? I’ve got a pubic hair caught in my throat. I’m choking. Are you OK? I’m having a coughing fit. I’m turning all red. Can I help? I’m running to the kitchen, choking wildly. I’m fumbling through the cabinets, looking for a cup. Where do you keep your cups? In the cabinet to the right of the sink. I’m drinking a cup of water. There, that’s better. Come back to me, lover.

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Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung:

Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung:

Sweetheart: Wellhung:

I’m washing the cup now. I’m on the bed arching for you. I’m drying the cup. Now I’m putting it back in the cabinet. And now I’m walking back to the bedroom. Wait, it’s dark, I’m lost. Where’s the bedroom? Last door on the left at the end of the hall. I found it. I’m tuggin’ off your pants. I’m moaning. I want you so badly. Me too. Your pants are off. I kiss you passionately – our naked bodies pressing each other. Your face is pushing my glasses into my face. It hurts. Why don’t you take off your glasses? OK, but I can’t see very well without them. I place the glasses on the night table. I’m bending over the bed. Give it to me, baby! I have to pee. I’m fumbling my way blindly across the room and toward the bathroom. Hurry back, lover. I find the bathroom and it’s dark. I’m feeling around for the toilet. I lift the lid. I’m waiting eagerly for your return. I’m done going. I’m feeling around for the flush handle, but I can’t find it. Uh-oh! What’s the matter now? I’ve realized that I’ve peed into your laundry hamper. Sorry again. I’m walking back to the bedroom now, blindly feeling my way. Mmm, yes. Come on. OK, now I’m going to put my...you know ...thing...in

Sue Thomas

Sweetheart: Wellhung:

Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart: Wellhung:



Sweetheart: Wellhung:

Sweetheart: Wellhung: Sweetheart:

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your...you know...woman’s thing. Yes! Do it, baby! Do it! I’m touching your smooth butt. It feels so nice. I kiss your neck. Umm, I’m having a little trouble here. I’m moving my ass back and forth, moaning. I can’t stand it another second! Slide in! Screw me now! I’m flaccid. What? I’m limp. I can’t sustain an erection. I’m standing up and turning around; an incredulous look on my face. I’m shrugging with a sad look on my face, my weiner all floppy. I’m going to get my glasses and see what’s wrong. No, never mind. I’m getting dressed. I’m putting on my underwear. Now I’m putting on my wet nasty blouse. No wait! Now I’m squinting, trying to find the night table. I’m feeling along the dresser, knocking over cans of hair spray, picture frames and your candles. I’m buttoning my blouse. Now I’m putting on my shoes. I’ve found my glasses. I’m putting them on. My God! One of your candles fell on the curtain. The curtain is on fire! I’m pointing at it, a shocked look on my face. Go to hell. I’m logging off, you loser! Now the carpet is on fire! Oh noooo!

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However much we may enjoy experimenting with it, sex is only a very peripheral aspect of online life. The greatest reward comes from connection. A recent UCLA report found that the internet serves as a powerful catalyst for creating new friendships. In 2001, 18.8% of net users said they have met someone in person whom they originally met online. These users report six new friends met in person, up slightly from the 2000 survey. The 2001 project also found that 31% of users say they have online friends whom they have never met in person. These users report an average of 20.7 online friends whom they have not met in person.122 Twenty online friends! How many of us these days have twenty offline friends? My first real initiation at LambdaMOO, five months after I attended a workshop at the 1995 Warwick Virtual Futures conference,123 was probably one of the most intense head experiences of my life. Later that year, in September, I received an invitation to an online event organised by Australian cyberfeminists VNS Matrix. Spiral Space was a site-specific project taking place at a number of sites including the YYZ Artists Outlet in Toronto, Canada; the virtual world of LambdaMOO; and anywhere in the world that people happened to be able to log on. The ‘background wallpaper’ for our interactions was created by artist/programmers collecting phrases used by participants as the performance proceeded and feeding them back into the space as randomised text. This backdrop made for a powerful texturing of our live interactions and somehow provoked us – the participants – to relate to each other in an intense and heady manner which held me riveted to my chair for two hours. My imagination was infected that day by the realisation that ‘place’ is not

122 Jeffrey I. Cole, Surveying the Digital Future, (Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Communication

Policy 2001) 72 123

The Virtual Futures conferences organised by Sadie Plant at Warwick University from 1994-6 were a significant focal point for the developing net-based digital arts community in the UK.

Sue Thomas

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just a tangible area, like a house, or a beach, or the inside of a car, but it can be a programmed virtual space too, where nothing is actually real, and yet the sense of ‘being somewhere’ is a powerfully realistic sensation. After Spiral Space I fell into LambdaMOO and did not fully emerge again for over three years. During that time I grew up (I hope) from naïve innocent to cynical oldtimer, making friends and enemies along the way, but that early time was so exciting, it seemed like we were living philosophy in action. We were designing a new kind of existence, one without checks or balances, an insanity of identities. I remember that for a while I used a quote from Kroker and Weinstein’s Data Trash as my body description – how embarrassing to admit that now! Worse than admitting to wearing loon pants in the seventies. Did I really go around in virtuality describing myself as ‘Spasm: the state of living with absolutely contradictory feelings all the time, and really loving it: fascinated yet bored/ panicked yet calm/ecstatic yet terminal/apathetic yet fully committed’.124 Dear oh dear! But it’s true, we really did imbibe the ‘will to virtuality’. We really did believe we were the new electronic bodies. Kroker and Weinstein again: ‘ . . . the virtualised flesh dreams of a fantasy palace: a lasered space of sexuality without a ground, of temptation without resistance, of desire spinning away into a relational net of discharged electronic effect’.125 If I had never understood all of this before, I finally began to comprehend it that night in Kalgoorlie as we drove around staring at the mess people make of the planet and of each other. Those days at LambdaMOO weren’t really driven by sex or desire at all. What they were really about, what that frenetic interaction was truly trying to reach, was closeness. It was about all the stuff we couldn’t get any other way. Those body-less mind-melds stirred up in us not a new political or philosophical breakthrough, not a blueprint for spivak ○

124 Arthur Kroker & Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1994), 162. 125

Kroker & Weinstein, Data Trash, 36.

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society, not the first step towards giving up the body. Instead, and ironically, they provoked powerful re-memberings of our earliest fleshly intimacies, perhaps even pre-birth, triggering intense reminders of how separate we all are, and of how much we long to be coupled at the deepest root. Like the Golden Mile Super Pit, virtuality carved us out and exposed our innermost selves, extracted our longings, stripped away the sedimentary layers of our personal evolution and floodlit them for all to see. When all we were really trying to do in virtuality was connect with another human being. It was as simple as that.

23. Type your way to self-expression. With this handy guide you can even fake being Japanese.126 Typical US/European emoticons

Typical Japanese emoticons

:-) :^) ;-) :-o :-| :-|| : -( :^( .o0

(^-^) (^o^) (^,^) (*^o^*) (^o^;>) (_o_) (;_;) (^^;) (^_^;;)


Regular smile Happy Wink/mischievous Wow Grim Anger Sad Unhappy Thinking ○

Regular smile Happy Girl’s smile Exciting Excuse me! I’m sorry Weeping Cold sweat Awkward

Aoki, Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin, Mapping Cyberspace (London: Routledge, 2001), 131.

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For many of us, cyberspace opened our imaginative worlds for the first time since childhood, and it was a huge, intense and crazy shock. Running around the web in our pretend identities we began to activate and expose dormant parts of our deepest selves. For some it was very traumatic. For many it was utterly life-changing. Marriages, friendships and relationships broke up and re-formed. Transsexuals lived online for a while and then came out IRL. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals began with tentative cybersex and graduated to the Real Thing for the first time in their lives. Countless women discovered that they did, after all, possess sexual desire. Countless men discovered that they were, after all, deeply romantic. And innumerable people fell in love with somebody somewhere, even if it was only for a week or two. Sherry Turkle observes that part of the thrill of early online gaming for many was in the ‘fantasy of a meeting of minds between the player and the program behind the game’. But, she continues, ‘in today’s game simulations . . . the minds they meet are their own’.127 This is very true of MUDs and MOOs which, although presenting as games, are in fact highly sophisticated mental playgrounds, where the drama is not about who plays best but about who selfrepresents best. After Spiral Space and once I had got the hang of room creation and other arcane knowledges, I embarked upon the first of my own creative projects inside LambdaMOO. Since Lambda is all about building physical objects and places, wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, if I invited people to describe to me their most treasured childhood place? I already knew what mine was, recalling an early memory of sitting under the table at my grandparents’ house in Leicestershire, hidden by the double cloths that tables were draped with in those days – a heavy oilcloth covered by an even heavier dark brown tasselled velvet. I can still hear the murmuring of Dutch, the scent of cigars and cinnamon, and the perfume produced by the wall-mounted coffee bean grinder – a utensil ○


Turkle, Life on the Screen, 31.

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rarely found in English kitchens in the fifties. At Lambda I created a space called, grandly, The Repository of Memory, added my own text and persuaded friends to write theirs, promoted it in the public rooms and mailing lists, and waited for contributors. The Repository of Memory Please donate your childhood memories here, where they will be stored anonymously for others to enjoy, commiserate with, and learn from. When you have finished writing your memory you will be officially cleansed. *IMPORTANT!* Please remember to begin each new paragraph with a speechmark. Thank you for your donation:) To access a saved memory, eg Memory 1, type You see Memory 1, Memory 2, Memory 3, Memory 4, Memory 5, Memory 6, Memory 7, Memory 8, and Memory 9 here. A few people came along to read or donate, but in general the results were disappointing. Probably not many visitors could penetrate the clunky list of instructions. However, for me it was a first and important experiment with coding, somewhat clumsy and simplistic, but my earliest attempt to make a virtual something out of the raw code of LambdaMOO. (And I have to say that over the years, in my case, it didn’t get a huge amount more sophisticated than that!) But my point is that the Repository of Memory is the kind of imaginative activity that places like LambdaMOO can generate. In the early days of cyberculture there was much discussion of physicality via the notion of the body without organs, and of psychology via concepts of presence. Drew Leder’s examination of the absence of the lived body, its being-away, is very germane to this discussion. He writes about the aspects of our lived bodies which cannot easily be seen or even discussed – our internal organs, our senses, the ways in which ‘this body’s roots reach down into the soil of an organismic vitality

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where the conscious mind cannot follow’.128 He says ‘Through the lived body I open to the world’129 and I would suggest that for many, certainly for me, online virtuality was a route between the world and the unconscious lived body, a journey which somehow connected the core (the lived body) to the rim (the world) and in doing so pierced right through the conscious flesh (blood, meat, bone) in between without engaging with its messy physicality. Speaking very personally, this analysis goes some way to explain to me the personas I invented at LambdaMOO and odd relationships which I/they became involved in. And then there were the writings, almost automatic, often strange and uncharacteristic mind-dumps with an intense but unreal physicality, which I produced intermittently during that period. For example: =+= sits at the table and stares at the dark polished surface. The plain modern silverware shines against the wood, turning it into a brown lake of mirrored shapes. Self-consciously e raises both hands from eir lap and lays them palms down before em, elbows pressed close to eir ribs, eir spine taut and upright. They are late. E wonders if they will come at all. It is hard to describe the place where =+= and the table e is sitting at are located. Things change all the time. Sometimes they are in a clearing inside a deep green forest, whilst at others e stares through a large plate glass window onto a busy New York street. Occasionally it feels as if they are floating on some broad slow river - The Yangtze, perhaps, or a gentle tributary of The Nile. Then the table will rise and fall with the movement of the water, its smooth wooden legs a few inches below the surface. =+=’s feet ○


Leder, The Absent Body, 173.


Leder, The Absent Body, 173.

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will be just a little wet, but e always feels perfectly safe and has no fear of drowning. When the table is in a forest it is invariably smothered with crawling insects. Bright blue snakes encircle the glass vase containing a single rose stem, and butterflies cling to the starched napkins, making it look as if the patterned fabric has come alive. When the table is in a city it is bare, lit with a white light, and shaking gently and continually from the rumbling of underground trains. E looks again at eir hands, still pressed against the surface of the table. On the ring finger of eir left hand the subcutaneous wedding band flashes and gleams. Beneath the thinnest layer of skin lies the circlet of eir betrothal implant, its icy lemon glow brightening and dimming to the pulse of blood through eir veins. =+= runs a fingertip across the smooth skin, smiling as it crosses the soft bump and then down again towards the knuckle. On the ring finger of eir right hand, a mirror image. Another wedding band, hot red this time, but otherwise identical in shape and form to the first. A door somewhere behind eir opens and closes as laughter tinkles into the room. They arrive at last. Beneath eir pale fingers the table begins to tremble. Without turning eir head, e knows they are close. Eir senses are already full of their heady perfume. Now the table is in a forest. Insects creep from the polished wood onto eir hands and into the moist crevices between eir fingers. Eir lovers are close behind em now, their bodies pressed against eir shoulder blades, their damp voices whispering in eir ears, their matching rings pressed against eirs. Red. Yellow. Red. Yellow.

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There is a pure white frog pressed against eir throat. A crimson iguana clambers across eir right shoulder as the table drifts slowly down a jungle river flecked with gold. Unnoticed, a silver knife slides down the tilted surface and slips silently into the shaded water. And also clearer, sadder, fragments which arrived unbidden, bubbling up and bursting on the surface of my mind to be written and put away since they made no sense and seemed to connect to nothing: I’ve met many people throughout my life who are afraid of mirrors. They are scared a mirror will show them how truly ugly they really are, but what they always forget is that there is more at work there than just a reflection. When I look into a mirror, I think I am seeing what other people see, but of course that is nonsense. I can only see what *I* see. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that’s for sure, so: dare I gaze at myself and find me beautiful? Oh no. That would be unacceptable. I am only allowed to find myself flawed, and thus, through some ill-drawn logic which ignores the loveliness of imperfection, I am dismayed and disheartened. So, here I am. Looking at myself. My name is ][ I am a cut-out in the room. I am a human-shaped void waiting to be filled. There is no-one here with me - I am alone and hungry and open. A shout from the street jars me back to my senses and I feel the blood flush through my veins. It’s easy to forget, closeted here in this white room, that outside the city goes on. Beyond the window a car radio plays Jamaican reggae, its thudding rhythm stirring even my poor incapable feet, and for a few beats my left heel

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rises and falls jauntily. I can feel the bristles of the carpet press into the soft skin of my instep. The voice shouts again. ‘Terry! C’m here!’ There are a thousand Terrys in this city, and I know none of them. In fact, I do not *want* to know them. The only person I want to know - indeed the only person I have ever known since I came here - is Jac. Once Jac stood with me in front of this glass and for that brief time there were no spaces in the room. Instead of being thin and transparent, the air was thick with purple, and we clung to each other inside the swirling colour. Jac’s skin was so warm against me that I fancied for a moment there might be some passion, but I was wrong. We clung together and afterwards we parted. Tonight, somewhere in that shouting city, Jac is standing before a different mirror and embracing another unfamiliar body. And I am very sure that right now at this moment, there are a hundred rooms occupied by a hundred wraiths all rooted like me before their own fading reflections and all turning over and over in their minds the one night when Jac had been with them and they could stand before the glass and not be alone. In the very early days, I delved into my childhood and recreated my dens and hiding-places, then as the intensity grew I found it more exciting to curl up inside other people than underneath imaginary tables. But if the truth be told, there is another room I would have liked to build at LambdaMOO, although I never did. It was a place I had always wanted for myself – Heidi’s hayloft. This was the perfect place to snuggle, high up in the eaves of the house, with clear air and a view of the mountains. The perfect place to dream. Can a transgressive recombinant middle-aged spivak admit that e longs to snuggle down under

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Heidi’s flax coverlet on its fragrant hay mattress and gaze out from eir pillow at the grazing animals on their sloping pastures? In the corner near her grandfather’s bed she saw a short ladder against the wall; up she climbed and found herself in the hayloft. There lay a large heap of fresh sweet-smelling hay, while through a round window in the wall she could see right down the valley. ‘I shall sleep up here, grandfather’, she called down to him, ‘It’s lovely, up here. Come up and see how lovely it is!’130 Virtuality was turning me inside out, making me hungry for warmth, tantalising me with promises of closeness. And in re-imagining my memories I was allowing a lonely little girl to emerge. Just like in Joanna Russ’s story ‘The Little Dirty Girl’,131 when a successful academic finds a dirty starving kid on her doorstep who turns out to be an amalgam of everything she had not been allowed to be when she was a child, I had my own Little Dirty Girl. But I did not let her free. Instead, I skirted around the issue and convinced her that the life of a cyborgian spivak was so much better than that of a little kid, whilst also being emotionlite and lots of fun. But somehow a sense of her would occasionally sneak out into fragments of memories which collected in my folders: Snuggling into the family marriage bed – Mum and Dad at the head, sitting up, drinking tea, and smiling sleepily. I am at the foot of the bed. I’ve been given permission to pull out the sheets and blankets so tightly tucked under the mattress and so I’ve nuzzled in and staked my claim. The footboard is lower than the headboard and since I’m only tiny, four last birthday, my back ○

130 131

Johanna Spyri, Heidi from The Project Gutenberg [Etext #1448] Sept 1998.

Joanne Russ, ‘The Little Dirty Girl’ in Elsewhere v2, ed. Terri Winding and Mark Alan Arnold, (New York: Ace, 1982).

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fits up against it nicely. I wiggle my toes and suddenly come into contact with warm hard flesh and the sharp edge of a toe-nail. Ouch! Sit still, says Dad, to whom the toe belongs, stop wriggling or you’ll be out. I don’t want that, so I meekly comply and don’t move a muscle. Having gained this much ground in the advance towards my parents I couldn’t bear to be banished now. My own bed-sheets will have become cold, my toys hard, smelly and unwelcoming. No, I prefer to stay here within a toe’s breadth of a caress, only a distance of maybe three feet between me and the chance of a cuddle, however brief it might turn out to be. Finally Dad finishes his tea and pulls back the sheets theatrically. My stubby legs, facing the wrong way, are suddenly and comically exposed. I laugh aloud, they look so funny sticking out like that. But Mum is already complaining of the cold so my joky feet go unnoticed as he hurls the covers back over us both with the usual quip about my mother’s urgent need for beauty sleep. Dad departs for the bathroom and the bed is immediately warm again. Now comes a chance to tunnel and dig my way through. I aim to emerge either in Australia or in his place on the pillows and so, taking a deep breath, I promptly disappear into the odiferous warmth . . . Stop that! snaps Mum as I wriggle through the steaming jungle of smells, some of which I am too young to fully recognise – semen, perfume, sweat and fart – but which I love anyway because they are strange and yet most intimately known to me through the common genes shared by all three of us. And then I have arrived, snuffling into a pillow smeared faintly with Brylcreem, and now only a finger’s breadth from Mum who is suddenly pretending to doze. That’s what she always does. It’s a ploy to avoid having to put her arm around me and being thus forced to hold her warm, full breast against my fast-beating, flat-chested heart. Mum knows, although of course I have never dared to say it or even known how to articulate it, that this mothering is what I want more than

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anything, and she always feels slightly uneasy, slightly repulsed by the prospect. Something secretly tells her that such close physicality would be unclean, almost, perhaps, incestuous, and she is loathe to have any part of it. But the thing which repulses Mum most of all, and which she will never in her life be able to face up to, is a child’s raw need for physical contact with eir mother’s body. That craving, that bloated hunger, lies between us in the finger’s breadth beneath the sheets and will keep us apart all through our lives, like crushed ice separating a pair of fish in a box. I was confusing the security of code with what it takes to build security in our Real Lives. Of course it should be obvious! Even the very shapes of ones and zeros hold a clue to the inner struggle that brought me to virtuality in the first place! | 0

= upright, clear, direct, unambiguous = encircling, organic, global, mysterious

= code = the world

I had believed that if I could only figure out how to write a program for the life I wanted, it would come true. Somewhere in my head I thought that my computer was a magic lamp – I had only to rub it with looping code to turn fantasy into reality over and over again. 10 print “Hello World!” 20 goto 10 10 print “Hello World!” 20 goto 10 10 print “Hello World!” 20 goto 10 10 print “Hello World!” 20 goto 10 What I had not realised was that being able to program a machine to greet the world is very clever but it is not the same as actually being in the world.

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The coded body is *not* the lived body. I had discovered code as a way to design a condition and make it actual, not understanding that what it produced was VIRTU-ality, not RE-ality. Romanyshyn describes this as ‘the rise of the scientific attitude which, in its mathematical character, sketches in advance of our experience of things the conditions according to which things will appear.’ We plan, and in doing so make the mistake of assuming that the planning itself is enough to effect a manifestation of the proposed outcome. He warns that such a situation is not unlike that of a person who is so busy reading a map that they miss seeing the territory: ‘The map projects a bird’s eye view of the whole trip in advance of taking it, and while there are numerous advantages to such mapping ( . . . ) a tragic error can occur if and when the map is mistaken for the journey’.132 That last night on the train to Perth, I realised as I finally drifted off to sleep that if I was to be able to make virtuality happen as and when I wanted it to, and to not happen unless I invoked it, I had to learn how to distinguish between what code produces and what the lived body produces. Perhaps I had finally found and debugged the error which, I now admitted to myself, had made life online so uncomfortable at times. At last it all began to make sense. That night there were dreams. Or rather, memories. Perhaps they were imaginings. It was as if my brain was running a sort through all its files, reallocating space, defragging and generally tidying up. First I was in Spain, high up in the Alpujerras: The sounds of the train in the desert turned into the flow of the asecia as it ran through the gardens during the night. This old Moorish irrigation system still worked, bringing snow-melt down from the mountains once a week to refresh the lawns and orchards at Cortijo Romero.133 In the morning we would ○


Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom & Dream, 51.


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walk to the breakfast area through the last few centimetres as it soaked into the soil. Then I was writing a MOO room: @describe here as You see tiny white-washed houses against high green mountains, and as the shot zooms in there I am, stretched out asleep in the hibiscus shade beside the pool. Look into my head – I am dreaming of the MOO, and of people there who are imagining me asleep beside a swimming-pool in the Sierra Nevada, dreaming of them even as they are imagining me... and it’s hard to know which is more virtual and which is more real.134 Back to the Alpujerras: I am in a small darkened room. Slits of sun through the shutters in the small window above the bed. Murmured conversations coming from the garden outside. A brightly-coloured counterpane; the stone floor cool beneath my bare feet. White walls. One morning I open my eyes to see a fast green gecko dash across the ceiling. Then there is the bright blue swimming pool – fleshcoloured bodies in the water naked and laughing, insistently moving up and down the length as adults do but also dipping, jumping and playing, as adults normally do not do. Homemade yoghurt in huge bowls with local honey and nuts and apricots from the orchard. Wholemeal bread, butter slabs, pitchers of milk. Dogs barking distantly at night. Yoga at 8am on the flat white roof – open to the rising sun. And at 9pm, dinner over, back on the roof but this time to await the stars. Bottle of red wine and blankets to sit on. At 10.15 precisely the International Space Station crosses overhead. Some excitement. Sometimes quiet singing. Group conversation. Private conversation. I conceal my shyness and join in the social talk. I see the sprawl of the men and want to copy it but ○


A postcard from Spain, Object Number #793 LinguaMOO,

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also notice the collectedness of the women and want to copy that too, so I sit awkwardly, feeling invisible, out of the game but not able to prove why. From a long distance away I hear my own voice relating tedious personal anecdotes and wish I would be quiet. In Holland, water-cycling in a thunderstorm: Much fun! It’s Sunday afternoon and the Dutch are biking up and down the canal towpaths or sitting in steamy smelly smoky cafes eating sausage and chips and drinking beer. The kids play outside on the adventure playground in the rain. Holland is a strange combination created by a neat dull symmetry which yet seemingly allows a very diverse and eccentric range of personal styles. The streets are smooth-bricked, paved, tidy, bordered by flowers and shrubs. The road-markings intriguingly complex to the point of downright bossiness – ‘You stay in ~this~ line!’; the houses linear, sparsely-furnished in light colours and polished wood, Scandinavian-style. They use woodchip paper but they don’t paint over it as the English do. So many pale and cold surfaces that it’s hard to imagine them as sensuous people. Obviously the landscape must affect the public and personal mentality but again there is a contradiction between the flat fields and the sensuality of so much water. The River Ijsel runs across the end of the street. The ferry moves back and forth, transporting cars and motorised bikes through this tranquil evening after the rain. Launches travel up and down the river, small motorboats cruise busily around. Fishermen. Sheep grazing on a low dijk; cows in the meadows beyond. Some groups of large mature trees which would be unusual in parts of the country that are nearer to the sea than this. In the winter it is merely wet and dull unless they get plenty of snow in which case it is skating and cracking ice. Germany is only twenty minutes away. You could slide there, ballerinastyle, on one bladed foot.

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Spain There is a pomegranate tree – a surprise beyond the door. In England this fruit would be a late autumn treat. Cut it in half and eat with a pin, one jellycoated seed at a time. The bitter seed, the sweet surround. Look up the pomegranate and its conditions for life – which places does it like the best? What have people said in history about the pomegranate? The olive, grape, peach, apricot, date? They are all biblical fruits to me, reminiscent of the Garden of Gethsemane I read about as a child – and here I sit now in that garden or one like it surrounded with flowers – hibiscus, white jasmine, tumbles of morning glory through the hedges. The scent of lilies. The white plastered walls and red tiles of the roof. Solar panels, backwards circling to absorb the sun. A small round tower with a piecrust of red pantiles around its rim. A motorcycle revs down a street quite a distance away. Out of view, the swimming pool maintains a steady bubbling as it cleanses and maintains itself. And for some reason I am writing between the lines of my notebook instead of upon them. My words begin to flow and the letters form more clearly. And here I am again, being free between the lines. I lie on my back on the roof and sense the world through a floppy straw hat Above Hazy blue. Sharp light to the east. Sun, insistent but not unbearable Sounds thunder the sound of water falling which is not rain but the garden sprinkler occasional dogs Traffic. Birdsong, more delicate than in England. Close A pink hibiscus. An olive tree (unripe). A lawn of broad-tufted grass, the tops of the blades sliced flat.

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Mid A narrow off-white chimney pot rises from next door’s low roof. The olive grove is simply a silver shimmer.135 Distant Northern mountains powdered with snow. The Alpujerra Mountains, in shadow, ribboned with firebreaks. Grey/green/rust. A broad soil-coloured firebreak snakes to the top between the sparse trees, upper mountain, camouflage colours, dark khaki-green, the top enveloped in clouds, perhaps one tenth of the whole mountain in clouds. The pathway to the top is much lighter brown than it was in the morning – light sand – very distinct. The lower slopes are a pale khaki. Around The buzzing of insistent flies. Extremely delicate cobwebs, still damp. English voices repeating Spanish words some distance away. Laughter. Birds. The sound of the breakfast bell, now over an hour past, continues to hang in the air but will eventually be replaced by the small cymbals which end our meditation.136 Logging on Every time I log on, I reinvent myself. Animal, fruit, jewel, perfume, landscape. Believing that each new self will continue in its own independent cycle of mutation and evolution, I ensure that I leave them in the very best conditions for survival. I hope to meet some of them online some day, but if I ever have it has been without recognition. I frequently dream of those many bodies, each with a spark of me. My imagination drives them to multiply faster and faster until one day I log on to discover that everyone in cyberspace has been created by me. I am alone in a world of myself.


Views from the veranda, 5.30pm, September 2000, Cortijo Romero.


Views from the veranda, 10.00am, September 2000, Cortijo Romero.

Sue Thomas

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Mogg’s Eye, Lincolnshire, England Look south. The perfect perspective drawing. Imagine lines running before you to meet at a vanishing point on the horizon. To the far left, the pencilsharp conjunction of water and sky. Closer in and still to your left, a frilled line which is the summer waves running up the hard sand and back again. Straight ahead, a line of smooth concrete several feet wide, a regular fringe of protection against the northern tides. To your right, a looping line of drifting sand decorates the edge of the concrete shelf, and beyond that another line, this time a jagged fringe of marram grass. Beyond the grass and out of view, in the direction you have come from, a strip of salt marsh keeps time with the rise and fall of the sea. Sandy Neck, Cape Cod, New England Continue along the tide line, moving east towards the tip of the Cape, keeping the swirling winter tide to your left and the dunes to your right. After ten minutes or so you come to one of the many channels where the marsh drains into the sea by means of a narrow creek. Drop to your knees beside the brackish water and dip your fingers. The liquid has travelled through a mile of muddy brown submerged turf to get here yet it is surprisingly clear. Behind your back the sea noisily mixes blue and white, turning one into another and yet never reaching a stable point, but here this tiny stream trickles on across a scattering of pebbles, invisibly and calmly performing the trick of blending the two waters of the earth without drama or display. Slivers of ice loosened from the edges float along the surface and glitter in the intense Northern sunlight. Grasping the metal handrail, I lower myself to the first step. It’s cold but bearable. My feet are tough, the toes straight and solid, their nails broad and firm. Only the tender skin of the ankles quivers at the temperature.

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Down. Past the calves to the back of the knees. Cold! Then to the lower thighs – stop. Too cold. Wait. My heart races warm blood to the area as fast as it can. I stand quietly, calmly, until all is equalised. Then continue to the third rung. Genitals are surprisingly less of a shock than the lower back. Wait a long time. The water laps up and down. A breeze ruffles my hair and caresses my still-dry shoulders. Wait. But this is turning into cowardice – it must be now or never so . . . d o w n . . . I go, head under - all under - engulfed - gasping - heart racing to keep up with the sudden temperature drop and then . . . . . . surfacing again, my feet touch the blue-painted concrete and the water is up to my chin. The breath is coming fast but I work into it . . . hereinthisbodynowinthismomenthereinthisbodynowinthismomenthereinthis bodynowinthismomenthereinthisbodynowinthismoment here in this body now in this moment here in this body now now now in this moment here here here now An olive falls from an overhanging tree and drifts slowly by. The water is at neck-level. At the inhale, my shoulders rise from the blue. At the exhale I sink to my bottom lip. Here in this water.

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Now in this moment. Here in this water. Connected. A bitter wind blows down from the Alpujerra mountains . . . bringing the start of the Mediterranean autumn. The orchard is a mass of waving fruit and leaves – although few leaves are actually falling. High above, a steely yellow sun slices its way across the peaks, lighting up tiny white houses and rocks for brief moments before passing on to leave them in shadow again. And the shadow is indeed cold and dark. The wind is the first cleansing breath of autumn, bringing snow to the peaks and air to all crevices. The shock of winter cannot be far behind. Last, Turkey . . . where I dreamed of finding a life-size stone effigy of a man who is deaf and dumb. It – he – was medieval. His body was cool smooth granite and I was massaging it with the soft soapy water they use in the Turkish bath. But as I ran the flat of my hand over him I began to feel softer forms moving beneath the stone and I knew, with great calmness, that the statue was coming to life. I continued the movements, up and down in broad flat sweeps with my open palm, across his back and arms and upper chest while slowly slowly he moved very slightly and opened his eyes. He regarded me in some bewilderment as if he did not know where he was or why, and I understood this whole thing was a miracle but I felt no excitement. I just smiled and murmured to him as I continued to massage his cool and now softening form while he moved imperceptibly from stone to flesh. The next morning after breakfast, and almost three days since boarding the train, we finally rolled into Perth. My visit would be short – a talk at the university, some meetings, and then home to England. But first, I needed to log on. At the hotel everything worked smoothly. I retrieved the laptop from my

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luggage, hooked it up, dialled in, and was accepted immediately. My careful research regarding ISPs had paid off, and there in the most remote city in the world I was online within seconds. It doesn’t matter how far away from England I am – in cyberspace I’m at home everywhere. I downloaded my mail to read offline later, checked out various websites, then called into Lambda to see what was new. Nothing. But then, when is there ever? A few hours later I was on the beach and dipping a toe into the Indian Ocean, but the undertow was powerful and I was almost thrown off-balance by the sudden rush of pebbles running away from under me. Imagine travelling all this way to the most isolated city in the world only to drown in public before even spending a single night there. The ensuing jolt of anxiety made me realise that I was very ready to go home – or at least, to start making some decisions about where home might be and what it might look like.

24. The climate is objectionable, with its frequent rains and mists, but there is no extreme cold. The night is bright and, in the extreme North, short, with only a brief interval between evening and morning twilight. If no clouds block the view, the sun’s glow, it is said, can be seen all night long. It does not set and rise, but simply passes along the horizon. The reason must be that the ends of the earth, being flat, cast low shadows and cannot raise the darkness to any height; night therefore fails to reach the sky and its stars. Crops are slow to ripen but quick to grow - both facts due to one and the same cause, the extreme moistness of land and sky.137 ○

137 H. Mattingly (trans.) Tacitus on Britian and Germany (Middlesex: Penguin, 1948) 62. His account was written from heresay in A.D. 97-8; he never visited Britian himself.

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The history of landscape always runs in cycles. In England there have been periods of intense cultivation, when great swathes of forest were burned down to make way for crop-growing in times of peace, or cut down to build entire armadas of ships in times of war. Cities and towns have risen up, and declined again back to dust. For example, before the Romans invaded Britain they had been trading there for some time. They knew what they were getting into (see Tacitus’ remark, above) and they knew how it could be improved. The country already had a good reputation for running excellent farms and so the Romans marched on in and upgraded the native technology. With new iron-tipped ploughs as only the first of many improvements, the British soon found themselves forced to adopt an entirely different way of life including baths, wine, garlic – and even literacy. In return, the invaders endured the weather. When they departed several hundred years later, the Romans left behind them a legacy of culture and civilisation which almost immediately disappeared. Their beautiful and efficient villas fell into disuse. The inheritors had no idea how to use the technology and anyway they believed the buildings were haunted, so they stole the bricks and anything else they could see the use of and left the rest to rot. Imagine those ghost-towns – great forums and marketplaces, industrious villa complexes, the temples, the baths – all abandoned to become silent, hidden, spooky places occupied only by the spirits of their former occupants. Le Détroit (The narrows between two landmasses) Detroit is all white concrete and car-parks. On a Sunday night the sidewalks are almost empty downtown, but the yellow lights are moons in the pale firmament of the streets and the multi-storey opposite my hotel-room is a necklace of lit arches. It’s all so closed in – malls, hotels, offices – all hidden behind huge sharp edifices as if Detroit has just given up completely on The Great Outdoors. There is no green consciousness here, but only these huge blanched spaces – everything square, oblong, rectangular, hard, brick, linear. As we drive through the city the next day my companion observes that it’s

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like moving across a chessboard from square to square, and this is really true. The usual blocks to be found in any American city here change abruptly between intersections. Even the same road running through them is pitted and bumpy as we pass through one square, then smooth and metalled in the next. Many squares contain derelict houses, abandoned by their owners and slowly collapsing back into the earth whence they came. The place is a criss-cross of empty lots spotted with crumpled houses next to lush city gardens and wellmaintained homes. We progress through Highland Park to Ferndale, hopscotching from one uneven plot to the next. Today in England there are huge tracts of moorland which are protected by law from anything which might change them. But moorland is often not their ‘natural’ state anyway. The landscape of Exmoor in the Southwest, for example, was created by woodland clearances first carried out by Stone Age people to provide timber and clear fields for livestock and cropping. Six thousand years ago they cleaned out the land, leaving it starved and capable of sustaining only the toughest forms of vegetation. Gradually farmers learned how to manage woodland and use timber more selectively, but many areas never recovered. And those same clearances, when carried out in the Midlands of England, created a situation whereby the rivers filled up with silt from the new Iron Age invention of ploughing, and as those rivers ran towards the Wash on the East Coast and met the newly-melted northern waters, so the whole area of the Fens, once extensive and luscious pasture, was drowned in water and became marshes and reedbeds. By the time the Romans arrived the place was already submerged and people were living on islands surrounded by reeds. Eventually the Dutch came, diked it, drained it, and planted it up, but now after 300 years of drainage, the Fens are losing their fertility. The peat is drying out and shrinking down to the clay beneath. Soon it will be uneconomic to continue to drain it, and when the drainage stops, the landscape will revert to rushes and water-birds very quickly indeed, just as it was before the Dutch but after the clearances. So what is natural? You might say that what we are protecting there now is as ‘natural’ as the bomb-sites of post-war Europe or the deserted medieval villages of England or the tufts of weed struggling to

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survive between the rusting production lines of Detroit. And cyberspace, too, has its wastelands. Half-built homepages left abandoned and unfinished. Discarded emails. Forgotten identities. Ghost town communities. Discussions fallen quiet, rotting away in the hinterlands of disputes long since settled. How many abandoned web-sites are there on the internet today? How many personas started up and then discarded like half-formed babies left to make their own way? All those surplus usernames and passwords? All those homepages created to fill the space of an idle evening then never visited again? On my last night in Detroit I eat alone in the Motor City Grill. It’s inside the Fisher Building, a truly fantastic Art Deco edifice which the city promotes as its biggest work of art. And it surely is, with glittering mosaic ceilings and marble everywhere. It’s across the road from the old General Motors building, another monument to departed industry. I’m sitting on a high stool, my legs dangling off the floor. I like that feeling. Loose. Yesterday we drove past the plant where the first ever Model T rolled off the production line. I learned that Ford paid $5 a day to all his workers, guaranteed. Nobody had ever heard of this before. It was revolutionary. Right outside the plant they built the first ever road designed specifically for a car. They needed it for speed tests. The road had already been there a long time in another guise – it was an Indian trackway down to Lake Michigan. My guides could remember the information about Ford but they couldn’t remember the name of the tribe who lived here. I imagined Roman mosaics buried beneath the metalled roadway. I imagined Indian bones. I imagined underground rivers.

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25. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different. Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here.138 At LambdaMOO, homes are classified as ‘objects’ just like everything else, from your own virtual body to the messages you send, and once you have created an object of the variety called ‘room’ it can become anything simply by virtue of the way you name and describe it. The convention is to not just describe the place but to pay attention to the user’s experience in being there. ○


John Perry Barlow, ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ (Davos, Switzerland, 8 Feb 1996) Written in response to the US Telecommunications Act.

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In this way, you can build any places or objects which arise in your imagination, and as many as you like. You can build a series of connected rooms or they can each float untethered in the vast conceptual space of the MOO. But that space is not unlimited. Any MOO runs from a database and that database is of course finite in capacity. To ensure fair sharing of it, users are allotted a quota of kilobytes to cover mail, object-creation, home building and what we might call ‘personal development’ – e.g. one’s various body morphs and other fripperies. Julian Dibbell found out about quota to his cost when, as DrBombay, he planned an extensive ornamental garden at LambdaMOO: ‘Although I had the option, here within the MOO, of tucking the Garden of Forking Paths inside a jewel box or a carrot seed or even a passing thought if I so chose, out there in the real world there was only one place it could be stored, and that was the same small whirring disk of ferromagnetized metal upon which every other object in the crowded MOOish cosmos resided. There were only so many bytes of hard-drive space to go around, and, as I had lately and dismayingly come to understand, my share of those bytes was quite possibly never going to be large enough to accommodate the grandiose construction I had in mind’.139 When Dibbell set out to collect his desired amount of quota by gift and trading he ran headlong into the world of MOO economics and from there into MOO politics. It would turn out that it had been a lot easier for the Pilgrim Fathers to colonise the Eastern seaboard than it would be for Julian Dibbell to acquire enough space to build a garden in a place that doesn’t even exist. Those who enjoy TV makeovers of homes and gardens will empathise with the huge range of choices faced by the MOOer building their abode. Enjoying a generally low quota cost and limited only by the user’s imagination, many MOO homes are very adventurous both in terms of location (from an elephant’s eyelash to a facsimile of the universe and everything in between) ○


Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life (London: Fourth Estate 1999), 162.

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and in their descriptions (exotic textual landscapes regularly updated and sometimes with programmed seasons, weathers and times of day). However, an equal if not larger number are astoundingly dull. Given the opportunity to imagine anything at all, many choose a cosy sitting-room or bedroom. Just count the endless numbers of roaring log-fires, silken bed sheets, large sofas and multi-coloured scatter cushions. But no matter how conventional or unusual their virtual rooms, they are generally a source of some pride. In the summer of 2001 I posted an email to some of the many internal discussion lists inviting Lambda users to tell me about their rooms. These are just a few of the replies I received: @next on *research Message 6 on *Research (#9420): Date: Tue Aug 21 21:06:58 2001 GMT From: Puff (#1449) To: *Research (#9420) Subject: re: room design I live in the Mirror Behind The Bar of the Looking Glass Tavern, which is itself located behind all of the mirrors in the Mansion. Have fun trying to analyze that :-). I suspect that most people fall into one of two categories (those who separate people into categories, and...). The first category is people who create something to suit themselves they end up with something comfortable or idyllic or the like. The second category is people who create something to express themselves – they end up with something bizarre and sometimes even wonderful. Puff140 ○


Puff the Fractal Dragon (Steven J. Owens) LambdaMOO 2001.

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Message 2 on *Geography (#21250): Date: Mon Aug 13 06:33:55 2001 GMT From: Xeric (#112019) To: *Geography (#21250) Several times I’ve made complete models (including personal editorial comments :) of places I’ve lived. It’s always fun to go back and see the place and what you thought of it back then. In fact, that reminds me, I should do our house right now. That sort of project always gets derailed looking at old ones I did when I was in high school and college... (almost none of these are online, most are for an extreeemely simplistic interactive fiction style game I wrote in HS and have rewritten several times for various platforms (using simple text file input))141

Message 3 on *Research (#9420): Date: Mon Aug 13 19:00:10 2001 GMT From: Stevage (#113671) To: *Research (#9420) Subject: exceptions to the rule Check out my home, #10991. Comfort and familiarity is for the weak and lame. So I did . . . . @go #10991 This was once an elegant hotel room. Now, the carpet has been ripped from the floor revealing rotting floorboards and a nest ○


Xeric (Ben Jackson) LambdaMOO 2001.

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of mice. The brass knobs are long gone, pilfered and hocked for a fraction of their worth. Water drips from the ceiling onto the charred remains of an old loveseat. Later, when seeking permissions for this book, I contacted Stevage and discovered that this had not been the original room description. He had changed it as a public manifestation of personal emotional turmoil he was experiencing at the time. This is very common in MOOs, where characters regularly rewrite descriptions of their objects, rooms and bodies to reflect their state of mind. Originally, he told me, the room had looked like this: You have somehow entered a very brightly lit hotel room. The owner has obviously spent a lot of money making this place up. Plush carpet and brass knobs give the area a feel of well-spent wealth. A two-seater loveseat hides over by the window.142 It’s no surprise either that he had saved that description somewhere and so was able to email it to me when the subject came up. The constant re-making in text-based virtuality does not prevent players from archiving their former texts and they will often be cycled back into the environment at a later date when they regain their relevance.


‘Stevage’ (Steve Bennett) LambdaMOO 13 August 2001.

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26. Or if you’re not interested in setting up home in a MOO, how about creating your own home page?

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