"Demiurges of the Digital: The Creation and Curation of Virtual Worlds" by Henry Lowood

This week, Henry Lowood is traveling to The University of Texas, Austin to deliver a lecture on issues related to preservation and virtual worlds.  Here's the abstract of his talk:

"Demiurges of the Digital: The Creation and Curation of Virtual Worlds"

Henry Lowood

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Genesis, 1:1.

"All his life he's worked on it.  Built it up.  Made it real, he brought that world into being -- and now he's in it. That's what he wanted. That's why he built it. He didn't merely dream about an escape world. He actually constructed it -- every bit and piece.”  -- Philip K. Dick, “Small Town”

“To be a god, at least to be a creative one, one must relinquish control and embrace uncertainty. Absolute control is absolutely boring.  …  The great irony of god games is that letting go is the only way to win.”  -- Kevin Kelly, Out of Control 

This paper begins with a simple-minded historical question: When did the computer become a space?   This question is simple-minded for many reasons, but primarily because it seeks historical precision while working with commonplace notions that have become rather imprecise.   No computer literally constitutes a space for human habitation (at least not to my knowledge), but we speak all the time about computer spaces, network spaces, web space and many other kinds of digital environments as spaces.  

And yet, I think the question is more than a straw man for beginning an investigation of virtual worlds.  Histories of computing typically separate uses of computers as calculating engines and autonomous thinking machines from more widespread applications for communication, knowledge work, creativity and information sharing by humans.  The accepted history is that an eclectic group including J. C. R. Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, Ivan Sutherland, Alan Kay and others shifted the emphasis in computing from calculating power to human use, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s.   The separation of the “calculating engine” from what Thierry Bardini in his study of Engelbart called “development of the personal computer interface [as] a technology by and about people” has usually been depicted as an historical inflection point.   I accept this argument, but I think it might need some revision, for two major reasons.  The first is that it is Whiggish history – the richer, deeper, and better computing paradigm came and conquered, end of story.  The second and more interesting to me is that the story about the winning paradigm of computing has generally been limited to human extension, augmentation and communication focused on productivity and knowledge work.  I would like to address a use of computers that has been left out of this historical account: Their use as immersive spaces that are inhabited in ways that encourage users to think of them as separate from the real world, that is, as virtual worlds.

A persistent aspect of the use of computers since at least the early 1960s – alongside efforts to increase human productivity -- has been entertainment, and more specifically, play.   The uses of computers for play and other forms of entertainment has followed a track similar to applications for increasing productivity, in the sense that they are also technologies “about people.”   Indeed, the argument can be made that computer and video games have produced some of the most compelling examples of human-machine symbiosis and efficient interface design yet produced by computer technology.  The key element introduced by play, however, is that of the game as a distinct conceptual space inhabited by players.  Johan Huizinga introduced this idea in his seminal work on the “play element in culture” as the “magic circle,” and it is one of several strands of thinking that led to the idea of play space as separate from the real world.   Today, we commonly describe such spaces as virtual worlds.  

So, the focus of this paper will be a shift in the use of computers that is less well understood than the expansion from the calculating engine, and cannot be reduced entirely to the paradigms of “human use” that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.  It is the notion of the virtual world linked to the development of game technology, virtual reality, and simulation, the idea of the computer as defining a space.   When we log on to computer-based environments, we become convinced that we are someplace and also that we “are there” with others who are likewise present to us.   I will concentrate on these two key aspects of the digital environments we characterize as virtual worlds -- place and presence – and present an historical account of their emergence. In addition to game worlds, virtual realities, and simulation spaces, I intend to consider the relevance of other sources of “virtual world” thinking, ranging from mathematics to fictional worlds.

Finally, I intend to address the relevance of the historical questions posed by this essay about the creation of virtual worlds to the practical matters of their curation.  I see the touch point of these two threads – creation and curation of virtual worlds – as having been anticipated in Ivan Sutherland’s remarkable 1965 essay, “The Ultimate Display.”  For Sutherland, the ultimate display was short-hand for a synthetic world that could be programmed for the purpose of experiencing an alternate reality, the “Wonderland into which Alice walked.”   When he argued that, “By working with such displays of mathematical phenomena we can learn to know them as well as we know our own natural world,” did he foresee a possibility for historical knowledge as well?