Being and Nothingness: Virtual Reality and the Pioneers of Cyberspace

John Perry Barlow via Medium:

Facebook buys Oculus for $2 billion, identifying virtual reality as the operating system of the future. Hollywood begins making movies in VR. Google creates VR “Spotlight Stories” that make Android phones into VR devices. A sub-branch of VR, “augmented reality,” overlays a virtual world over our real one. (Did I say “real”? That’s a relative term now.)

In short, we are smack in the middle of a virtual reality boom. But it’s not the first time. In the early 1990s, experimenters and entrepreneurs were immersing lucky test-users in fantastic (and sometimes nauseating) artificial worlds. The equipment was funkier, the resolution was spottier, and the money wasn’t nearly as big — but writers and pundits at that time were expounding on the same themes that captivate us about virtual reality in 2015.

No document in that period captured the virtual zeitgeist as well as John Perry Barlow’s 1990 “Being in Nothingness.” Barlow, who had been a Wyoming rancher and a lyricist for Grateful Dead, had only recently turned his prodigious attentions to technology (he would wind up co-founding the Electronic Frontier Foundation). During that time, he wrote a number of seminal essays about cyberspace and its implications, including this one. We at Backchannel are proud to reprint it — and we’re betting that current enthusiasts (and investors) in VR will find it shockingly relevant. — Steven Levy

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation…A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” — William Gibson, Neuromancer

Suddenly I don’t have a body anymore.

All that remains of the aging shambles which usually constitute my corporeal self is a glowing, golden hand floating before me like Macbeth’s dagger. I point my finger and drift down its length to the bookshelf on the office wall.

I try to grab a book but my hand passes through it.

“Make a fist inside the book and you’ll have it,” says my invisible guide.

I do, and when I move my hand again, the book remains embedded in it. I open my hand and withdraw it. The book remains suspended above the shelf.

I look up. Above me I can see the framework of red girders which supports the walls of the office…above them the blue-blackness of space. The office has no ceiling, but it hardly needs one. There’s never any weather here.

I point up and begin my ascent, passing right through one of the overhead beams on my way up. Several hundred feet above the office, I look down. It sits in the middle of a little island in space. I remember the home asteroid of The Little Prince with its one volcano, its one plant.

How very like the future this place might be: a tiny world just big enough to support the cubicle of one Knowledge Worker. I feel a wave of loneliness and head back down. But I’m going too fast. I plunge right on through the office floor and into the bottomless indigo below. Suddenly I can’t remember how to stop and turn around. Do I point behind myself? Do I have to turn around before I can point? I flip into brain fugue.

“Just relax,” says my guide in her cool clinical voice. “Point straight up and open your hand when you get where you want to be.”

Sure. But how can you get where you want to be when you’re coming from nowhere at all?

And I don’t seem to have a location exactly. In this pulsating new landscape, I’ve been reduced to a point of view. The whole subject of “me” yawns into a chasm of interesting questions. It’s like Disneyland for epistemologists. “If a virtual tree falls in the computer-generated forest..?” Or “How many cybernauts can dance on the head of a shaded solid?” Gregory Bateson would have loved this. Wittgenstein, phone home.

At least I know where I left my body. It’s in a room called Cyberia in a building called Autodesk in a town called Sausalito, California. Planet Earth. Milky Way. So on and so forth. My body is cradled in its usual cozy node of space-time vectors.

But I…or “I”…am in cyberspace, a universe churned up from computer code by a Compaq 386 and a pair of Matrox graphics boards, then fed into my rods and cones by VPL Eyephones, a set of goggles through whose twin, parallax-corrected video screens I see this new world.

When I move my head, the motion is tracked by a a Polhemus magnetic sensor and the imaging engine of cyberspace is instructed to alter what I see accordingly. Thus, having made a controlled ascent back up through the floor of the “office,” I turn to the left and I see a red chair with a desk behind it. I turn to the right and I see a door leading out onto the floating platform.

The configuration and position of my right hand is fed into the system by a VPL DataGlove, also with a Polhemus attached to it. The relationship between my hand and the eyephones is precisely measured by the two trackers so that my hand appears where I would expect it to. When I point or make a fist, the fiber optics sewn into the DataGlove convert kinesthetics into electronics. For a decisecond or so, my hand disappears and then reappears, glowing and toon-like, in the appropriate shape.

Despite the current confines of my little office-island, I know that I have become a traveller in a realm which will be ultimately bounded only by human imagination, a world without any of the usual limits of geography, growth, carrying capacity, density or ownership. In this magic theater, there’s no gravity, no Second Law of Thermodynamics, indeed, no laws at all beyond those imposed by computer processing speed…and given the accelerating capacity of that constraint, this universe will probably expand faster than the one I’m used to.

Welcome to Virtual Reality. We’ve leapt through the looking glass. Now what? Go ask Alice.

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