So, I’m about a third of the way through the book Snowcrash. It’s one of the standard novels of the cyberpunk genre of books that were popular in the 80s and early 90s. ‘Cyberpunk’, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to science fiction stories featuring computers and computer hackers. Usually there is some kind Internet which manifests itself as a complex virtual reality which rebellious protagonists log in and out of to perform heroic deeds which would be impossible in the real world. Think of The Matrix and you have a rough idea of what the genre is like.
I haven’t actually read any cyberpunk books aside from this one so I’m pretty new to the genre myself, but it’s gotten me thinking a little. Cyberpunk was largely popular before the rise of the actual Internet. A lot of it was really speculation as to how a world wide network of computers would affect the lives of regular human beings. That is, it was speculation at the time these books were written; now we know what the Internet looks like.
Cyberpunk generally (I’ve done my research) pictured the Internet as a sort of virtual reality where realities of computer networks were given representations based on analog, real world equivalents. So, for example, a search engine would be represented by a research librarian or something similar. In our real world Internet however, a search engine is just a box you type words into and instead of a giant virtual world, the Internet is rather a collection of pages linked together through abstractions such as hyperlinks which have no equivalent in the real world. While in some ways the cyberpunk vision has come true, the idea of a virtual reality environment being the central metaphor for the Internet really just hasn’t materialized.
Why is this? I don’t think it’s because a virtual reality is beyond out technical abilities, because it isn’t. We’ve actually had virtual reality as early as the 80s but it’s always remained a novelty. Even serious attempts to replicate the VR worlds in a cyberpunk universe, such as Second Life, have remained novelties.
I think the reason for this is pretty simple. There just isn’t a very strong mapping between the tasks of which computers are capable. Navigating the Internet for example just doesn’t translate well to any real world locomotion. When you can connect to any computer in the world nearly instantly, walking anywhere seems like a waste. Really navigating the Internet is less like traveling of any kind and more like changing the channels on a radio.
Even more to the point, many of the things which we want from the Internet, such as more efficient access to information, access to computerized tools, etc., don’t really benefit from a sort of virtual reality interface. Communication is the only Internet based activity which might benefit from a virtual reality interface as it allows gestures and things that don’t translate well through straight text, but even then, video chat is mostly a better solution. So a virtual reality is redundant and would get in the way for most tasks; there’s really no reason to use a virtual reality interface at all.
So given this obvious mismatch between VR and actual uses of computer and the Internet, where did this idea come from and why is it so prominent? I think that that’s a question for another time.