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.

    Last update: 27/8/2011

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