Bob Taylor had a problem.
The new head of DARPA’s ‘Information Processing Techniques Office’ (IPTO), the innocuously named but incredibly influential US Department of Defense ‘advanced research projects agency’, has moved to his Pentagon offices in 1966 to find three terminal computers. “One of them went to MIT, another to a research lab in Santa Monica, and another to the crew at UC Berkeley. He needed a different machine to talk to each of these groups. And I began to wonder why.”
Since its founding in 1962, the IPTO had lavished the Pentagon’s research budget on a variety of ideas at the cutting edge of computing. Its first director, JCR Licklider, financed efforts to make computing ‘interactive’; Simply put, you should be able to walk up to any computer, anywhere, and immediately have it do your bidding. That basically all computers work this way today is a testament to the influence of those early IPTO grants.
Ivan Sutherland, IPTO’s second director, got his job because, thanks to a grant from Licklikder, he invented the first truly interactive computer program. ‘Sketchpad’ allows users to touch a computer screen with a mouse-like device known as a ‘stylus’, and then let them draw whatever they want on that screen. Again, basically all computers do this all the time, today.
Sutherland brought a broader vision to the IPTO: an “ultimate display” that opened the door to 3D graphics, virtual and augmented reality, a shift in computing that put the human at the center of the action, rather than somewhere on the periphery. IPTO-sponsored research on “human-centric computing” became central to our entire modern conception of computing.
Sutherland handed over the IPTO to Bob Taylor, because they both agreed on the next essential direction for computing: a network to connect all these graphics-rich, interactive machines. Taylor knew that a network could help unite all of his remote investigators into a single community, because he had seen it happen before. Early interactive computer programs made it possible for a single, expensive computer to process the actions of many users simultaneously. Taylor watched those connected users communicate with each other, inventing email and chat programs and much more, to make the most of their connectivity. The connectivity, through interactions on the computer, seemed to generate something greater than the sum of the parts.
Again, this fact seems so obvious to us, more than fifty years later, that we rarely notice it. The network makes us smarter. (The web also widens a range of human characteristics that are less attractive, but that lesson is yet to come.) Taylor funded researchers who built a ‘network of networks’: the Advanced Projects Research Agency Network, or ARPANET.
Although no one knew it at the time, the ARPANET formed the embryo of today’s Internet. All of its basic techniques, for slipping data into neat little “packets”, which could then be routed from anywhere to anywhere else, were invented, tested, and improved on in the ARPANET. Best of all, Taylor made sure that all of the work was freely available to any researcher or institution that wanted to experiment, modify, or simply use the ARPANET. The idea that networks should be open to everyone, because they benefit everyone, originates with Bob Taylor, IPTO, and ARPANET.
Fast forward to 1986: the ‘microcomputer revolution’ brings computing into the home. Game designers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer wondered what might happen when they connected tens of thousands of players within ‘Habitat’, their first shared virtual world of its kind, something we would now call a ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing game’. ‘. ‘.
Habitat’s graphics weren’t very sophisticated: not on a computer, just a ten-thousandth of the power of the ones we use today. The server connection speeds that allowed players to message each other while exploring the shared virtual world could generously be called pokey. To keep players engaged, Farmer crafted a whole series of puzzles to solve after logging into his shared virtual world. “I figured it would take them at least a few days to figure out the puzzle,” Farmer recalls. “Wow, I was wrong. That puzzle was solved in minutes, and the player who solved it shared his solution with other players, who shared it with others.” Within minutes, Farmer’s carefully constructed puzzle game imploded.
However, Habitat players couldn’t care less. Habitat players connected with each other, chatting in the ‘rooms’ created by Farmer and creating their own. “We immediately learned that consuming content is less interesting than communicating and creating.”
Even the Habitat bugs, of which there were plenty, opened up new possibilities for players. “A bug allowed players to win a lot of money”: Habitat is not simply the first multiplayer online game, Farmer also invented an entire currency economy to operate within it. “And they used that money to create new games within Habitat.”
Players wanted to delight each other with their creations within Habitat because, as Bob Taylor had already learned, connectivity breeds creativity. None of that had to do with fancy graphics or super-fast connections, though. “In many ways, it’s a good thing that the technology behind Habitat was so primitive,” says Morningstar. “It kept us focused on what really mattered: people!”
Habitat never caught on: Publisher Lucasfilm struggled to market the world’s first massively multiplayer online role-playing game in a world that had never seen anything like it before. Fortunately, Chip and Randy summed up what they learned in a delightful essay, “The Lucasfilm Habitat Lessons,” which inspired a generation of online game designers to remember that people are the focal point of connectivity, and that connectivity naturally leads to creativity.
A decade later, with the Web in full swing and tens of millions of ARPANET-connected homes stripped of their defense connections, Mark Jeffrey would learn the same lesson, over and over again. ‘The Palace’, a 2D visual chat show, took off like a rocket, but not because of all the fashion brands or famous artists using the tool: people just wanted to connect and talk to each other. “The Palace was about the other people. They all wanted to chat. So the product wasn’t really The Palace, the product was the other people.”
With nearly two decades of social media behind us, we all know the value and dangers of going online. Technology helps us connect, but that has never been the point: Bob Taylor had computer terminals; Chip and Randy had cheap, rudimentary personal computers; Mark Jeffrey had fast PCs and vast content available via the Web. Everything mattered, and yet nothing mattered. Whether you call it the ARPANET or Habitat or The Palace or Metaverse, this has never been a story about the evolution of technology. This is the story of a conversation that has been going on for as long as humans have been human. Technologies will change. People will stay connected and endlessly creative.
For more stories about the people featured in this column, check out my new podcast series ‘A brief history of the metaverse‘!
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