Bob Taylor had a problem.
The new head of the innocuously named but incredibly influential ‘Information Processing Techniques Office’ (IPTO) of DARPA – the US Department of Defense’s ‘Advanced Research Projects Agency’ – has moved into his offices from the Pentagon in 1966 to find three computers. terminals. “One of them went to MIT, another to a research lab in Santa Monica, and another to the team at UC Berkeley. I needed a different machine to talk to each about these groups. And I started to wonder why.
Since its founding in 1962, the IPTO had devoted the Pentagon’s research budget to a range of ideas at the cutting edge of computing. Its first director, JCR Licklider, funded efforts to make computing “interactive” – simply put, you should be able to walk to any computer, anywhere, and immediately be able to use it. do what you want. The fact that virtually all computers operate this way today attests to the influence of these early IPTO grants.
Ivan Sutherland, the second director of the IPTO, got his job because, with a grant from Licklikder, he invented the first truly interactive computer program. “Sketchpad” lets users tap a computer screen with a mouse-like device called a “light pen” – 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 twist on computing that puts the human at the center of the action , rather than somewhere on the outskirts. IPTO-sponsored research on “human-centered computing” has become central to all of our modern understanding of computing.
Sutherland entrusted the IPTO to Bob Taylor, because the two agreed on the next essential direction for computing: a network to connect all these interactive and graphic-rich machines. Taylor knew that a network could help bring all of his remote researchers together into one community, because he had seen it happen before. The earliest interactive computer programs allowed a single expensive computer to process the actions of multiple users simultaneously. Taylor saw these connected users contacting each other – inventing messaging and chat programs and much more – in order to make the most of their connectivity. Connectivity, through interactions on the computer, seemed to produce 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 network also amplifies a range of human characteristics that are less appealing – but that lesson still remains decades in the future.) Taylor funded the researchers who built a “network of networks” – the Advanced Projects Research Agency Network, or ARPANET.
Although nobody knew it at the time, ARPANET formed the embryo of today’s Internet. All of its basic techniques—for dragging data into neat little “packets,” which could then be routed from anywhere to anywhere else—were invented, tested, and improved on the ARPANET. Even better, Taylor made sure that all of the work was freely available to any researcher or institution wishing to experiment, modify, or simply use ARPANET. The idea that networks should be open to everyone, because they benefit everyone, comes from 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 could happen when they connected tens of thousands of players in “Habitat”, their first-of-its-kind shared virtual world – something we would now call a “game of massively multiplayer online role”. ‘.
Habitat’s graphics weren’t very sophisticated – not on a computer just ten thousandth the power of those we use today. The server connection speeds that allowed players to message each other as they explored the shared virtual world could generously be called pokey. To keep players engaged, Farmer has crafted a whole host of puzzles to solve after logging into their shared virtual world. “I estimated it would take them at least a few days to solve the puzzle,” Farmer recalls. “Boy, was I wrong. This puzzle was solved in minutes – and the player who solved it shared their solution with other players, who shared it with others. Within minutes, Farmer’s carefully constructed puzzle game imploded.
Still, Habitat players couldn’t care less. Habitat players connected to each other, conversed in Farmer-created “rooms” – and created their own. “We immediately understood that consuming content is less interesting than communicating – and creating.”
Even Habitat bugs – of which there were many – opened up new possibilities for players. “A bug made players a lot of money,” – Habitat isn’t just the first multiplayer online game, Farmer also invented a full money economy to run 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 learned before – connectivity breeds creativity. Yet none of this had to do with fancy graphics or lightning-fast connections. “In many ways, it’s a good thing that the technology behind Habitat is so primitive,” says Morningstar. “It kept us focused on what really mattered – the people!”
Habitat never really caught on – publisher Lucasfilm struggled to bring the world’s first massively multiplayer online role-playing game to market 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 Habitat Lessons from Lucasfilm,” inspiring a generation of online game designers to remember that people are the essence of life. connectivity – and that connectivity naturally leads to creativity.
A decade later, with the Web booming – and tens of millions of homes connected to an ARPANET stripped of its defense industry connections – Mark Jeffrey would learn the same lesson, once again. “The Palace”, a 2D visual chat program, took off like a rocket – but not because of all the hot brands or famous artists using the tool: people just wanted to connect and talk. “The Palace was about other people. Everyone wanted to chat. And so the product wasn’t really The Palace – the product was the others.
With nearly two decades of social media behind us, we all know the value – and the dangers – of connecting. Technology helps us connect, but that was never the point: Bob Taylor had computer terminals; Chip and Randy had cheap, rudimentary personal computers; Mark Jeffrey had fast computers and the vast content available via the web. It all mattered – and yet none of it mattered. Whether you call it ARPANET or Habitat or The Palace or the Metaverse, it has never been a story about the evolution of technology. It’s the story of a conversation that’s been going on for as long as humans have been human. Technologies will change. People will stay – connected and endlessly creative.
For more stories from the people mentioned in this column, please check out my new podcast series’A Brief History of the Metaverse‘!
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