Bob Taylor had a problem.
The newly-minted head of the innocuously-named but impossibly influential ‘Information Processing Techniques Office’ (IPTO) of DARPA – the ‘advanced research projects agency’ of the US Department of Defense – moved into his Pentagon offices in 1966 to find three computer terminals. “One of them went off to MIT, another to a research lab in Santa Monica, and another to the crew at UC Berkeley. I needed a different machine to talk to each of these groups. And I started to wonder why.”
From its foundation in 1962, the IPTO had lavished the Pentagon’s research budget on a range of ideas at the far edge of computing. Its first director, JCR Licklider, funded efforts to make computing ‘interactive’ – simply put, you should be able to walk up to any computer, anywhere, and immediately be able to make it do your bidding. That basically all computers work this way today is testament to the influence of those early IPTO grants.
Ivan Sutherland, the second director of the IPTO, got his position because – courtesy of a grant from Licklikder – he invented the first truly interactive computer program. ‘Sketchpad’ let users tap a computer display with a mouse-like device known as a ‘light pen’ – then let them draw whatever they liked to that display. Again, basically all computers do this all the time, today.
Sutherland brought a bigger vision to the IPTO: an ‘ultimate display’ that opened the door to 3D graphics, virtual and augmented reality, a spin on computing that put the human in the centre of the action, rather than somewhere out on the periphery. IPTO-sponsored research into ‘human-centred computing’ became central to our entire modern conception of computing.
More on virtual reality: Across the Metaverse
Sutherland handed the IPTO over to Bob Taylor, because both of them agreed about the next essential direction for computing: a network to connect all of these interactive, graphically-rich machines together. Taylor knew a network could help knit all of his far-flung researchers into a single community – because he’d already seen it happen. The very first interactive computer programs made it possible for a single, expensive computer to process actions from many users, simultaneously. Taylor watched those connected users reach out to one another – inventing email and chat programs and much more besides – in order to get the most out of their connectivity. Connectivity, via interactions on the computer, seemed to bring forth something greater than the sum of the parts.
Again, this fact seems so obvious to us – more than fifty years later – that we rarely even note it. The network makes us smarter. (The network also amplifies a range of human characteristics that are less attractive – but that lesson still lay some decades in the future.) Taylor funded the researchers who built a ‘network of networks’ – the Advanced Projects Research Agency Network, or ARPANET.
Although no one knew at the time, ARPANET formed the embryo of today’s Internet. All of its basic techniques – to slide data into neat little ‘packets’, which could then be routed from anywhere to anywhere else – was invented, tested and improved on ARPANET. Best of all, Taylor made sure all the work was freely available to any researcher or institution that wanted to experiment with, modify or simply use ARPANET. The idea that networks should be open to all, because they benefit all – that originates with Bob Taylor, the IPTO and ARPANET.
Get an update of science stories delivered straight to your inbox.
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 players within ‘Habitat’, their first-of-its-kind shared virtual world – something we’d now call a ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing game’.
Habitat’s graphics weren’t very fancy – not on a computer just one ten-thousandth the power of the ones we use today. Connection speeds to the server that allowed players to message one another as they explored the shared virtual world could generously be called pokey. To keep players engaged, Farmer worked up a whole series of puzzles to be solved after logging onto their shared virtual world. “I reckoned it would take them at least a few days to solve the puzzle,” recalls Farmer. “Boy, was I wrong. That puzzle got 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.
Yet Habitat’s players couldn’t have cared less. Habitat’s players were connecting with one another, conversing in the ‘rooms’ created by Farmer – and creating their own. “We learned right away that consuming content is less interesting than communicating – and creating.”
Even Habitat’s bugs – of which there were many – opened new possibilities for players. “One bug allowed players to earn a lot of cash,” – Habitat isn’t merely the first multiplayer online game, Farmer also invented a complete money economy to operate within it. “And they used that cash to create new games within Habitat.”
Players wanted to delight one another with their creations within Habitat, because – as Bob Taylor had already learned – connectivity brought forth creativity. Yet none of it had to do with fancy graphics or super-fast connections. “In a lot of ways, it’s a good thing the technology behind Habitat was so primitive,” Morningstar says. “It kept us focused on what really mattered – the people!”
Habitat never really caught on – publisher Lucasfilm had a hard time trying to market the world’s first massively multiplayer online roleplaying game to a world that had never seen anything like it before. Fortunately, Chip and Randy summarised what they learned in a delightful essay, “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat”, inspiring a generation of online game designers to remember that people are the whole point of connectivity – and that connectivity leads naturally to creativity.
A decade later, with the Web in full swing – and tens of millions of homes connected to an ARPANET stripped of its connections to the defence sector – Mark Jeffrey would learn the same lesson, all over again. ‘The Palace’, a 2D visual chat program, took off like a rocket – but not because of all the trendy brands or famous entertainers using the tool: people just wanted to connect and talk to one another. “The Palace was about the other people. Everybody wanted to chat. And so the product was not really The Palace – the product was the other people.”
With almost two decades of social media behind us, we all know the value – and the dangers – of connecting. Technology helps us to connect, but it’s never been the point: Bob Taylor had computer terminals; Chip and Randy had cheap and rudimentary personal computers; Mark Jeffrey had fast PCs and the vast content available via the Web. All of it mattered – and yet none of it did. Whether you call it ARPANET or Habitat or The Palace or the Metaverse, this has never been a story about the evolution of technology. This is a story of a conversation that’s been going on for as long as humans have been human. The technologies will change. The people will remain – connected and endlessly creative.
For more stories about the folks mentioned in this column, please check out my new podcast series ‘A Brief History of the Metaverse’!
Like the Weekly? You’ll love COSMOS quarterly magazine.
The biggest news, in detail, quarterly. Buy a subscription today.