MUSHing the Electronic Frontier

  1. The InfoPoor
  2. InfoShok
  3. Murder in Cyberspace

“If some unemployed punk in New Jersey can get a cassette to make love to Elle McPherson for $19.95, this virtual reality stuff is going to make crack look like Sanka.”--Dennis Miller

Virtual reality is Stanislaw Lem’s nightmare of perceptions on demand come true. Of course, Lem’s reality-altering drugs will never exist, and he knew this: he was writing a lesson for a world that wants drugs that can fix any problem and cure any disease, whether physical or mental. But everything that Lem’s hallucinogens could do, virtual reality can do as well. If the world still wants a panacea--and every newspaper headline screams that it does--computers stand on the threshold of providing it.

The grand vision of ‘virtual reality’ is an entire world that you are immersed in when you ‘travel’ the net. You see, feel, hear, smell, and even taste whatever the computer tells you to see, feel, hear, smell, and taste. This requires, practically, a direct hook into your brain. Should this actually be developed, an entire new field of computer hacking will develop: hacking into the ‘wetware’ (!) of the network: hacking into the user’s brain.

Stanislaw Lem, in The Futurological Congress, envisioned a world where all perceptions could be specifically modified by special mind-altering drugs. Want to memorize the bible? Swallow a bible pill. Learn Italian? Take two lessons and call me in the morning. Feeling a bit hostile towards your dad? Work out that frustration while sucking on a throttlepop. Replace ‘psychem’ and ‘drugs’ with ‘computer’ and ‘virtual reality’, and you have the future world envisioned by the proponents of full virtual reality:

In psychem-related crimes one can accomplish almost any end. You can have people include you in their wills, return your affections, cooperate in whatever enterprise you like, including conspiracy, and so on.

Books are no longer read but eaten, not made of paper but of some informational substance, fully digestible, sugar-coated.

For progress was destined to travel this path the moment narcotics and early hallucinogens were replaced by the so-called psycholocalizers, drugs whose effects were highly selective. Yet the real revolution in experiential engineering took place only twenty-five years ago, when mascons were synthesized. These are psychotropes whose specificity is so great, they can actually influence isolated sites of the brain. Narcotics do not cut one off from the world, they only change one’s attitude towards it. Hallucinogens, on the other hand, blot out and totally obscure the world. But mascons, mascons falsify the world.

By introducing properly prepared mascons to the brain, one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image--superimposed--and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not.

The fiendishness of it all is that part of this mass deception is open and voluntary, letting people think they can draw the line between fiction and fact. And since no one any longer responds to things spontaneously--you take drugs to study, drugs to love, drugs to rise up in revolt, drugs to forget--the distinction between manipulated and natural feelings has ceased to exist. (?)

This is the dream of virtual reality, where all things can be created through computer simulation. It is reflected in the new, hard-boiled science fiction genre known as cyberpunk, pioneered by William Gibson, and emulated in role-playing games such as Cyberpunk 2020™, Shadowrun™, GURPS Cyberpunk™, and Cyber Hero™. Cyberpunk worlds are twilit places where governments are powerless and massive corporations rule the world, and everyone talks like a hero from a Raymond Chandler detective novel. The infobahn of cyberpunk is the matrix, and inside the matrix, netrunners take computer hacking to new levels as they steal and trade the most secret information of corporation and government. The matrix itself is a virtual reality far beyond our present capabilities: the netrunners ‘jack in’, slang for plugging a computer directly into their brain. Once jacked in to the matrix, they are transported to the information infrastructure of the cyberpunk world. What this infrastructure looks like depends on their own ‘software’. A standard fantasy interface makes the matrix look like a fantasy world; each company’s databases look like a foreboding castle, a deep cavern, or a bustling merchant bazaar. The netrunners see themselves as mounted knights. The protective software that attempts to keep them out is seen as dragons and devils and bears. A Beatrix Potter interface, on the other hand, makes the matrix look like a huge field of rabbits. Each company database is a different warren. Each netrunner is a rabbit, and the ICE is one of the various predators: wolf, fox, or farmer.

Cyberpunk gaming is very popular on the net. The NAGEE magazine, which I founded and edited for its first year, is a magazine devoted entirely to the Shadowrun cyberpunk role-playing game, and cyberpunk has its own discussion group in the ‘big five’,

In virtual realities, “Tune in, turn on” becomes “turn on, jack in”.

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

The first son was a highly promising architect, the second a poet. The young architect, dissatisfied with his actual commissions, turned to urbifab and edifine: now he builds entire cities--in his imagination.--Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress

The walls of Seattle City Hall were of the finest marble, finely engraved with the works of both masters and local unknowns. Despite the crowd, the noise, and the numerous doors and halls, once I got my bearing I needed only follow the hallway, as if it were designed specifically for me, for this occasion. The ceilings were vaulted, but not too high, and if I didn’t know better I would’ve sworn that the light coming through the slanted windows was sunlight and not the fluorescent shine of hidden lamps.

Rather than take the elevator, I walked up the winding stairway, and the steps were comfortable enough that I didn’t tire for six floors. The stairway was thin, and gave the impression of a medieval castle, but whenever I passed someone it was never crowded.

At the sixth floor I tired of this perfect stairwell and took the elevator to the top floor, and John Doe’s office. The elevator walls were glass, and I saw the city outside, and the city was an architect’s dream, new and fresh, with construction sites and half-finished skeletons of buildings slowly erected. All the work of one man.

It was an architect’s dream. I said that without realizing it, but that’s literally what it is. The fluorescent lights that look like sunlight aren’t even fluorescence. They’re a computerized stream of information flowing into my head, coming from a chipper in the outside--the real, I remind myself--world.

My “John Doe” was the son of an old friend. He’d graduated summa cum laude from Stanford in 2046, with a degree and a fine future in architecture: building design. He had a dream, however, of a new city, an artistic creation on a grand scale for the future, but his dream was larger than the budgets of any city council. So he had to content himself with standard work, designing standard buildings in standard cities.

He was talented, no question. His work was admired by his colleagues. But since there was no room in the real world for what he wanted to do, he created a new world. He’d been jacked (!) since college; most designers are. They need to be able to step right into their designs and make adjustments from within, see how the final product will ‘look’ to those who use it.

But he’d never thought of using simsense, (!) I’m told, until some unknown admirer gave him one as a birthday present. This chip held the dreams he’d always wanted; in this sim, he was the most sought after architect in the world, and while the councils might complain and moan, their budgets always held just enough to pay for his designs.

He took me on a tour of his favorite projects, including a restaurant that he not only designed, but owned. I pointed out to him, quietly, that in truth, he owned everything here; he’d been given the CD (!) that was the foundation of the entire city. He owned the city, the city council, and citizens; they were all ‘bitstreams’, electric patterns, flowing from his computer to his jack.

He smiled at me.

“What is ownership?” he asked. “What is truth?”

He paused.

“If I believe it, it is true.”

I’d never seen a virtual world before. I used to be surprised that so many perfectly normal people could give up reality for a chip-induced fantasy. Today my surprise is that so many people remain in the real world when there are so many custom worlds for them to explore.

Hotel California

Mirrors on the ceiling...
Pink champagne on ice...
“We are all just prisoners here,
of our own device.”
In the master’s chamber,
they gather for the feast.
They stab it with their steely eyes,
but they just can’t kill the beast.
--The Eagles, Hotel California

The Dream Park is the brainchild of future activist Trurl Klapaucius. Its proponents call it the best of what the future has to offer. Experts call it, at best, a deadly scam, and at worst an example of the degenerate foretaste of a hopeless future.

>>>[This is the hope of the future, chummer. Our population has already recovered from the Vitas strain, and we’re growing faster and faster. We need more room, for more people, and the more room we take for people, the less we have for food, even synthefood. Trurl may have turned away, but he’s left us our only chance at a future of hope, rather than a future of pollution, sweat, and homeliness.]<<<

--Mel Walsinats [05:32:19/05:11:52]

Trurl emigrated from Poland to Seattle in 2030, and acquired backing for the futuristic-sounding Dream World from a number of cyber-producing corporations. Construction began on June 14, 2034, and was completed on August 6. The original Dream Park contained four hundred rooms, and Trurl sold lifetime living rights, as a ‘netcondo’, for 100,000Y each; tenants were required to be already jacked. Trurl’s responsibility over their physical bodies was limited to waste disposal, cleaning, and intravenous food.

Living conditions were spartan.

But the magic was the matrix connection. The dreamtime, he called it, and tenants spend every moment of their lives in the dreamtime, where their home is a luxurious mansion, the food is the finest cuisine the world can offer, and everyone is forever young.

The final space was sold on the forty-second day.

The public outrage was enormous, dwarfing even the misguided attempts at bio-prohibition in the twentieth century. The Seattle government clamped down, and hard, on any future ‘dream parks’. Full refunds are required by law should any ‘netcondo’ owner decide to leave. But it doesn’t matter, because no one wants to leave. No one ever unplugs from the Dreamtime.

>>>[Well, not quite. But the turnover is incredibly low. Last year, only ten vacancies opened up, and the year before, only twelve. So far this year, three people have left Dream Park, and all the vacancies have been filled immediately. Out of 1,600, that’s a pretty fraggin’ low turnover. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many of those are people leaving and how many are deaths. (Current joke among the matrix cowboys goes that only one percent of Dream Park netcondo ownerships end in “divorce”; the rest end in death.)]<<<

--Frank Bishop [06:27:33/05-12-52]

>>>[How little you know. Nobody dies in the dreamtime--we’re forever young, there’s no sickness, no disease. What is there to die from?]<<<

--Mel Walsinats [07:31:01/05-12-52]

>>>[I think you’ve mistaken your virtuality for reality, Mel old chap. Your icon may be in paradise, but your body is atrophying in its own shit.]<<<

--Wily Coyote [09:05:51/05-12-52]

>>>[Drek, Coyote-san. They take care of us here. The vessels are kept clean, and if they atrophy, well, so what? There is only one important muscle on the whole thing.]<<<

--Mel Walsinats [18:54:32/05-12-52]

The only thing Seattle accomplished was to give the Dream Park a monopoly. When Trurl sold his child in 2042 to Sam Belding, accountant for Concrete Illusion, Belding doubled the number of spaces (after all, the tenants didn’t need an entire room--they didn’t need any space other than their bed and their jack) and doubled the price of the new half-rooms to 200,000Y. He offered all current residents the opportunity to leave with a full refund; seventy-eight did so. His four hundred and seventy-eight new spaces sold purely from the waiting list, with no advertisement necessary.

It was during Belding’s tenure that Dream Park gained the nickname “Ark of the Damned”, when he let the outside of the park fall into disrepair. The neon sign that once read “Dream Park” read only “D am ark”, and some outsiders claimed this was purposeful. Belding sold in 2048, to Dr. William Hansen.

Hansen has doubled the number of spaces--and the cost of joining--again. There are now sixteen hundred netcondos in the Dream Park, and like the previous owners, Hansen had no trouble selling the new spaces.

Only government inspectors are allowed to see the inside of the Dream Park, and then only grudgingly. Visitors must ‘jack in’ through the visitor’s lounge. If they aren’t jacked, they can interact through a multimedia interface. Prospective tenants are allowed to ‘jack in’ from Hansen’s office. The waiting list is rumored to hold at least a thousand names, and other rumors claim that Hansen is planning to subdivide the rooms yet again, bringing to six or eight the number of rooms that were a single room in Trurl’s day.

The neon letters have all gone dim, and Dream Park’s new nickname in the underground is Hotel California.

Welcome to the future. Welcome to the hotel California.

My Cow Can MOO

Today’s ‘virtual worlds’, nowhere near the science fiction wonders and cyberpunk nightmares, are almost all text-only. Some virtual world creators are experimenting with sound and pictures, but this is rare, and even in the ‘worlds’ that support sound and pictures, most of the people in the world will be unable to make use of that support.

These virtual worlds are called MUDs, MUSHes, and MOOs. A MUD is a Multi-User Dungeon, because MUDs were originally developed as computerized adventure games that could be used by more than one person at a time. As a player in one of these adventure games, you would meet up with other players and join them, ignore them, or fight them.

The MUD owners could limit the MUD to players from their own organization, but most often the MUDs were open to anyone in the net. The wizard you teamed up with could well have been a player from the other side of the planet. This was an amazing advance in the primitive social world of the computer geek. Before ‘multi-user’ dungeons existed, dungeons were all single-user. Everyone you ‘met’ in a single-user computer game was controlled by the computer, and acted in a predictable manner. That went out the window with multi-user games; the hobbit that pops onto your screen could well be as devious as you. And you could talk to the hobbit about things unrelated to the adventure’s programming!

Inevitably, people began to use these multi-user games as places to meet. They would ‘log in’, create strange characters for the game, and then ignore the game world. You could be wandering through a fantasy dungeon and come across a goblin thief, a dwarf warrior, and two female magi discussing the latest Akura Kurasawa movie. It throws “suspension of disbelief” out the window, and it made some of the serious gamers angry.

Since then, MUDs have expanded to include a lot more than adventure games, and some MUD owners have found the word ‘dungeon’ in the name embarrassing. They’ve come up with new acronyms that replace the ‘dungeon’ with ‘dwelling’ or ‘domain’ because they don’t want anyone to know their world’s true origins in... shudder... adventure gaming. The serious gamers have long since been outvoted and outmoded.

My favorite MUD-style environment is a MUD variation called MOO, which is “Mud, Object Oriented”. Object Oriented is a technical term for how the MOO (!) does its business. It means that there are objects inside this MUD. Computer programs and computer data can reside on these objects, and these objects can have children. Children have all the characteristics--programs and data--of their parent object.

Now, this isn’t really very important to you, because it has to do with computer programming, and if the infobahn ever rolls up to your front door, you’re not going to have to worry about that. What is important about ‘object oriented’ virtual worlds is, first, that it superficially ‘resembles’ the real world, which is also inhabited by objects. MOOs are thus--or at least, they can be--a more natural way to use computers than the more common operating systems such as Unix, Windows, or MS-DOS, or even Macintosh. (!)

Second, being ‘object oriented’ makes it very easy to create new objects. Objects can have children. These children have all the characteristics of their parent: whatever ‘software’ or ‘data’ the parent has can also be used by the child. Programmers can also add characteristics to the child that the parent doesn’t have. This means that if there is already something in the virtual world that acts almost but not quite exactly like the object that you envision needing, you can get a child of that something; you need only make a few modifications to the child; you don’t need to start from scratch and create an entire new object, nor do you need to even understand how the parent object works. All you need to know is what you want. You still need to know how to ask for what you want, and for that you’ll need to seek out a friendly computer programmer.

Occasionally, we’ve run a MOO at the University called Valhalla. Here’s what people see when they ‘get’ to the outside of Valhalla:

Connected to valhalla.

Escape character is ‘^]’.

The valkyries drop you off at the mouth of the cave. A great dog, larger than ten men, lies chained at the cave’s entrance. Beyond, you see mighty warriors, old and young, from all ages, battling each other, preparing for the final cataclysmic war that will engulf the world. Ragnarok.

As the valkyries fly away, Garm sniffs in his sleep. If you have been here before, type:

@connect name password

to get past him. Type ‘@who’ to see who is currently in Valhalla, and @CREATE NAME PASSWORD (using lower or upper case as you desire) to create a new character for yourself. For example,

@create Balder PoohMeister

To enter as a guest, @CONNECT with one of the following guest names: GUEST, VIKING, ADA, GUTENBERG, or MARCO


Valhalla is a hell of a lot friendlier than Unix:

login: jerry

Last login: Sun Feb  5 15:19:30 from
                          University of San Diego
                          INTERNET ACCESS COMPUTER
       PARKING      The Day of Reckoning is at Hand     PARKING 
       Classes begin Wednesday, February 1, 1995. As of that    
       date all parking rules and regulations will be strictly  

And that’s half the point of Valhalla: provide a friendlier environment for the USD community to use to reach the net. If you feel like learning more about the nuts and bolts of MOOs, take a look at Valhalla’s manual, Come To Valhalla.

MOO to the Future

Oh, and consider this an invitation to stop by Valhalla if you ever make it to the highway while Valhalla is up. Say hello to Captain Video (E-Mail: CapVideo) over on the enchanted living street, Danny LaRue. Like the infobahn, Danny appears where you least expect him, and takes you where you want to go but never dared.

MOOs give us a glimpse of what the infobahn will be like in five years. The MOO version of MUSHing has been created and maintained at Xerox’s PARC laboratories. This is the same laboratory that spawned the GUI revolution which brought mice, icons, and windows to our ‘desktops’. (!) MOO, as revolutionary as it is, does not stand to bring us beyond the ‘desktop’ metaphor. But its successor may well bring the ‘world’ literally to our ‘desktop’. Pavel Curtis, the guiding force behind MOO, writes about this future Spawn of MOO:

We have for some time been planning a new project here at PARC to design, build, and freely release a system we call the Fabric, a fully distributed, robust, secure, and powerful computational and communications substrate. The Fabric will be designed and implemented specifically to support a single, Internet-spanning social virtual reality; you wouldn’t be far off to think of the Fabric as being the SVR equivalent of the Web, with literally many millions of independent servers loosely cooperating to create the illusion of a vast, seamless virtual space that eventually encompasses the whole of the Internet and all of its available information and service resources. (?)

Pavel envisions a net where any person can find a partner for any game of bridge, bringing “MUD” full circle back to its gaming roots. But it is also a place where customers can find merchants, and where merchants can run a home storefront without the loss of privacy which that usually entails. In this example, Mashoud is a teenager in Pakistan, shopping for a gemstone for his mother. Izak is a gem merchant. Where he is doesn’t matter: he’s on the infobahn.

“A nice, family dinner,” Izak thought, sitting down with his children to wait for his wife Anna to bring in the roast she’d been cooking all morning. “All of us together in the middle of the day to break br--” Izak’s complacencies were interrupted by the sound of a bell tinkling, coming from the computer in his den. As his wife appeared at the door with a great steaming platter, Izak sighed and rose from the table. They exchanged a resigned look, and he moved toward the den; they couldn’t afford to ignore potential customers. “For a shopkeeper’s family, some things never change,” thought Anna.

“Welcome, welcome!” boomed Izak as he sat down at the computer, but then he noticed that the person in his Net “shop” was using only plain text, not the audio and video he was used to from most of his customers. “So this `Mashoud’ fellow has money for gemstones and not for his computer?” he mused skeptically as he typed out his customary greeting instead. As they talked, though, Izak began to warm to Mashoud, who described what he was looking for with great precision. Izak was impressed; it was always a pleasure to deal with a knowledgeable customer, and this Pakistani youngster had certainly done his homework.

After a time, Izak said that he thought he could acquire a matched pair of rubies meeting Mashoud’s requirements, but that it might take as much as a few weeks. Before going to such trouble, though, Izak explained that it was usual to have some proof of the customer’s ability to pay. “Just a formality, you understand,” he typed.

Mashoud said that he had been led to expect something of this nature. He opened a user interface to his local bank, acquired a signed certificate giving a suitable lower bound on his current balance, and handed that to Izak. Izak then had his own software check both the validity of the signature and the reputation ratings for Mashoud’s bank. The chain of recommendations, extending from Lloyd’s of London through the Pakistani national banking authority, was a bit unusual in Izak’s experience, but otherwise seemed solid. Izak thanked Mashoud for his indulgence.

After assuring Mashoud that he would send him e-mail as soon as he found appropriate stones, Izak stayed at the computer barely long enough to watch him leave the shop. He then left his den for the dining room and the roast whose smell had tantalized him throughout the transaction. (?)

At Valhalla MOO, and at other MOOs across the net, we’re working on getting pictures and sound up as well, but it’s really just a stopgap measure until something real comes along. Fabric, two years into the future, may be what we need. But we’ll still have to make do with the old, out-dated MOO for at least two years, and when Fabric--or whatever ends up coming out in a few years--finally supersedes good old MOO, there will be an entrenched base of MOO users who will not change. Someone will make a ‘link’ between MOO and Fabric, and we’ll have the same problem then as we do now trying to get Web graphics and sound over purely text-based connections. For computer professionals, few things never change, except inertia.

Meanwhile, commercial businesses are rushing to get their version of cyberspace on-line as well, so that they can make money from it. Fujitsu and Compuserve, for example, are collaborating on “WorldsAway”, a totally graphical chat environment where animated “avatars” interact in a virtual cocktail party. Each participant can control his or her avatar, making it walk across the room, sit down, etc., Conversation is depicted cartoon-style in a balloon over the avatar’s head. Characters can move, examine, exchange and sell objects online using tokens, and can even invite other characters to their own private residences for some one-on-one chat time. The service will be widely available next fall, but initial trials are already starting. (?)

From this description, “WorldsAway” is little more than a MUD with a simple graphical interface. Another “virtual chat” service, Worlds Chat, allows people to choose chess pieces, real people, and blowfish as their avatars, and conversations take place on mountains, spaceships, and convention centers. (?)

Something called “Palace” is already available on the Macintoshes to do the same thing, and it’s free for the taking on the net.

Game companies are also working on virtual worlds. As always, games are ahead of the curve when it comes to new technologies. They taken the information highway metaphor so far they’re already running into cybersickness, a brand of motion sickness that causes cold sweats and nausea.

As virtual reality becomes more realistic, increasing instances of simulator sickness--cold sweats, nausea, vomiting-- are a growing concern. Sega Corp. withdrew its Genesis 16 system after an evaluation of the prototypes showed that 40% of users were experiencing cybersickness. Some companies have dealt with the problem by making their products less immersive, thus cuing the brain that what it’s processing is not real. But that strategy has its drawbacks, too. “If you adjust too many parameters and too many people get sick it is a bad ride, but if you make the realism factor too low and people don’t get sick, then it’s also a bad ride.” (?)

What seems to be happening is that the mind isn’t prepared to deal with half the feeling of motion--the illusion of movement with no inertia. So it opens up new neural pathways to deal with the problem. (?))

Soon, video games may well come with a packet of motion sickness pills. For a short period, video screens may retain their edge over “full immersion” cyberspace because of this problem. But the problem will go away as children are introduced to cyberspace at younger and younger ages. When their minds adapt while young, they won’t notice the problem.

We had the same problem when motor vehicles were introduced. Motion sickness was common until kids grew up riding in cars. As younger children are exposed to virtual reality, they’ll be able to use the advanced technology while their parents are stuck with television screens.

  1. There is a special terminology for the parts of a computer system: hardware, which is the physical computer, and software, which is how you use your computer. A word processor is ‘software’, a computer monitor is ‘hardware’. Computer geeks have also coined the term ‘wetware’, which is the human (or other creature) who is using the computer. You are the wetware. Computer geeks have a special disdain for wetware.
  2. Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress, pp. 74, 80, 113, 120.
  3. Jacked: able to plug one’s brain into a computer.
  4. Simsense: sim ulated senses . A computer chip that simulates a virtual reality, recreating an entire world. The chip is usually plugged into a computer, which simsense users jack into.
  5. CD: chip dream.
  6. On the infobahn, the term MOO is usually reserved for a single piece of computer software organized and mostly under the control of a computer programmer at PARC with the name of Pavel Curtis. While I’m using ‘MOO’ as a more generic term for any object-oriented MUD, most of my experience does, in fact, come from Pavel’s stepchild.
  7. ’Object oriented’ isn’t limited to MOOs. C++, which is poised to become the major programming language of tomorrow--and has been for ten years--is also object oriented. Java, which is poised to knock C++ off the edge of the known world, is also object-oriented.
  8. GUI is also known as the WIMP. GUI is Graphical User Interface. WIMP is Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer. Pointer is somewhat redundant; conceptually it’s the same thing as the mouse. It’s the arrow that moves around the computer monitor depending on where you move your mouse. WIMP itself, originally derogatory, is a dying phrase, as even the Unix bastions convert from command-line to GUI.
  9. Pavel Curtis, in a post to the MOO-Cows mailing list, February 2, 1995.
  10. Jupiter Project Team, Not a Highway, but a Place: Joint Activity on the Net, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
  11. EDUPAGE 3/21/95, reporting from Information & Interactive Services Report 3/10/95 p.3
  12. EDUPAGE 4/4/95, reporting from Wall Street Journal, 4/3/95, p. B2.
  13. EDUPAGE 6/15/95, reporting from Technology Review, July 1995, p. 14.
  14. Business Week, 7/10/95, p. 110, quoted in EduPage 7/9/95.
  1. The InfoPoor
  2. InfoShok
  3. Murder in Cyberspace