Bob Taylor had a problem.
The newly appointed head of DARPA’s innocently named but incredibly influential Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) — the US Department of Defense’s “Advanced Research Projects Agency” — moved into his Pentagon office in 1966 to locate three computer terminals. “One of them went 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.”
Since its inception in 1962, the IPTO had squandered the Pentagon’s research budget on a variety of ideas at the very frontier of computing. Its first director, JCR Licklider, funded an effort to make computers “interactive” – simply put, you should be able to walk up to any computer, anywhere, and instantly make it do what you want. That virtually all computers work this way today is a testament to the influence of these early IPTO grants.
Ivan Sutherland, the 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 tap on a computer screen with a mouse-like device known as a “light pen” — and then draw whatever they want on that screen. Again, basically all computers do this all the time these days.
Sutherland brought a larger vision to the IPTO: an “ultimate display” that opened the door to 3D graphics, virtual and augmented reality, a twist on computing that put the human at the center of the action, not somewhere on the fringes . The research on “Human-Centered Computing” funded by the IPTO became a central part of our entire modern conception of computing.
Sutherland gave the IPTO to Bob Taylor because they both agreed on the next major direction for computers: a network to connect all these interactive, graphics-rich machines. Taylor knew that a network could help bring all of his far-flung researchers together into a single community—because he had seen it before. The very first interactive computer programs allowed a single, expensive computer to process the actions of many users simultaneously. Taylor watched as these connected users reached out to each other — invented email, chat programs, and more — to make the most of their connectivity. Connectivity via interactions on the computer seemed to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.
This fact, too, seems so obvious to us – more than fifty years later – that we hardly notice it anymore. The network makes us smarter. (The network also reinforces a number of less attractive human traits—but that lesson was decades away.) Taylor funded the researchers who built a “network of networks”—the Advanced Projects Research Agency Network, or ARPANET.
Although no one knew it at the time, ARPANET formed the embryo of today’s Internet. All of its basic techniques – packing data into neat little “packets” that can then be routed from anywhere to anywhere – were invented, tested, and improved on ARPANET. Best of all, Taylor made sure that all of the work was freely available to any researcher or institution that wanted to experiment with ARPANET, modify it, or just use it. The idea that networks should be open to everyone because they benefit everyone came from Bob Taylor, IPTO and ARPANET.
Fast forward to 1986: The “microcomputer revolution” brings computers into the home. Game designers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer wondered what would happen if they linked tens of thousands of players together in Habitat, their first shared virtual world of their kind — something we’re now calling a massively multiplayer online role-playing game would ‘.
Habitat’s graphics weren’t very fancy – not on a computer that’s only a ten-thousandth the performance of those we use today. Connection speeds to the server, which allowed players to message each other while exploring the shared virtual world, could generously be described as weak. To keep players busy, Farmer has devised a whole series of puzzles that must be solved after they have logged into their shared virtual world. “I figured it would take them at least a couple of days to solve the mystery,” recalls Farmer. “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.” Within minutes, Farmer’s carefully constructed puzzle game imploded.
But that didn’t matter to the Habitat players. Habitat players socialized, chatted in the “rooms” Farmer created – and created 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 up new possibilities for players. “A bug allowed players to earn a lot of money” – Not only is Habitat the first multiplayer online game, Farmer also invented an entire monetary economy to function in it. “And they’ve used that money to develop 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. But none of this had anything to do with fancy graphics or super-fast connections. “In many ways, it’s a good thing that the technology behind Habitat was so primitive,” Morningstar says. “This allowed us to focus on what really counts – the 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. Luckily, Chip and Randy compiled what they learned into a delightful essay, The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat, which inspired a generation of online game designers to remember that humans are the crux of connectivity – and that connectivity naturally breeds creativity.
A decade later, with the Internet in full swing—and tens of millions of homes connected to an ARPANET bereft of its defense sector connections—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 each other. “The palace was about the other people. Everyone wanted to chat. So the product wasn’t really The Palace – the product was the other people.”
With almost two decades of social media, we all know the value – and the dangers – of connection. Technology helps us connect, but that’s never the point: Bob Taylor had computer terminals; Chip and Randy had cheap and rudimentary personal computers; Mark Jeffrey had fast PCs and the massive amount of content available over the web. Everything was important – and yet none of it. 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 the story of a conversation that has been going on for as long as humans have existed. Technologies will change. People will stay connected and endlessly creative.
For more stories about the people mentioned in this column, check out my new podcast series ‘A Brief History of the Metaverse‘!
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