Constructing the Virtual Campus

Constructing the Virtual Campus

[Text of a paper delivered by John Unsworth at the 1994 Modern Language Association meeting in Toronto]

This paper is about my experience in constructing three text-based virtual worlds; it is also, to some extent, about the mapping of those worlds as expressive, pedagogical, and disciplinary "spaces"--or, one might better say, texts.. The first of these text-spaces was the virtual campus at North Carolina State University, on which I taught two courses; the second is PMC-MOO, sponsored by the electronic journal Postmodern Culture as a conference facility/slash/theme-park on the topic of postmodernism, formerly hosted at NC State, now moved with me to the University of Virginia; the third is a conference facility-cum-reading room for the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

In a panel of papers on postmodern maps, I feel a bit like the odd one out, since the terrain I'm discussing is still peppered with primitive "here be dragons" markers. Because this sort of relatively unmapped terrain inspires some predictable but misguided hopes and fears, let me begin by listing a few of the claims I am not going to make:

That's more than enough negative generalization to start with: now we move on to definitions and examples. The virtual campus, PMC-MOO and the Institute's conference center are all MUDs, an acronymn for Multi-User Dungeon. Actually, MUDs are only the earliest of a class of programs developed for playing dungeons and dragons over the networks--real-time, text adventure games (not unlike those old BASIC-language computer games, with the difference that you can meet other players in the game-space). All three of my ventures into this kind of text-based virtual reality have involved a cousin of MUDs called a MOO, which stands for MUD, Object-Oriented. MOO-code was developed by researchers at Xerox's Palo-Alto Research Center, principally by Pavel Curtis. These programs run on Unix machines, and although one can make a direct telnet connection to these virtual worlds, just as one might telnet into a library catalogue system or other networked resources, it is often best to operate a MOO (or MUD, for that matter) through a client program (programs such as these are freely available on the network, for all three major hardware platforms).

To the extent that one can generalize about these environments, MOOs tend to be less goal-oriented, less violent, less sexual, and more academic than MUDs, and they also tend (by virtue of their object-oriented nature) to be more easily editable and programmable from within. MOOs share with MUDs and other kinds of multi-user environments (MUSHes, LPMuds, MUSEs, etc.) the general quality of being extremely absorbing--surprisingly so, given the low bandwidth of their text-only user interface. In fantasy adventure MUDs, it is not uncommon for players to spend forty hours a week logged in and playing; some spend twice that, sometimes at a stretch. Even in more academic MOOs, one finds people who spend many hours a day logged in, and people who will invest hundreds of hours in acquiring self-taught expertise in the MOO programming language, in order to create interesting, useful, or entertaining objects for themselves and the others. At LambdaMOO, the originary MOO still running at Xerox PARC, over 2,000 "citizens" vote on issues of comunity interest, participate in architecture review boards and mediation panels, and generally maintain what would qualify as a very active civic life in any "real town." The players on these MU*s come from anywhere on the internet, which is to say almost anywhere in the world; in a few cases, they constitute a tightly knit and well-defined interest group of some sort, but more often than not they are simply net-travelers attracted by the name or the theme of the MU*, and increasingly, as the size and nature of the internet's user population changes, the players are people who, while joyriding around the net, stumble in on these roadside attractions and decide to stay.

My first experience with a MOO was very much of this type: I read about MUDs on the TechnoCulture Listserv discussion group, and LambdaMOO was mentioned as a good place to visit for a taste of MUDding. I telnetted into Lambda as a (nameless but colorful) guest, and within a few minutes I was already considering the possibillity of using this sort of interactive, multi- user program as a teaching tool. I'll admit, this associative leap was made, in part, because I was faced in my 'real life' with teaching a composition class for Engineers, and I don't really like teaching composition, so I was half looking for something to make the task more interesting. During that first visit, I found myself talking to a female player who turned out to be a male astrophysicist and wizard of the MOO (wizard being a cross between a janitor and an omnipotent deity). This was David van Buren from Cal Tech, and it turned out that he was at that time (a year ago now) setting up AstroVR, a MOO for astronomy conferencing. This MOO, which still exists, incorporates sound and graphics via some very fancy implementation of network technology and some very simple client programs. Dave was quite interested in seeing MOOs used for teaching, and he helped me get up to speed in the week or two I had to prepare.

With more help from Engineering Computer Operations (initially rather suspicious of the whole idea, since MUDs were banned at NCSU as they are at many campuses), I got the virtual campus set up in time for the Spring Semester's class, and spent about a hundred hours learning the programming language well enough to operate the basic elements. I also had invaluable help from several students, one paid as an assistant and two more who came in, under aliases and via some fairly underground network pathways, from Washington University and somewhere in Cambridge. It soon became clear that there was an inverse relation between age and expertise: the 35-year-old knew the least (and ostensibly controlled the most), the 21-year old was more knowledgeable, the 18-year-old more so, and the 16-year-old could run circles around all of us put together. During these initial days, it was my firm belief that somewhere out there, there was an eight-year-old who knew absolutely everything--and I'm sure there is.

During the semester that followed, I taught two sections of freshman composition to Benjamin Franklin Scholars--Engineers double-majoring in the humanities. All of these students already had internet accounts and had been through a very rudimentary short-course on Engineering Computing operations; contrary to what I expected, not all of the students were computer literate, and some were even rather computer-phobic. After two weeks of introductory reading, training, and discussion, we met half of the time in a physical classroom and half the time on the virtual campus. Because all definitions of space are textual, as are all communications within or across spaces, and because the MOO relays eac remark made by anyone in a MOO room to all others in that room, so that no one can be interrupted, many of my students (and all of our guests, found the MOO very demanding and sometimes chaotic and confusing. In short, those students who had grown up doing their homework with the TV and the stereo going, seemed right at home; those who could deal with only one channel at a time, were disoriented and found the MOO much too noisy for their taste. On theother hand, each class left behind a complete textual record of everything said in the meeting, available for each to review as he or she chose.

The course itself had a narrative and a role-playing element, intended to capitalize on the role-playing heritage of the MOO. At the beginning of the course, each section was told that they were a panel of advisors to Al Gore (played woodenly, by me); their job was to come up with a twenty-page position paper to guide government policy on each of four issues--privacy rights, public access, intellectual property, and computer crime. Each member of the class was required to declare an area of expertise (lawyer, economist, sociologist, ethicist, whatever they chose) that would account for his or her presence on this panel, and furthermore each student was required to choose a committee assignment as an editor, a network resource person, or a traditional library resource person. Students then outlined the issues they wanted to address, took the part of the outline that fit their expertise, researched and wrote that one-to-two-page section, swapped drafts with the other class, and then on the basis of further research, the coments of the other class, and my comments on their drafts, they collectively revised the separate sections into a single document. Once during each topic round, the class met with real experts who joined the class on the virtual campus--these were lawyers, librarians, lobbyists, and others who would read the students' drafts and then spend an hour or so with each section in discussion. At the end of the revision process, one position paper would be selected for the final white paper, to be mailed to the real Al Gore.

It was not accidental that the networks were the subject of the class: I wanted the students to explore networked resources for at least half of their research, and at that point (it's still true to a lesser extent) there was more information on the net about the net than about any other single topic. The content and fate of this particular class is off the map of my topic, so to speak, but I do think it is worth mentioning that this was, without a doubt, the best composition class I have ever taught, the student writing was the best I have ever incited, and the students themselves were extremely diligent, self- organizing, and enthusiastic about the class, often running class sessions on their own and often meeting after hours to do small group work.

Given the unusually self-disciplined and self-disciplining quality of the subects in this experiment, it will perhaps not come as a surprise to learn that the layout of the virtual campus was modelled (at least, above-ground) on Foucault's (or actually, Bentham's) panopticon, which we chose as the most effective representation we could think of for any institutional structure. The (description, remember, of the) layout referred to a circular building of several levels, with a central observation point. In fact, that point existed and you could quite literally stand in that room and tune into the conversations going on in any other room in the panopticon. The only difference between this panopticon and the original was the rather significant one that the student/prisoners were free to occupy that central point. And, when it came to discussing privacy rights, the panopticon provided us with some practical examples.

The second plane of the campus, though, was below-ground, where we had the rhizomic steam tunnels. These tunnels were actually areas where the students were free to build anything they wanted, create their own rooms, and connect those rooms in any manner they desired to any other room in the steam tunnels. As you can imagine, the cells assigned to each student in the Panopticon very quickly developed trap doors with laundry chutes or waterslides down into the steam tunnels. Students did spend all hours of the night and day logged into the campus, talking with one another, sometimes working on class materials sometimes not, sometimes programming useful objects for extra credit, but they spent most of that time below-ground.

My second experiment with a MOO was to set up PMC-MOO, a conference center plus theme-park of postmodernism. The purpose of PMC- MOO was to provide a real-time channel for interaction among readers and authors of Postmodern Culture, and also to provide an opportnity to program object lessons in postmodern theory. Once again, the terrain of the place was early on divided into two realms, one ordered (or disciplinary) and one disordered (or post-disciplinary). In the ordered realm, we had (still have) a library, a conference center, some offices, and a lobby. In the disordered (and much larger) section, there are rooms upon rooms upon rooms, some interesting (such as David Sewell's Borges rooms, where you can talk with Funes the Memorius, visit the library of Babel, or write Menard's Quixote) and many more simply banal elfin bowers, or worse.

In an early attempt (inspired, in spirit, by Jim English) to make this environment suitably hostile and arbitrary, we created all rooms in the terrain of postmodernism (that is, in the major, post-disciplinary area of PMC-MOO) as children of the genderfuck room, the effect of which was that, each time one entered the terrain of postmodernism, one's self-designed description and gender would be stripped off, and one would be randomly assigned a race, class, gender, and sexual orientation immediately visible to all other players. The effect of this very crude device, like the content of the class on the virtual campus, is not really part of any talk about maps and space (though it has something to do with road signs in the social field). In any case, it is worth noting. Weeks upon weeks of vociferous argument and extended discussion ensued, with many participants claiming (quite rightly) that this additive and label-oriented approach to identity was the worst sort of hackwork: but the interesting thing was that, this critique notwithstanding, the crude device did produce its intended effect, though in an unanticipated way. It made people (including our non-academic, teen-weenie joyriders) focus on questions of identity politics in a way that they otherwise might not have done.

PMC-MOO has recently undergone a change of location, from an aging DECstation in North Carolina to a much newer and faster DEC Alpha in Virginia: we took this opportunity to stage an apocalypnic, during which people logged into the MOO in North Carolina while it self-destructed; all the time, a second copy was already running in Virginia, where it continues today. We also took the opportunity, with the death and rebirth of the MOO, to institute some changes in the ground rules, including email registration (formerly, one could be completely anonymous; now, a wizard can match up a real-life identity with a MOO player. We did this because, after PMC-MOO was mentioned in WIRED magazine, we began to have a lot of trouble with disruptive aggression--MOO terrorism, if you will--by the joyriders of cyberspace--whereupon a sort of Gresham's law kicked in, and the bad started to drive out the good. Inasmuch as there are many, many MUDs intended for aggressive play and very few MOOs for more cerebral pursuits, I'll admit that I didn't feel especially guilty about repressing the more disruptive players just a bit.

The third MOO, the Institute's Conference Center, has just been set up in the last month or so, and has really received no use yet. It will be a real- names-only MOO with email registration, though it will have some guest logins available, since one of its purposes is to serve as a sort of reading room to run alongside the World-Wide Web publications of the Institute--a place where you can meet other readers of the same material, a way to bump into someone on the net who shares an interest with you.

In all three MOOs, space is a more or less arbitrary construct: one may arrange the network of spaces that constitutes the MOO according to the compass of three-dimensional space (with north, south, east, west, up, down), but one may as easily arrange spaces according to topics, themes, or any other scheme one desires. Spaces can be locked or open, or locked only to certain people and open to others; they can be public or private, colorful or drab, they can float through other spaces or remain anchored in one place. The same room can contain one person or one hundred; spaces can act on the people within them, arbitrarily or according to qualities of the player or its possessions or actions. In one sense, the space occupied by a MOO is a space in memory, since the MOO loads and runs in random access memory, plus some long-term storage and short term swap space on disk. The space of the MOO, then, is a chip--the microscopic passageways etched into a fingernail-sized chunk of silicon. Or rather, the space of the MOO is the chip plus the telephone lines that make up the network, since the MOO is mapped on top of the internet, and its space includes the pathways by which the player connects to the MOO, perhaps extending as far as the screen on which the MOO appears to its individual player.

In practice, the space of the MOO is metaphorical and symbolic all the way down: as such, it simply reflects the richness or the poverty of our imagination, and the shapes it takes echo our disciplinary structures and practices. This brings me all the way around, from claims that I would not make, to claims that I will make. The first of those claims is that virtual reality, whether text-based, graphical, or immersive, is largely about literalizing familiar pre-cybernetic metaphors and only opens new vistas (whup, there's an old metaphor now) by accident. That is to say, contra Baudrillard, that these artificial models do not precede the ordering of space or practice in any planned way, though it could be argued that our linguistic, social, and institutional habit--the world, as we know it--models this model world. More than anything else, it is a simple fact that the defense establishment and the entertainment industry own the past and future (respectively) of the networks in general and of virtual reality in almost all its particulars.

Second, I will claim that virtual reality, in academic settings, allows you to experiment with the way authority and order are imposed and distributed-- though more of ten than not, you will find the boundaries to be only slightly different from those of "real life" (a spurious distinction, in any case). Nonetheless, even very slight differences in one's practice can make quite significant differences in the end result though (as I said before), those differences are usually not very predictable.

And finally, I would argue--as Andrew Ross does in TechnoCulture, that we would do better to engage positively and proactively with this technology than to spend our time recriminating it for its military-industrial origins or making grim predictions about its socio-economic teleology.

Last Modified: Wednesday, 29-Jun-2016 15:40:46 EDT