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Cyberspace in the 21st Century: Part Two, Cyberspace and Twelve Monkeys

If there were any doubts about the inevitability of the Internet's potential, Crosbie has set out to undermine them in this essay about building "cyberspace." (Did you know that term is still around?)

Crosbie Fitch, Blogger

March 13, 2000

34 Min Read

I’d like nothing better than to leap straight in with the technical details of how to implement cyberspace, and no doubt many of you would prefer that I did nothing else. Alas, ‘tis not to be.

Last month I presented a sort of overview of the whole series of articles (fractal writing?!), and I suspect that even that contained enough futurism for some of you. However, in my original outline of this series (as sent to Gamasutra) I seem to have decided that further futuristic prognostications were necessary before the technical stuff. So that’s what I’ve done – for better or worse I’ve followed my plan.

No doubt you’ve got enough of your own ideas about the future of the Internet without trawling through mine. Your vision of cyberspace may be quite different too. Even so, I think I have to make some philosophical case for the technical stuff that will follow next month. I want to present something beforehand to help ward off pessimism, and defend against negative criticism from those who have not yet bought into the whole cyberspace concept. So anytime you hear someone whine about how silly an idea cyberspace is, just tell them that it’s too late, it’s already been written into the script of progress. That’ll sort them out – oh yes.

What follows should be seen as a sort of morale boosting exercise. It could also be a little amusing in that I’m using a near circular argument: saying that because cyberspace is inevitable, because there are so many indications of its imminent arrival, that this should give us plenty of confidence and encouragement in embarking upon its creation. Furthermore, I might as well be declaring that it’s feasibility is therefore guaranteed. As always, there’s just a tiny little problem, and that’s discovering the system that demonstrates this feasibility. But, it’s such a trifle really.

So, this month: the inevitability of cyberspace. Next month: its design and implementation, so neatly lying upon its self-referential foundation…

How Could Anyone Not See It Coming?

In the movie Twelve Monkeys, there are some characters in the post-apocalyptic future who are so desperate to discover why things went wrong in the past that they send good old Bruce Willis back in time to find out. Well, right now it’s that time of paradox and inevitability for cyberspace. Not that I’m saying it presages an apocalypse, but rather that it vaguely marks the dawning of a new age. It’s happening now, and decades in the future they’ll look back at the early years of this new century and wonder how we didn’t notice.

I’m amused that instead, today, many people seem to think that cyberspace is just a case of better connectivity and a chance for everyone to have 15 megabytes of HTML fame.

Yup, plenty enough prophets without me joining in perhaps, but it’s a little bit spooky if not a bit fun to take a couple of minutes and have a go at holistically comprehending the ‘now’ of technology. The Web, is still largely a publishing medium (and probably always will be), but maybe if you squint your mind’s eye say, you might just make out the flow of technological progress that is driving us towards a fully interactive cyberspace medium.

It’s a bit like looking out of the back of a slow car. You can see where you’ve been and where you’ve just been, and despite continuous progress, things just don’t seem to change that quickly, but you know they might. You can only guess at what’ll come up next, and you might have an idea of where the car’s probably going. But you can never be sure, and no-one but the driver and those that can see into the future actually know. Of course, I’m facing backward like everyone else, but my hunch is that we’re on a journey to cyberspace – the scenery, the vegetation and billboards rolling by seem to be hinting that at least.

In ten or twenty years time, how will you look back and discern the origins of cyberspace?

Will you say “Oh, it all began with the X-Box having a hard disk and an ADSL Internet connection as standard”, or perhaps it’ll be “BeOS simply came from nowhere man – none of us expected it!”. Then again it could be the killer app: “MS Allegiance II just gripped gamers across the world like a plague”.

Let’s now go over the clues that should persuade us that today is the time for all good coders to roll up our sleeves and build cyberspace…

Let’s now go over the clues that should persuade us that today is the time for all good coders to roll up our sleeves and build cyberspace…

Clue 1: The Internet and the Web

The Internet and the Web just have to be the most obvious harbingers of cyberspace and so I’ll mention these as the first big clue.

Some people may think these are already cyberspace, and like television will remain largely unchanged (albeit increasing in resolution) for another century. No, I don’t think so.

The Internet, yes, I think it’s pretty much consolidated itself in future history. Perhaps IPv6 and improvements to various layers: M-Bone, something like ATM (though some say it’s unsuitable), broadcast and cellular channels may enhance it, but the Internet will do quite some time thank you very much.

The Web on the other hand, well, it’s a jolly useful publication medium, and that’s all I’ve really got to say about it. However, thank god someone invented the search engine. It's a bit of a last minute add-on, but it works. Without it, the Web would be a little different in terms of usefulness.

HTML is such a simple system though. Sure it works, and I don’t want to knock it, but the future holds far more sophisticated means of expressing ‘content’. Imagine that one day it is as easy to create a massive multiplayer 3D game, as it is to create a web site today. It would stop being a ‘game’ or ‘web site’, it would be a portion of cyberspace. Visitors wouldn’t read your pages, they’d explore your world. Instead of discussion pages, you’d have rooms: workshops with works in progress, meeting places with avatars wandering around (no, not the dire avatars we have today).

Instead of links to other sites, you’d have portals or scaled down references to other worlds. It would all be dynamic, interactive, live, you name it.

It’s on its way.

The web gives us a clue that everyone will collaborate to produce the vast content required for cyberspace. Imagine going to a venture capitalist in 1985 and saying you had this great idea for a massive hyperbook that could be accessed via a global network. “Oh no sir, it wouldn’t cost much to produce as there must be quite a few hobbyists who wouldn’t mind giving up some of their spare time free of charge to help come up with some content”. You must be totally off your rocker!

Clue 2: Interactivity

Why has passive entertainment been so passive for so long? Well, it’s a technology thing isn’t it? I bet there are many kids who start off thinking the TV presenter is talking directly to them, and respond as though it was an interactive medium. Trouble is, because it is indeed passive, the kids are effectively taught at an early age that such wonders are strictly a one-way process. The TV is a box of tiny people who don’t seem to listen or care – even if they pay lip service to the idea.

Even video games are relatively passive. You don’t really get to see the kid in the other Porsche get out and kick the tires in frustration at getting beaten yet again. Nor then get to realize that oops, it’s the school bully.

Once children start growing up with the idea that they are linked in ever increasing fidelity to other children across the planet, then we should see better and more interactive uses made of the Internet. Or at least, there’ll be loads of frustrated kids trying to remedy the situation.

It’s getting that way already. School kids are learning to use e-mail (and lots more besides). So watch out! The demand to interact with other humans in constructive and recreational ways will increase. That means games as well as business oriented collaboration.

But, why don’t we all just go outside and collaborate with our neighbors in person? You sure have got me there pal. I haven’t a clue. I guess computers are a glass shield against people’s more emotional natures. But, it could work completely opposite to the pessimists’ fears: cyberspace could break down the barriers between people so much, that people start treating each other in person in a far more familiar way – and then realize a bit too late that maybe they shouldn’t have been so derogatory to the guy on the other side of the street…

The online experience is getting far more interactive, and you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Clue 3: Birds of a Feather

Being a diverse bunch, people will probably find it much easier to associate with like-minded souls if they can select from billions rather than just a few other folk they know in the same town.

Cyberspace will bring birds of a feather together. Great minds will think alike, and severally, so better than one. Surely this is a significant acceleration of the human capacity for invention and progress?

The Web is enabling this today. Of course, it produces concentrations of all sorts – sweet as well as savory. But the ability of a global system to bring the best of each discipline together must surely harness mankind’s creative ability like nothing else before, right?

If we were suddenly threatened by an alien invasion, you can bet that the Internet would be indispensable in bringing the best minds to bear in solving all the problems involved in mounting a defense.

The Internet is too useful to be a flash in the pan. The better it gets at allowing special interest groups to converse and cross-fertilize, then the more it will be used. Interactive, even immersive, cyberspace is bound to be compatible with these ends.

Clue 4: Leisure Time

Well, there’s a hell of a lot of people producing Web pages and I don’t see many people paying to read ‘em! It must be leisure time. People evidently have far too much of it (from the perspective of a puritan work ethic).

Without leisure time, perhaps few people would read the Web, let alone write for it. But, anyway, it seems that people do have enough time to spend using it. This probably comes down to macro-economics -- you know, modern society over-producing to such an extent that most people get some hours each day to perform non-survival based activities. I presume that barring world wars, leisure time is going to increase.

This is good news for cyberspace. It’s just a communications mechanism and so it’s a bit difficult to see how anyone using it is actually creating anything necessary for survival. And so it may appear a little obscene to some people to envision a future where most of the developed world spends a good deal of their time cruising cyberspace. Perhaps we can build robots to plough the fields, and use nuclear fusion for power?

More leisure time means more demand for better and more sophisticated ways of utilizing it. Cyberspace meets that need!

Clue 5: Computer Power

How many times do we have to say this? Computer power just keeps on doubling every year or so doesn’t it?

So anyone who doubts that computers will ever be powerful enough to do things like they do in the movies only needs to wait a few years – probably within their lifetime – before today’s far-fetched ideas soon end up on their list of electronic goodies to buy for Christmas.

OK, perhaps Moore’s law will grind to a halt when CPUs hit the light speed barrier (circuit latency and unplanned quantum effects), or will it? Well, I very much doubt it. I expect that by that time, CPUs will then be so cheap that the number of them appearing on a motherboard (or wafer) will double every so often – instead of the clock speed. We’ll see computers getting more and more parallel in operation.

With this endless escalation of client-side computing power, VR can’t be far off. If we sort out the networking issues then cyberspace won’t be at all held back by technology. I trust that haptics will make good progress too.

Clue 6: The Information Age

Internet or not, the computer is certainly not going away, and nor is the vastness of the information it is increasingly given to process. We are in the information age and the more tools and facilities that can help our poor Neanderthal brains digest and comprehend just a fraction of this information, so much the better.

Being able to explore this information universe in an immersive fashion, using all our senses, 3D vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, will provide us with richer and more powerful ways of understanding the mass of information we’ll have to cope with in the future.

If cyberspace allows us to collaborate interactively while so immersed, then the shared task of comprehension must be a much lighter and more enjoyable burden.

Clue 7: Society

We are a social creature. We like to play and manipulate, build things – build concrete and social structures. We like to tell stories, to make things for other people to use.

The Web is just one of the latest in a long line of technologies or mediums in which people are able to express themselves, by building information spaces for others to explore.

Similarly, cyberspace will be an environment in which people can construct miniature worlds for others to explore and interact with and within. These worlds will allow us to explore our heritage, our past, our history, our present, our future, and our imagination. And this recreation will often be constructive.

Clue 8: Progress and Inevitability

Well, if you’re a fatalist, then you probably know that the way of progress is inexorable. If something is plausible, and feasible with the right equipment, well there’s simply no stopping it. Cloning of US Presidents, GM plants that extrude spaghetti directly, old black & white movies in 3D color, cyberspace – they’re all bound to happen whether or not some people think other things are more worthy pursuits.

Cyberspace is not a separate idea that geeks waste their time over while the rest of the world continues using conventional methods – like the Web – if that’s conventional. In fact, it is these so called conventional methods that are undergoing change beneath our feet.

Just as you think you’ve got DOS pinned down, along comes Windows, and E-mail, and then the Web. Perhaps people think it’s just themselves that are the ones adapting to a fairly sedate, but advanced computer technology? Oh no, people are racing along trying to jump onto moving trains, and then realizing that they still can’t rest, they have to run along the roof of this train and hop on to a faster one. The trains just keep on getting faster and you can never stop jumping or you’ll be left behind.

Did I just hear someone ask: So who’s driving the damn trains? Interesting question… There is a bit of a green movement that suggests that perhaps we should stopping putting coal in the furnace of progress and revert to a more pastoral life, or at least a more sustainable one that is kinder to the environment. Somehow, I doubt our competitive nature will let that happen.

But you never know, cyberspace may end up doing such a good job of putting producers in touch with consumers, that the environmental impact of consumption decreases, i.e. less travel and transport, and so less building and fuel required. Food, shelter, and cyberspace – what more could anyone want?

It’s a bit like the computer heralding the paperless office, but ending up producing far more paper than ever before. Perhaps the Web is the same? Everyone thought that it was the end of the book, but it turned out to be just a far better way of selling the damn things. Could cyberspace be not necessarily the end of personal contact, but instead a far more effective way of bringing people together?

Don’t wait. Jump now.

So, Cyberspace is Coming

That should be enough clues for you. Perhaps you’re already convinced and have spotted these and more clues yourself. Either way, it’s about time we started the ball rolling.

There’s been enough hype about cyberspace that it’s a bit like Santa Claus and his reindeer. There are a lot of kids who’ll be disappointed if the evidence of their existence fails to materialize at the right time. So like parents putting out stockings on Christmas Eve, there’s going to have to be a team of us coders hard at work, doing our best to demonstrate to the world that cyberspace is, as the portents promise, on its way. Of course, it’ll never really exist, but then that’s VR for you.

I don’t think there’s really a surfeit of coders working on the problem at the moment, so I wouldn’t be shy about adding your shoulder to this tricky problem.

Cyberspace needs you!

The Interconnectedness of All Things

So we’ve identified the clues to its arrival. How about some indications of its very nature? Let’s try and get a grasp of cyberspace, what the thing is, or will be, indeed, for what we want it to be.

You know how in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it was explained that the entire universe could be extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake? Well, given enough computing power it’s quite plausible that this could be done – it’s just the word ‘enough’ that is the problem.

I like the similar, but more numerical idea of repeatedly rolling a die – eventually patterns will emerge in the numbers rolled, from which the rest of the universe can be extrapolated. This is given that, like the piece of fairy cake, everything influences the die in some way. The trouble is again one word: ‘eventually’. Such a time would probably not be far from the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

For less fictional theories check out the EPR Paradox, which describes ‘spooky action at a distance’ – apparent ‘communication’ between particles at the quantum level, but across astronomically large distances. This is a little bit of evidence that particles are connected in some way, albeit currently unknowable. From this we can conclude that everything in the universe is in some way connected to everything else. This is what you might term the interconnectedness of all things.

You’re probably wondering what tangent I’ve gone off this time. Well, perhaps it this interconnectedness that enables the operation of the colossal simulator that runs our universe? Perhaps we might one day be able to harness this interconnectedness and bypass the need to transmit information via the tediously slow optical media we’re lumbered with today. On such a day the Internet would be able to dispense with optical fiber and use an instantaneous or zero latency backbone instead. Cyberspace as an alternate reality would then definitely be with us.

Until that time, and here is the point I’m making, we have to simulate our virtual universes by communicating across what might as well be wet bits of string strung between rusty tin cans. Yup you’ve got to face it: the Internet is an anachronistic pile of relays, punched cards and vacuum tubes when it comes to comparing it against what we’d really need to achieve seamless cyberspace.

Oh well, I don’t suppose we could have expected our task to be that easy.

Internet Pea Soup

Somehow we’re going to have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. The Internet isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better. From this simple conclusion, we can immediately deduce that any attempt at using the Internet as a foundation for cyberspace must firstly cope with imperfection, and secondly exploit increasing performance.

Talking of the Internet’s performance, at the level we’re interested in, little is reliable or particularly speedy. Yeah, yeah, people keep telling me that it’s getting better and that people will soon have thousands of channels of video on demand via their cable modem. But, I remain suspicious. Heck, I’ll even say skeptical!

Just like personal transport getting faster, and people traveling in increasingly large volumes, something just doesn’t seem to be improving that much. Roads get wider, cars get faster, but with higher traffic densities, it still takes just as long (if not longer) to get from one side of a city to the other. Even air travel, with the delays in traveling to and from the airport, check-in and other delays, can sometimes be similar to the equivalent train or coach journey time.

How long have we been waiting for our CPUs and graphics cards to be fast enough, our hard disks and memories to be large enough, and our web pages to download fast enough? It’s always a case of “Whoa! Wait until you see what they’re bringing out next year – it’ll blow your socks off!”, but the hit is transitory, it’s never enough and before you know it, you’re back waiting for the next ‘improvement’.

Things do get better, but something remains the same. Moore’s law plus Parkinson’s law (work expands to fill space) seem to add up to status quo. In other words, double the performance, double the workload, and you still get a 10 minute coffee break while you wait for that compile or render to complete.

In the case of the Internet, I strongly suspect that as fast as the network capacity is increased, so the volume of traffic will expand to exhaust it. The thing that remains the same is latency. The trip time, in other words.

You can apply this to other areas as well. I might also say, that frame rates in video games will always range between 20 to 30fps, packaged software will always arrive on between one and seven disks (or holo-cubes), and word-processors will always take a minute or so to print out your resume…

So I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but web pages will never download any quicker than they do today.

What a depressing thought eh? Well, think about it – while the Internet remains fundamentally hierarchical in its topology, and demand keeps pace with capacity, the same bottlenecks that cause delay today, will still be with us tomorrow. The solutions are either to string a piece of optic fiber between each pair of computers on the planet (a hell of a lot of spaghetti!), or to reduce demand, impose tolls say.

Design for High Latency

In the face of performance meeting workload, the best you can ever do to increase latency is to improve the efficiency with which the available resources are used, and this invariably means improving your understanding of the nature of those resources.

So, in the case of the Internet, you cannot treat it like a reliable LAN and expect to use it efficiently. If you treat the Internet like a LAN in the hope that it will soon be as good as a LAN, it’s not much different than writing a flight simulator (including renderer) in interpreted BASIC in the hope that by the time it’s finished computers will be fast enough to run it at a decent frame rate.

OK, so some of you will allow me faint praise for a few good points, but regard my pessimism as ultimately misguided. Moreover, I suspect that various network experts would be more forthright, and gently suggest that I’m actually wrong about the Internet, i.e. in the next ten years it will in fact easily be able to support permanently online, retinally scanning, holographic video-phones and haptic body suits worn by the population of the entire planet (dogs and other pets included). Conventional system architectures are just fine thanks.

Blimey! Well, that’s a few terabytes per second of bandwidth per carbon unit there, and I’ll be very impressed if supply can so dramatically outpace demand.

On the other hand, maybe it might just be a good precaution to make more efficient use of the Internet, just on the off-chance that latency doesn’t improve. Of course, even if it does improve, then a more efficient utilization would fully exploit that improvement.

You just can’t lose can you? Come on, abandon those secure and nice, comfy servers, put down your reliable protocols. Let’s get down to the smelly, leaky sewers of UDP and see if we can make better use of them directly.

Making the Best Out of a Bad Situation

Confucius would probably have a few words to say about how games have to be written in harmony with the inherently flaky nature of the Internet, instead of stubbornly demanding 100% reliability from an intermediate layer. In protocol terms, that’s “Use UDP, and don’t use TCP”. But then, it’s always been a case of using the right tool for the job.

To simulate a large scale virtual world across large numbers of computers, we need as much interconnectedness as we can get. And that means it is better to get low latency, noisy communication, than high latency, perfect communication. If you insist on any compromise then you must ensure that improving the quality of the communication has insignificant impact upon its latency requirements.

What do I mean by that last bit, ‘latency requirements’? Well, communication only needs to be timely, it doesn’t need to be any better than that. Some things you may need to know as soon as possible, some things you can wait a while for. Some things are important, some aren’t, some are in between. Some information has a limited lifespan, some information may always be potentially useful. When you’re communicating the state of play in a game to all its players, it’s typical that each player has specific and distinct information needs peculiar to its current situation. So, there’s rarely any point in communicating everything to everyone – though if you have a broadcast medium then sometimes you may end up sending something to everyone.

Not only must we understand the system upon which we build cyberspace, but we must also understand the sorts of cyberspace application that we hope to run.

A Global Venture

The global network is vast, and cyberspace will match it. Its enormous scale requires a complete paradigm shift in the way you approach the development of Internet based systems. I know I’m repeating myself here, but it is important to bear in mind several things when trying to understand the philosophy behind my descriptions of the technical issues over the next few months.

Scale We have no control over the number of computers, the size of the network, or the workload that the system must support. The system must work just as well on two computers as it does on two billion.

Simplicity We haven’t got forever to develop a global system. The software has to be easy to develop, self-contained, and self-supporting. It’s got to be developed by a small group of people (possibly dispersed) and so decomposition into small modules would be a good idea. It’s also got to be possible to develop it even whilst it’s running. This means continuous, live, automatic upgrade across every computer participating in cyberspace – zero administration.

Open There’s little hope of retaining or defending any intellectual ownership, patents, licensing or distribution rights. The Open Source approach would appear to be an appropriate model for development.

Global and open collaboration also appears to be a good way of a system being widely adopted, and probably becoming a standard.

Content ‘Content is the way to happiness’ seems to be the motto of the Web today, and it applies just as much to cyberspace. Vast capacity means vast content and vice versa. It also means far too much work for a single organization, let alone a single person. Just like the Web, cyberspace content will have to be created by the masses, and that means we have to produce good content creation tools.

I see no reason why a system cannot be developed to achieve all these ends. Although it may seem fairly ambitious to achieve real-time distribution of vast virtual worlds across billions of simultaneous participants, I hope I can convince you, eventually, that it’s not that big a deal really.

Have We Got What it Takes to Produce Cyberspace?

Before we bake a cake, we need to check we’ve got the necessary ingredients:

1) A global network

2) Add computers to taste

3) A database engine and plenty of hard disk space

4) 3D scene modeler and a decent graphics card

5) A few software engineers

6) Time and money

We need a network – billions of computers each with tons of storage. That’s about what we’ve got, but latency could be a tad better. Well, maybe one day it’ll approach light-speed at around 100ms per transaction. We just have to design our system to do the best it can whatever the prevailing circumstances.

Do some searches on “Next Generation Internet” if you want the low down on the future of the Internet. Here’s one interesting find to give you a start: http://fox.rollins.edu/~tlairson/ecom/next.htm

What would improve the circumstances is if we evangelized against the wasteful use of the Internet, e.g. sending video across it. Thankfully there are companies aware of the merits of greater efficiencies in such things. Check out Obvious Technologies’ (www.obvioustech.com) approach for an example of a better way of distributing video – in effect passing it ‘by reference’.

Anyway, I think we’ve got everything we need to get started. Oh no, I almost forgot: Money! No one can do anything these days without money. You always have to keep an eye on the financial aspects, or so I’ve heard. However, these days for e-Ventures it seems venture capital is a broken fire hydrant. Perhaps I should finish up with a little waffle about the difficulties of making money in digital media…

Will Money Still Make the World Go Round?

Money was supposed to be a convenient means of exchanging labor and its products. Perhaps, as in the Star Trek universe, civilization will elevate itself to a position where money becomes superfluous and everyone puts their potential into society and gets as much out of it as they want. I think some might think the Internet will facilitate this, perhaps it will, but it’s pretty likely we’ll have to go via a transitionary phase where there is a form of cyber-cash. This’ll help migrate the old way of doing business into its more direct, electronic equivalent.

But, more and more, I think we’re seeing information become the key commodity. Whether it’s the right share to invest in, the most economic way to build a bridge, a DVD, or even the color of Sigourney Weaver’s toothbrush: information is in demand and people are willing to pay for it. Trouble is, they rarely have to. Information is getting easier to distribute and duplicate. It only takes one altruistic (some might use a less benevolent term) person to spill the beans on a web page and the whole world gets it for nothing.

It’s not a problem to ensure that communication is secure, from vendor to purchaser, but how do you prevent the purchaser from passing on that information for nothing and thus devaluing it?

The problem that the Internet now presents us with is that the vendor can no longer hope to maintain their monopoly over information once they’ve sold it. It used to be that purchase of mass produced information (newspapers, books, records) was a much better experience overall (price, quality, convenience) than illicit duplication was for the potential customer or pirate. But, now a digital copy is free, perfect, and more convenient.

Of course it’s unfair, but what can you do?

Even in the digital realm, software producers have still been clinging to the hope that transmission costs dissuade people from illegitimate downloading. Sure, even with digital technology, there are still always costs in transmission, and these are in proportion to the quantity of information – whether it’s downloading a file or throwing a DVD across the room. But, these transmission costs are rarely proportional to the production costs.

It seems one idea Microsoft’s trying out to address this problem, is to not let the software out of its factory in the first place. The user only has the presentation layer on their local machine, but must pay a subscription to obtain the use of the back-end on a secure server somewhere.. I suppose this is an understandable approach if as some pundits predict, there will soon be vastly more web browsers around than installations of Windows alone.

But software isn’t the only information based product around. What about works of art? Why should anyone produce a movie, album, or other easily duplicated work of art if only a single sale can be obtained?

Well, it’s difficult to swallow, but the answer has to be that the single sale must cover the cost, even in spite of the fact that the work is unlikely to have a resale value.

This means getting millions of punters to stump up cash in advance before the artist hands over their work. So say Sting produces a new album. First, he’ll keep it under strict security. He then releases a low grade recording that gives a hint of how good it is. The near perfect, 5.1 channel, digital encoding of it is then put up for a kind of reverse auction. The marketplace is invited to make limited pledges for it, e.g. up to $1, up to $5, up to $15, etc. Sting can then, at a favorable point in time, select which price point he wishes to sell it at, and then it is delivered to all those whose pledge covered that price. After this point it is a free for all and anyone may give it away or sell it on – including Sting who may still be able to sell the original recording at a premium price (given its packaging).

The key thing in this scheme is that the product is not released until the artist feels they have arrived at the best return they can get, which may well be at least the production cost. Sometimes they may declare that the current pledges are insufficient and the work will be withheld until such time as the pledges increase. Conversely, the market may gradually reduce its offers for the work and the artist may take the best price while they can.

Of course, you can only practically do this kind of deal where the market can be addressed as though it were a single unit – something greatly facilitated by the Internet.

Similar types of deals can be done in advance of the work, for example, where the audience is presented with a movie script, and invited to stump up the funding necessary to produce the movie. I can see it now – “Star Wars: Episode IX – we need between $5 and $7 billion to complete this movie. The current optimum pledge only amounts to $3 billion. Please increase your pledge and/or encourage your friends, and remember that you get merchandising shares!”.

Do I hear five thousand broadcasters laughing their heads off?

Yeah, go ahead and laugh. You can still continue with the old ways of doing things if you want. However, even with the public subscription type approach I’ve just outlined, broadcasters could still do the big deals you’re familiar with (perhaps as a cartel), but once transmission has occurred it should be a free for all. The thing is, it will be a free for all anyway, and you can’t really stop it. So copyright becomes redundant for art in digital form. This should apply to software too.

Anyway, these are just hints as to how the Internet is going to force a revolution in the marketplace. There will be other ways of working and buying and selling, but even with a totally derestricted market, I hope you can see that there are still mechanisms that will continue to support the development of films, music, and other works of digitally reproducible art. It’s not as bleak as the big companies would have you think. They’ll just have to forget about region coded DVDs and secure DVD-Audio…

Coming Next

In my next installment, I’ll be getting technical – very technical. So less of this futurism and let’s let the cat out of the bag: how on earth do we build cyberspace?

Jump into to the deep end of distributed systems programming with me next month and find out!

Until then, if you’re going to the Game Developer’s Conference be sure to check out Proksim Software (http://www.proksim.com) as one of the few companies sharing this road to enlightenment.

Crosbie Fitch is currently the Senior Systems Engineer at Pepper's Ghost Productions, which he joined in 1997 to develop a network games engine, reluctantly leaving special effects house Cinesite. In a deft twist of fate, PGP shortly decided that a radical change of direction away from games, toward an animated TV series was in order, and so Crosbie found himself writing plug-ins for Discreet Max - plus ça change... He can be reached at [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Crosbie Fitch


Crosbie Fitch has recently been exploring business models for online games. He has previously worked at Argonaut, Cinesite, Pepper's Ghost, Acclaim, and most recently Computer Artworks. Always looking for the opportunities that combine 'large scale entertainment', 'leading edge technology', 'online', and 'interaction' - one day, all at the same time... He can be reached at [email protected]

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