"Machines speak to machines before speaking to man, and the ontological domains that they reveal and secrete are, at each occurrence, singular and precarious."
-- Felix Guattari, "Machinic Heterogenesis"
"We live by the mode of referendum precisely because there is no longer any referential."
-- Jean Baudrillard, Simulations 
"I think a lot of the common assumptions we make are actually built in to the MOO apparatus . . . . The elements of the MOO are constructed for the most part to simulate a real physical community. Ideas like 'privacy' and 'ownership' are constantly implied by the descriptions and properties if not the actual programming of every object."
--Ogre, in "MOO.Terrorism"
This essay is an attempt to describe and explain the way that an unusual (but by no means anomalous) culture has developed under the aegis of PMC-MOO, a text-based virtual-reality program that runs on a networked Unix workstation. It is also an attempt to describe the scholarly and pedagogical trajectory of this program, by identifying the conceptual coordinates of its origin.
MOOs belong to a class of programs known as MUDs, and MUDs are ably defined by Pavel Curtis, the inventor of MOOs, as follows:
A MUD (Multi-User Dungeon or, sometimes, Multi-User Dimension) is a network-accessible, multi-participant, user-extensible virtual reality whose user interface is entirely textual. Participants (usually called players) have the appearance of being situated in an artificially-constructed place that also contains those other players who are connected at the same time. Players can communicate easily with each other in real time. This virtual gathering place has many of the social attributes of other places, and many of the usual social mechanisms operate there. Certain attributes of this virtual place, however, tend to have significant effects on social phenomena, leading to new mechanisms and modes of behavior not usually seen `IRL' (in real life).
I will substantially disagree with that last point in the course of this essay, but suffice it to say, for now, that in practical terms, the experience of participating in a MOO is that one sits at a keyboard, in front of a screen, and projects oneself over a global computer network into an entirely textual world, and into an entirely virtual community. Community is generally a function of shared location, shared interests, and sometimes shared government and shared property: in order to deserve the name, a community needs more than one, though not necessarily all, of those attributes.
In the case of PMC-MOO, the community which I will discuss here, all those attributes are present in some sense or in some measure. However, it would be a mistake to see this community, or the larger archipelago civilization of MOOs to which it belongs, as entirely communitarian, or as entirely self- determining. Rather, I will argue, PMC-MOO and MOOs in general take shape under twin forces not unlike fate and free will, where free will is what we always have understood it to be, but where the role of fate is played by the operating system in which the MOO is embedded. The aporia in this analogy, and it is an important one for my argument, is that unlike transcendental fate, computer operating systems are historically and culturally determined.
To understand the cultural moment that is expressed in the operating system in question, Unix, and to understand the effects of Unix on the formation of MOO code and MOO culture, we must isolate and understand a few concepts and a little history as well. For our purposes, the concepts that matter most are expressed in their most basic form in the Unix filesystem, as hierarchy, user groups, and ownership. The Unix filesystem is hierarchical in its organization, and the particular kind of hierarchy is, in essence, dendritic: file systems have a tree- like structure, with a "root" directory containing files and other directories, or branches, of the filesystem, which in turn can contain other files and directories. In Unix, every file (and indeed, every process) has an individual owner, and the hierarchy of owners explicitly mirrors the hierarchy of the filesystem itself, with the superuser of all users and user groups called "root." Every individual user, then, belongs to one or more user groups, and the permission to read, write, delete, search, or execute a particular file is precisely defined for owner, group, and other. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of these basic concepts in Unix: in fact, the filesystem organization is itself a kind of first cause for Unix, inasmuch as its origins lie in the dim prehistory of Unix, in Multics. Multics was a multi-user mainframe operating system developed jointly in the late 1960s by Bell Labs, MIT, and General Electric and intended to permit time-sharing on large, expensive, centralized computer resources. Not surprisingly, the developers of Multics, and after them, the developers of Unix, reasoned that if an operating system will permit many users to look at and manipulate the same files at the same time, it is necessary to establish which users are associated with which files, and what permissions are granted them.
AT&T; began developing Multics in 1964, eight years after the 1956 Consent Decree which settled the last anti-trust suit against the company. Although the 1956 decision said nothing about software (because the concept wasn't available), AT&T; interpreted the decision cautiously, and when Unix came along, the company decided to distribute its operating system on non-profit terms-- licensed at very low cost to universities, and priced prohibitively high for commercial clients, expressly so as to avoid developing a software business. In fact, what was distributed was the source code, which meant that university researchers could tinker with the system, offer improvements, and make modifications to suit their needs. However, since Bell Labs was distributing the software at or near cost, it wasn't particularly interested in providing user support. This fostered two things--a kind of priesthood of the code, manifested as a hierarchy of arcane knowledge about the complex and often cryptically documented system, and also a self-supporting user community, which became incarnate in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Usenet. Usenet was (and is) an independent mail network that allowed users to post questions and receive answers about specific features of Unix, or about applications that run under Unix. Usenet still flourishes, and still fulfills its original function, but it has expanded to include discussion of many topics that have nothing to do with operating systems, and it has become an asynchronous culture in its own right.
In the largest context, then, Unix developed as a byproduct of research at a corporate laboratory, under the constraints imposed by anti-trust legislation, which helped to force it out of the channels in which proprietary inventions usually travel in a capitalist economy, and into the freely exchanged economy of academic research and invention. It should also be noted, though, that Bell Labs itself, at least in its research divisions, was and may still be a more fertile environment for technological creativity than many universities. The nature of pure research is that one doesn't know what will ultimately "pay off": therefore, it's necessary to invest in a diversified portfolio of research activities. According to Samuel P. Morgan, a member of the Bell labs Research Area beginning in 1947 and, during the early seventies, Director of the Computing Science Research Center,
If there aren't a certain number of things taken up in the organization every year that don't work out, we're not being sufficiently aggressive, or innovative, or we are not gambling enough. . . . We work on percentages, and of course this is true throughout any research organization. We've got to have a certain number of failures. . . .
In fact, it is only a very large accumulation of wealth that makes it practical to gamble in this way, investing resources in doing research with no immediately obvious economic benefit. Moreover, the kind of research environment that produces these unpredictable benefits, especially in the area of computer hardware and software, has proven to be decentralized and voluntaristic. This is true even outside of the area of pure research, in the application of computer technology to business operations. According to V.M. Wolontis, Executive Director of the Operations Research Division at Bell labs during the early days of Unix,
Things in the computer applications field have developed because individual people at the working level have had ideas and have pursued them. Things have grown from the working level up, rather than by some major management figure sitting at his desk saying this shall be computerized, and bingo, a hundred people march in the direction of computerizing a big segment of the operation. There is a tendency for the computer as a tool to inject itself into the operation through the efforts of interested specialists who enjoy it and who want to make the contribution. Management approval is a subsequent step.
Although the kind of intellectual freedom to "play around" with problems and "contribute" solutions does depend on the kind of corporate security that comes only under the auspices of monopoly capital or government, individual projects still have to at least attempt to justify themselves with respect to some cost- benefit analysis, however putative: even when gambling, there are better and worse bets. Within the atmosphere of free invention, the time-sharing and resource-coupling nature of the Unix operating system was driven, paradoxically, by the prohibitive cost of mainframes, which dictated that each machine should have more than one user and, if possible, more than one user at a time. One of the original developers of Unix recalls that, when their group faced the decline of Multics, their requests for new computer equipment on which to write a new operating system were repeatedly rebuffed: "[I]t is perfectly obvious in retrospect (and should have been at the time) that we were asking the Labs to spend too much money on too few people with too vague a plan."
The fact that the operating system developed in the context of a corporate entity whose primary business was telecommunications, and whose primary interests were communications and connectivity, helped to enshrine within it the principles of modularity and interoperability. But at another level, one extremely relevant to the effects that Unix has had in the world, communication was a motivating factor in the design of this operating system:
Even though Multics could not then support many users, it could support us, albeit at exorbitant cost. We didn't want to lose the pleasant niche we occupied, because no similar ones were available; even the time-sharing service that would later be offered under GE's operating system did not exist. What we wanted to preserve was not just a good environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form. We knew from experience that the essence of communal computing, as supplied by remote-access, time-shared machines, is not just to type programs into a terminal instead of a keypunch, but to encourage close communication.
The fact that the software these researchers produced was easy to modify, good at accepting instructions from remote users, and unsupported by its corporate parent, helped to ensure that one of the first uses to which it would be put, once it reached the outside world, was the networking of users into a community, originally a user-support community, but later something much more diverse.
If we consider all these factors together, the paradoxes are striking. On the one hand, as a mental representation of the universe of information, Unix is deeply indebted to culturally determined notions such as private property, class membership, and hierarchies of power and effectivity. Most of these ideas are older than the modern Western culture that produced Unix, but the constellation of cultural elements gathered together in Unix's basic operating principles seems particularly Western and capitalist--not surprisingly, given that its creators were human extensions of one of the largest accumulations of capital in the Western world. On the other hand, this tool, shaped though it was by the notions of ownership and exclusivity, spawned a culture of cooperation, of homemade code, of user-contributed modifications and improvements (viz. the canonical /contrib/bin in Unix filesystems, where user-contributed programs are stored) --in short, of "fellowship." And finally, in some sense it is true, as Guattari suggests, that the entire assemblage of causes for Unix is an instance of machines speaking to machines, or needing to speak to machines, with humans as the midwife at this precarious and unlikely birth. In order to explicate this paradox, though, it might help us to consider a set of relevant insights from an early and expert analyst of capitalism, Karl Marx.
In writing about the French Revolution, Karl Marx observed that the civil [or bourgeois] society that was established for the first time by that revolution understands itself to be based on the "natural and imprescriptible rights" declared in the Constitution of 1793, namely "equality, liberty, security, property." According to that document, liberty "consists in the right to do anything which does not harm others;" the right of property "is the right vested in every citizen to enjoy and dispose of his goods, his revenues, the fruit of his labour and of his industry according to his will;" equality "consists in the fact that the same law applies to all, whether that law protects or punishes;" and security "consists in the protection which society offers to each of its members for the preservation of his person, his rights, and his property." It is worth pointing out that each of these rights has its equivalent in the world of Unix: users, the equivalent of citizens, are permitted actions which do not harm the data of others--unless those others have, of their own free will, disposed of that data so that permission is granted to others to overwrite it; the same rights apply to all (within a given user class, at least. All bets are off when it comes to root--but even in Enlightenment democracies, equality has always been the most problematic right, especially when it comes to conflicts of interest between an individual and the state. . .and arguably, since all rights are granted, ultimately, by root, root is the Unix equivalent of the State). Security, in Unix terms, is called exactly the same thing, and providing systems security, so as to protect the accumulated labor of legitimate users, is considered the paramount duty of the Unix systems administrator.
Marx finds these "so-called rights of man" to be the defining characteristics of bourgeois society because none of them
goes beyond the egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society, as man separated from life in the community and withdrawn into himself, into his private interest and his private arbitrary will. These rights are far from conceiving man as a species-being. They see, rather, the life of the species itself, society, as a frame external to individuals, as a limitation of their original independence. The only bond that keeps men together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of property and of their egoistic person.
Because I am arguing that the MOO draws out and enacts some of the contradictions inherent not only in Unix and Unix culture, but also in capitalism and Western culture, it is important to stop here and concentrate for a moment on the term that Marx opposes to bourgeois monadic egotism. Marx defines "species- being" elsewhere, in manuscripts written during the same period, in terms that cast an interesting light on my earlier assertion that Unix, and in its own turn, the MOO, are mental representations of a world:
His creation, in practice, of an objective world, his working upon inorganic nature, is the proof that man is a conscious species-being, that is a being which is related to the species as its own essence or to itself as a species being. To be sure, animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwelling places, as the bees, beavers, ants, etc. do. But the animal produces what it needs directly for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, while man produces universally. It produces under the domination of direct physical need while man produces even when he is free from physical need and produces truly, indeed, only in freedom from such need. The animal produces only itself, while man reproduces the whole of nature. . . . It is precisely in his working over of the objective world, therefore, that man proves himself to be really a species being. This production is his active species-life. In and through such production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor, therefore, is the objectification of the species-life of man: for man duplicates himself not only intellectually, as in consciousness, but also actively, in reality, and therefore contemplates himself in a world that he has created.
Once again, the paradox I have in view is that the material conditions and conceptual rubrics out of which Unix developed are the epitome of capitalist endeavor, and yet Unix itself was circulated on quite anti-capitalist terms, answers fairly well to Marx's description of universal production (or production that doesn't answer to an immediate need).
The tension between these two concepts--civil [or bourgeois] society as incarnated in the French Revolution's "Declaration of the Rights of Man," and the "species-being" that (Marx says) these rights ignore--is precisely the enabling condition of capitalism:
In so far as alienated labor tears the object of his production away from man, therefore, it tears away from him his species-life, his actual objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over the animal into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken away from him. . . . A direct consequence of man's alienation from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the alienation of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts another man. . . . Generally, the proposition that man's species-being is alienated from him means that one man is alienated from another, just as each of them is alienated from human nature.
The second level of our paradox is that, when the MOO arises it answers, better than Unix or even capitalism itself, to Marx's description of alienation: within the MOO, when one confronts oneself, one literally confronts the representation of a representation of a person--a player, a character, a projection of (alienated) personality. And yet, again, the labor that goes into creation in the MOO is labor which answers exactly to the call of species-life: it is creation in the absence of need, the creation of a supremely useless object, an object world, an objectification of life in the world.
This brings me to the second chapter of this history, which begins about ten years after the invention of Unix, but still in the corporate neighborhood of AT&T;, when Pavel Curtis and others at Xerox PARC invented MOOcode. MOOs are not intended to replace Unix in any sense, but they do mimic some of the functions of an operating system, and they mirror many of the features of Unix. In the MOO, which is really just a large database, the world is made up of objects: objects always have a particular location within the database and the fictive landscape of the MOO, and objects are in turn composed of properties and verbs. The universe itself is an object (object #0), as are all players. Players own themselves, and they belong to one or more classes of players.
The basic classes of MOO-character are player, programmer, and wizard. Many refinements and elaborations of that tripartite scheme have been implemented, but the basic distinctions remain significant: players can move around and communicate, but they cannot build or create things; programmers are players who can also create, program, and recycle their own objects, and they can bestow owned objects on others; wizards are programmers who can also program or recycle other programmers' objects and players themselves. To this extent, then, the MOO adopts the notion of a "root" user, expressing it more fancifully in the term "wizard"-- the superuser of all MOO users. In keeping with the dendritic hierarchy of files (and processes) in Unix, the MOO has its own (anthropomorphized) hierarchy of parents and children.Every object and player inherits the verbs and properties of its parent, and commands are always executed along a search path that includes one's entire parentage. In the moo, things can be readable, writable, and executable by wizards only, by the owner, or by anyone, and the system of parentage, in its effect, mimics the functionality of user groups --for example, the average player on PMC-MOO belongs to the programmer class, which in turn is a child of the basic builder class, which in turn is a child of Frand's player class, which in turn is a child of the basic player class. Such a player has permission to execute any verb associated with any group or class that appears in that family tree.
Unix and MOOcode share the following characteristics, then: both emerged from large corporate research labs (Bell and Xerox, respectively); both are hierarchical, multi-user, time-sharing environments for the creation, storage, and retrieval of information; both systems are predicated on the notion that every object (or file) has both an owner and a location, and perhaps most importantly, both Unix and MOO function as command interpreters and as programming environments. It is this last thing, more than any other single feature, that unites MOOcode with Unix and distinguishes it from other forms of gaming and/or virtual-reality environments. The "OO" in MOO stands for Object Oriented, and it means that programmers can easily have access to the individual building blocks of the MOO, and can use the tools within the MOO to alter or add to those building blocks.
The important difference between a MOO and the Unix operating system, though, is that while both may be considered to be mental representations, or self-representations, of information processing--models, if you will, of collective memory, of communal libraries, even of collective intelligence-- the MOO is the world it models, as well as the model of that world. In other words, if capitalism is a first-order model of the way labor and value and power circulate in the world, Unix is a second-order simulacrum of the way that a particular kind of capital, namely information, works in the world, and the MOO--an inhabitable model of Unix --is then a third-order simulacrum of the world, in which information is not only a representation of labor, and a source of power, and a form of value, but is also quite literally the form that the species-being takes, "not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference."
It's time now to discuss the way in which one such simulacrum has actually developed, and to think about the future of MOOs in general. PMC-MOO is the MOO with which I am most familiar, since I have been (with the help of many others)* running it for the last couple of years, and since it has, at various times, taken up a good deal of my time. It is not the first MOO I started--the NCSU Virtual Campus has that dubious distinction --nor is it the newest (iath-moo, the virtual conference center for the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities is the most recent), but it has become the largest and longest lasting of the MOO experiments with which I've been involved. PMC-MOO is an offshoot of the electronic journal Postmodern Culture, and it was established to serve two principal functions. First and foremost, it was intended to provide a text-based conferencing facility for journal-related activities, a kind of real-time supplement to PMC-Talk, the listserv-based discussion group that has always run alongside the peer-reviewed journal. Second, because the object-oriented nature of the MOO made this feasible, it was to provide an opportunity for interested users to produce interactive programs that would demonstrate or interrogate concepts of relevance to the study of postmodernism--object-lessons, if you will. In other words, from the outset, PMC-MOO had that Disney schizophrenia that characterizes Epcot Center--a conference hall surrounded by a theme park, work embedded in play.
For a time, quite a time, it seemed that work might never surface at all in this environment, and early visitors to the MOO would have been justified in doubting that this would ever develop into an environment in which anything useful could ever be done. MOOs are naturally somewhat chaotic, since the program allows everyone in a room to speak and be heard in sequence, with no possibility of interrupting another speaker and with little in the way of etiquette that encourages orderly, single-topic, limited-participation conversations. Users who have spent some time in MOOs do learn to use some common tools, such as the stage-talk feature, to identify the topic to which they are speaking or the speaker to whom they are responding, and (more importantly) they seem to develop a certain ability to do conversational multi-tasking, but the MOO tends to be a noisy place when there's anything happening at all.
Beyond the noise factor, there is the issue of identity and accountability. Professional life and professional credit depends, to a large extent, on being able to identify the sources of intellectual contributions, and on attributing borrowed ideas to their originators. The MOO, by contrast, encourages the borrowing of code, by making it easy to copy objects and verbs (or pieces of objects and verbs that seem useful) without attribution. The flip side of attribution is accountability: since most MOOs, including PMC-MOO (but not iath-moo) allow users to create fictitious names for their players, and since it is generally the case that only wizards can locate a player's home site, anti-social behavior including theft, harassment, impersonation, and even "virtual rape," are common problems in these virtual environments. PMC-MOOs most famous episode of anti-social behavior came to be described as MOO Terrorism, and is described elsewhere in a kind of MOO documentary. After our rocky infancy, though, the community has stabilized a good deal, and it has begun to develop some of the familiar features of civic life--it has a zoning board, a board that reviews requests for quota (the permission to create things), regular public events including poetry slams and other performance events, social hours, and special seminars and events. It also has spawned a number of internal discussion groups on various topics, some of them theoretical, some of them social, some organizational. It is worth noting that, although postmodernism is steeped in the kind of theory that even educated non- specialists find difficult to penetrate, PMC-MOO has succeeded in drawing a broad range of non-specialists into the discussion of theoretical issues, and those non-specialists have frequently challenged and in other ways affected the conversation on those issues. High school students, college students, graduate students, professors, librarians, as well as non-academics, government workers, professionals: the population of PMC-MOO is diverse, if not by comparison to the general public, certainly by comparison to the usual audience for literary and critical theory. Furthermore, people whose background was non-technical have become interested in programming through the experience of inhabiting a shared programming environment, and especially (I think) as a result of being able to see and immediately share the results of their efforts from within the same environment in which they are produced. Some programming that demonstrates postmodern theoretical concepts has, in fact, been done, and efforts are underway to foreground that programming in the landscape of the MOO.
What this factual history suggests is that, like its parent, Unix, the MOO has the capacity to turn play into something useful (though it isn't always easy to predict what kinds of play will prove useful, or in what ways), and it certainly fulfills the desire of the early Unix developers for a communal programming environment in which fellowship could come about. The MOO is also clearly an environment in which, independent of need, one can pursue creative activities with tangible, communal, and perhaps even economic results. As with pure research at Bell labs, it seems clear that in the MOO innovation comes from the ground up: in fact, the same thing could be said of the internet itself--that it was born from a monopoly (in this case, the military), and that due to certain external constraints (the threat of nuclear war, which dictated its decentralized design) it has developed into a chaotic, voluntarist, and unpredictably fertile world in which individuals invest large amounts of time and energy "playing" in ways that sometimes produce enormously useful innovations. As far as teaching and research go, the MOO (and the same could be said of the internet itself) is demonstrably useful for some kinds of pedagogical and conferencing purposes, particularly those which rely heavily on verbal information (as opposed to graphics or sound), and particularly when the community of users has developed a set of consensual rules of behavior that downplay the potential for communicational chaos and anti-social behavior, and that play up the potential for cooperation and collaboration.
In closing, I'd like to recall for a moment a recent advertising campaign for AT&T;, in which lots of "ordinary" (but very professional-looking) people are shown using technology in futuristic ways. The tag-line of the campaign is "have you ever ... You will": "Have you ever gone to a meeting in your bathrobe?" asks the voice-over, while a man lounges at the breakfast table while video-conferencing, "Or sent a fax from the beach?" while the man lounges in his beach-chair, sending a fax from his (apparently sand-proof) laptop: "You will." I'm sure that AT&T; intends this campaign to present a happy vision of the future, in which work somehow is less work-like; I'm equally certain, though, that it's possible to view the campaign in exactly the opposite light, to hear an imperative tone in that "You Will," and to consider that, without that handy laptop, the man on the beach might not have to be working. It is, in some sense, the essence of professional occupation that it crosses the line into our personal lives: no profession is truly 9-5. If technology, born from useful play, becomes an environment in which work can be carried on in the guise of play, then either we will never really work, or we will never really play, after this. It remains to be seen which of these--or both, or neither--proves to be the case.
* Grateful acknowledgements are due to PMC-MOO's many productive and creative inhabitants, but especially to Chris Barrett, Lisa Brawley, Craig Horman, Paul Outka, David Sewell, Ted Whalen, and Shawn Wilbur, the wizards who have helped to keep the community running, during good times and bad. Back