The internet has always been, sadly, two-dimensional. Your access to this space is through a specific code word (internet address), or a net that’s trawling the depths of a three-dimensional ocean. All that you’ll ever find once that net has been dragged back onto your boat’s deck (screen) is what snagged on the mesh. You can’t see through or around that net, save tabbing between windows that present a similar, planed viewpoint of an item caught. The search engine of your choice does the travelling for you, navigating millions of pages in a microsecond—as unseen in movement and action as the thoughts in your own head.
It’s really too bad. I’ve referenced my nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s many times (more their version of the future through film, music, and other forms of popular culture), and ultimately we did adopt some aspects of their sleek, interactive relationship with electronics. Our main deviations, though, have been in two places: the rapid rise of social media, which no one could have fully predicted, and our lack of outward dimensionality.
By dimensionality I mean how we interact with the internet. We tap a screen or use a keyboard. In either case we’re inputting symbols, and then warping from location to location without any landscape between. But that landscape matters. It’s like driving from one side of the country to the other without opening your eyes—arriving at your destination as if you’d been asleep the entire time. Going from east to west across the United States you would have missed crossing the Mississippi river, forests fading into rolling plains, weather changes during an upward climb towards the Rocky Mountains, and finally the warm, sunny coastline of the west coast. By warping, you’re exchanging one set of architectures for another, against a slightly different backdrop.
Let’s compare tapping mindlessly away at the browser on your phone to what William Gibson, writer of the short story and screenwriter of the movie Johnny Mnemonic envisioned for us:
Given, Johnny does pull a fast-travel once he realizes he wants to go to Beijing, but we can still see the expanse of the internet—the vast framework of a digital society visualized in 3D space. As a user dropping in, perhaps you’d walk along the avenues of neon light, popping into shops and checking out new wares. If you’re more social, maybe you’d hang out with a friend near a virtual attraction, or play games. Those seeking speed might stay high up in the air and soar between towers.
More recently, Disney re-imagined their version of the virtual turf in Tron, better known as “The Grid”, through Tron: Legacy. The Grid is a network within a server that sits in the basement of Flynn’s old arcade, presenting a vision of a digital space populated with roads, structures, and a civilization. The way Sam enters it is fantastical, being digitized by a laser, but the world within should nonetheless serve as a reminder of what we could be seeing when on the internet. Flynn himself refers to this as a digital frontier–and it is. We have seen under the oceans and begun working through the enormity of space, but also have a third region that rarely gets considered intriguing enough for exploration.
The literary world has repeatedly tread this path as well—be it simply for creative license, or because they genuinely imagined that the very existence of a digital world would inevitably cause people to dive in. Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash in 1992, and posited a realm where people entered virtual environments to conduct business and entertain themselves—where you could be anyone you’d like, and build things that wouldn’t be possible in the real world. Here, the lowly, basement-dwelling hacker can be a sword-carrying samurai.
The journey to that world is already half complete, through hardware accumulating dust on our shelves because software producers aren’t keeping up. I’m speaking of VR, in this case. The gaming industry has been the modern driving force behind virtual reality as we know it, and have limited their scope to nausea-inducing, half-finished experiences. Half-finished because none of them feel like a complete package—a full game by today’s $60 – $80 standards. I know this, because I immediately put money down on Sony’s PSVR, played the heck out of it for a short while, and then relegated the tangled equipment to the corner of a closet.
A useable, consumer-friendly virtual reality headset is but the first step to an internet we can step into, and fulfills the vision of Johnny sliding on his silver visor before jamming into the web. We have controllers that mimic hands now, and it’s only a matter of time before we have gloves. The last thing missing would be the 3D interface. We need someone, or some company, to lay the internet out over a flat space and organize it—to populate the streets and avenues with traffic, assign names to the blocks, and turn the lights on.
The only apparent drawback to the venue that Johnny Mnemonic offers is how dark and dreary the internet looks, but that should be easily fixed. Brighten the sky. Make it appear as a perpetual dusk, as street-lights are just coming on. Or dawn, if you’re a morning person. Add in birds, waterfalls, and foliage everywhere. We can’t seem to control ourselves when it comes to vandalizing the beauty of our natural spaces, so why not fashion a world where an Eden-like jungle in the middle of a metropolis is forever preserved? Where you can walk down the street to check your account balance at a virtual bank, order produce that will be delivered to your physical home by perusing the aisles of a virtual grocery store, and then head to work in an office tower carved out of the trunk of a massive tree—all while sitting on your couch. In some cases people could perform their real jobs in these spaces, tugging off their goggles at the end of the day as if they’d just arrived home.
What do you think? Would a digital world be the kind of place where you might want to spend more time than this physical one? Is it too dangerous for the human species to swap realities? Or would it, as I would hope, cause us to pull back from our rampant destruction of the environment because we have another space to build within. Maybe we wouldn’t all need massive houses and expensive vehicles if we could have a virtual substitute at no cost.
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