Go to Brad De
Long's Home Page
The Shock of the Virtual
How the Website of the U.C. Museum of Paleontology
Feels More "Real" than the Museum Itself
Date: Mon, 31 Jul 1995 15:18:30 -0700
(Brad De Long)
To: Multiple recipients of list
Subject: Ontological Breakdown
I am not at all sure that this is the right place to put this. I can
already hear Chuq Von Rospach saying "Now, if this were
Nevertheless, the experience was profoundly disturbing, and made we
want to consult a philosophical professional (in the same way that a
health problem makes me want to consult a medical
Let me back up. For the past year or so one of my main Internet
activities has been to use it to look for pictures of dinosaurs. The
five-year-old sits on my right knee and the two-year-old on my left.
We stare Triceratops eye-to-eye, and to count the teeth of
Tyrannosaurus Rex. (The five-year-old is pretty good at following
links; the two-year-old is still at the "Twicer'ops. Piktur
One of our favorite places is the address above: the University of
California Museum of Paleontology-the
the Internet, the
UCMP is a
marvelous virtual, interactive museum. It carries the endorsement of
Adam Engst, who writes that he
could "spend the rest of my afternoon here, browsing the exhibits,
and all without hurting my feet."
Last June I stopped being a Senior Treasury Department Official, and
became a Berkeley economics professor. Since the UCMP is in
/berkeley.edu/ , I asked
around, and was told that the UCMP had just moved into the
newly-renovated Valley Life Sciences Building.
So one afternoon I paused in my attempts to deal with the pile of
paper created by the Associate Vice Chancellor for Sending Junk Mail
to Faculty and the Assistant Associate Vice Chancellor for Thinking
Up Pointless Rules, and the five-year-old, the two-year-old, and I
crossed Strawberry Creek to enter the Valley Life Sciences
We walked past a wall of news clipping and pictures of
paleontological digs. We soon found ourselves in the central
stairwell in front of a banner that said "University of California
Museum of Paleontology." There was a very impressive Tyrannosaurus
skull behind glass. On the next floor up there was a similarly
impressive Triceratops skull. The hip bones of a Tyrannosaurus (a
different Tyrannosaurus) hung suspended in the stairwell.
That was pretty much it. The
really had just moved, and did not have all the public exhibits
unpacked yet. By mid-September a Tyrannosaurus Rex will fill up the
entire three-story stairwell. But the public fossil collection is
very small: the UCMP is a research museum, not a display
museum: it is for twenty-five- year-old graduate students fascinated
by posters with titles like "Acid Rain an Agent of Extinction at the
K-T Boundary--Not!" This research museum is not designed for
five-year-olds, or for thirty-five-year-olds who don't know as much
about geology and chemistry as they should.
I stood in the stairwell. I looked at the few-very
impressive-fossils. I thought to myself, "Let's get back to my office
computer, so that we can link to
http://ucmp1.berkeley.edu/expo/dinoexpo.html and see the real
University of California Museum of Paleontology."
"The real museum," I thought, "has audio narration by the discoverers
of dinosaurs. The real museum has many more bones-a Diplodocus
skeleton, for one thing. The real museum has detailed exhibits on
dinosaur evolution and geology..."
"This is the real museum. The Internet Web site
http://ucmp1.berkeley.edu/expo/dinoexpo.html is just the 'virtual'
image-an electronic reflection-of this place."
And that was when I felt I needed a consulting philosopher real
There have long been speculations about how the electronic shadows
made possible by the computer and telecommunications revolutions will
acquire the intensity of effect, the immediacy, the complexity and
the depth to become-in a certain sense-real. That afternoon in the
Valley Life Sciences Building was the first time in my life that I
had compared a place in the real world, the
its virtual electronic image in cyberspace-and found the real world
lacking, found that the real world experience lacked, compared to its
virtual electronic image, the intensity of effect, the immediacy, the
complexity, and the depth necessary for reality.
Thinking back, I realized that the electronic world behind the
computer screen has been slowly acquiring reality-and the real world
losing it-for some years. I check the card catalog for something or
other every week; but it has been four years since I saw a wooden or
metal drawer with 3 by 5 cards in it. If I say "it's on my desktop,"
I almost surely mean that a pointer to the computer file exists at
the "root" level directory of my notebook computer. As far as
desktops and card catalogs are concerned, the "virtual" images have
so swamped the "real" objects as to make them vanish from my
My cousin Tom Kalil tells me
that cyberspace has obtained "liftoff": traffic on the NSFNET
electronic network backbone was up from 3.6 billion bytes in March
1993 to 4.8 trillion bytes in March 1995.
Yahoo now index over 4 million
electronic documents, and receive more than 9.4 million hits per
Some are oblivious to this transformation: I think of a respected
academic elder who claimed that all physical discoveries since 1930
(including our current computer and communications technologies) were
less significant than the past generation's "discoveries" in literary
criticism-and who had the lack of perception to make this claim in an
electronic mail message!
For two generations people have been talking about how computers will
have an extraordinary impact on human society and human knowledge.
Our children will think as differently from us as we think
differently from pre-Gutenberg monks, who would spend ten years
copying and writing a commentary on one single illuminated
manuscript. Our children will find our doctrines and beliefs as
quaint as we find Socrates' distrust of the written word as an
unsuitable tool for education.
The evening after returning from our expedition to the Valley Life
Sciences Building I went upstairs to put the five-year-old to bed. He
was talking-but not to himself.
"If you want to read books," he said, "click on the bookcase. If you
want to play with dinosaur toys, click over here." He was pretending
to be a Help System.
"To play with Lion King toys, click on the bottom of the bed."
I have pretended to be many things at play and work-a space explorer,
a wise king, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, a Berkeley
professor. But I never pretended to be a help system.
"If you need help, click on my picture on top of the dresser. I'll be
there in a flash..."
Not only is the virtual world behind the computer screen acquiring
reality, but the real world is acquiring aspects of virtuality as
Brad De Long
I posted this to the apple-internet-users mailing list. A version
(well-edited by Adam Engst)
appeared in TidBITS #291 (21-Aug-95):
It has also been electronically published by HotWired (in
their NetSoup section), and by the Utne Lens.
It is forthcoming in print in Wired, a small chunk of it has
appeared in Harpers under the title
A Wired Child, and it has been
re-printed in American Art.
Of all the e-mail I have gotten in response, the two most interesting
items have been, first, a pointer to Dr. Bombay's Village Voice
article about the crime and punishment of Mr. Bungle for virtual rape
It isn't Crime and Punishment, but it comes closer to
Dostoyevsky than it has any right to do.
And, second, a pointer to Lenny Foner's sociological analysis of the
impact of the MOO-based "chatterbot" named Julia:
The analogies, however, are not exact. In text-based MUD- and
MOO-environments, the suspension of disbelief in the "reality" of the
virtual environment is not only willing but willed and even
forced. While my suspension of disbelief was not only
unwilled, but involuntary...
Go to Brad De
Long's Home Page
Associate Professor of Economics Brad
De Long, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax