The Point Is (1996)

The Point Is was the first of my fully scripted lectures. Today, writing on the 10th anniversary of its premiere, it seems to me rather quaint, inspired by the psychedelic muse of San Francisco, and representative of the wide-eyed techno-optimism of the mid-1990s. Parts of it make me cringe. Other parts seem eerily prescient. I must have been on drugs, or something.

Version 1 was originally presented on 1 February 1996, at Mpath’s Internet Game Developers Conference in San Jose, California. On this occasion, I was fortunate enough to command a decent budget and broad control over the venue and equipment, allowing the lecture to be presented under nearly ideal conditions.

The large conference room was completely darkened. Suspended above the stage area was an equilateral triangle, one meter on a side, covered with black light-absorbing material. Affixed to the center of the triangle was a dime-sized dot of 3M retro-reflective plastic. The beam of a 3-watt liquid-cooled green argon laser was focused onto the reflective dot to produce a dazzling point of coherent radiation. Although the point was completely motionless throughout the performance, random wave interference caused it to twinkle and scintillate eerily. The live narration and recorded music were reproduced at room-shaking volume through a high-performance stereophonic sound system.

Excerpts of Version 1 were presented on 21 February 1996 at Imagina in Monte Carlo, and 3 March 1996 at the SPA Spring Symposium, San Francisco.

Version 2 (reproduced below) was given on 31 March 1996 at the Game Developers Conference in Santa Clara, California. The presentation was similar to that of 1 February, although the laser and sound system were less authoritative. George "Fat Man" Sanger provided an introduction.

Excerpts of Version 2 were presented on 5 November 1996 at Online Entertainment 96 in London.

Many people asked for an audio of The Point Is during its run on the ‘96 lecture circuit. Alas, none of the live presentations managed to yield a decent tape. Particularly annoying was the premiere performance, where great pains were taken to capture a high-quality stereo recording. The resulting tape turned out to be completely blank.

On 21 May 1996, a studio recording was made at New Dog Music in San Francisco, with Paul Godwin engineering. The entire lecture was captured in a single, uninterrupted take, and later mixed with the original background music to create a more or less definitive audio version.

No synthesizers were used in the production of the music score. Notes and chords from a variety of European cathedral organs were treated with resonant filters and pitch shifters, mixed and overlapped in stereo up to nine layers deep.

Running time is 48:16.


You are about to take part in an experiment.

An experiment in group attentiveness.

For this experiment to work, it is important that you not look at me while I am speaking.

I have extinguished the house lights to discourage you from watching me.

Instead of looking at me, or anything else, I invite you to contemplate this point of coherent light.

Fix your eyes on the point as you listen to the sound of my voice.

The point will not move while I am speaking.

But, if you gaze at it steadily, expectantly, it may appear to wander.

The point will not change color or size.

But, if you fix your eyes upon it conscientiously, it may appear to oscillate in diameter or hue.

These illusions will occur only if you still your mind, and fix your eyes on the point.

Regard the space around the point, and together we will share an illusion.

This is not an attempt to hypnotize you. I am not a hypnotist.

I am an engineer of illusions that can be shared.

We are all about to become engineers of shared illusion.

This particular illusion has been engineered to fascinate you.

To fascinate you with possibilities.

The possibilities of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Engineered to suspend your skepticism.

To transfix your attention. Attention.

The point of this experiment is to achieve attention.

Attention has not been a problem for the Internet or the World Wide Web.

Everybody here knows that the Net has become too important to ignore.

What is surprising is that the Web is succeeding in spite of the fact that it is based on very primitive technology.

Almost all of the home computers connected to the Web employ modems and analog voice lines.

Even the fastest modems are too stately. Even 28.8 V.34 is too majestic.

Many consumers are using service providers with out-of-date equipment or inadequate infrastructure.

This makes the torpid Web experience even more frustrating.

We know these problems will go away soon.

Consumers are beginning to learn about digital alternatives to modems and voice lines.

The cost of these alternatives is plummeting faster than anyone dared to hope.

Soon modems will be doorstops.

Consumers are learning that some Internet service providers are more reliable than others.

Soon anything less than lively, robust access to the Web will be unacceptable.

These trends are encouraging.

There are also ways to maximize the performance of the Web.

Strategic deployment of servers. Enlightened application design.

Other approaches that make the most of existing hardware and connections.

These technologies are effective.

But the Web’s success isn’t relying on these trends or technologies.

The Web doesn’t need any new technology in order to become popular.

It already is popular.

Despite modems and analog voice lines and generally crummy service, the Web is one of the biggest success stories of the 90s.

Thousands of people sign up every day.

Over a hundred new Web sites appear every hour.

There must be something about the Web people like.

What is it that makes people like the Web?

What is it that makes people like anything?

What is the origin and purpose of pleasure?

Biologists tell us that our brains contain faculties for creating enjoyable sensations.

They have coined a sophisticated technical term for these faculties.

They call them “pleasure centers.”

Nobody knows how they really work.

But everyone knows that some behaviors feel better than others.

Behaviors like eating, gathering, talking, playing, and having sex.

Biologists explain pleasure by invoking a process they call “natural selection.”

This process is said to favor the evolution of brains that give positive feedback for behaviors which provide a survival advantage.

In other words, nature rewards life-affirming behaviors with pleasure.

That’s why it feels good to eat.

Nature rewards a healthy appetite.

That’s why it feels good to collect things.

Nature rewards acquisitiveness.

And that is why it feels good to talk and to play.

Nature rewards communicators.

It feels good to communicate.

People like the World Wide Web because it satisfies the need to communicate.

The need to feel connected.

The need to not be alone.

Yet today, the Web is a curiously lonely experience.

You are surrounded by millions of surfers, but you can’t wave to anybody

All you get is a number at the bottom of the home page, indicating how many chances to meet someone you missed.

Happily, this is beginning to change.

Soon the Web will begin to notice you.

Soon the Web will be able to process commands faster than you can submit them, and formulate interesting responses in real time.

When that happens, the Web will become conversational.

When that happens, the Web will become interactive.

There will be two very popular uses for this new Interactive Web.

One will be conversation. The other will be multiplayer games.

Multiplayer games offer people the joy of communication.

Single-player games do not.

Multiplayer games are more involving.

More addictive. More delicious. More fun.

The designers and engineers of computer games have always known this.

The designers and engineers of computer games have always known that multiplayer games would someday challenge and eventually eclipse single-player games.

The designers and engineers of computer games have been waiting for over twenty years for a chance to become the designers and engineers of shared illusions.

All we need is an adequate network with an adequate number of users.

All we need is adequate computing power.

All we need is an adequate operating standard.

Thanks to the Internet, the wait is almost over.

Thanks to the Pentium, the wait is almost over.

And, like it or not, thanks to Windows, the wait is almost over.

So what are waiting for now?

We are waiting for a chance to build the games.

For a visionary executive. For an enlightened venture partner.

Somebody who understands that a multiplayer option tacked on to a single-player game at the last minute and with great reluctance is not going to be good enough.

But history suggests that these things are unlikely to materialize on demand.

History suggests that we will probably have to wait for the first Big Online Hit.

Sometime soon, somebody, possibly somebody in this room, is going create an online game that will capture the imagination of the world.

An online game that will become so popular the network will be threatened with collapse.

Congress will scramble to investigate it.

Wall Street and Sand Hill Road will scramble to invest in it.

Pundits will scramble to say they predicted it.

And everyone, everyone, everyone in this room will scramble to imitate it.

Sometime soon, the Gold Rush will begin.

The Big Online Hit will probably not be like Doom or Wing Commander or Super Mario World.

Although popular among hobbyists, these games are too brash and complicated for anybody else.

The Big Online Hit will probably reach beyond the hobbyists to a much larger group of people.

The people who loved Trivial Pursuit. The people who hated Rubik’s Cube.

The millions and millions of ordinary people who went crazy over Pac-Man.

Like these games, the Big Online Hit will be easy to learn, but difficult to master.

It will be approachable and inviting.

It will be abstract. It will be non-violent. It will be inexpensive.

It will be everywhere.

What kind of market will develop to support the Big Online Hit and its many imitators?

What will we be selling our customers on the Interactive Web?

To begin with, we will not be selling them things anymore.

Our products will be digital.

Digital products do not need to be wrapped in boxes if our customers are wired to our offices.

Everything we have to offer them could be downloaded.

Everything we build for them should be designed to be downloaded.

Unfortunately, the first online games will probably be too big.

Developers have yet to outgrow the fetish of gratuitous data streaming made possible by CD-ROM.

Publishers are still unwilling to face the fact that the parts of their games they’re spending the most on are the parts their customers care about least.

They will stubbornly continue to produce games that require a CD-ROM.

This is not a practice that should be encouraged.

This is our chance to transcend CD-ROM, and all physical packaging.

Well-designed online games will be entirely downloadable.

Don’t forget that modems will soon be a thing of the past.

How soon?

Within two product cycles, a twenty or thirty megabyte download will seem only slightly excessive.

And it only gets better from there.

The convenience and economics of online distribution are irresistible.

Everyone will be much happier when the age of online distribution begins.

Everyone, that is, except the distributors and retailers of boxes.

Let us have a moment of silence for the distributors and retailers of boxes.


If we won’t be selling our customers things anymore, what will be selling them?

We will be selling our customers the pleasure of communicating with each other.

We will be selling our customers to each other.

How can we best sell our customers to each other?

We should first recognize that we are about to enter into a profound social contract with our customers.

We’ll no longer have retailers to handle our customers for us.

Soon we’ll be handling them directly.

We’ll be handling their problems, handling their money directly.

But they’ll be entrusting us with more than just their problems and money.

They’ll be entrusting us with the way they look and sound online.

With the way they come across.

With their secrets. With their dignity.

Our customers will insist that we respect their privacy.

That we protect their anonymity.

That we allow them freedom of expression.

That we mirror those expressions without distortion.

That we treat adults like adults.

That we offer parents the tools they need to make informed choices for their children.

To serve our customers best, we have to get out of our customers’ way.

Our customers don’t want to remember that we are facilitating everything they say and do online.

The more we make them aware of our presence, the more they will resent our presence.

Our goal should be to magnify our customers presence while concealing our own.

Our customers will be attracted to those games and services that offer the highest quality of presence.

Ours will be an economy of presence.

How do we measure the quality of presence?

It can measured by answering a few simple questions:

How easy is it to arrive?

How easy is it to congregate?

How easy is it to communicate?

In these pioneering days, it’s to be expected that some of the solutions being offered for managing the quality of presence will be somewhat primitive.

One of the most primitive is the prevailing aesthetic of virtual presence.

The aesthetic known as “virtual reality.”

Some definitions.

By virtual presence, I refer to any artificial extension of awareness.

By virtual reality, I refer to a particular style of virtual presence.

I refer to a simulation of perceptual reality that tries to make you feel as if you are someplace else.

So virtual presence and virtual reality are not necessarily the same thing.

Nevertheless, many people seem to believe that they are.

The aesthetic of virtual reality is overwhelmingly pervasive.

Especially among engineers, and also among the fans of a category of science fiction called cyberpunk.

In the cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, there is a very exclusive virtual night club called the Black Sun.

One of the things that makes the Black Sun so exclusive and special is that, unlike the low-rent portions of cyberspace where avatars pass through each other freely, patrons of the Black Sun must walk around each another or collide.

I read this description and thought it was a witty satire.

Unfortunately, many would-be engineers of shared illusion have read Snow Crash and adopted it as a specification.

The heresy needs to be spoken: The cyberpunk conception of virtual reality is not really very interesting.

Only a hacker would find the problem of avatar collision interesting.

Virtual reality imposes a materialistic space-time metaphor on the experience of virtual presence.

Space and time are exalted in virtual reality.

Even the word “cyber-SPACE” acknowledges their eminence.

But the space-time metaphor is not powerful enough.

Virtual reality is plagued with serious problems about how many people will fit in a conversation space and how to avoid overlaps and log-jams and backing yourself into a virtual corner.

Proposed solutions have been awkward and unsatisfying.

Distances and obstacle avoidance may be realistic, but they are not elegant.

Having to wait before you can arrive may be lifelike, but it is not efficient, or fun.

These constraints are appropriate if you’re building a flight simulator or some other model of a real space-time process.

But space-time simulation is being adopted as the metaphor of choice for all virtual presence.

Verisimilitude is not our concern. Simulation is not our business.

Communication is our business.

We are not necessarily selling our customers an alternative reality.

We are selling our customers to each other.

The space-time metaphor represents a monumental failure of the imagination.

This metaphor has exactly one benefit: it is familiar.

So how important is familiarity?

The history of motion pictures offers an amusing lesson.

In the early days, stories were adapted to the screen by framing a stationary camera view around the field of action.

This technique yielded a stage-like perspective that was familiar to audiences.

A few pioneers came along who thought it might be interesting to move the camera closer to the actors for dramatic emphasis.

A couple of real troublemakers wanted to move so close that only the actors’ heads would be visible.

Producers and exhibitors were aghast.

Producers and exhibitors thought the idea of showing parts of actors was macabre.

They actually declared that if the frameline divided an actor’s image at the neck, the audience might conclude that the actor had been decapitated.

They believed that film was a reproduction medium only.

But audiences were more sophisticated than that.

They were happy to embrace unfamiliar ideas if they made movies more powerful and interesting.

They came to understand that movies could be used not only to reproduce perception, but to represent the process of thought itself.

Now, if the hundred-year-old technology of perforated film can be used to represent the thought process, why can’t virtual presence?

Isn’t the thought process more interesting than collision detection?

We need to ask ourselves how to make virtual presence do what we really want, rather than how well we can make it approach what reality will always do better.

We are talking about the quality of presence again.

So ask the questions:

How easy is it to arrive?

How easy is it to congregate?

How easy is it to communicate?

We can begin by devising ways to transcend the conventions of space and time.

Our bodies and our brains seem to be trapped in space and time.

But the Web is not an environment for the body or the brain.

The Web is an environment for the mind.

For the mind.

We’ve been thinking about virtual presence as if we have to send our bodies out there.

We don’t.

If we could design reality for our minds, what powers would we grant ourselves?

The ability to be anywhere instantly would be a step in the right direction.

The ability to be everywhere all at once, without going mad, is the real challenge.

Why should our minds roll around like cameras, when they can zoom and focus like lenses?

Why settle for avatars, when we can be angels?

Our goal should not be virtual reality.

Our goal should be actual ubiquity.

Space and time are not intrinsic properties of virtual presence.

Space and time will not exist in virtual presence unless we bring them with us.

Space and time are boring.

Let’s not invite them.


Now, it’s all very well to talk about evicting space and time from virtual presence.

It’s quite another to imagine what virtual presence would actually be like without them.

What will it be like when we transcend space and time?

How will we navigate without dimensions?

How will we tell things apart?

How will we separate things?

There can be no rational answers to these questions.

To formulate a response, we must be prepared to set aside rationality.


I first heard the word “strange” used this way to describe future technology by Peter Bergman of the Firesign Theater, at a lunch in 1994.

We must be prepared to embrace Strangeness.

I’m not talking about strangeness that is merely curious or weird.

Not strangeness as in bungee jumping or platypuses or Michael Jackson’s pet monkey.

I’m talking about the kind of Strangeness that goes beyond language.

The kind of Strangeness that is offensive to the intellect.

Strangeness so profoundly alien, a shift of consciousness is required to deal with it without going mad.

The kind of Strangeness that Lovecraft used to write about.

This is Strangeness with a capital S.

Strangeness like the square root of negative one.

Like superstrings and black holes.

Really Strange things seem to emerge from outside space and time.

From the realm of imagination.

So, when we ask what virtual presence would be like without space and time, the general answer is that it will be imaginary.

The precise answer is that it will be Strange.

Some of you are wondering why you should concern yourself with Strangeness.

Isn’t it enough to keep building knockoffs of the last big hit?

Isn’t it safer to let somebody else take the arrows in the back?

The truth is that every single one of you is going to be building Strange products.

The question is, who will have the vision to build them while they still seem Strange?

We must explore Strangeness because that is what the future would look like if we could see it today.

Embracing strangeness doesn’t mean abandoning the dictates of common sense or sound business practice.

It simply means you must be willing to take enough risk.

How do you know when you are taking enough risk?

If nobody is complaining about your work, you’re probably not taking enough risk.

If nobody is slapping themselves upside the head.

If nobody is saying, “I knew that!”

If anybody can afford to ignore what you are doing, you are not being Strange enough.

The format of this lecture may have seemed strange to you at the beginning.

By now you are probably getting used to it.

So let’s raise our collective attention to a higher level of Strangeness.

Keep your eyes on the point, and together we will explore Strangeness.

Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that ancient civilizations did not necessarily share our Western concept of the Self.

The concept that each of us is a separate, independent consciousness moving through space and time.

The basic dualism of the perceiver and the perceived.

The concept Freud called the Ego.

Most of us accept experiential dualism as a fundamental aspect of reality.

But some religious traditions maintain that Dualism and the Ego have nothing to do with reality.

These religions teach that separateness is only an illusion.

An illusion that can be dispelled by certain esoteric practices.

These religions possess Strange but demonstrably effective technologies that allow individuals to achieve states of consciousness that transcend the illusion of separateness.

And what do these transcendent individuals have to tell us?

They tell us that we all deeply connected.

Part of a network of minds. A web of souls.

An economy of presence.

Does any of this sound familiar?

And they tell us that it is space and time that prevent us from realizing our essential unity.

That space and time are precisely the illusions that keep us apart.

Scientific materialists don’t like to hear this stuff.

A materialist might concede the possibility that space and time and separateness are some kind of mental illusions.

But they will expect us to postulate an evolutionary purpose for these illusions.

The doctrine of natural selection demands that our brains must have developed these basic organizing metaphors because they provide some kind of survival advantage.

What is the advantage of believing that we are all separate?

All different?

Consider that without differences, there could be no comparisons.

Without separateness, there could be no dissatisfaction.

There could be no striving or competition or progress.

Without separateness, we would never have bothered to leave the paradise of Africa.

We would never have become farmers or builders or warriors.

We would never have aspired to the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution or, not one, but two devastating world wars.

Only arrogance and pride born of separateness could challenge space and time with railroads and airplanes and guided missiles.

Only righteous malevolence would presume to harness the Strange power of special relativity to create an atomic bomb.

Only hatred driven by the illusion of separateness could produce conflicts and weapons horrible enough to shake us all out of the collective nightmare we call history.

Only institutionalized greed could concentrate enough wealth to wire the entire planet.

We have taken the long way around, my friends.

Somehow, amazingly, perhaps undeservedly, we are about to achieve global interactive connectivity without blowing ourselves up first.

The ways of natural selection are indeed Strange.

Some of you are going to cash in on the Internet and attain positions of power and influence.

Nature rewards a healthy appetite.

Some of you will create new technologies and companies and become comfortably wealthy.

Nature rewards acquisitiveness.

Nature rewards life-affirming behaviors that lead to a survival advantage for the species.

The illusion of separateness may have been necessary to push us to this threshold of realization.

But before we can Realize, before we can evolve, we must discard that illusion.

We must discard it like the space shuttle discards its solid rocket boosters.

We must discard it like an inflamed appendix.

The illusion of separateness has outlived its usefulness.

It is turning against us and subverting our destiny.

It is time to outgrow it. It is killing us.

And we, in this room, are the architects of its demise.

The point is that we are beginning to remember something we have all forgotten about ourselves.

Something wonderful about ourselves.

We don’t have the words in our Western languages to describe what that something might be.

But we can feel it. We can feel it.

So we’re doing what anyone who is having trouble describing something does.

We are trying to draw a picture of it.

We are struggling to construct a model of it.

We have succeeded in laying the foundations of that model.

And we have given our model a name.

We call it the World Wide Web.

By using the Web, by thinking about its possibilities, and especially by helping to build the Web, you are changing the way you realize the world.

You are changing your mind about the world.

The Web isn’t just something that is happening in the world.

It’s something that’s happening in you.

When people set up email accounts or personal Web sites or join chat rooms or create MUD personas, what are they doing, really?

They are saying to the world, I Am.

I Am.

I signify. I am part of a larger community.

I am part of something bigger than myself.

These are empowering acts.

These acts are an expression of hope.

These are spiritual acts.

Why is a game designer talking to you about spirituality?

The adjective spiritual simply refers to things which have no body, form or substance.

So spirituality is about things that are disembodied.

Things that are formless. Things that are insubstantial.

Things that are virtual.

Spiritual experiences are nothing to be ashamed about.

Spiritual experiences are, in fact, quite practical.

Spiritual experiences are, in fact, our business.

Ours will be an economy of spirits.

Some of you are now thoroughly embarrassed by my pretensions.

Some of you think that spiritual purposes are fuzzy-minded, and not respectable.

If the development of an effective spiritual technology does not interest you, then do it for your resume.

If being part of something bigger than yourself doesn’t inspire you with hope, then do it for your portfolio.

The reasons you use to justify your investment are not important.

The name of the spirit that moves you is not important.

What is important is that you are moving.

What is important is that you are building this.

We have to build this.

We’re not out of the woods yet.

We could still blow ourselves up before we build enough of this thing to recognize ourselves in it.

Everything else we have ever built will be for nothing if we fail to build this now.

Build this. Just build this.

You came to this conference because you sensed opportunity.

Your instinct was profoundly correct.

Conversation and multiplayer games are indeed the killer apps of the Internet.

The next big things. The Trojan horses.

Multiplayer games will attract scores of millions to the World Wide Web.

They’re easy to understand. They’re compelling.

They’re lots and lots of fun.

They will be a potent catalyst for global interactive connectivity.

They will help to bring us all together, at last.

They will help to bring us all together, again.

Are you ready to be a part of something bigger than yourself?

Are you ready to suspend your skepticism and entertain possibilities?

The possibility that something Strange and wonderful is trying to happen?

The possibility that the World Wide Web may be one of its manifestations?

Are you ready for the shock of recognition?

The point is that we are instruments of something bigger than ourselves.

We don’t know what this something is.

But we can feel it. We can feel it.

I call it “the point,” because the point is to find out what the point is.

The point is urgently prodding us.

The point is pointing at itself.

The point is infinitely small, and mathematically perfect.

The point has no volume, but it is never silent.

The point has no radius, but it is eternally radiant.

It is the shining Void. The empty Source.

It is expanding and collapsing simultaneously.

It is all-encompassing, and coincident with every other point in the universe.

The point is that there are no coincidences.

The point is that our hand is being guided here.

The point is that our attention is being fixed.

The point of this experiment is to achieve attention. Attention.

The point is not familiar.

The point is Strange. The point is Other.

The point is not contingent upon anything. Not even itself.

It is the First Cause. The Prime Mover.

The point is emergent.

The point is an emergency.

Emergency! Attention! The point is on fire!

But the point is inextinguishable.

The point is the burning bush.

The point is the I Am.

The I Am.

The point is not good.

The point is not evil.

The point is not even indifferent.

The point simply is. The point is.

The point is not an object or a noun.

The point is an action. The point is a verb.

The verb is to be.

The point is Being. It is Being.

The point is that we are don’t have to be alone anymore.

The point is that we have never been alone.

The point is that we can all be as one.

The point is that we are all one.

The point is that we are all one.

The point is that we are all one.

Fix your eyes upon the point, and together we will achieve attention.