Starting in the mid-1990s, Active Worlds remained the most popular user-created virtual environment on the internet for a full decade. Brimming with precedent and potential, this online zone was a worldbuilding exercise and infrastructure that held the promise of a self-electing global citizenry amidst a virtual construction of their own imagination and creation. Architects Andrea Belosi and Joana Rafael embarked on an expedition through the remains of its principle territory, AlphaWorld. Four avatars were enlisted to walk several hundred digital kilometres across the entire world in relay, exploring the ruins of our recent digital past in order to gain insights into our hybrid present.
Spending days in Active Worlds during the Covid lockdown was an interesting experience. During the day I was in AW, in the evenings hanging out with friends in VRchat. Exploring both virtual places back to back gave me a kind of tech-whiplash. I spent most of the pandemic, amidst the NFT backlash and zoom fatigue feeling that everything old is new again. Still; the dreams, the possibilities, of the virtual remains the same. I’m still as excited as I ever was.
Contributing to Lost Zone only accelerated my interest in reading writing about virtual worlds from the 90’s web. There are a lot of – quite frankly – idiots out there happy spending other people’s money to make the same mistakes as others made nearly 30 years ago.
I wrote about worlding as luxury past time (going as far as calculating the cost of a PC capable of running AW at launch). I take all sorts of diversions though city planning, question the aesthetic sensibilities of the wealthy virtual pioneers who built AW, web3, cinema and cowboy movies. The bulk of the essay is taken up with the idea of the ‘Digital Frontier’ and I lament the ‘techno-pastoral’ logic of online worlds, how the language used in the 90’s (and still today) replicates the worst of American manifest destiny and colonial exceptionalism.
Here’s two extracts from my chapter in the book.
The book is absolutely PACKED with information, both anecdotal and technical. The book has page after page of full colour screenshots from AW. Includes interviews, psychogeographic essays of AW’s virtual worlds and more. Available now from ideabooks for £20.
I’m really happy to have got to contribute to such a cool project.