Sometimes a Great Notion
Making the Metaverse, Chapter One
San Francisco. Winter, 1993
In late December, Marina and I completed our cross-country drive and posted up at our favorite bed and breakfast in the Mission District, while we scoured listings at an SF apartment-hunting service headquartered in the Castro. Within a few days we secured our first San Francisco place, a cozy one-bedroom on Buena Vista Park East (rent: $800/month!).
A few days after moving in, we had our land line installed and I used my spanking-new 9600 baud modem to beep-borp my Windows 3.1 machine onto Netcom, a rad new ISP that the cool kids were using. Just prior to moving out west, a nice fellow named Bill Love from technical book publisher O’Reilly and Associates, our Cambridge office co-tenants, showed me Mosaic, a new kind of software program that provided a 2D graphical layout to all the information on the Internet. Underlying Mosaic, Bill explained, was the World Wide Web, a new set of communications protocols and markup standards. At the time the Web was a bit meh, mostly technical papers and dry fare like a zip code lookup page. Still, I needed to get online for remote work, so I figured I’d get the best in class dialup setup so that I could also “surf the web,” such as it was back then. (Bill would go on to co-found The Internet Company, a seminal but far too early venture in aggregating content and web development services, with Rob Raisch in 1996).
After settling in, we hit up Mark Pesce. As fate would have it, he lived a mere six blocks away — albeit straight down one of the steepest hills in San Francisco, a real buns-of-steel workout on the way back up. We made a date, and Mark hiked up from his Duboce Triangle lair to our place for a glass of wine and a chat. He would later admit to me that he had initially been wary of that first meeting, not sure what these Boston wannabes might be after. But we all hit it off, and over the course of the evening, Mark opened up and went into a much deeper retelling of his last startup’s woes and the learnings from that experience. Sensing an opportunity, Mark then dropped the bomb on me. He was working on a brand new idea: a 3D interface to the World Wide Web.
“You mean like Neuromancer?” I asked, awestruck.
“Yeah,” Mark replied, patiently. “Like Neuromancer.”
Being avid sci-fi fans, Marina and I had already read William Gibson’s seminal work of cyberpunk fiction. It was great, dystopian fare in noire style; the best in the genre. To me it was nothing more and nothing less. But the novel that coined the term cyberspace and sparked the imaginations of millions was apparently already gestating brain viruses in Bay Area entrepreneurs like this guy.
You have to understand: we were from Boston, an arty, enlightened place but also quite provincial. High tech was for gearheads and suits, not visionaries. The truly wild ideas came from the art scene — mostly people who didn’t have the wherewithal to do more than rage against the machine. San Francisco, on the other hand, was the land of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog, Kevin Kelly, and The Well. Just an hour down the road, Gordon Moore and Steve Jobs were busy cooking up all kinds of new computery stuff. People in these here parts didn’t just talk about the future— they actually built it. They were the machine.
I was bemused, amused, and also intrigued. I had a great remote gig already set up, but while I loved my bosses and colleagues, it was a bread-and-butter thing. Here was the prospect of building something revolutionary. I also had relevant technical experience for the project. We talked through the broad strokes at that first meeting. I was hooked.
Mark and I spent the next several weeks talking through the specifics in a series of caffeinated sessions at Jumpin’ Java, a coffee shop around the corner from his apartment. I was exceptional at linear algebra, one of the mathematical foundations of 3D graphics, and had done some 3D programming in a previous job. And I had serious chops in designing languages, compilers, and developer toolkits, which would all come in handy for the project. Before long, we were installing libraries, trading code snippets and starting to work on demos. While this was happening, the wife and I were getting sucked into the strange brew of tech, art and consciousness-hacking unique to the Bay Area. Life was joyous and exploding with possibilities. I wasn’t sure where our little project — dubbed Labyrinth by Mark to invoke a vision of navigating a future Web that would be too tangled and complex to wend without a 3D interface — was going, but I was digging the ride. Mark was already formulating a grand plan, but he wasn’t telling me yet. That would have to wait until the spring.
Marina and I had moved to the far side of the continent to escape our Boston reality tunnel. Little did we know we would stumble upon an event horizon just weeks after hitting the Pacific coast. California: come for the mind-altering substances; stay for the Metaverse. Our quest to elevate our game led to a hero’s journey that has consumed half my life, and still counting.