True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier

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Once in a great while a science fiction story is so visionary, yet so close to impending scientific developments that it becomes not only an accurate predictor, but itself the locus for new discoveries and development. True Names by Vernor Vinge, first published in 1981, is such a work.

Here is a feast of articles by computer scientists and journalists on the cutting edge of the field, writing about ...

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True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier

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Once in a great while a science fiction story is so visionary, yet so close to impending scientific developments that it becomes not only an accurate predictor, but itself the locus for new discoveries and development. True Names by Vernor Vinge, first published in 1981, is such a work.

Here is a feast of articles by computer scientists and journalists on the cutting edge of the field, writing about innovations and developments of the Internet, including, among others:

Danny Hillis: Founder of thinking machines and the first Disney Fellow.

Timothy C. May: former chief scientist at Intel--a major insider in the field of computers and technology.

Marvin Minsky: Cofounder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab.

Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer: Codevelopers of habitat, the first real computer interactive environment.

Mark Pesce: Cocreator of VRML and the author of the Playful World: How Technology Transforms Our Imagination.

Richard M. Stallman: Research affiliate with MIT; the founder of the Free Software Movement.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Many Net veterans cite True Names as a seminal influence that shaped their ideas about Net policy. It became a cult classic among hackers and presaged everything from Internet interactive games to Neuromancer."--Wired

Publishers Weekly
This remarkable anthology reprints Hugo winner Vinge's (The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge) "True Names" (1981), the story that began SF's cyberpunk revolution, with 11 essays showing its effect on science as well as fiction. The best are the testimonials by pioneers in virtual reality, cryptography and artificial intelligence. The most famous contributors, Marvin Minsky and Danny Hillis, also show the deepest understanding of Vinge's vision. The weakest pieces are science-fictional, appearing pale in the shadow of Vinge's story. Fellow SF author John M. Ford's essay is lightweight, while a stunted attempt at storytelling by Richard Stallman quickly reverts to polemic. The overall problem with the collection is its wildly unbalanced political stance. A quarter of the essayists are "crypto-anarchists," who see the ability of individuals to act secretly as the only defense against a totalitarian surveillance state. Their claim that the response to public tragedy is always a call to restrict civil rights seems sadly prescient, but their antisocial antidote sits poorly after September 11; the crypto-anarchists' beloved secrecy lets both terrorists and tyrants flourish. More socially responsible uses of cryptography exist that could, like the camcorder, give the power of surveillance to the people. It's a shame that editor Frenkel didn't seek out alternate voices such as Bruce Sterling or David Gelernter, but the book is still a testament to SF's power to shape the future and give us advance warning of the rocky issues ahead. (Jan. 2) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Before William Gibson coined the term "cyberspace" and, along with authors like Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, forged our understanding of the virtual landscape, Hugo-winning Vinge (A Deepness in the Sky, 1999, etc.) had presented the concept in the 30,000-word novella True Names. It sparked an immediate reaction, which has continued to this day, among A.I. researchers, hackers, techno-anarchists, and other computer cognoscenti. Despite a number of reprints, the novella is hard to find; here, James Frenkel reaches booklength by reprinting ten articles and essays by other writers, either in response to or inspired by Vinge's original work. Some of the additional material adds little, like "True Nyms and Crypto Anarchy," by Timothy May; some, like Marvin Minsky's 1983 Afterword, are thoughtful and provocative. Read it for the still-compelling novella; the rest is lagniappe.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312862077
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 12/14/2001
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 922,777
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Vernor Vinge has won five Hugo Awards, including one for each of his last three novels, A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), and Rainbow's End (2006). Known for his rigorous hard-science approach to his science fiction, he became an iconic figure among cybernetic scientists with the publication in 1981 of his novella "True Names," which is considered a seminal, visionary work of Internet fiction. His many books also include Marooned in Realtime and The Peace War.

Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin and raised in Central Michigan, Vinge is the son of geographers. Fascinated by science and particularly computers from an early age, he has a Ph.D. in computer science, and taught mathematics and computer science at San Diego State University for thirty years. He has gained a great deal of attention both here and abroad for his theory of the coming machine intelligence Singularity. Sought widely as a speaker to both business and scientific groups, he lives in San Diego, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

You can tell that something unusual is going on these days by the way we draw our graphs. In normal times, we would use a linear scale to plot progress. The height of our graph would be proportional to the measure of progress. But we live at a remarkable moment in history, when progress is so rapid that we plot it on a logarithmic scale.
In the field of computing we have become accustomed to measures that double every few years--processor speeds, communication bandwidths, the number of sites on the Internet--so we plot them on a scale that shows each order of magnitude as an equal step. By plotting on a log-labeled scale (1,10,100,1000) we can imagine progress as a straight line, moving steadily upward with the advance of time. This gives us a comfortable illusion of predictability.
Of course, if we used a linear scale to plot these same curves, they would not look so tame. They would be exponentials, shooting uncontrollably off the page. They would make it look as if everything that has happened so far is an insignificant prelude to what will happen next. On a linear scale, the exponents look unpredictable. The curves approach vertical, converging on a singularity, where the rules break down and something different begins.
The two ways of plotting progress correspond to different attitudes about technological change. I see the merits in both. As an engineer, I am an extrapolator. I am a believer in, and a I participant in, the march of progress. As an engineer, I like semi-log scales. But I am also a parent, a citizen, a teacher, and a student. I am an object, not just an agent of change. As an object and as an observer, I can see clearly that there is something extraordinary going on. The explosion of the exponentials reveals a truth: We are alive at a special and important moment. We are becoming something else.
This century, fifty years back and fifty forward, is one of those rare times in history when humanity transforms from one type of human society to another. To use a physical analogy, we are in the midst of a phase transition, when the configuration of the system is switching between two locally stable states. In this transition, technology is the catalyst. It is a self-amplifying agent of change, in the sense that each improvement tends to increase its capacity to improve. Better machines enable us to build even better machines. Faster computers let us design faster computers, faster.
Change was not always like this. For most of human history, parents could expect their grandchildren to grow up in a world much like their own. For most of human history, parents knew what they needed to know to teach their children. Planning for the future was easier then. Architects designed cathedrals that would take centuries to complete. Farmers planted acorns to shade their descendants with oaks. Today, starting a project that would not be completed for century or two would seem odd. Today, any plan more than a year is "long-term."
Why have we become so shortsighted? We have no less goodwill than our ancestors. Our problem is that, literally, we cannot imagine the future. The pace of technological change is so great that we cannot know what type of world we are leaving for our children. If we plant acorns, we cannot reasonably expect that our children will sit under the oak trees. Or that they will even want to. The world is changing too fast for that. People move. Needs change. Much of our generation is employed at jobs our parents never imagined. Entire industries, indeed entire nations, can wither in the blink of an eye.
All of this confusion becomes understandable, even expected, if we accept the premise that we are in a time of transition from one type of society to another. We should expect to understand the occupations of our grandchildren no more than a hunter-gatherer would understand the life of a farmer, or than a preindustrial farmer would understand the life of a factory worker. All we can really expect to understand is the good in what we leave behind.
So what are we humans becoming? Whatever it is is more connected, more interdependent. Few individuals today could survive outside the fabric of society. No city could stand alone without being continuously fed from the outside by networks of power, water, food, and information. Few nations could maintain their lifestyles without trade. The web of our technology weaves us together, simultaneously enabling us and forcing us to depend more on one another.
As we are becoming more deeply connected to each other, we are simultaneously becoming more connected with our creations. Each time I watch a worker on an assembly line, a violinist with a violin, or a child with a computer, I am struck by how intimate we have become with our technology. Already, our contact lenses and our pacemakers are as much a part of us as our hair and teeth. With recombinant biotechnology we will blur the final boundary between artifacts and ourselves.
In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "Is it a fact--or have I dreamed it--that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!" Now, more than a century later, we can see the signs of his vision. The collective intelligence of the world's minds, biological and electronic, already make many of our economic decisions. The prices of commodities and the rates of global growth are determined by this network of people and machines in ways that surpass the understanding of any single human mind. The phone system and the Internet have short-circuited distance, literally "vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time."
There are other, subtler signs that we are becoming a part of a symbiotic whole. It is obvious that we have become more narrowly specialized in our professions, but we are also becoming more specialized in the activities of our daily lives.
Increasingly we fragment our activities into pure components. We either work or play, exercise or relax, teach or learn. We divide our art, our science, our politics, and our religion into carefully separated spheres. There was an older kind of human that kept these things together, a kind a person who worked and played and taught and learned all at the same time. That kind of person is becoming obsolete. Integration demands standardization. Just as a single cell in our body is adapted to a specific function and a specific time, we too must focus our roles. An earlier kind of cell could sense, move, digest, and reproduce continuously, but such a self-sufficient unit cannot function as a part of a complex whole.
I cannot help but feel ambivalent at the prospect of this brave new world, in which I will be a small part of a symbiotic organism that I can barely comprehend. But then, I am a product of another kind of society, one that celebrates the individual. My sense of identity, my very sense of survival, is based on a resistance to becoming something else. Just as one of my hunting-gathering ancestors would surely reject my modern city life, so do I feel myself rebelling at this metamorphosis. This is natural. I imagine that caterpillars are skeptical of butterflies.
As frightened as I am by the prospect of this change, I am also thrilled by it. I love what we are, yet I cannot help but hope that we are capable of turning into something better. We humans can be selfish, foolish, shortsighted, even cruel. Just as I can imagine these weaknesses as vestiges of our (almost) discarded animal past, I can imagine our best traits--our kindness, our creativity, our capacity to love--as hints of our future. This is the basis for my hope.
I know I am a relic. I am a presymbiotic kind of person, born during the time of our transition. Yet, I feel lucky to have been given a glimpse of our promise. I am overwhelmed when I think of it…by the sweet sad love of what we were, and by the frightening beauty of what we might become.

Copyright © 2001 by Vernor Vinge

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Table of Contents

Preface by James Frenkel

Introduction by Vernor Vinge

"A Time of Transition/The Human Connection," by Danny Hills

"True Nyms and Crypto Anarchy," by Timothy C. May

"Eventful History: Version 1.x," by John M. Ford

"How Is the NII Like a Prison?," by Alan Wexelblat

"Intelligent Software," by Pattie Maes

"The Right to Read," by Richard M. Stallman

"Cryptography and the Politics of One's True Name," by Leonard N. Foner

"Habitat: Reports from an Online Community," by Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer

"True Magic," by Mark Pesce

'True Names," by Vernor Vinge

Afterword by Marvin Minsky

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