Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and
essays from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation,
their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.
Rebirth of Worlds
Build a digital library of pioneering virtual worlds
as a living laboratory of history and social science.
FroM elrond’s liBrarY at Rivendell
in Middle Earth, I write to you about a
serious threat that endangers the connection between our worlds, and possibly the worlds themselves. I am Rumilisoun, an immortal Elf lore-master and
historian, responsible for preserving ancient manuscripts, artifacts, and memories. The connection I speak of, between
Middle Earth and your Internet, is Lord
of the Rings Online (http://www.lotro.
com), and similar connections exist
between our worlds and many others
that are in imminent danger. Lord of
the Rings Online is today quite healthy,
though none can predict whether it still
will be in 10 years. The history books
about Middle Earth written by J.R.R.
Tolkien some 60 years ago will still be
read in thousands of years, translated
into whatever language people use then,
and the movies made from them will endure in constantly renewed digital form.
Yet many virtual worlds have already
died, leaving no copies in libraries.
The Matrix Online closed July 31,
2009, ending forever the possibility of
directly experiencing the city depicted
in the 1999 movie. An intriguing pace-travel world with an interesting philosophy, Tabula Rasa, died February
28, 2009. The Sims Online died August
1, 2008. In all three, though the companies operating them calculated they
were no longer profitable, they have
shown no sign of wanting to put them in
the public domain. Contemporary novels in public libraries cut into the profit
of trade-book publishers, even though
academic publishers depend on libraries, and the owners of virtual worlds
have no incentive to give up their prop-
Rumilisoun lecturing you at Elrond’s Library in Lord of the Rings Online.
erty rights. Indeed, allowing a nonprofit
organization to operate virtual worlds
would compete directly with their commercial counterparts.
Transferring virtual worlds to a digital library would entail some cost, in
part because they differ so much from
one another and need maintenance,
and in part because some changes
would be needed to make them maximally valuable for researchers, teachers, and students. On the client side, a
virtual world consists of a user interface
plus graphics files, and on the server
side of network-management software
and an immense database that reliably
describes the moment-by-moment condition of thousands of avatars. Without
both sides of the Internet connection
and without at least a few hundred inhabitants, a virtual world cannot exist.
Consider the world inhabited by my
friend Edmund Bainbridge. Born in
New Jersey in 1702, he voyaged at age
18 to the Caribbean for adventure and
to try his hand as an English freetrader
and shipbuilder in Pirates of the Burning
Sea ( http://www.burningsea.com). He
had a marvelous time sailing across a
realistic sea in a variety of authentic sailing ships, blasting away with his canon
at the French, Spanish, and occasional
pirate. He set up timber mills in two
forests, one for oak for the hulls of his
ships, the other for fir for their masts,
operated a sulfur mine because that
ingredient for caulking was not available in the auction system, and is able
to construct many different craft in his
shipyard. He enjoys the cultural life of
the most advanced ports, including the
recent musical [ContinUed on p. 127]