Interview: Dan Duncan: Poet Laureate of Virtual Reality, SF, CA, 1992
by Richard Whittaker, Jun 2, 2001
photo - r. whittaker
I'd know Dan for several years and was aware of his poetry and his intense love of many kinds of literature, but I really wanted to learn more about his passionate involvement with new developments in computer technology. [For many years Duncan had made his living as a technical writer for Logitech.] We met at his home in San Francisco.
Richard Whittaker: You have an official title: "The Poet Laureate of Virtual Reality."
Dan Duncan: That's my official title, right. Like you go to the place where they confer official titles and get one. For awhile I tried to figure out how I got to be "The Poet Laureate of Virtual Reality" Maybe it means I'm dead and don't know it. But seriously, after tracking all the persons who regard me as such, and wondering why they do, I began to ask myself what it means to me, and very quickly I circled back to my childhood and the influence of my parents.
When I was growing up my parents recited poetry to each other and to us kids several times a week. There was Sandberg... my dad would recite Robert Service from memory... and we had our Kahlil Gibran, who was quoted more often in my house than the Bible.
It's only recently that I realized how extraordinary that was. I assumed that everyone had a copy of Modern British and American Poets in their living rooms. And, I assumed everybody's mothers and fathers hugged them. Even through my college years I would embrace my father with great gusto, and kiss him on the cheek.. His bristly cheek.. And, that was my dad, you know?
I started writing poetry as a teen-ager. This friend of my mom’s took an interest in me and said I should write poetry. He said I looked like a poet. Now, that's dangerous kind of stuff... but I didn't know any better so I got interested in it. Later on, I began to see that poetry is something more than just a life-style... it's a kind of discipline that forces you to look at experience from a different point of view.
If you're writing formal verse like a sonnet or a villanelle, you have to change the way you think about something. You change what you think about in order to arrive at a rhyme, for example. Once you do that there comes a moment when you do see things differently, and it's hard to give up a tool like that.
RW: You say that in order to follow some poetic form, you have to change the way you think...
DD: That's right. They say the brain does three things: it distorts, deletes and generalizes. So, poetry is a kind of intentional distortion. When you distort intentionally I think it’s different from when you do it unintentionally. Maybe it has to do with intention. The big point, for me, is not so much the "how" but what occurs as the result.
I mean how much of your experience is informed by your own thought? If someone says so-and-so is a bad person, and then you meet that person, the tendency is to think the person is a bad person. This is what you’ve been told.
DD: It's like advertising. It creates a model of reality that changes the way we think and act. I guess poetry, in its best sense, would be like advertising for God.
RW: What do you mean when you say poetry, in its best sense, would be like advertising for God?
DD: I came across the idea back when I was a bookseller in the 60s. At a certain point, as I was being sold some new titles, I couldn't help but think that the person who was selling me had been sold by his editor, and the editor by a writer, and the writer by... something. I called it God at the time, and still might. Then the bookseller sells the book to a reader who reads it, and in a way indoctrinates himself with the message of the book. And where does it stop?
It's like in the Gospels where someone asks Jesus who is going to be the top dog in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says, "Wait a minute, you've got it all confused: The kingdom of heaven is en tos.'" Here's where is gets interesting. You see the words "en" and "tos" mean two or three different things at the same time. It means "within you" like Tolstoy is said to have emphasized; and it also means "among you all." Somewhere along the line it struck me that they are the same. If man goes deeply enough into himself, he will begin to discover both his own nothingness AND the reality of his neighbor.
What goes on between people is just as mysterious as what goes on inside them. God seems to be waiting in all sorts of unlikely situations to give you or me a nudge... that is if we're nudgable... Did I ever tell you about Jose Sanchez?
DD: Jose Sanchez was a forklift driver at Planters Peanuts. I was also working as a forklift driver there. I was about 34 and he was an "old man" of about 40 from San Salvador. He played cards most nights with the card players.
One night I was sitting at a table by myself at dinner break reading a book... He left his card game and came over and sat down across from me and waited until I looked up from my book. He looked at me very intensely, and he said, "Kid, in this life you gotta be crazy, and you gotta know the business!... If you're just crazy you go off on a trip somewhere. Nothing happens. If you just know the business, what's the difference between you and a stone?... But if you're crazy, and you know the business... you'll do alright!"
RW: Well alright. [laughs] Where are we then? You began telling the story of your relationship to poetry.
DD: So then, in college I wrote some poems and some of my best work to this day. In fact two of them were published in Material For Thought anonymously. I gave a copy to a friend and we had a mutual acquaintance, Jerry Pournelle. He writes best-selling science fiction, and is kind of the dean of American computer journalists, I think. He ran across this book of poems at my friend’s house and was impressed by it, and later...my gosh, it was many years later!... I got into the computer game, and I ran into Jerry at a computer fair. He was very cordial to me.
Anyway, in 1986 I was out of work and I called him to hit him up for a loan. He said, "Sorry, I can’t do it. But, you’re a poet. You know these books I write and edit. Write me a poem for this series (it was called There Will Be War) and if I like it I’ll publish it, and I’ll pay you for it." Two days later the poem came forth. He liked it and published it. And when he published it he said this really lovely thing... I like it better than the poem almost., "I first met Dan Duncan in Seattle many years ago. We were both at odd but crucial points in our lives. We did not see each other again for a decade but when we did we found we had, in the interval, become friends without quite knowing how or why. Dan Duncan has always been a poet. He also understands the computer revolution better than most engineers."
Now, coming from Pournelle, that's high praise. That kind of pushed the poet laureate thing a step closer. It wasn't until about 1990 that I went to a Meckler Conference on Virtual Reality here in San Francisco..
DD: Alan Meckler puts on conferences. And the next year I asked Sandra Helsel, who is the main organizer for the Meckler conferences, if she needed help with the conference. She asked, "Could you moderate the opening session?" I said, "Sure."
Well, in the process of finding out who I'd be introducing, I met Bob Jacobson who’d just left the U of Washington HIT lab (the Human Interface Technology Lab). We were going to have a cup of coffee and we ended up sitting there talking for three hours. At the end he asked, "Would you be our corporate poet for our new corporation?" I said, "Sure, why not?" And so, I am the poet for the WorlDesign Corp. in Seattle. It is a Virtual Reality start-up dedicated to information design using virtual reality techniques.
RW: I've never heard that term before, "corporate poet."
DD: It's a wonderful kind of collision of roles, or modes, or something. Anyway, Sandra Helsel heard about this. So, when she welcomed everyone at the conference and introduced me as the moderator of the first session she said, "Here, to moderate the first session, is Dan Duncan, ‘The Poet Laureate of Virtual Reality’."
RW: So that was where this title first appeared.
DD: Yes, and it stuck.
RW: As "corporate poet" of WorlDesign Corporation what do you do?
DD: I advise in a poetic manner.
RW: It's not that you produce quatrains.
DD: Right, and I seem to have a good memory for quotations... so I can generally dig up something relatively appropriate. Like at that first Meckler convention that I moderated.. I launched in and said, "The French poet Rene Char says, ‘Man is able to do what he is unable to imagine. His head trails a wake through the galaxy of the absurd.’ " And the people went wild.
RW: [laughs] Trails a wake through the galaxy of the absurd...
DD: "His head trails a wake through the galaxy of the absurd."
RW: Do you have any idea why that quotation came to you at that moment?
DD: Yes.. the virtual reality movement and technology is so breath-taking and daring in what it has set itself to accomplish, namely the realistic simulation of human experience...it's almost impossible. It is impossible! And yet, people flock to put on the goggles and gloves..
RW: Where does the "absurd" fit into the equation?
DD: The absurd is that what happens. Behind you is a quote from Goethe "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back is always in effect. The moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material sustenance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way."
So there's an idea to what? go to the moon? That idea pulls resources into being! I mean, it makes it possible to see resources that we might not have seen. And it’s the same for Virtual Reality.
RW: So the absurd is that the unforeseen is called into being?
DD: If everything around you is absurd, and you trail a wake through it... then the moment of that wake is an interruption of the absurd. And all around there is nothing to support it.
RW: One is moving, but in a universe of the absurd, one doesn't know how to get anywhere.
DD: But you create meaning in a funny kind of way. There is that old question. "Do you create meaning, or do you discover it?" I think it's just two sides of the same thing. Jacob Needleman says that Consciousness can only exist in a universe that is, itself, conscious. It's not just, "Ahh...Cogito, ergo sum!" That's a moment of great discovery, and it's a pity that we don't see our connection. Like, when was the last time you were conscious? What was it like? Did you feel more connected with things? And with your life?
RW: It's a difficult term to define isn't it? I mean, there are moments that come sometimes that are more than just my ordinary state of consciousness. At such moments I do have this sense that, I'm here.
DD: And then, do you have the sense that, we are here.
RW: Sometimes I try to imagine the reality of "the other." I could try to talk about that, but why did you pose this question?
DD: There is this thing they talk about in virtual reality, "the willing suspension of disbelief" Once I was talking with Farouk Malawi who was the head of the Arab Information Center here in San Francisco. I was talking with him one day about Islam and for some reason I brought up this idea about "the willing suspension of disbelief." He said, "But that is Islam! It is the suspension of disbelief." And so, in the moment that I feel more real, I think I am engaged in a different way. My consciousness is different. Something is at stake.
And, for that matter, virtual reality, as it is being proposed right now, isn't that. It isn't proposing to put something at stake. It's proposing to entertain, or to instruct, or something like this.. and so it's potentially really very ordinary. So, I guess my question would be, "How can this technology... virtual reality and all the rest of it, but especially virtual reality... how can it prepare us for a more intensified exercise of these truly human capabilities?
RW: What kind of human capabilities are you referring to?
DD: The ability to visualize, the ability to .. well, is compassion an ability? Maybe it is. Maybe part of what we were saying earlier about poetic "unfiltering" applies to this idea of compassion, or should we really say, the practice of compassion.
RW: You said that virtual reality, as it is being proposed now, does not put something at stake. I'm not sure I understand what you mean.
DD: Well, ask yourself. You've read the hype and maybe seen the movies. What's missing? Some sort of social contract?
Meredith Bricken, at the UW HIT Lab, was working with some kids who were given access to VR equipment. What they did with it... among other things... was to invent a rose-eating shark and a cave with dirty laundry. So what could be at stake is the whole way we describe our consciousness to ourselves and to each other.
The difference is in what the technology puts in question. No one really questioned the Gulf war and what we did to the Iraquis. It was all business as usual. But a rose-eating shark? That’s a time-bomb in the mind. And when these bombs go off, when we become unsure of our role and position in the cosmos, when we begin, in the words of Jack London, "to dream with our eyes wide-open," then there will be a chance for a revolution not just in society and not just in my life, but in the way the two realities create a kind of exchange. The chance to make it possible to say "we" and have a sensation of myself and a sensitivity to you in this moment of relationship. Then something can be at stake.
RW: I'm convinced that we’re in the midst of fundamental change. And there is this enthrallment among a lot of people involved in these new technologies such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, virtual reality, genetic engineering, and all the rest of it. It’s a lot like the great hope and optimism that existed for a couple of years in the 1960s when a world of possibility suddenly opened into popular consciousness through LSD, eastern philosophy, Huxley, Alan Watts, Leary, and so on.
We all know how heaven was not delivered to us. Now there’s this new vision of possibility appearing and I tend to believe it will follow a similar trajectory.
DD: What you have now is people coming together on the basis of an interest not limited by geography. People from all over the world can communicate almost instantaneously. Now, what does that mean?
I think the biggest danger of computers is that we confuse the speed of processing with the speed of thought. Computers don't think. They put out something like surface impressions, and the faster they can do that the better. But we're getting fooled into thinking that speed is a valuable thing in terms of processing ideas. And really, the most valuable thing in terms of processing ideas, and most people’s experience will bear this out, I think... he most valuable thing is ripening. An idea has to ripen. Just making connections is trivial. It can be interesting, but when an idea really takes root in my gut so I stay awake nights, it's different. As Shakespeare said "ripeness is all."
RW: That's a very cogent observation. There is another process going on a different speed and scale altogether.
DD: It's in another dimension even. It's in a vertical dimension and computers operate in a horizontal dimension.
RW: In terms of the hopes that are raised, there is something about how these processes get short circuited, it seems to me. It's an automatic process. What are your thoughts on that?
DD: It feels that way. Look at the economy. We are in the midst of a revolution. Computers have changed everything... personal computers more than mainframes. Look at the Macintosh Power Book. I mean 50 years ago it would have been considered witchcraft... science fiction.
One of the first times I heard people talk about virtual reality was at the West Coast Computer Fair in 1989. I heard Jaron Lanier, Randy Walser, Scott Fischer and Alan Hald of Microage Computers. Both Fischer and Walser talked about the roots of virtual reality being in fairy tales. Emily Dickenson said, "There is no frigate lke a book to take us worlds away." And, what happens when you read a book? Do you go there? Right now you can see yourself in a lawn chair reading a book. What is that? So, we’re very suggestible and maybe that suggestibility could be harnessed in a good way. But here we are. What do they call it? The fin d’siecle? We’re in a real mess!
RW: I find I have a kind of apprehensive distrust of this technology.
DD: Maybe we could reframe it and call it an apprehensive respect.. like you have respect for a tiger or a snake.
RW: Perhaps. There are various things that bother me... I'm constantly bothered by the force of advertising, television, and the thought that many of the best minds are devoted to devising ever more effective forms of persuasion.
DD: There’s the great Bob Dylan line, "Advertising games, they con you into thinking you're the one who can win what's never been won..meanwhile life goes on all around you."
RW: Yes. At any rate, I'm not sure I can make the direct connection here between advertising, television, and virtual reality. But, I think we're all vulnerable to the stream that runs downhill.. If it doesn't cost me any effort and if it's extremely entertaining then it's going to take something special not to indulge in it. Now that worries me.
DD: Virtual Reality. There it is. Powers and principalities. Then there’s a still small voice. And virtual reality... of itself it's just one more technology to provide certain kinds of mental or even emotional leverage. It’s a way of shifting our perspective. But the real shift of perspective isn't something that we do. The real shift of perspective happens when we're sort of lifted out. We’re called out of ourselves. And until that point it doesn't matter what we do.
RW: Although one might suggest that a movie, a roller coaster, or virtual reality, "calls us out."
DD: Do they "call us out" or do they sink us more into our known patterns? I mean, Virtual Reality, as a business tool, an educational, or entertainment tool will have the effect of sinking us more into the things we ordinarily know, although they will seem to be new...because they are novel. But the real unknown is always a surprise.
RW: I agree with you on that. I was reading an article in Whole Earth Review written by Kevin Kelly about a sophisticated encoding technology becoming widely available and how that would effect everything in society...
DD: Kelly is an interesting guy.
RW: I had the sense of entering an exotic realm. The language, the phrases, the ideas expressed are enthralling. At a certain point the article gets down to brass tacks about how these exotic capacities can be used. Here I was brought back down to earth. It was something like, people would be able to get cable without paying! That's not exactly it, but the point is that the actual uses in the end were totally mundane.
DD: Then there's another case, a little girl named Crystal who was in an automobile accident when she was 18 months old. It left her paralyzed from the chin down. The question arose, "Basically, how will she be able to have a life?" Well, there’s a company in Palo Alto named BioMuse that makes a myelographic device that goes on the forehead that can measure eye movement. It was put on her so that she could drive a cursor on a screen by moving her eyes. She got it right away! That's a fairly good use of this technology.
There's a woman, Brenda Paris who is the assistant to the director of the state board on disability who is, himself, deaf. She’s blind. She told us this story which had everybody just rolling in the aisles. She was traveling and got off a plane at the John Wayne airport a couple of years ago. She was traveling with two of her associates. She's blind. One of her companions was deaf and the other was an amputee. They walked up to the car rental counter and she said, "We're here to get our reservation car." So there was this question. How is this car going to be driven? Being blind she couldn't drive. The car wasn't specially fitted, so the amputee couldn't drive. The only person who could drive was the deaf person who didn’t know where he was going. How would they communicate?
The amputee rode in the front seat and read the maps and talked to Brenda who was in the back seat, and she then signed into the rear-view mirror for the deaf person who was driving. Part of the point of this story was that disability is not just one thing. There is a spectrum of abilities and the thing is, the abilities that are there can be enhanced. And as they are enhanced it benefits everyone. Look at the curb-cuts. Everybody uses those now! And the people pissed and moaned.
RW: That's an example of a principle you talked about earlier. How things that are brought into being have effects one couldn’t have imagined really.
DD: These things can benefit everyone. There was a woman there I met as they were tearing down the exhibits. I looked at her and she was in a motorized wheelchair. She had kind of a blank look. I looked at her. She looked back. She said something. I didn't quite catch it so I leaned closer. And we started talking.
She told me her name and where she lived. This woman in the wheelchair used to be a police dispatcher. Now she has MS. And so we were talking. Suddenly she was there and I was there, and we were two people. It was a simple moment in the midst of this conference. It put me into a different spectrum.
You know, it reminded me of that riddle in Oedipus. The Sphinx says, here's the riddle: "What travels on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?" And Oedipus says, "That's easy, the answer is man." It is so easy to abstract ourselves and each other. That was Oedipus' mistake, and the consequences for himself and for his entire kingdom followed from that abstracted perception. Because at some point, each of us will have to see that the answer is "me." It’s me.
This interview appeared in The Secret Alameda, the magazine that became works & conversations