copyright notice
link to published version: Communications of the ACM, November, 1995

accesses since April 2, 1996

Hal Berghel's Digital Village....


Welcome to the first installment of The Digital Village. In this new column we will try to become a reliable source of information on modern digital network technologies, particularly from the client side, and the use of those technologies for the betterment of society. We will strive for a balance between depth and breadth, currency and perspective, which most Communications readers will find interesting.

Occasionally, as in this installment, we'll wax philosophic. But mostly we will attempt to provide information on cyberspace and its tools, which we hope will be useful to our readers in maintaining currency and perspective. Occasionally, we will ask others to join us as guests.


We are at the dawn of a new digital era - the age of cyberspace and cybermedia. We may think of cyberspace as an infinitely dimensioned, invisible, digital information substrate made possible by modern packet-switched, networking technology.

As with other computing venues, the physical aspects of cyberspace are relatively uninteresting and unimportant from the point of view of their information content, and content is everything. Cyberspace is infinitely and arbitrarily extended in a sort of "information_space-time continuum." On this analysis, a Web animation is seen as a two dimensional space-time phenomenon embedded within the broader information_space-time continuum. An interactive, participatory VR experience would be an embedded phenomena in four (albeit virtual) dimensions. Finally, cybermedia denotes the digital, multimedia material which "resides" in cyberspace.

         "Cyberspace is infinitely and arbitrarily extended
          in a sort of information_space-time continuum"

Of course, we could just as well express these same concepts in terms of clients, servers and files, but that would diminish the uniqueness of the cyberspace experience and underestimate the importance of the computer revolution which it is ushering in. Even more than the earlier mainframe and microcomputer revolutions, this revolution promises to invade every aspect of our life.

It is the social dimension of the cyberspace revolution that will make it unique. Previous advances in computing technology, even the most significant ones, tended to be oriented toward classes of problems. They were even passive in their approach: if one didn't want to take advantage of a computer technology, one could pretty much ignore it - at least outside the workplace. Digital photography could be avoided if one preferred negative images on celluloid. Email could be dispensed with were one willing to accept the delays in post. Dishwashers without microcomputer controllers exist, and there remain un-automated offices.

But cyberspace is fundamentally different. It draws us in to its digital resources. It is a unifying technology which both brings together digitizable media and provides a common social framework in which these materials may be enjoyed and used. It has already begun to influence the nature of our interpersonal communication, our consumption of entertainment, the way in which we view the educational process, and the way we perform our office work. It is entering our homes and offices through our cable boxes, our phone lines, via microwave and infrared transmissions and through conventional magnetic and optical media. It is leaving no aspect of our lives unaffected. It is both pervasive and invasive.

One consequence of this experience will be a new sense of community - the digital village.


On our view a digital village is a community brought about by the real-time, interactive and participatory capabilities of cyberspace. In some ways they are like their material counterparts, but in many ways they are not. The most important similarity is that both involve connecting individuals with shared interests and objectives. The most important dissimilarity is that digital villages have no location.

We may now join digital villages just as earlier generations became members of professional societies, lodges, civic and social groups. It is the '90's thing to do. It is where we find and exchange information, gossip, learn, espouse, preach, display, and so on. In fact, digital villages offer much the same range of experiences as other social organizations did. Except that the interpersonal aspect is not in-person. It is in this sense that digital villages are different from terrestrial communities and groups. One of our great challenges for the next century will be to harness the advantages that these new digital institutions will provide without losing the ability to function well in the more mundane, off-line and analog world.

Part of that challenge will be to understand these digital villages and to learn how they may be used toward full and positive effect. The utility to society will be a function of how well they are understood. This is a non-trivial and intriguing challenge because they will function with a different set of operational metaphors than traditional, in-person forums. We can even see this taking place with email as society learns to exchange information in real time in the absence of such customary response cues as gestures, voice pattern, eye movement, and so forth. Email has actually become the proving ground for developing skills for inter-personal but not in-person communication. Digital villages will provide us with even greater challenges and opportunities.


The real essence of digital villages include the following characteristics.

Digital villages will have real-time membership. Unlike social organizations built upon in-person contact, digital villages require little or no infrastructure and will frequently be ephemeral. Joining or resigning membership will be based on impulse, and the digital villages which are predicated on such dynamic membership will have the best chance of producing something of enduring value. The operational metaphor will come from the field of networking rather than organizational behavior. It may be very difficult for an outsider to determine who the constituency actually is.

Digital villages will be in a sense self organized and self administered. Membership will change constantly as interests wane and attentions shift. The criteria for the administration of digital villages will also change through time. They will appear as if in anarchy, when in fact they are really quite democratic, even though the rules of governance will appear as a moving target to outsiders. Individuals won't really organize digital villages so much as they will initiate them and impart momentum to them.

Digital villages will be dynamic. They will change focus constantly as both the membership and the members' interest changes. This will give them their vitality. A corollary to this will be that initiators of digital villages will be unable to control them as they would with conventional organizations. Those who recognize this fact will be able to make use of them; those who do not will face frustration. Outsiders may not always see the point of convergence that defines digital villages.

Digital villages will have focus; but the focus will be a moving target. It will change as the members and their interests change. It will be at the same time coalescing and diffusive - coalescing for some members, diffusive for others. It will mean different things to different people at different times. The essence of the digital village will be the constancy and externality of change. It will be as if we compressed decade's worth of group interactivity into a few minutes. From the point of view of a digital village, the transformation of conventional organizations would appear as if done in geological time.

Digital villages will be inherently interactive. The appropriate model of this interactivity may be seen in network gaming: Dooming and Mudding come to mind. This interactivity will draw the member to the community and provide his or her reinforcement. It is in the interactivity that the sense of community resides. It is in this that the social experience may be found.

All digital villages are potentially global. They cannot be thought of in geographical terms because digital networks are dimensionless with respect to information transfer. Connectivity, not location, is the key. At this moment everyone who has access to the Internet is a potential full and equal partner in each digital village. Over time we may even be forced to embrace the concept of digital demographics.

Digital villages eventually will become fully participatory. The participatory nature of the community will be an outgrowth of its inherent interactivity. Instead of interacting with a computer system or program, future users will participate at the level of community activity in ways which are currently unimaginable. We are beginning to see some of this realistic, participatory interactivity in modern virtual reality technology.

The ultimate achievement of cyberspace will be digital villages which are intrinsically indistinguishable from their veridical counterparts. We might think of this as the 21st century equivalent of the Turing Test for cyberspace. It will a confirmation of effectiveness much as the willing suspension of disbelief is for virtual reality.

        "The ultimate achievement of cyberspace will be
         digital villages which are intrinsically indistinguishable from 
         their veridical counterparts.  We might think of this as the 21st 
         century equivalent of the Turing Test for cyberspace."  

This is what we think digital villages are. However, this does not address what they have to offer or what they will look like.


Like many in-person activities, digital villages will typically form around members with common interests, programs which those members wish to participate in, and services which will be offered to some constituency. The most noticeable difference will be that this takes place in a highly-accelerated process of evolution.

Being digital, the offerings will be information-rich and will focus on engaging digital activities on the networks. Standard modes of information exchange will be present: text, graphics, sound, animations, 3-d, VR, etc. As mentioned above, these will be done in real-time. Not all ranges of services will be found useful to all members. As with in-person activities, individual members will have interest in only a subset of programs and offerings.

Whatever cohesiveness there is to be found in a Digital Village will be a product of the perceived value of the topics, programs and services found therein. The original interest and enthusiasm may be found in the glitz and glamor of new technology, but this will soon wear off.

The community memory will tend to be recorded in some ongoing, self-documenting process. Conventional techniques like newsletters, bulletin boards, and talk channels will eventually give way to automated techniques which will record, edit and make available sub-parts of the digital activities for later recall.

The practical aspects of digital villages will be directly related to their success. By practical, we mean something of direct, personal or professional benefit or value - ranging from entertainment to employment services. As with all other aspects of inter-personal communication, a wide variety of motives will attract participants.

The most difficult aspect of future digital villages to predict will be the nature of governance. Traditional "cast in stone" codification will be impossible. In an environment of ever- changing members and foci, a parsimonious approach to governance will be a necessity, and allowances will have to be made for dissonance in real time.


So that's what this column is about - the digital villages and cyberspace of the future. This column is intended to be a companion for those who wish to participate in the settlement of these digital villages. We'll attempt to track new technologies as they emerge and predict their likely impact. We hope that you will join us in this excursion.

Next month we will eschew cyber-philosophy and discuss the quintessential digital village, the World Wide Web, and deal with the thorny issues of HTML compliance and client-server compatibility.


In the preparation of earlier drafts of this column I have particularly benefitted from discussions with Joe DeBlasi, Peter Denning, Dave Oppenheim, Bill Poucher and Gio Wiederhold, though weaknesses in the current version are my own. My thanks to CACM Editor-in-Chief, Jacques Cohen, for encouraging me to develop this column, and to CACM Executive Editor, Diane Crawford, for making it a reality. I also thank my colleague Susan Mengel for suggesting that I give the column its present name.