Cyberspace Colaboration

Voice Card  -  Volume 31  -  John Card Number 2  -  Wed, Mar 2, 1994 12:42 AM

Paul and I have been working on Alexander, our ideal strategy game, for five years now. But for the last six months we've been on a hot streak, churning out tons of pictures, programs, designs, documents, mockups, icons, posters, t-shirts, playing pieces, essays, film clips, algorithms and e-mail.

The interesting thing about this project, as Paul observed on a recent tape, is that almost all the work has been done in cyberspace: over the internet and through America Online. Paul and I are cyberspace pioneers and our ponarv, I now realize, is a case study in how two people can work together without coming within a thousand miles of each other.

Part of our success lies in our clearly defined roles. Paul is the programmer and I am the algorithmist. I do the daydreaming and Paul does the coding. We are both free to do an enormous amount of exploring and experimenting without interfering with each other.

But in order to make any progress we have to constantly give and receive feedback. This means we have to find tangible ways of expressing our work and transmitting these expressions back and forth without undue delay.

Paul's tool for expressing himself is his C++ compiler with which he can create working programs. Although I also write programs (in HyperCard and OracleCard) to try out algorithms or simulate interfaces, my primary tools are graphic: SuperPaint and PhotoShop. These tools allow me to think visually and capture ideas as pictures (or icons or screenshots or piece designs). I have also used Morph and Quicktime to create brief movies of spinning globes.

America Online makes it possible for us to quickly send these programs and pictures back and forth. I can actually run one of Paul's programs, capture a screenshot, pull out a detail and elaborate on it, attach the resulting color graphics to a word processing file, and shoot it all back to him for further revisions. Paul can download one of my designs for a dialog box, incorporate it into his program, and return a working version for testing.

We do an enormous amount of writing along the way, some of it in illustrated word processing documents that we can mark up in colored text and pass back and forth, but most of it in e-mail. E-mail is a wonderful medium which provides the immediacy of a phone conversation and the permanence of letters. During our sometimes vigorous e-mail debates we can easily refer to previous arguments and benefit from a complete historical record of our progress.

Running parallel to this frantic electronic volley is our weekly exchange of audiotapes. I think these tapes play a subtle yet vital role by keeping us psychologically intouch. The tapes provide an entirely different channel of communication, adding a depth to our written messages and generating new ideas. During the course of a quiet monologue we sometimes say things that would never occur to our typing fingers.

Even when Paul is on the road I can reach him over the internet. We can upload our results in the middle of the night as we create them, and wait until we are ready to receive the next download. If a real-time exchange is necessary, we can convene an on-line conference in a private room and later refer to a transcript of that conversation. I now take tape notes using my Newton and could easily upload them. And it won't be too long before we can transmit our audiotapes over the wire as well.

I still worry that the information superhighway will continue the trend towards increased isolation. But Paul and I have shown that this same technology can also bring people together in ways that were never possible before.