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|I'm surprised I haven't seen a lot more written about Peter
Anders' Envisioning Cyberspace; the book is a wonderful introduction
to the structure of cyberspaces, giving readers a firm base from which to
consider and explore virtual worlds.
I've been fascinated by the social and physical structure of online communities for the past few years, and finding Envisioning Cyberspace was like a breath of fresh air. Anders, who has a master's degree from Columbia University, emphasizes the point that creating online spaces isn't like any single other discipline. Instead, he argues that:
"Designers of cyberspace must create a strategy of transition to distinguish the principles of various disciplines at work. Dialog between these fields is crucial if they are to create interdisciplinary criteria for design and evaluation. By isolating principles of traditional media, we can recognize concepts innate to cyberspace. These design principles can then be developed into strategies for developing cyberspace environments." (p. 5)
The idea that researchers and practitioners from various backgrounds should share their work is hardly news, but in a time when work rarely seems to trickle from one academic department to another, it's never wrong to emphasize the need to keep open lines of communication. Just as the link between two seemingly divergent fields of mathematics (modular forms and elliptical equations) eventually lead to the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, so might we find that there is a link between user interface design and urban planning that could pave the way for a real breakthrough in the design of online spaces.
After his admonition to consider research from different disciplines in creating cyberspaces, Anders follows his own advice and examines existing and potential cyberspaces using a number of familiar tools: logical adjacency models, which show how "rooms" in an online space such as a multi-user dimension (MUD) are connected; overhead views of MUDs that allow users to create their own spaces, which show definite building and linking patterns; and agents/avatars, which visitors use to represent themselves in the MUD, whether by a text description or an image they choose or create on their own.
There's so much more to the book than I've hinted at, of course, and that's what makes the book so great. That, and Anders' consistent reminders that the virtual world of cyberspace is grounded very much in reality, whether by the meat constructs (that's you and me) who create and visit the online world, or by the very real and occasionally temperamental computers that make cyberspace come alive. Designers of all stripes must remember that perception and reality interact in complex ways, and cyberspace is an archetypal example of the phenomenon.
If you're at all interested in designing cyberspaces, or even just interested in finding out more about what goes into designing such spaces, you should read Envisioning Cyberspace.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is also the author of three online courses and ten books , including Privacy-Enhanced Business from Quorum Books.