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17958 Hughes, David Ralph
A Virtual West Point 

This article has been submitted to the Assembly for publication.  Please do not redistribute 

David R Hughes, '50 

The time has come for West Point competitively to sell itself, and express its needs, directly to the Americans in places where their eyes, ears, and minds are now, and increasingly going - on the Internet.   Already, only 5 years into the phenomonon of the World Wide Web, 92 million Americans are on line. 16 million of them on are on just one service managed in part by a 1962 graduate Jim Kimsey - AOL. And it is now a cliche to note that the vast majority, and eventually 100% of all 55 million school children - from whose ranks future candidates for admission will come - are on the Internet. One early adopter, Charles Schwab discount brokerage, reports it now get 76 million web 'hits' every single day from interested Americans. His competitors, including the most staid and conservative brokerage houses have been forced to follow Schwab's lead. 

Finally, a group which was asking only a few years ago "Why should I get online?" - senior citizens, including veterans of our past wars, and not just grads - are now logging on at a tremendous rate. If for no better reason that to communicate with their distant grandchildren.   The Internet is on the way to being the most pervasive two way textual, visual, voice and music communications system in the world. In which, utterly unlike all media which went before it, the bulk of the cost of accessing information falls on those who want information and access, not those trying to reach, interest, and inform them. 

The Vision 

It is time to erect a new and magnificent rendition of West Point in vast and expanding Cyberspace. A world-class Virtual West Point.  Accessible to all who use the web, or e-mail, or fetch information electronically. Which is beginning to look like everyone in the world before long. 

I envision a Virtual Domain - more than just a web 'site' - that opens up with great elegance and verve, West Point and its environs to the entire world, online. In all their visual glory and tradition, West Point's purpose and products, its history and its future, its life and values, its impact on the nation's history and development, its personification in cadets and faculty, its sports and its academics, its music and its minutes, its chapel windows to its gargoyles, its cannons to its rifles, its mess hall to its soccer fields, its Bugle Notes to its Bronze Plaques. And certainly its requirements for entry and its way-in and careers-out, its challenges and promises. Its traditions and its moderninity. Its gravity to its humor. Its games to its handouts. Its swearing in to its burial fields. Its first cadet uniforms to its hats in the air. In short, over time, everything important about West Point - including every last graduate from 1802 and what we know of them, what they looked at, and what they contributed to the nation, in war and peace. 

And yes its needs - including funds for its continued development, beyond that appropriated by Congress. More on that later.  Now I know that West Point has a web site. And a group of graduates has a web system linked to global maillists, so graduates can stay in touch with West Point - and each other. WP-ORG. Fine, but still quite limited, experimental starts. 

I am talking about a much, much, more ambitious undertaking. An awe-inspiring, dynamic, interactive, engaging, incredibly interesting and thoughtful place to visit - electronically. A work of high and enduring art - at least as elegant and tasteful as the very real breathtaking views and feelings of pride and admiration which that tiny handful of Americans who are privileged to visit the Academy and deal with its personnel, see and feel. 

I am talking about a vast and interconnected electronic edifice - with even strategically located video-cams that can show the grounds andactivities going on there in real time. From parades to sports. And terminals at which the public can even talk online to real staff, faculty - or cadets themselves under controlled and special circumstances. All done with the same artistic - as well as technical - talent and care that the renowned architects of the Chapel, Trophy Point took, the views that God painted for us up the Hudson River, the immortal mottos men of substance uttered, and the shimmering images and stirring sounds the splendidly turned out Corps of Cadets can present on the Plain.   Someplace one could wander through for days.  


I know a little of what this would take, and what it could become.  Unlike many grads, I have been intensely online since 1978 - both as a very early consumer of information fetched from the ends of the earth, as a producer of virtual information and dialogue, and owner operator of my own online services, and researcher for the National Science Foundation. I have been pioneering in cyberspace for over 20 years now. In electronic versions of business, education, science, art, and community life. 

According to journalists who have followed this work, I have read over 200 million words online and produced over 8 million of my own. And rather than stop to build a fortune in one corner of it, since my retirement from active duty in 1973, once I realized what enormous potential the new forms of communications held, I decided to experiment extensively with ways to reach the most remote peoples in grass roots way, and help them reach that which is important and interesting to them - in the broadest public and not simply private interest. 

I have always seen the Net as the way the US Military can tell its own story far better than it is being told now.   I can report from having lived in the future with tens of thousands of others for the last 20 years, that a Virtual West Point can be operated at far less cost, and produce beneficial effects to West Point and what it holds dear, many orders of magnitude more cost-effectively, than it can now using traditional communicative methods. Or relying largely on a friendly press, movie producers, or individual writers to spread its word. 

What It Might Take 

I think a Virtual West Point could be started very well for $15 million or less.   Who would pay for it? Well, I have long felt that there are billionaires of the Information Age who deeply believe in the new communicative technologies, who might be flattered to contribute to such a project, for such a nationally respected institution as West Point. Bill Gates springs to mind, or his lesser known original partner Paul Allen.  There are many others. More than money and technical expertise would be needed, however. Creative talent from Hollywood of the level of Stephen Spielbergs, or George Lucas - who have already proven how dynamic and 'real' virtual imagination can be - might be recruited. Except West Point already provides the 200 year 'story line' and all the classic visual images and views, as well as real human dimensions one would want. Little need be invented. West Point sells itself to the extent it is known in depth. It is its elegant and consistent rendering, with the novel nature of remote access by individuals or groups, at whatever time or from whatever place they choose, that makes this more than what millions of them could get otherwise. 

I also think this could be done and contributed to in a far more 'participatory' way - involving staff and faculty, even cadets, as well as grads, active and retired, than previous undertakings - so long as the basic architecture, design decisions, and layout is done professionally. I am reminded of the raising of Cathedrals of the Middle Ages - whose overarching vision was done by master builders - but whose stones were put in place over hundreds of years by ordinary people, who shared the vision, making it 'their' edifice. The marvel of the Internet is that I can contribute just as easily from here in Colorado as I could if I were in the AOG's offices. Virtual West Point could be aided by all 41,000 living graduates. 

As for the willingness and interest of outside support if IBM can see its way clear - as it announced recently - to undertake of its $2 million grant putting of 2,000 of the world class Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia) Art Pieces online (www.hermitagemuseum.org) using its most advanced graphic technologies. West Point deserves no less. I think there are more than a few donors who would do the same kind of thing for an Academy whose visual impact and classical elegance - from today's scenes to the art and narratives of its history - help express its profound meaning and national importance.  

Why would this work and be to the benefit of West Point? 

1. The growth of the World Wide Web - the technology which kicked the Internet from being an arcane military and academic communications technology into to a global gigantic interactive people-attracting telecommunications phenomonom that is also transforming our economic system, has forever changed the way people get information, are 
entertained, become interested and educated. And the way institutions can get their message out. 

2. The combination of its extremely low costs of 'distribution' of information - orders of magnitude more cost effective than any previous forms, - its rapid growth into full multi-media, its engaging inter-activeness, and its social ubiquity, and its superiority over traditional media makes the Internet linked, world wide web and all its successor forms a natural for West Point to tell its story. In such a compelling, engaging way, that those Americans who log on, and come back repeatedly will feel themselves part of West Point, THEIR West Point, be proud and supportive, and urge their kids to attend it. 

3. It will permit West Point and those associated with it to tell their story direct and unfiltered - by the press and media - to the American Public. A public which, since the end of the draft, the end of large wars, know - as do their elected representatives - less and less about things military and West Point. Some leaders are worried that this distance can lead to seriously questioning the need for the institution itself. If the Virtual West Point site is dynamic and interesting enough it, alone, will make 'news' - and anyone who watches television or reads newspapers know they point the public to every interesting web address in the world. I have personally been online for over 15 years on a computer conferencing site in liberal, often anti-military, California - The Well. As almost the only participant among 10,000 subscribers who not only is a graduate, but who has substantial military experience in two wars. At a trivial cost I have been able to help 'educate' thousands of Wellites, as to things military, a little about West Point, and why and how the nation must support it. Unlike column-inch limited print, and time-limited, sound bite television or radio - a Virtual West Point can explain itself interactively for years. I also know graduates who are considering putting their books - studies of West Point and things Military - entirely online.  The Internet is the future. It is the place to go. West Point will become even more distant from the people if it does not have a strong presence there.  

4. A Virtual West Point could even assist in fund raising. One grad offered a brilliant suggestion. He said AOG could open up to the public at large - and not just those solicited by fund raisers - the opportunity to help West Point meet its needs. Veterans of our past wars - such as the World War II veterans who are leaving us at the rate of 3,000 a day now - could be invited to make contributions to West Point's facility needs AND have their names and the unit they served with - inscribed permanently on plaques at West Point! As well as on the Virtual Walls. What an honor it would be for some vets, proud of their service to their country, to have their names permanently affixed at the most prestigious military site in the United States. Rather than just, after their demise, on their tombstones in a veterans cemetery. An opportunity for those less well endowed to contribute to 'their' West Point. 

5. And certainly a Virtual West Point can engage the youthful dreams of potential candidates - as well as interest and inform their family. We forget that interesting youngsters in West Point is a function of their finding out about, and being inspired by, as well as getting the practical details of - West Point itself. Local West Point Societies can point to pictures and the stories of local, current, cadets online, to the end of making real connections with them and their reasons for going. But individual boys and girls far from any representatives from West Point, can discover it for themselves - even through simulation forms that so engage children - for better or worse.  

6. Virtual West Point can represent, in the transition to the next Millennium and the 200 Year Bicentennial of West oint, the Past into the Future - but with all the enduring Constants that make it unique and valuable to the nation. In fact, 2002 would be a splendid time to launch the project, which would take at least 2, maybe 3, years before a full public unveiling. And never be finished - because it would be a living thing, as what is going on now would always be added, or accessible. 

How to Get Started 

I first suggested this idea on the closed West Point Forum, where 300 graduates speak freely about their Alma Mater. And on a class maillist. I got warms replies urging me to pursue it; that it was a meritorious idea.  So I here offer the idea to a wider graduate audience. 

If you think it a good idea - get in touch with me. Preferably by e-mail. dave@oldcolo.com I would be glad to circulate your reaction. Some grads who are less aware of the significance of the growth of the Internet may think this is a futuristic idea, and premature. But I can guarantee you, the future is now, and its time West Point embraced it. 

David R Hughes  
Col (Inf) Retired '50 

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