In his 1992 book Virtual Worlds, A Journey into Hype and Hyperreality, Benjamin Woolley commented:
What are the limits of the artificial? Is there, can there be, any contact with reality when computers can create artificial worlds that are more realistic than the real world, when technology scorns nature? … [but] … an increasingly complex, artificial environment can diminish our sense of reality… and, as that sense diminishes, so innumerable troubling side-effects start to creep in.
Perhaps mankind, the technology maker, is ever immersed in artificialities of his own making. Woolley notes that it is industry and the power to manufacture, that has made the world progressively more artificial and less ‘real’; providing wealth and energy to change the natural landscape, and so to replace-it/augment-it with one of our own making. Thus a more relevant question may not be so much what is real; but rather how can we manage/create our real-world human reality in accordance with optimum outcomes.
We must learn to manipulate the real world artfully, and to do so according to our collective needs. The Theories of Natural and Machine Implanted-Thoughts spoken of earlier can perhaps help us to manage the process of creating ‘useful’ artificialities (see the authors’ book: Self as Computer).
Overall, we must be careful to ‘see’ the human condition from a sufficient (clarifying) distance. Desired is an unrestricted view of the two natures, the real and the artificial, and our relationship(s) to both.
According to Woolley, the industrial experience has both destroyed reality, and reinforced it, at the same time. Everywhere we see wholesale manipulation of the human mind; and our very thoughts are structured, shaped, controlled and ‘pushed-about’; by an enormous number of mediating factors. These same factors are introduced and promulgated by mass media, culture, religion, science, historical narratives, and commercial messages etc.
Personal and Collective Reality
Our personal and collective realities are constantly warped by all of these different forces; yet oddly it is very difficult to stand back and see all of these same factors from a distance, and so to obtain a clarifying perspective.
At the UK’s first VR conference, Tony Feldman said that when it comes to the implications of VR, the metaphysics are inescapable.
Benjamin Woolley wrote:
Technology can manipulate reality to the point of being able to create it. Artificialisation is no longer just a matter of cultural observation or intellectual angst, it has become, well, real. It is for this reason that reality is no longer secure, no longer something we can simply assume to be there.
VR is the technology used to provide a more intimate ‘interface’ between the fundamentally different worlds of the human and computer. Simulated can be the full ensemble of those human ‘senses’ that make up the real. This process may require the wearing of devices such as headsets, bodysuits and/or for the body to be immersed in some kind of VR ‘chamber’ or encompassing/surrounding medium such as the CAVE VR system.
All of these technical systems and their working functionalities are well-known and described elsewhere; and so we shall not attempt technical exposition here. Rather we place emphasis on the nature of the simulated reality; and what it means for human understanding, decision making and efficient planning for and/or actioning of future (more humane) societies.
Regardless of implementation details, the fact remains that VR is simply an extension of ordinary computer functionality; in that it provides a simulation with which the user may engage.
A simulation is a form of imitation or representation ofsomething. What this something is or can be, is in fact a topic of much debate. Ultimately, as stated, and in my view, what can be simulated is merely the human mind itself (plus data flows from reality). No matter how realistic a VR simulation may appear to be, its functions and representations are purely machine implanted-thoughts—consisting of programming logic plus data—which both delineate what the human designer tells the computer to take notice of.
Reflection of the Mind / Self
VR is simply a reflection of the human mind; nothing more.
But perhaps VR is something more, much more; and because in a sense by allowing us to access these machine implanted-thoughts, to see their vast complexity, interconnections and relations; we may learn more about our own minds. VR allows us to delve into our minds to a greater degree than is possible using natural means. VR lets us picture the past/future; and because it operates as a time-machine; thus we can explore the possibilities of new assemblies of matter, models, and/or thoughts; and without actually having to build anything.
Just like the pilots who experimented with VR as a training tool; the future of computing may be immersion into vast VR simulations of whatever models/constructions may take our fancy. VR allows us to tap nature’s—and our own—hidden powers. VR may put us more in touch with cosmic forces, and ultimately with ourselves.
As in the early LSD experiments, VR allows us to see how everything fits together to form (potentially) one universe/human-reality. All hard distinctions fade somewhat as a result; and the artificial lines drawn between one thing and another become less-distinct, less-permanent, less- important, and/or may be interpenetrated with many new links and/or modes of communication. False distinctions between matter and form, alive and dead, inside and out etc, may disappear altogether; as we begin to see the intricate interconnections present in the World Brain that is all human knowledge.
Artificial reality promises creation of a new world—any world that you could ever want or imagine. Worlds brimming with the fantastical, beautiful, fabulous, terrifying, infinite, utopian. VR is like the legendary river Styx in Greek mythology. This river formed a boundary between the Earth and the Underworld, and had powers that could make someone invulnerable. Likewise VR lets humans explore/engage-with whole new regions of being without fear of injury to self; a seemingly magical and enticing capability not present in any other technology.
According to Woolley:
Artificial reality does reveal a great deal about the way that the idea of reality is used and understood… if nothing else, it reveals that much of what we take to be reality is a myth. It reveals that the things we assume to be independent of us are actually constructed by us. It reveals that being ‘real’, like being ‘natural’, is not simply a value-free, unproblematic, apolitical, objective state.
But according to Woolley there is an ultimate reality that human knowledge, and in particular science, attempts to approach. VR may help as move closer to this real reality, and/ or to explore the possibilities of any chosen (modelled) reality that we could make real. VR is, in a sense, a very personal experience. Regardless of whether you meet people inside of the artificial world; the individual nevertheless (typically) becomes the God of his own universe. A VR headset is the ultimate in detachment, in self- absorption, separation from the real world.
Jaron Lanier commented that the VR experience is:
Very hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it. But there is an experience when you are dreaming of all possibilities being there, that anything can happen, and it is just an open world where your mind is the only limitation. But the problem is that its just you, you are all alone. And then you wake up, you give up all that freedom. All of us suffered a terrible trauma as children that we’ve forgotten, where we had to accept the fact that we are physical beings and yet in the physical world where we have to do things, we are very limited. The thing that I think is so exciting about VR is that it gives us this freedom again. It gives us the sense of being able to be who we are without limitation, for our imagination to become objective and shared with other people.
Thus a real advantage of VR may be that it allows us to explore the collective open-thoughts of everyone else. VR may be the ultimate social medium; and it may become where we spend most of our time (interacting/socialising).
Already some people ‘interact’ with more people on social networks than they do in the real world; and many form relationships with people that they may never meet in real life, or certainly would not even wish to meet. VR thus has two strands. On one hand, it brings us closer together by allowing us to interact in a more realistic way using 3D graphics, touch etc. But it may enable people to (fully) explore the open-thoughts of others by facilitating views of complex (public) thought-patterns.
VR as an Exploratory Tool
VR enables us to explore invisible and/or imponderable worlds that were previously inaccessible. It may provide views into the world as it exists at the molecular scale, or on the vast scale of colliding galaxies (for example); and/or give us x-ray glasses from which to see inside the human body etc. When immersed ‘inside’ of complex scientific models, the user gains an appreciation of previously unnoticed facts and/or may solve problems that were too intricate or obscure to solve normally.
But we must remember that VR can only show us what has been conceived of in the human mind and no more. With VR we are only ever looking at thought- atoms or data that results from, or is prescribed by, other thought- atoms of one kind or another—and in a way—nothing is real.
Certainly we may discover new facts and/or make discoveries by means of VR; but these are, in a sense, pre-figured/pre- determined; and because the programmer or
system designer ‘told’ the system what variables to model and/or real-world data points to notice/collect/show etc. The designer himself may not actually have known what the VR system would find/show, but he nevertheless prescribed the regions of ‘looking/searching’.
I am not trying to down-play VR in any way, but rather pre- warn the reader not to be fooled by the fabulous beauty, complexity, and/or apparent realism of VR. The reader will soon (if he/she has not already done so) be trying on VR goggles for him/her self as they became commonplace both at work and play.
What a person ‘sees’ with a set of VR goggles is a very realistic- looking alternative reality, and it may be a very convincing one. The senses may be (entirely) fooled, and you are transported into another dimension, so to speak; complete with wonderful artistic details, superb geometries, and beautiful vistas; yet it is important to remember that what you are really seeing is simply (and solely) the open-thought atoms / prescribed data; of other humans!
Please do not get the impression that everything that happens in a VR world is somehow false, fictitious, suspect, subject to constant change and/or simply a matter of opinion. Some VR worlds may indeed be like this; with shifting/ impossible transitions, boundaries and unreal properties/ capabilities/visions; but others will be what Ivan Sutherland [1938-] called ‘mathematical wonderlands’; where ultimately what happens is determined by the laws of physics/mathematics.
VR has (or will have) enough ‘faces’ to satisfy the varied tastes of all; and it will evolve in multiple/different directions. This discussion brings to mind the question of what VR is, in and of itself.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) spoke about the medium being the message; but what he actually meant to say was that networks/technologies are not transparent; but rather the medium has a role in determining what the audiences see and how they make sense of it (i.e. the content). For McLuhan electronic technologies like television and radio brought the people of the world closer together, and in fact formed a type of extended human nervous system that comprised a global village.
McLuhan’s vision extends the views of men like Wells, Goldberg and Otlet. VR may be a major part of our human destiny, and be how we see/ enter the World Brain. VR could (one day) become the default interaction method for all (or most) computing systems/networks.
A technology such as VR reflects and re-inscribes the previously felt oppositions of: mind/body, self/other, inside/outside, matter/form, animate/inanimate. In terms of VR system design/goals, we need a wide-ranging investigation of the bigger questions; and especially those that relate to issues of a primary and collective concern. VR is a technology that may provide such a capability.
Marcos Novak wrote:
Cyberspace is a completely spatialised visualisation of all information in global information processing systems, along pathways provided by present and future communication networks, enabling full co-presence and interaction of multiple users, allowing input and output from and to the full human sensorium, permitting simulations of real and virtual realities, remote data collection and control through telepresence, and total integration and intercommunication with a full range of intelligent products and environments on a real space… Cyberspace is a habitat of the imagination… the place where conscious dreaming meets subconscious dreaming… the triumph of it-can-be-so over it-should-be-so.
In The Electronic Word, Richard Lanham (1936-) claims that a book (obviously) has politics, and there are assumptions that come with it; that it is authoritative and unchangeable, transparent and un-self-conscious; and read: in-silence/out-loud, in public or private. Likewise for thought-atoms/patterns (media/implanted thoughts).
Lanham wrote: Imagine a major ‘textbook’ continuing over a generation, continually in touch with all the teachers who use it, continually updated and rewritten by them as well as by the authors with the twenty-four-hour electronic bulletin boards and other one-to-one devices of communication such as a network inevitably simulates.
Imagine a department faculty collaborating to produce a full on-line system of primary and secondary texts, with supporting pedagogical apparatus, to be collectively updated and enhanced; it might encourage a real, and nowadays rare, collegiality.
An underlying assumption of the present discussion is that this type of World Brain system as envisaged by Lanham and others like Nelson, Veltman and Otlet; can be created. However it is a World Brain that must defend itself; specifically from centralised control; and so have thought ownership, assembly and equality built into its core principles of operation. Bruno Latour (1947-) has an interesting perspective here, claiming that the behaviour of people who use and/or lie within a technological system is caused as much by the system itself as by machines.
The system forces the user to accent according to a diffusion of facts and processes within the machine/network functionality itself. We forget that the obedient behaviour of people (within systems) is what turns claims into facts; and introduced is a false technical determinism, paralleled by social and scientific determinism etc.
Our attention is drawn to the nature of human society.
Professor David Bloor (1942-) says that: society is simply a medium of different resistances through which ideas and machines travel. In this view society or social factors can (or may) only appear at the end of a trajectory; when something goes wrong. Our failure to account for the materiality of machines, and their role in a multitude of economic, social and cultural problems; is caused in a large part, by a stripping of machine implanted-thoughts from social context/responsibility.
We manage computer designs at the wrong end of the trajectory of happenings; and (impossibly) attempt to direct/alterends, as opposed to means. Computers cannot inherently (by themselves) de-contextualise implanted-thoughts from their own actions/processes. It is because (many) computers have been wrongly designed (and/or are not adequately monitored) that they restrict human rights.
Properly conceived, machines can become a power to marshall a diversity of human-thought forms, plus machine implanted-thoughts; and for the collective good. Appropriate design refers not only to computers that respect techno-rights and uphold natural/implanted thoughts in a human context; but also to subtle and aesthetic factors such as presenting information to the user in an accessible, effective, and ‘sense’- friendly manner. This is where VR can help, providing new sensoriums that foster an easy, effortless and enjoyable journey (or flow) through these new realms of information/thought.
Ultimately, VR may become an all-embracing mixture of augmented reality (AR) and personal virtual reality (PVR); whereby a new type of real-virtuality (RV) or everyday VR becomes the normal mode of interaction. Often no headsets will be required, for brain/body-implants, wearables and projected scenes may follow us everywhere we go. Real virtuality or mixed-reality is when the virtual is blended with the real almost imperceptibly; where thought-atoms are ever present/available; to everyone and by/from everyone.