Chapter 12

I will now talk about something that is horribly overestimated, but inevitably influential when it comes to the future - at least when viewed as a phenomenon. I hesitated for a long time before deciding to include virtual reality (VR) in this book, but I realized that it obviously belonged to the subject of electronic culture. The reason for my hesitancy is that this area of research has been so hyped up and misunderstood that it has assumed almost religious proportions.

Virtual reality was originally a term that meant imagined reality. It's the same sort of reality that role-playing enthusiasts occupy when they navigate an imaginary world. In its original form, this artificial environment requires a considerable degree of imagination and patience. VR has progressed from traditional pen-and-paper role-playing games to interactive role-playing games on the Internet, so-called MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), and not until the 90's did the term become synonymous with the technology that allows the creation of realities using computer-generated sound and graphics. In a MUD, a certain protocol is established in order to communicate directly with other people, which uses a language that is an extension of the written word. It is possible to state which way one wishes to communicate with a fellow player. For example, one can make clear the one wishes an utterance to be taken ironically, coldly, or erotically. One could write: "Say 'hiya!' in a humorous manner to X", by which X receives a message like this: "Y says 'hiya!' to you in a humorous manner". It is also possible to strike poses, and to emote feelings. You might receive a message such as: "Y smiles an ironic smile".

This mode of communication over the Internet has had a decisive influence on the language that is used in written debate in the electronic universe. The most well-known conventions include the sign for humor, :-) (a smiley-face, sideways), and the sign for irony, ;-) (a winking smiley-face), as well as writing in ALL CAPITALS to indicate shouting. In addition to these, a slew of more or less commonly accepted symbols has arisen. This is the first step towards network-based transmission of symbols with another meaning than the purely linguistic. It creates the first possibility of using "tone of voice" and body language in artificial worlds.

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is an extension of MUDs. It is possible to do pretty much the same things in IRC as on a MUD, except it's a little closer to reality. Some set up private IRC conferences and chat within an exclusive group, while others spend their time on some of the many open groups, such as #Sweden, which works sort of like a text version of phone chat, for Swedish speakers. Today, about 1,000 Swedes use IRC on a regular basis.(1) IRC has a rigid technocratic hierarchy in which those who know more about the system have more power, and can push other people around about as much as they please. Democracy doesn't exist: on every channel there's a number of "royalty" (so-called chan-ops, or channel operators) who sometimes "fight" for control over the channel. In IRC there is also the possibility of conducting information trading, which entails trading information using one simple command: /dcc send nick file. IRC has already developed into a subculture, with its own values and pecking orders. A surprising number of women use IRC.

This technology is just the first step of a progression that will take us to infinitely more sophisticated forms of communication than we know today. In experimental facilities, the imaginary environments become more and more real, so much that many have started to question the difference between real and imaginary reality, concluding that it is mostly a matter of definition. But let's start at the beginning.

No single person has been more important to virtual reality as Jaron Lanier. Jaron moved to California in 1981, with the intention of living as a hippie and playing the flute on the streets. Instead, he stumbled into a job as computer game programmer. After some time in the field, he started a company called VPL (Visual Programming Languages) with his own money and started a non-profit project which involved developing a programming language. Programming languages are the languages that people use to communicate with computers and tell them what to do, Examples of common programming languages include BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), Pascal (after the mathematician of the same name), and C (named by someone who thought the naming conventions for programming languages had gotten out of hand).

Now, Jaron didn't want to write any old programming language, but THE programming language. He thought programming was one of the most fun things he knew, but it was reserved for an all-too-small group of people. He thought everyone should be able to program. Instead of just allowing a tiny elite of programmers to build mathematical and symbolic models of reality, he wanted to place this tool in the hands of the common man, with a minimal amount of prerequisite knowledge. The language was finally named Mandala.

Many people that try using a computer for the first time thinks the whole thing is too abstract and contains too many theoretical concepts. A computer student I had once said:

"You can tell me that this here is a command, and that it has this and that property and works in such and such a way. It's like telling me that this is a hammer, and it works like so. I'll never understand unless I get to hold the hammer."

He hit the nail on the head. If people won't adapt to computers, then computers would have to adapt to people. If Mohammed won't come to the mountain, the mountain will have to come to Mohammed. That was Jaron's idea: make the computing environment as real as possible, remove that keyboard if it causes so much frustration, and take away that two-dimensional screen if flat symbols are so hard to understand. Create an entire reality around the user so that he or she feels at home. The concept of virtual reality was born. Of course, this idea was not entirely new. The first time the concept of VR came up was supposedly in 1965, through Ivan Sutherland at Utah university. But Jaron was the first one to try to realize these ideas, and make money off them.

VPL was founded in 1985. Since then, nothing's been the same. In 1991, us regular people made our first acquaintance with VR as W Industries released its computer game Virtuality everywhere. Newspapers, radio, TV - everyone told the story about this new and fantastic invention. It was also at thaat time that people started making comparisons to William Gibson's novel, Neuromancer, and discovered obvious similarities between the way the lead character, Case, connected his brain to a computer to enter cyberspace, and the gols of VR. That was when people seriously started questioning the direction our society was heading, and it is also among the reasons that William Gibson is such an important writer.

All of it is not as strange as it is sometimes presented. By applying sensors to the body that register all its movements, the computer can sense how you move about and then generate sound and visual impressions that agree with the way we're used to perceiving reality. The sound is created by a quadrophonic sound system that allows us to place sound spatially, and images are displayed three-dimensinally since the computer draws an image for each eye. This is VR today; no more, no less. Objects can be perceived as three-dimensional and sounds can be generated as to make us think they came from the object in question. Nothing strange there, just normal manipulation of our sensory capacities, just like a computer screen or a loudspeaker, only more sophisticated and refined. Machine-generated hallucinations or tangible dreams are other possible terms for the technique.

Jaron, then, envisioned VR as a form of programming language, primarily intended for creating models to facilitate research and education, and to make the capacities of the computer more accessible. This is not exactly how it turned out. Some inventions have the ability to shock their inventors by turning out to have applications far wider in scope than the inventor could ever dream about. Nuclear power is probably the most frightening example of this. VR was transformed from a programming language into a medium.

We have a handful of media in our society. We have various sorts of literature. We have theater and film. We have radio and television. We also have multimedia, like computer games and hypertext, which is a kind of improved text that allows us to read text like a database instead of like a book. And now we have VR, and that too is a form of medium. More specifically, it is the most powerful medium that humankind has ever created. VR envelops you in all dimensions and commands your complete attention, just as if it was your real life that was involved. You can run, but you cannot possibly hide from it. (Imagine what a fascinating medium for commercials: Depends diapers chase you into a corner and suffocate you to death.)

When Jaron was well underway with his project, he realized that he needed help to complete it. He enlisted the aid of the MIT media lab, which had already helped in enlightening the world through the graphical interface. (An interface is the set of things that exist as a bridge between the computer and the user, like the screen and the mouse). This was later to be used by Xerox, Macintosh, and Microsoft (in that order), and we nowadays know it under such product names as System 7 and Windows. The military got into the action, as usual. They had already experimented with flight simulators to train pilots before sending them into action. VR was viewed as a possibility of improving the simulators, and even to develop very accurate systems for remote presence, in which a pilot might be able to steer a plane into enemy territory while physically being located in a bunker back home in HQ. Such a system would be an economical way of maintaining pilot ranks, as well as permitting them to build planes that could stand physical stress way beyond the tolerance of any human pilot. Like RC planes, but cooler (and much more dangerous). Therefore, the military blew a huge load of money on VR research. War, as always, has a way of making technological research move by quantum leaps and bounds.

It's difficult to say what importance VR will have in the future, In a way , it changes nothing - we all experience VR every night, in dreaming. The difference is that in VR we can control the content, and employ highly tangible dreams for our own purposes. One of the greatest areas of VR application is therefore in psychology, since dreams has a primary importance in the study of the human mind. It is quite reasonable to expect VR to be used in very sophisticated therapy. Or brainwashing, if that's what's desired. Brainwashing is not always a negative thing; in inpatient psychiatric care, rapists and killers are treated with a very advanced form of brainwashing to cure pathological behaviors. Such care can certainly be improved and become more effective with VR. Conversely, VR can be abused.

As a medium, VR holds enormous potential. When we communicate across electronic links, we don't feel as if we actually meet someone. The anonymity that goes with a telephone receiver allows us to spit out the most daring utterances, since we don't feel physically intimidated. When we speak on the phone, we are constantly distracted by other events in our surroundings. When we communicate via Internet, it is impossible to use any form of real body language or tone of voice. The only way to communicate feelings in an electronic conference is by writing lightning-quick and misspelled sentences to express upset, or using typographical conventions to communicate states of mind.

In VR, we can use as much body language as we want to. We can make the encounter totally similar to reality, as if we were meeting in the same room. We can make it more than real - we can inflate ourselves to twice our size if we want. We can disguise ourselves as anyone, and decide exactly what the room should look like. I can experience it as if we're at your place, and you could feel as if you were at my place. We can actually be in two places at once, so that both of us feel at home! (Translator's note: the old line that goes "your place or mine" would become obsolete.). I could be at a steel mill, with the noise in the background, and you can be in the forest listening to the birds singing. I think you're sitting on a treestump, and you think I'm sitting on an anvil. Anything's possible.

In sociology, the science that studies the relations between humans, the concept of symbols is used to denote that exchange of information between people that goes deeper than language. As opposed to language, such symbolisms cannot at present be stored or synthesized. This is one reason for inventing written languages. A language that can be stored enables a cultural heritage that spans generations, and gives humanity a so-called collective consciousness. The concept of a symbol includes, in addition to spoken and written language, body language such as glances and involuntary movements (in linguistics, gestures and such are called paralinguistics).

Symbolic language between people consists of genetic as well as learned components. Animals that cannot speak or write communicate exclusively through "primitive" symbolisms of the sort I just mentioned. Symbols can be thought of as the bonds that tie people together in groups, societies, and entire systems of societies. Not unexpectedly, symbols figure heavily in AI research; most AI researchers view all of a person's consciousness as the construct of a flow of symbols in one form or another, and intelligence itself as one great information-processing system. (But I've already talked about that…)

The goal of virtual reality is that all symbols should be able to be stored and synthesized. It's supposed to become the perfect medium of communication between people - even better than reality. And this is perhaps what makes it so frightening. The computer offers the possibility of twisting symbolic language. If you control the computer, you could use it to appear as great and conceited as possible, and your own picture of reality would be distorted so that other people appeared as dorks. The line between illusion and reality could become fuzzy indeed.

It is completely impossible to predict what this would do to our way of perceiving the world, and other persons in particular; the only thing that's certain is that it will change. Sometimes, people speak of the cultural or sociological atomic bomb, where VR is a threat that could destroy all our norms or even our entire perception of reality. Any prediction in this field at present must be considered pure speculation, since no one communicates by VR to any great degree.

However, sci-fi authors already warn us of the dangers of VR. One of the first examples is Philip K. Dick's short story called Wholesale Memories, later made into the movie Total Recall, and other examples include the Illuminatus!(2) trilogy, our beloved X-Files, and the movie Videodrome (1982). All of these are based on the horrific scenario of not knowing what is real and what is imagined(3) - in other words, paranoia based on reality. I have myself written a short story in this vein, and begun another which I never completed:

"Sometime that year, a group of eager scientists inserted the first Carcer chip into the skull of a deaf-dumb and quadraplegic test subject. When the affluent layers of society gradually migrated towards a better, artificial world, these slaves, people whose will would never make itself known due to the iron grip of the Carcer chip, would be left behind to run the power plants, the farms, the food processing plants, and all the other necessary societal institutions.

Many free persons understood that the Carcer project was inhumane from beginning to end, that the people in the bonds of the chip no longer had a will of their own. Yet they were reluctant to leave the material well-being that they had built for years in a world that didn't exist. Their brains were connected to the machines by electrodes, and their peripheral nervous systems with its arms, legs, and eyes, were disconnected. Physically, they lived out their days suspended in a tank filled with isolating liquid kept at body temperature.

The freedom of a number of less privileged individuals was worth sacrificing for the free men and women that now lived in invulnerable bodies made of data, and who mentally controlled political events. (…bla bla bla)"

But - to be honest - don't worry. People are rather sensible beings, all things considered. There is no reason to suspect that we wouldn't be able to exploit this new resource in a reasonable fashion. However, virtual reality in combination with AI gives us a new picture of the importance of human beings vs. society, which is the subject of chapter 15.

1. This number is constantly rocketing upwards.

2. Fredric Jameson has claimed that the entire cyberpunk/tech noir genre is simply a reformulation of the theme illustrated in Illuminatus!, which is a global network of interwoven organizations and informal circles (which actually exist in some form) described as a metaphor inside the computer - the electonic network. The incomprehensible electronic organism becomes a model for the incomprehensible power. I don't agree. The computer is fascinating in itself, and one is not a symbol for the other. Possibly, you could view the two as an important concept-pair.

3. One philosopher who's written a great deal about the dissolution of reality in a kind of "virtual reality" or "hyperreality" goes by the name Jean Baudrillard.


Design and formatting by Daniel Arnrup/Voodoo Systems