Realities, virtual and otherwise.

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 8 Feb 1995 08:51:51 JST

Over on VIRTPSY, there has been a heavy discussion of how "virtual reality"
should be defined. On one side are those who would limit the term to
the helmets and datagloves world of "immersive" VR; on the other are those
who broaden the definition to include text-based interactive MUDs, MOOs, etc.
The following is a message I've just posted over there. I wonder if some of
us here might also like to have a go at some of the issues it raises.
(Yes, John Stevens, I am thinking of you.0


Dear Virtual Friends:

At some point in the recent debate over definitions of VR, someone
noted that our musings are affected by how we conceive "reality."
Would it, perhaps, enrich our discussion to look at other fields in
which this philosophical chestnut is also being roasted? I have in
mind some recent "postmodern" literary criticism that deals with
cyperpunk SF. Thus, for example, George Slusser, in his introduction
to _Fiction 2000: Cyperpunk and the Future of Narrative. (1992:2)

"At stake here is nothing less than the old Platonic idea of mimesis,
and its dominant allegory of the cave. The situation here is
direcitonal viewing: the observer chained with face to the wall of
flickering shadows; or by extension the reader in his chair, focused
on the fictional world of his book. This polarization of light source
and image, or of reader and text, supports further Platonic concepts
that until today have dominated our idea of how fiction works, such
as conversion, the figurative turning around that redirects our gaze
beyond the reading experience. And _education_, in the sense of
_leading_ the reader out from the appearance world of "plot" and
"characte," and toward the "reality" they can now be said to

"The new electronic den that has replaced this cave, however, is
both permeable and multidirectional. It is a genuine allegory in the
root sense of the Greek word _agora_, an open place where we
mingle with other presences without such barriers as the
distinction between fiction and fact. It is not that we have become,
as Bradbury [in _Fahrenheit 451] feared, characters in somebody
else's fiction. They do not control us any more than we control them.
But simply, once the tyranny of mimesis vanishes, observer and
observed are free to exist in the same space, which today is the
space of _information exchange_. At the root of this concept is
perhaps a literal "informing," in which form is generated from
within the field of observation. Because this informing denies the
observer or "imitator" any kind of privileged stance outside the
field, we have, in a sense, an act of self-organization. What happens,
then, inside this infosphere to the traditional sense of fiction, the
organized lie that reflects its organized reality? Here, it seems, is a
climate of image creation to which the Aristotlean tyranny no longer
applies; it is no longer possible to speak of actions that develop in
linear fashion, or are complete, or fix their audience by affecting
catharsis, holding them in strongly aroused emotional states like
pity and fear."

The "observer chained to the wall" watching "flickering shadows"--
Is this not the participant in an "immersed" VR experience, chained
to a particular physical space by the cables attached to her helmet
and dataglove?

The "reader in his chair, focused on the fictional world of his book"-
- There are, to be sure, similarities, so far as both are entranced by
"representations" which purport to "represent" something else, a
reality "out there": outside the cave or book. Does it not say
something symptomatic about our concerns and a world shaped by
information technology, that whether or not to conflate these two
experiences now seems a matter of technical definition, motivated,
perhaps as much as anything, by concern for where funding for
research will go?

No answers here. Just points to ponder.

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)