Virtual realities are at least as old as storytelling itself. And fences around the site with warning signs saying: 'false paradise: keep out!' seem to have an equally venerable tradition. The well known dictum 'poets are liars' still rings through the ages, though the author of the Republic was by no means the first to take this stance. The modern evolution of the virtual, now, starts with the first novel at the latest, takes the moving pictures in its stride, and, today, with the rapid advances of modern technology seems to be entering the next stage.
Let us examine the warning sign: what is the charge? Starting from the obvious, namely that the artificial worlds of fiction can take us on a guided tour to other worlds, it seems that in doing so they can also make us forget, at least to a certain degree, the mess of the real world. If one can always hide in one's favourite artificial paradise, one may easily lose sight of the demands and shortcomings of everyday life. Today's technology is providing us with ever better means for the construction of alternate realities, and the higher the degree of immersion in artificial worlds, the more escapism becomes a crucial issue. It may, again, be time to give the matter some thought.
In what is to follow I will, therefore, not so much deal with the social aspects of the new technology, but rather focus on the theory behind the claim that submerging ourselves - interactively at that - in artificial worlds may lure us away from the real world. How virtual is the virtual in terms of knowledge? Let us first have a closer look at the present sole candidate for VR: the Matrix or Cyberspace. When VR technology was still in its infancy in 1984, William Gibson, who coined the term, came up with the following characterisation:
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination [...]. A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system, unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.1
The vision which he describes in Neuromancer captures the salient features of VR provided by the Net and the evolution it is taking. It seems that the Net is well on its way to encompass one day the sum total of the information which has been collected and generated over the centuries. Moreover, the Net progressively presents the data as conveniently accessible, just some mouseclicks away.
No one can discuss and fully appreciate Gibson's vision of the Cyberspace as Dataverse without being aware of the fact that a comprehensive electronic environment has come into existence within the last ten years where humans can, without informational noise, as he details later, interface with pure information. On theoretical grounds, the notion of pure information is apparently tempting, for it highlights a hyperlink to an age when thinking about our world, about our place in it and the scope and the limits of our grasp on it had just reached its first climax: ancient Greece. More specifically, I am thinking of the venerable figure of the Cave in Book VII of Plato's Republic.
One may wonder how this time-worn story from the beginnings of Western Philosophy could possibly be related to today's cutting edge VR-technology.2 As it is well known, the inhabitants of Plato's Cave are forming theories about their world and the nature of the entities that populate it on the speculative basis of two dimensional shadow-images that show on the opposite wall of their cave. These shadows are - unknown to the cave-dwellers - representations of three-dimensional objects that move back and forth on the outside. A high wall blocks the view from the cave, so there is no way of direct access to the real things. Plato's question now is: how much can the inhabitants make a judgment on the owners based on just observing the shadows? Not much it seems, because their true nature necessarily eludes them. Try as they might, as long as they cannot leave the Cave, they will not be able to learn anything: neither about the texture, nor about the colour, nor the weight, nor about so many other qualities of the objects in question. The only thing they have access to is a number of distorted shadow images appearing on the opposite wall. On the basis of this alone, they must form their hypotheses about the world. And it is a speculative basis, indeed.
Is our own position in front of the browser screen - or, for that matter, behind the TV-set - really all that different from the setting described by Plato? Are we not increasingly dealing with shadow-images, cut off from any direct link to the real things? Admittedly, we still do have hypotheses about how the images we see there might connect to the real world. But how much longer will these hypotheses hold in the light of the ever more realistic presentations of VR? Add audio, tactile and other mechanisms of interactive feedback: when will the point be reached at which our common-sense assumptions of reality will prove incorrect?
There is a second issue that deserves a closer look in this context. After all the story is only a means to illustrate a theory which Plato believes ultimately to apply to every-day life. Here is the analogy: just as the images on the back of the Cave are only shadows of objects in our everyday world, the entities that populate our normal perceptual universe are only shadows of the things as they 'really' are - namely the so-called 'ideas'. For example the table we can see and touch is just a shadow of the eternal idea of tablehood. Equally, the coffee-mug steaming on that table with its smooth and polished surface, is just a shadow of the eternal idea of the real cup. What are we to make of this claim? It seems that eternal ideas are what we would get if we were able to leave behind and transcend, the empirical limits of our perceptual apparatus. This may not be something we can actually do. But - we might still speculate about what would happen, if we were able to. Abstracting from all empirical and for that reason contingent features of objects would, so Plato claims, leave nothing but those features of things that necessarily belong to them, those features that define them - pure data, maximum informational content, no noise. Accordingly, Cyberspace can be considered as "a working product" of Platonism:3
"At the computer interface, the spirit migrates from the body to a world of total representation. Information and images float through the Platonic mind without a grounding in bodily experience."4
If one goes along with this line of thinking one gets, in a nutshell, the two poles that mark the two extremes of the debate about the epistemological status of the Matrix. Does it provide us with information in its purest form, and, therefore, at least potentially allow us a better grasp on the world? Or does it set us on an informational diet of distorted data, which leads us away from understanding into the world of archaic desires and wish fulfilment?5
Depending on the side which one takes in the debate one will assess the prospects and opportunities of the new technology. However, one thing is for sure: Cyberspace and the power to run simulations of every conceivable kind gives our understanding at least a quantitative push. Nowadays, we are interacting with pictures and elaborate 3D environments instead of having to deal with barren concepts - as it has been for so long. Now we are able to explain things by showing what we mean. Now we make others experience our thoughts in bright colours instead of having to make them sit through lengthy talks.
This seems to shift the paradigm away from the traditional concept of knowledge transfer by propositional means to a scheme in which 'knowledge by acquaintance' plays a much more significant role. The drawback of ability enhanced by electronic media is, of course, that the simulation of experience leads to the simulation of understanding, i.e. cut-and-paste operations without any deeper insights into contents and contexts. The hyperlinks that allow us to trace infobits across the dataverse work with a minimum of environment. The prospect to keep oneself well-informed about minute details with just a few mouseclicks is so tempting that one tends to forget that infobits may not be meaningfully consumed without any proper (narrative or other) context.
The fact that the data do not have any fixed coordinates in space and that Gibson's metaphor is (still?) no more than a metaphor, is not only an advantage; because the benefits of easy access from almost anywhere around the globe are balanced by serious shortcomings. Whereas one feels confident - provided we are not heading towards a catastrophe (that a hardcopy stays the same through time, and future reference to it does not generate nonsense), there is no such luck with electronically stored information on the net. There is no place to check the shape in which one's favourite conspiracy theory originally came in. Even if it is still around somewhere, it may be hard to tell whether its content has changed, or whether it is just one's memory that has given out.
Strangely, the investigation of the new possibilities ends up in quite a paradoxical situation: the subject matter is just bits of data and the insights that might be generated from them. But one obviously has to resort to the more traditional method of narration to stop us from rushing headlong into mental entropy. If we examine the process of knowledge acquisition and transfer in the dawning age of the Matrix in its own terms - i.e. hyperlinking databits - most frequently, nonsense will be generated. Meaning, however, is achieved along narrative lines and via the contextualisation of data. A structured rhizomatic configuration just cannot do the trick.6
Neuromancer and Matrix
One point in favour of this last claim are accounts that deal with the new technology. In this paper, I want to have a look at two pieces of fiction, namely William Gibson's Neuromancer of 1984 and Matrix, which was one of the big screen's most irresistible science fiction movies produced in 1999. I believe that the conclusions drawn from these pieces can be applied to a many other accounts of a culture dominated by information technology, both fictional and non-fictional, which try to make sense of it.
Gibson's prophetic vision, although quite original in its linguistic achievement, is nonetheless saturated with traditional literary topoi derived from the ongoing narration that forms the cultural background of the West. Just take the title: the pun already signals the reader to expect something in accordance with the traditional concept of the novel. But the abstract world of Gibson's matrix, by virtue of its nature, does not require that information have any fixed shape or location. Still Gibson's Cyberspace is full of well defined structures and organised in a topographical way, and there are virtual locations in the nonspace of the mind between which the protagonist 'travels'. The plot - there is one, indeed! - borrows heavily from the classical wild-west pattern: we meet, for example, the AI-construct Wintermute, who all of a sudden appears from amidst the clusters of data. Just like the stranger in any classic movie about the days of the Frontier, he/she/it is in trouble. And it sure is no coincidence that Gibson's protagonist Case as well as all the others who manipulate the flow of data through the veins of the net are called 'cowboys'. Similarly, there are elements of the traditional bildungsroman; most notably in the various stages that Wintermute passes on its way to self-awareness and freedom. More importantly, this evolution towards self-reflection seems to become both explicitly and implicitly a matter of religious belief. One time the almost omnipotent AI muses whether to appear in the shape of a 'burning bush' when interfacing with his prophet Case. Another instance is the process of auto-creation the reader is invited to witness: Wintermute more or less invents and assembles himself as a distinct and conscious entity from datascratch, with just a little help from the protagonist.
It is perhaps at this point that we find the most obvious connection between Gibson's novel and the Hollywood production Matrix. Morpheus, god of sleep, with the power to alter the dreams induced by the Matrix and even to awaken the sleepers to the real world, needs help as well. In order to free humankind from the machines he recruits Neo - anagrammatically the One. Ignorance is bliss, at least until Morpheus (father), Neo (son), and Trinity (spirit-of-love) unite to expel their fellow humans from the false paradise (sic!) of information technology. This, of course, is not only a running commentary on the well known story from the Holy Book, but also on the motto of European enlightenment: leaving behind the state of self-induced minority, as Immanuel Kant put it. True, the electronic paradise offers bliss, via ignorance. But it is a false, vain, and empty state of bliss. Knowledge, on the other hand, is to be found in a place that looks more like hell or some post-apocalyptic environment than like the world we know. Even though, it is this place that the threefold God-of-the-Matrix has in mind for humankind. In this context it does hardly come as a surprise that one of the recurring themes of the film is the idea of the Golden Jerusalem, which, incidentally, the audience only hears about but never sees. This place holds a promise: here human beings can live up to their true nature. This, of course, includes the freedom to choose, but it also includes all the agonies this entails. Only those who are able to do the wrong thing can truly be good when they do what is right. And only those who can choose between genuine alternatives deserve a chance to knowledge, enlightenment, and finally salvation.
Let us go back once more to the net. How does this digression on the construction of meaning by wrapping up the world of bits and bytes in traditional blankets connect to the current state of technology? Among the many aspects of high theoretical impact, there is one of particular interest. In both accounts there are various conceptions of the self. Take Wintermute, the AI-construct. His/her/its 'personality' is scattered over the net. It is a Cartesian mind without (any specific) body, software running just on any (non-biological) hardware that happens to be around. At the end of the novel it frees itself from the hardware basis and thereby from the last constraints of the material world before taking off into space, supposedly on some databeam, achieving immortality. Similarly the dreamers in the movie experience an extension of their consciousness by directly interfacing human brain to machine mind. In the novel we also meet some 'downloads' - former human beings whose consciousness has been transferred to the net and now runs open end - whose personality is scattered all over the datasphere. These conceptions of the self all depend heavily on the structures provided by the new technology. Furthermore, there is another important feature they have in common: they all indicate that the traditional notion of the self as a clearly delineated and centred entity might, after all, be less important than assumed so far.
Equally dependent on technology is another conception of the self which is to be found in Gibson's Neuromancer and which is exemplified by the Tessier-Ashpool clan. The author depicts the Tessier-Ashpools as people who have severed all links to the common world of their fellow humans and run their minds through the endless permutations of a personal and personalised cyberspace. In the orbit around the earth, they are the rulers of their own universes in the void, nearly immortal and separated from any human company for the rest of eternity - i.e. at least as long as there is electrical power.
To conclude: what the technology of the Matrix holds in store, then, is a choice between fragmentation of the self and eternal loneliness. A vision that again links up to the initial epistemological question. Either lose the possibility of (narrative) cohesion, because the 'subject' becomes scattered all over the net and is run as a multitude of tasks, decentralised, somewhere in the dataverse, or 'live' with some sort of (self-induced) solipsism, where reference to an outside world becomes a meaningless notion. It is strange, however, that the God-like AI Wintermute of all entities is determined to kill in order to drive home how important the quest for a unifying self-consciousness as a reference point for knowledge really is.
Much more could be said about the need for narrative structure and some coherent notion of the self, without which we would not be able to understand the world - virtual or non-virtual. What I have done here must remain a sketch, filled hopefully with enough details to show that far from marking the next step in the evolution of escapism, the progress of VR an in particular the critical reflection of this process may help us throw new light on some of the most important problems of culture and technology. It may have taken us by surprise that the technological development of the Virtual and the Unreal seems to provide a valuable tool to tackle these very real questions.
1 William Gibson, Neuromancer (London: Ace Books, 1995 (1st ed. 1984), 67.
2 To be accurate, today's technical possibilities have not reached Gibsonian standards yet. In addition to this it should be kept in mind that the 'space'-metaphor, implicit in the term Cyberspace, is not to be taken too literally, because the data is often not located in any particular space, but rather distributed all over the net.
3 Heim, M. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 89.
4 Ib., 101.
5 This is J. Schulte-Sasse's point. See his "Von der schriftlichen zur elektronischen Kultur: Über neuere Wechselbeziehungen zwischen Mediengeschichte und Kulturgeschichte." Eds. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht und K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, Materialität der Kommunikation (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995), 429-53.
6 Even if our brain should indeed work on a rhizomatic basis at the neuro-level it seems that we cannot make sense of data presented in such a way on the higher cognitive plane necessary for understanding the world around us.