The Virtual Paradigm

Header Shot PathIf you can understand that a paradigm is a way of thinking, being and operating in any sphere then as far as things go we are entering a new sphere and thus a new Virtual Paradigm where arguably new rules and ways of thinking may apply. There is a famous line in the Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999) which goes “Welcome to the desert of the real”. In fact, this is a reference taken from the book Simulacra and simulation (Baudrillard, 1981). Baudrillard actually talks about the desert of the real as being like that of a map which has disintegrated leaving behind a simulation of the actual territory that it represented. In essence one could say that the book discusses the idea of Virtual Reality or in his words Simulation in various forms and guises. His main tenet being that almost everything is in some degree a simulation of something else to a lesser or greater degree. One may not totally agree with this concept but in what might be considered a landmark concept of the time he also talks about how the image can go in successive stages from one which represents an actual thing, through changes or alterations to that representation and finally to one which represents nothing that we can really reference it to. Hence one could almost say that the idea of Virtual Reality was thought of well before the invention of the internet and all that followed on. I think it’s most pertinent to look at this idea of representation since with VR we have almost been handed the keys to the castle in terms of new realities.

The interesting thing about VR is that it is quite fascinating because of the deception that it creates of something existing that in fact has not solidity whatsoever in fact. I have been working on an installation as part of my research which involves the creation of a room, it happens to one of familiarity of my past but the interesting thing about it is that when one views something like that in VR it takes on a life of its own. Looking around the room which currently is not textured or refined in any way I nevertheless found myself drawn into its intricacies and the way that the light falls and the shadows are made. All of which is completely false, it’s a trick of the eye but yet even in its absolute plain essence it somehow almost comes to life. Which brings me back to Baudrillard; In that I have so far created something that is the same but somehow not the same as something that exists in the physical realm. So I am already moving through the successive stages of the image and I am happy to accept that this different representation that I have created is somehow ‘real’ at least to me. The whole creation of this scene is in fact a trick of light and shaders within a software program and stereoscopic vision that makes it ‘live’ even though it is not factually alive.

In Parables for the Virtual (Massumi, 2002), Brian Massumi talks about the fact that colour is never going to be the same from one instant to the next due to light, brightness, hue and so forth. He talks about each moment as being a ‘singularity’ and in effect not reproducible and nor is it the same colour to each person, not exactly the same anyway. When we produce colour, texture, etc. in the virtual world how referential is it to the real world? Does say a texture tell us how it should feel simply by looking at it? Can we look at concrete in the virtual and say yes, it is the same as physical or is it different, a whole new set of reference points that are simulations but give rise to new sensory perceptions or conclusions. Because as Massumi says, when we see something we are already compartmentalising to some degree it against other experiences and categorisations. So my point is will the virtual and the physical really ever be the same due to the very nature of simulation and do they have to be? Does it actually matter if they are not? Do we have to be so concerned with matching the real world when in fact we could simply re-contextualise ourselves with a whole set of different features and facets which are nothing like our physical universe. If you take it to that point then it is also possible that we could become addicted to the perfection we can achieve in VR, to seamlessness but we could also become a different self, a physical becomes virtual. After all you can go back to say Impressionism which is in effect painting the essence of colour. What Monet tried to do was actually see colour as it really is, a blending of light and colour, of brightness and intensity, uncodified or modified by contextualising the form of what he painted. However, by painting the light as it is, it took on a form of its own which we then recognised. Impressionism is a statement about the universe, the universe of light, colour and intensity. Perhaps our thinking is too rigid in this respect about art and the physical universe, we want to compartmentalise it without really thinking about what is the essence of what we are trying to convey. New paradigms can bring new ideas, new ways of thinking and seeing, VR gives us this chance for a new perspective in a totally new dimension. It’s not the desert of the real that we will find but more a menu of potentially delectable desserts all waiting for us to sample the wares.

Note – All reproductions and excerpts of any content on this blog must include a reference and citation to the original author and preferably a link to the original piece.

Baudrillard, J. (1981). Simulacra and simulation. Originally published in French by Editions Galilee: Editions Galilee translated into English onto PDF.

Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wachowski, L., & Wachowski, L. (1999). The Matrix. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/

The Irony of the Digital

This is our digital irony. You have a physical human wearing a contraption which allows them to see in stereo thus giving the perception of 3D who is tracked by cameras in a defined space. This is done in order to place them into a digital space where they are then able to see themselves or otherwise be embodied as a digital presence which they are seeing with their physical selves. To describe this to the uninitiated it would sound like the ultimate feedback loop. So we want to place ourselves physically into the realm of digital possibilities but to do so requires a fair amount of hardware, software and equipment. What we actually become is our cyber selves in physical form interacting with a universe in digital form. In the digital we become unlimited, equipped with superpowers that do not exist in the physical world. We can break natural laws and explore the boundless potential of the unknown. We can extend our morality and thus we can kill without repercussion or consequence, we can become, in effect, a God. Any expression of dissatisfaction with our physical circumstances can be altered. We can have the body we always wanted, the possessions we craved, we can have it all, we can live the dream. Lazarus can indeed arise from the dead and walk. Yet it is ironic because indeed we are still bounded by the space and by the rules of the game or software that controls the virtual world in which we enter. We are free yet harnessed within a physical area that allows the software to position us and with the accoutrements of VR such as a headset which isolates us from the physical world. Without these things we cannot be part of this new world and thus exchange one set of constraints for another in order to be ‘free’.

In order to escape we enslave ourselves further, succumbing to the lure of entrapment that lurks in the depths of our virtual spaces. Like the sirens calling us in we are enticed into beautiful perfect digital worlds where nothing is defective or decays and where if something dies you can simply regenerate it or respawn. Like some Karma simulation we can live one thousand lives in a day and each time return with greater knowledge to meet the challenges we face inside our virtual utopia. Even before immersive headsets arrived we had already been immersed and beguiled by the possibility of another life and even called it ‘second life’. From the very first paddle ball game we were hooked upon the idea of entering this new digital universe. As realism took hold and VR edged ever closer the lines between what is recognisably physical and what is digital began to blur. This is exemplified in the films of the today where the CGI is seamless and no longer makes us stare in wonderment. The medium has become accepted and we have walked freely into this new world of digital mergence. We accept the irony of bounding ourselves with technology in order to experience something that is beyond our normal perceptions. We have drunk from the chalice of the holy grail to become part of this new world where everything is possible. We have striven to bind ourselves ever closer to cyberspace and the removal of the physical encumbrances of the world we inhabit. We are seemingly unconscious to the irony that it requires hectares of physical computer hardware on server farms and millions of miles of wiring all powered by electricity just in order to give life to our cyber existence.

Cyberspace is open to all that can access it and let them in. Identity is no longer a crisis, it’s an opportunity for change in the most innovative forms. You can be anything or anyone and have the body of a supermodel or an athlete. You can be a gazelle or a lion or any mythical creature you care to conjure up. In Ready Player One (Cline, 2011), the accessibility of the virtual world or ‘Oasis’ as it is called in the book, is assured to anyone that has a headset and a pair of haptic gloves. The hero and just about everyone on earth lives in cyberspace with the physical earth dropping away into neglect, although it does not go into detail as to how everything is kept running since the story focuses wholly upon the digital adventure and the ultimate battle for control of the cyber world and everyone in it. The point being though that according to the book humanity prefers a digital universe to the physical universe. It becomes like some vast matrix which unlike The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999) is not controlled by machines. Although we have not reached those dizzy heights of mergence it’s nevertheless a potential future but it’s not the only future. In these fictional depictions the possibilities are endless within the rules of the cyber world. Which again brings a second irony that having given us unlimited freedom in cyberspace we once again accept the boundaries and rules of the game and thus move from one physical constriction to a digital one. In Ready Player One to walk somewhere requires the same time and effort as in the physical world so already physical constraints of time are imposed. But nevertheless the attractiveness of being something you are not or something you would like to be is magnetic for many. It’s an escape from whatever existence you have to something you cannot normally have. You can be a King and have a kingdom with untold simulated riches. The irony of it is that when you remove your headset you will still be that ordinary guy or girl who goes to work in an ordinary life, just like 99% of the people on this planet. Karl Marx wrote that religion is the opium of the people” (Marx, 1844). Perhaps in Virtual Reality we have a new opiate for the masses or some might argue even a new religion.

Note – All reproductions and excerpts of any content on this blog must include a reference and citation to the original author and preferably a link to the original piece.

Cline, E. (2011). Ready player one. New York: Crown Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1844. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February.

Wachowski, L., & Wachowski, L. (1999). The Matrix. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/