- Reading Cervantes:A New Virtual Reality
Will your thinking-machines, your representing-machines, suffer?—Jean-François Lyotard, "Can Thought Go On Without a Body?"
In 1995, Fakespace Systems developed the CAVE, a visualization tool that combines high-resolution, stereoscopic projection and 3-D computer graphics that create the illusion of a complete sense of presence in a virtual environment. The first virtual reality technology of its kind in the world, the CAVE allows multiple users to immerse themselves fully in the same virtual environment at the same time. In 2006, the company expanded its trademark CAVE into larger virtual environments (now available with four, five, or six projection surfaces), and Fakespace Systems leads the world in this technology. More CAVE rooms, known as Immersive Rooms, are installed in visualization facilities around the world than any other spatially immersive option.1
The markets for this technology are exploding. Museums, universities, and centers for medicine, the life sciences, and entertainment increasingly take advantage of CAVE-style technology. Energy companies simulate drilling; design and manufacturing companies use virtual prototypes from car parts to machines; the military simulates realities for nearly every anticipated combat outcome and scenario. The premise behind CAVE technology and its offshoots assumes a virtual reality that replaces a "real" reality: simulated drills project data for real drilling in northern Alaska (arguably reducing unnecessary development), or a simulated cockpit drops bombs in a war game. Most intellectuals perceive and indeed urgently demarcate the division between reality and virtual reality with respect to its practical applications, such as in ecology and war. The existence of that owl in cyberspace is only [End Page 428] the reminder that we must do everything we can to save the real owl. The child destroyed in the simulated war game will help avoid the bombing of real children.
Fakespace-type technology is increasingly an icon for twenty-first-century culture. By "culture" I do not just mean the culture of computer games, Internet pornography, and other screen phenomena, but also how past culture is understood—how we understand the book and reading in the twenty-first century. The Fakespace 2006 website boasts a walk-in space that "recaptures the spirit" of the ancient Alexandria library. Recreating the Alexandria library reflects the ultimate future fantasy of cyberspace with respect to culture: entire world histories, with all their living, feeling inhabitants, will be resurrected in the Internet. Hans Moravec muses about a future world in which cyberspace does not just create reality but also absorbs it entirely:
[A] mature cyberspace will be effectively much bigger and longer lasting than the raw spacetime it displaces. Only an infinitesimal fraction of normal matter does work that's of interest to thinking beings like us. . . . [A] human brain equivalent could be encoded in less than one hundred million megabytes, or 1015 bits. . . . [T]he entire existing world population would fit in 1028. Thus, in an ultimate cyberspace, the physical 1045 bits of a single human body could contain the efficiently encoded biospheres of a thousand galaxies.2
The following paper about the spirit of a library and books refers to virtual reality as it operates not only in contemporary computer-generated systems, like the CAVE, but also in fantastical future scenarios such as this one offered by Moravec. Jean-François Lyotard argues against the possibility of a thinking mind in cyberspace by suggesting that thinking cannot take place without the body. He takes his position against the principle that Hilary Putnam used to legitimate attempts to create artificial intelligence—that is, the principle of the separability of intelligence, the capacity of the mind to separate itself from the body. Lyotard argues that the body is indispensable hardware for the software, the mind, and that each of them is analogous to the other in its relationship with its environment: the sensible world, in the case of the body, and the symbolic, in the case of the mind. The world of the senses tied to the body presupposes suffering and death, and Lyotard calls suffering the mark of true thought, since thinking cannot take place without pain. Lyotard's notion of suffering can be thought of...