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  • Reality for Cybernauts
  • Sergio Sismondo

Introduction: virtual reality as a metaphysical laboratory

Virtual reality (VR) is a wonderfully successful misnomer. To the extent that VR is reality, there is little virtual about it.

I should qualify those claims right away: virtual reality is virtual in the derivative sense in which “virtual” has come to be a synonym for computer-based, but that sense is a result rather than a precondition of VR’s cultural success. VR has provided a path from an old meaning of “virtual” to a new one. The old meaning, what we could call virtual(1), is: in effect, but not actual. The meaning that is new to the last decades of the 20th century is virtual(2): simulated on or mediated by a computer.

Many cybernauts have realized that VR is not merely virtually(1) real—an oxymoron?—and therefore are arguing that it is virtual(2) reality, real but computer-based. In so doing they have not merely added a new meaning to the term “virtual,” but have revamped talk of reality. At a time when skeptical humanists and others are more and more cautious about reality, VR enthusiasts are giving new life to words like “real” and “reality,” using them constantly, and with a variety of meanings. The best VR is described as “really real” and is contrasted with “real reality,” yet neither phrase fully makes sense without at least some confusion about meanings of “real.” At the same time, some cyberphiles and cybercritics have been proclaiming the death of reality. If we could create environments that have the look and feel that we expect from everyday reality, what is left of the “real” thing? Why should we care about it?

Michael Heim says that “with its virtual environments and simulated worlds, cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory, a tool for examining our very sense of reality” (83). Heim may be right that cyberspace—or in my case VR—is a metaphysical laboratory, but his laboratory is largely unbuilt. Currently-available VR, for example, is more crude as a metaphysical laboratory than are our imaginations, literature, and thought experiments. For my purposes the limitations of existing VR are unimportant: my intention here is, following Heim, to use VR to examine “our very sense of reality,” but in that I want to look at our use of the term “reality” and the presuppositions of that use. Along the way I take issue with some of the wilder claims about VR’s effects on reality.

Although there is no one consistent picture of reality implicit in talk about VR, there are at least some common images. Some of those images are exactly what are needed to revamp talk of reality, and some are misguided. Some VR talk, for example, reinforces an impoverished sense of reality in its dominating images of levels and degrees; my preferred images are more chaotic and multi-dimensional. In order to show why we should prefer some images of reality, in the second half of this essay I put forward a general account of reality talk. That account makes space for (though does not guarantee) the reality of VR, and much more besides.

For my project here we do not have to be full-fledged cybernauts. That is a good thing, because this essay is written by yet another interloper into VR. I haven’t made the tours of labs where systems like RB2 (“Reality Built for Two”) or gadgets like the DataGlove have been developed. I spend little of my time browsing Mondo 2000, and have tested out only the most publicly available virtual environments, computer games like “Doom,” and high-tech video games like “Dactyl Nightmare.” Donning the latter’s 3-D video helmet and battling its schematic pterodactyls even put me off-balance and made me slightly nauseous. All of that should place me as a text-based critic whose access to VR and cyberculture is largely through the guidance of texts. Therefore my text displays many signs of my interloper status, in the form of references to the canonizers and the canonized agents of the history of VR.

The virtualization of reality?

Our point is thus a very elementary...

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
1997-01-09
Open Access
No
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