April / 2011
Edith Cowan University
Unit: Cyberculture Studies
Tutor: Glen Spoors
Assignment: Write an essay in response to the following question:
What is cyberspace? Discuss it’s history, meaning, development, and importance. You may choose to focus on either developments in visual interfaces, fictional representations of how cyberspace may look in the future, and/or the relationship between cyberspace and virtual reality.
The term ‘reality’ often has the connotations of truth attached to it, as its name suggests, it is thought to describe that of which is ‘real.’ This being said, the only truth that we can really draw in relation to the nature of reality is that there is no such thing as a definitively provable ‘real’ reality. In other words, the reality of reality is there is no reality. Everything we see and hear is a construction to varying degrees; whether it be by caused by the ideological conditioning of the society we live in, to the media we view, or even the result of some higher entity’s manipulations. These thoughts echo the notions bought forth by old philosophical scenarios, such as Plato’s Cave, in that “if absolutely everything that we encountered, everything in our ordinary experience, was merely an appearance, an illusion, and quite different from what was really the case, we would have no idea that we were being systematically deluded in this way (Falzon, 2002, pg. 2).” Put simply as, if everything we see is a representation of reality, how are we to differentiate between what is real and what is constructed? We are going to examine these thoughts in relation to the nature of cyber-space, virtual reality and what the future may possibly hold for the human race as it evolves alongside the evolution of its machines.
Before we can analyze the nature of reality we must first look at the definition of the term ‘cyberspace.’ Herein lies a problem, as cyberspace is a subjective word that lacks a solid, concrete definition. This is reiterated in the work by David Whittle, titled Cyberspace, where he describes it as a term that “either defies definition or is one of those intuitive words that is understood without a definition (Whittle, 1997, p. 6).” He then goes on to describe some of its characteristics in an attempt to explore its meaning by stating that “when our focus shifts to a place other than our immediate surroundings via the use of technology, we enter cyberspace (Whittle, 1997, p. 8).” The word ‘technology’ is the key term here, as Whittle is suggesting that when a technology acts as a conduit between our self and other ‘spaces’ we are in effect entering a ‘cyberspace.’ We must now be careful when we think of the word technology now, as it does not simply apply to when we are looking through a computer screen, but extends to many mediums, such as television, video games, films or books, as these are all forms of technology that work to transport our focus, or our minds, into other realms.
Cyberspace was first coined by Gibson, in his book “Neuromancer,” where he defined it as a “consensual hallucination (Gibson, 1984, p. 51).” This is a view that is also shared by Whittle, seen in his statement that “cyberspace is a fictional, psychic space where minds fuse in a trancelike ‘consensual hallucination’ (Whittle, 1997, p. 9).” The hallucination, or ‘trance-like state,’ refers to how, when someone enters a cyberspace, they more or less detach their mind from their bodies, their surroundings, and lose themselves within the cyberspace they have entered. For example; when someone is reading a book, even if they are sitting comfortably in their bed, they are not focused on their immediate surroundings. They are in their bed, but their mind is transporting them to other worlds. They could be walking along the corridors of Hogwarts or stranded upon an island alongside Robinson Curosoe. Even the most primitive of technologies, the humble book, can accomplish such an out of body experience. This being said, the hallucination experienced by a book is nowhere near strong enough to convince the person reading it that they are indeed in Hogwarts or on a desert island, they still know, to a large degree, they are still in their bed. However, as technologies become increasingly adept at creating more sophisticated cyberspaces that better mimic reality, people are finding they are becoming more connected, and more involved, to the virtual worlds their spaces purport, as it becomes increasingly more difficult to differentiate between the hallucination and the real.
Gibson examines people who use computers or play video games and describes that “they develop a belief that there’s some kind of actual space behind the screen, some place that you can’t see but you know is there”(Gibson, 1997, P. 5).” Cyberspace, as a result, can help skewer and alter people’s perceptions of reality, as the hallucinations it purports can mimic the appearance of reality to varying degrees.
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me clutch thee;
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Macbeth - Act ii. Sc. 1.
Here, in the famous Shakespeare play Macbeth, the character of Macbeth experiences the hallucination of a dagger appearing before him that is so compelling it materializes in his hands. Even though he confesses to himself he is imagining it, this ethereal creation, which is the product of his mind, becomes a tangible object. Though this is a fictitious story, the dagger represents a virtual object that transcends the immaterial realm to become ‘real.’ So how does something which is ‘virtual’ become something that is ‘real?’ We shall examine this in relation to the work of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze.
The word ‘virtual’ is a term that has undergone a great deal of evolution over time in terms of its meaning, still providing good fodder for philosophical debate. The famous French philosopher Gilles Deleuze argued that the word ‘virtual’ referred to a component of reality that lacked a solid substance, being more or less immanent, however still being ‘real.’ He believed the virtual and the actual were both ‘real,’ but not everything that is virtual within the world can become actual (Pisters, 1998). To put it simply, intangible things such as dreams, memories, imaginations or pure qualities are considered to be “real insofar as it has an effect on us, the virtual insists on the actual (Pisters, 1998).” To illustrate this, using memories as the basis for our analysis, we can examine the ancient mnemonic art of the ‘memory palace.’
In the novel Hannibal, the character Dr Hannibal Lecter had constructed what is known as a ‘memory palace;’ a mnemonic device that resides within a person’s mind that allows them to store large quantities of information. It works by constructing a building within one’s mind, complete with many rooms and corridors, and furnishing each room with images or artifacts. A pocket of knowledge, or a particular memory that person wants to keep, is then attached to each of these images. If the person wants to summon whatever it is that image stores they need only walk through their building, or palace, and recall upon that image. In the case of Hannibal Lector, it allowed him to re-read books he had read in the past, escape the confinements of his prison cell by revisiting places he had been to before, or even physically manipulate his body, all within the bonds of his mind (Spoors, 2008). The memory palace has been used for centuries, from the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in his quest to spread Catholicism to the Chinese (Spencer, n.d.), to Marcus Cicero, one of ancient Rome’s most versatile minds, who utilized the memory palace to store the speeches he would use to address the Senate (Spoors, 2008). The art of the memory palace allowed him to recall the speeches verbatim from his mind.
The memory palace illustrates to us the strong power the mind has in transporting ourselves, or our focus, to other ‘spaces.’ As mentioned before, Deleuze argued that the word ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ could both be examples of ‘real’ if those intangible effigies had an effect on us physically. So, for example, if you are under stress and you decide to retreat to a memory of a peaceful place you once visited and, by doing so, it calms and soothes you, then the virtual quality of that memory becomes real. However, the extent to how effective that memory has upon physically affecting you depends upon the quality of the memory. You may be remembering a peaceful place, but you still would know that you are not actually there. This is similar to what was mentioned earlier about reading a book, you may feel you are a stranded alongside Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, but you are still aware that you are in your bed. However, what would happen if we could enter a virtual space so realistic you could not differentiate between what is real and what is virtual? Films like The Matrix beg to ask this very question.
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?
(Silver & Wachowski, 1999)
The 1999 film The Matrix depicts a world where humans live in a fictional and virtual world created by machines. Each human has its brain and nervous system hooked up to a giant computer simulation that makes them believe they are coexisting amongst each other in a ‘real world.’ This alludes to the previous notion of a ‘consensual hallucination,’ discussed by Gibson and Whittle. Everyone is experiencing the same hallucination so it becomes the consensual reality. The film also draws heavily upon a number of philosophical scenarios, including Plato’s Cave and Putnam’s ‘Brain in a Vat’ notion.
Plato’s Cave (Falzon, 2002, p. 2) is a philosophical scenario where humans are bound by chains, from infancy, inside a cave. Because of their shackles, all they can see is the cave wall in front of them. Little do they know that behind them lays a great fire with unseen puppeteers utilizing the fire’s light to cast shadows onto the cave’s wall. Since these shadows are all that the cave dwellers have ever seen, it becomes all they have ever known, and thus, it becomes their only reality. The scenario questions the nature of reality by begging the question that “everything we ordinarily take to be reality might in fact be no more than a shadow, a mere appearance, and that the real world might be something quite different (Falzon, 2002, p. 2)."
The second scenario that The Matrix draws heavily upon is Putnam’s “Brain in a Vat” thought experiment. The scenario goes that a brain has been extracted by a scientist and placed in a vat of life-sustaining liquid inside a laboratory (this alludes to the depictions of the tanks filled with viscous liquid that held the humans in The Matrix). The scientist has then connected the brain to a giant computer simulation that stimulates the brain with electric impulses in such a way as to mimic those that one would receive if living in the real world. The brain is now massively deluded, as it may believe it strolling outdoors down a city street inside a body, when it is in fact a body-less brain, indoors and inside a vat of liquid (Chalmers, 2003).
The “Brain in a Vat” scenario reverberates strongly in the following words uttered by the character ‘Morpheus’ in the film The Matrix;
What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you feel, taste, smell, or see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
(Silver & Wachowski, 1999)
It argues that our definition of reality is constrained by the electrical impulses sent to our brain, and if, in the case of The Matrix, these signals originated from the simulations of a computer, we would be so heavily deluded that would never be able uncover the truth. Like the prisoners trapped in Plato’s Cave, unless they break free of the shackles that bind them they would never learn the true reality of their situation.
In the case of The Matrix, Morpheus believes that the matrix is the illusion and that the real world exists outside of it. There is a slight flaw in his reasoning here because, as seen above, he defines ‘real’ as the “electrical signals interpreted by your brain (Silver & Wachowski, 1999).” This causes us to question what is the difference between the signals he experiences when he is in the Matrix and the signals he experiences when he is outside of the matrix? How can he be sure that the signals he is being fed whilst he walks aboard his ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, are not the result of another simulation, a higher force, something bigger than the Matrix or even, as the belief of Solipsism declares, an intricate figment of his imagination? The unfortunate and haunting answer is that he can’t be sure at all.
Solipsism is the philosophical belief that your mind is the only thing that exists, and that everything we see, hear, smell or touch are then simply the projections of your mind (Hofbauer, 1997/1998). The universe exists because your mind exists. When we die the universe, and everything in it, ceases to exist, so therefore the universe is only real inside our mind. This even extends to other people or animals being the products of our minds projections. This idea is similar to that of 18th century philosopher George Berkley who believed you are trapped in your own experience and that;
the mind is deluded to think it can and does conceive of bodies existing un-thought of, or outside the mind, and at the same time they are apprehended by or exist in itself. So you cannot have trees outside the mind in mind without having them in mind. Therefore there can't be trees outside the mind. So as soon as you try to imagine it, there it is imagined. So therefore, Berkeley says, it must in a sense be an imagined tree. There are no unimagined trees
Whether Morpheus is a prisoner of his own mind, a prisoner of the matrix or a prisoner of something else, the key thought we can draw from these philosophical scenarios, being Plato’s Cave, Putnam’s Brain in a Vat or the idea of Solipsism, is that learning the true nature of reality is as intangible as reality itself.
Taking all the thoughts discussed thus far, what future predictions could be then made of the world to come? Virtual reality simulators and augmented reality apparatuses continue to advance in sophistication. Examples include technologies such as flight simulators, head mounted displays (HUD), the Nintendo Wii remote or the PlayStation Eyetoy (Spoors, 2008). If we analyze video games specifically, what would occur if a game was created that could mimic the real world to pinpoint accuracy? This was illustrated in the film Existenz, where a video game was created that relied on users to ‘plug’ a port in the bottom of their spine. The virtual world they then entered was practically indistinguishable from the real world. Since the inputs were being fed directly into their spine and being carried to the brain it is a similar example of the ‘Brain in a Vat’ scenario, which caused the game world and the real world to mesh, as the users could no longer tell the difference between the two realms. The game world provided them with new found freedoms, and since it was so realistic, some of the players became so attached to the virtual world they wanted to stay there, their previous world, their ‘real’ world, suddenly began to feel ‘unreal,’ seen in this excerpt:
Allegra: So how does it feel?
Allegra: Your real life. The one you came back for.
Ted: It feels completely unreal.
Allegra: You're stuck now, aren't ya? You want to go back to the Chinese restaurant because there's nothing happening here. We're safe. It's boring.
Ted: It's worse than that. I'm not sure... I'm not sure here, where we are, is real at all. This feels like a game to me. And you, you're beginning to feel a bit like a game character
(Cronenberg, Hamori & Lantos, 1999)
What ethical complications of such sophisticated virtual reality simulators would then arise? Imagine if a paraplegic person was able to plug their brain into a virtual world that allowed them to walk? Though the world would be strictly confined to their minds, and would therefore not necessarily be ‘real,’ it most likely would be more enjoyable experience for them than the reality they were previously confined to. It is similar to the epiphany experienced by the character ‘Cypher’ in the film The Matrix, who chooses to make a deal with the computers controlling the Matrix to inject him back into the simulated world as he is fed up with the dullness and hopelessness of the ‘real’ world. It is epitomized in the following quotation;
You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss
(Silver & Wachowski, 1999)
He knows the matrix is not real, but he chooses to be ignorant because the false is more enjoyable than the real.
Imagine a world where cultural, religious, social or racial differences are solved because each appropriate sector of society was injected into their own secular, virtual world. A virtual world devoted to Christians or a virtual world devoted to Communists. People could live in harmony by eradicating the need to coexist next to their polar opposites. However, you can only imagine that the implications of these alterations would only pave the way for further alterations that may begin to breach ethical boundaries. If people were unhappy with their physical appearance they could then simply change it to better suit what they want within their virtual world. If your virtual world is completely constructed, then who is to say that you cannot be rich or famous? Then you begin to push the boundaries even further. Why cannot the simulation allow you to experience the ability to fly? To breathe underwater? Where would it end, and what would be the ultimate ramifications upon the human race?
A utopian virtual world where ever one of your desires is answered could lead to the halt of human evolution and the dissemination of the human race. An aspect of this is humorously portrayed in an episode of the animated television program Futurama, where the character Fry wants to date a ‘Lucy-Lu Bot,’ a robot that is a realistic version of the actress Lucy Lu. He is shown an instructional video warning against the dating of robots, depicting a boy named ‘Billy’ buying a ‘(Marylin) Monroe Bot:’
Did you notice what went wrong in that scene? Ordinarily, Billy would work hard to make money from his paper route. Then he'd use the money to buy dinner for Mavis, thus earning the slim chance to perform the reproductive act. But in a world where teens can date robots, why should he bother? Why should anyone bother? Let's take a look at Billy's planet a year later. Where are all the football stars? And where are the biochemists? They're trapped! Trapped in a soft, vice-like grip of robot lips. All civilisation was just an effort to impress the opposite sex ... and sometimes the same sex
(Cowan, Kaplan, Katz & Purdum, 2001)
Though this is not intended to be completely taken seriously, it does provoke valid thoughts on the implications of possible future virtual reality simulators. The motivation for a scientist to research a cure for cancer would most likely be affected if he could simply live in a world that catered to his every whim. What is the need for people to get an education or find an occupation when they can live in such a perfect, virtual world?
The evolution of the human race relies upon our ability to overcome obstacles, to work to find solutions for worldly problems. Suspending everyone in a computer controlled virtual world may create an almost utopian world, but at what cost? In the film The Invasion the character played by Roger Rees (Yorish) makes a comment that civilization is all but an illusion, that we are all still driven by largely primal urges. All it takes to reveal these animal instincts is for disaster to strike and civilization to crumble. This is when people are pushed into corners and is when even the most civilized people are able to do the most atrocious of things. A utopian world “where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human (Silver, Hirschbiegel, 2007).”
What we can finally draw from the notions of cyberspace and virtual reality is that the nature of reality is impalpable. We cannot definitively prove the truth of its existence, nor can we claim that one version of a reality is more valid than the other. We live in a society containing people who exist in a broad spectrum of ‘spaces,’ from the books they read, to the games they play, to the music they listen to. Our identities are largely defined by the spaces we move between, and the realities we experience depend upon the spaces we enter. A future world where virtual reality programs are so sophisticated it enables us to construct ultra-realistic other worlds and spaces for us to enter may seem a very fantastical concept to envision, however, if we think back to Plato’s Cave, how are we to know we are not experiencing such a reality already? What if we were like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, but instead of being trapped within a cave, our cave was the world we live in today? What if a virtual reality was being purported onto us right now, by some higher entity, how would we ever know? The answer is, unfortunately, we wouldn’t.
Word Count: 3996
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