Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is virtual really virtual, is reality really real?

Have been finding the philosophical and theological implications of avatars intriguing of late, and so picked up Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution a couple of weeks ago and read it yesterday. The book both is, and is not, what I had anticipated.

It is not, by and large, a detailed exploration of the science of avatars and virtual worlds. I was hoping for a kind of lay person's introduction to the coding and constructing of such worlds--this is not a book about that.

What it is, however, is a big picture analysis of the burgeoning field of social science research into the experience of having and using avatars in virtual worlds. For all it's current caché, social science research into this area is still actually quite new. So a book length survey of the field is welcome.

However, my biggest surprise in reading the book was the author's intentional pushing back on the notion of "virtual" as opposed to the real. Their point is that all reality is actually mediated, and so what we call reality, and what we call virtual, are somewhat false distinctions.

Here are two examples that illustrate the point. First, in a virtual world, if someone wearing simulator equipment is asked to walk across a narrow board straddling a deep valley, most users of the technology will experience everything someone would experience in the "real" world--sweaty palms, vertigo, fear, etc. Some people in virtual worlds simply won't do it. In this case, what is virtual is experienced as real. The brain and sense organs quickly make a switch so that the mediated world simply IS the world.

Or take for example your most recent phone conversation. If you reported that conversation to me, you wouldn't say, "I just talked to a digital reproduction of Gary's voice on a telephone device." Instead, you'd say, "I just got done talking to Gary." The mediated, virtual voice becomes, through habit of use, the real voice, and the intervening media elides.

Much of this book is devoted to reducing the bar on what counts as a virtual device, and pointing out that very soon virtual devices will be able to reproduce sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell with such a high degree of precision, especially as regards tracking, that when we use them, we won't feel like we're in a virtual world. We'll just experience ourselves as really being there.

I welcome this philosophical and social science approach to the use of avatars and virtual worlds. I still wish the book would have lived up to its title more, with a deeper exploration of the theological implications of eternal life in virtual worlds, and the science and technology used in this new virtual revolution.

The book will especially benefit readers hoping to reconceive what and how virtual experiences are in relation to the real.

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