Virtual Reality Makes Everyone Principals

Author: Frederick Turner
Essay: Virtual Reality Makes Everyone Principals
Pub. in: Forbes ASAP: The Big Issue, p. 182
Date: December 2, 1996

This is the ultimate in virtual reality. A smell of dung and honeysuckle and mowing wafts up from the farm below, with the soft baaing of sheep. The afternoon breeze that has sprung up as you gain altitude is cooling the sweat on your back. This steep, rocky track you’re climbing was once the old military road from Raglan Castle, for you are on the border of the lush and ancient realm of Powys on the Welsh Marches, where little wars were fought for a thousand years.

The sky is very blue, with a few clouds forming over the Black Mountains thirty miles away. The great distance between your home in America and this hillside in Wales has disappeared; at your shoulder is your old friend Peter, whom you have not seen for fifteen years. The illusion is perfect; the virtual reality (VR) system is somehow handling the terabytes of visual, tactile, olfactory and acoustic information quite comfortably in real time, and feeding it to your sensory-motor cortex with seamless coordination.

And this is exactly where I really was a week ago. The VR system I was using was my own nervous system, which turns the raw sensory data coming in from whatever is out there into a three-dimensional physical world that is the more miraculous for being utterly commonplace. It is only when something drastic happens to our bodies, such as the loss of a limb or a hallucinogenic drug experience, that we realize just how miraculous it is — when the nervous system’s VR system makes a missing big toe itch, or when its LSD-crippled processors paint fantastic borders around the edges of everything we perceive, or make us shiver with a sound or see a taste as bright green. We are all on a trip, and the trip is everyday reality.

Why, then, bother perfecting the electronic telepresence, boosting the baud rate of the fiber optics, refining the resolution of the display, jacking cyberspace more and more subtly into our brains? Why spend billions to create the hardware for interactive multimedia CD games when it costs you only a thousand dollars to go to Wale by old-fashioned jet and experience a unique moment in a human life — your own — with a sensory verisimilitude that is overwhelming? Why have friendships or love affairs on the Internet when you can do it “in person,” as we say — that is, in the amazing mask of your own face and body?

There is, I believe, a good answer to these Luddite-sounding questions. We are embarked now on a gigantic task of reconstructing the world. Until the birth of civilization, we experienced the world once-born and in first rehearsal. What is happening now is a sort of immense retrofitting or retrodesigning of everything we are. We have figured out how matter works and are custom-designing new elements, isotopes, polymers, buckminsterfullerenes, and DNS chimeras. We are restoring rare ecosystems: rebuilding ancient prairies and savannas species by species. We are writing down the human genome.

We are bent on making a simulation of the world that is indistinguishable from the original. When we have done so — if it can be done — we will just be at the beginning, the dawn, of human history. We will then finally be acting as the principals, and not agents or puppets, of our evolutionary past.

Perhaps it is a uniquely human knack to live iteratively, for our mental and sensory life to be tangled into a rich knot of feedback, what we call consciousness. Evolution is biological iteration, the dizzy repeated cycling through variation, selection, and genetic inheritance. Human cultural existence cycles enormously faster through innovation, criticism, and tradition, conducted at the conscious level. And it has already been going on for a long time.

For after all, reconstructing the world is exactly what the arts do. When we come out of an art gallery, we see with a strange, naked directness — because we see twice — the street, the sky, the faces. When we dine (rather than feed), we authentically eat what we eat; it becomes part of us experientially, not just chemically. Music retrofits sound with its own melody. Drama makes us taste the souls of our fellow humans directly, membrane to membrane. Poetry is a way of making us experience our own experience — making us notice it, as I noticed my walk in Wales. This second-born existence is not the linear result of the sensorium’s efficient work, as it is with a lower animal. It is nonlinear, chaotic, unpredictable, generating emergent forms of order. Its “strange attractors” have an infinite fractal depth.

So cyberspace is just one more way that we are creating a feedback loop in our experience. It is a re-cognizing of our lives, a recognizing what was always there but which we could not see because it was staring us in the face. Virtual reality is a tutorial in appreciating the depth of real experience.