Slightly edited version of an email I wrote to my friend Rajesh Kasturirangan, who had just given a fascinating talk at the Kira Institute (he and I have been participants in various Kira projects over the years, both prior to and recently in its current virtual reality incarnation) in Second Life on the subject of virtual reality, in which he likened it to the telescope before Galileo. I can’t easily summarize his intriguing talk but a couple of salient points: he compared VR and various modes of contemplative exploration, including dreaming; he also compared it to the telescope prior to Galileo, noting the fact that one of the most interesting things Galileo did was not only pointing his telescope towards the heavens (when it had been used primarily as a utilitarian tool before), but discovering moons orbiting Jupiter, proving that there was another heavenly body around which revolved other heavenly bodies, fundamentally calling into question the geocentric view of the world — literally decentering our universe. Finally, Rajesh posed the question: could virtual reality become a means by which we discover the unknown, by which we can decenter our world, and take us beyond the utilitarian and the social?
Indeed, I found your talk quite interesting, and it sparked a number of thoughts in various directions. I discussed these with Sue and we had further thoughts … I’m also eager to discuss with my collaborator Heather Anne Halpert when she returns from her vacation to Peru, etc. (I’m cc’ing some friends who might be interested in some of this discussion).
Heather Anne and I have been discussing the peculiar phenomenon of perception, in which we, as human beings, seem to have evolved the ability to construct pictures of the world, quite elaborate pictures, which include vast hidden assumptions, some of which are new and some of which seem to be somewhat hard-wired and quite inapt, and these pictures have two peculiar qualities: one is their relative rigidity, and the other is the fact that they seem to disappear.
That is to say, they disappear because we are unaware of them *as* pictures; they seem to be just “the world as it is.”
Among the strange properties of these pictures are what I discussed at my Kira talk a while back. That is, we tend to assume that changing one thing in a system won’t change anything else in the system; we tend to assume that the effects of a cause will be immediately apparent and right in front of our faces; we tend to assume that large-scale feedback loops do not exist.
On a more general point that touches on the dreaming point you also raised in your talk, which Sue mentioned when I was discussing with her, dreaming and virtual reality both potentially share the possibility of presenting to us an experiential version of the idea that there may be multiple ways of taking the world — in other words, perhaps the decentering possibility provided by virtual reality along the lines of the Galilean discovery of Jupiter’s moons is one of a decentering of paradigms or pictures of the world. Experientially, perhaps virtual reality can create the possibility of decentering our perception, our perspective, to the point where we realize *our waking reality is also a construct*. A la The Matrix (which is, of course, a movie which relies on the notion of virtual reality very heavily).
What can we uncover with this realization? It’s not only the fact that there can be other ways of taking the world, but that these other ways can have very physical, very tangible consequences, that is to say, there is the vast unknown (unconscious, that which is beyond our conscious self as we take it ordinarily) and it can have consequences, it is connected. One aspect of this is becoming aware of aspects of the world which we are involved in directly but which we tend to ignore; as noted in The Logic of Failure, which I referenced in my talk, which is very salient to the issues Heather Anne and I have been thinking about.
Another aspect of all this, contemplative realization is this quality of “newness”. Again it comes back to seeing things fresh. When you have a contemplative realization, even if it is something you already felt you “knew” somehow, or even if it is the same as a realization you had before, it always has, as Sue put it, the quality of newness or freshness to it. This is perhaps also something that can be explored through the dreamlike reality of VR. Seeing the world fresh by decentering one’s world view, one can also make everything old new again (fresh perspectives).
What Heather Anne and I have specifically been working on is the idea of visualizing these extra-conscious aspects of the world, reality, even our own bodies and lives. We’ve been thinking more along the lines of providing information visualization tools, but VR opens up the possibility of experiential learning, because of the immersive quality of virtual reality. Having a visceral experience in a virtual world can perhaps have a bigger impact on our consciousness than seeing a beautiful graph of a pattern in nature or in our bodies or lives. VR-based simulations can perhaps open up the possibility of confronting aspects of reality which we ordinarily miss. This comes back around to Piet’s interest in simulations, as well: perhaps a sufficiently complex simulation can be somewhat “out of control” — outside of conscious, explicit control, because even though we may write the rules of the simulation the simulation itself may surprise us. Then VR becomes a way of hooking our ordinary way of perceiving (our evolved perceptual mechanisms) and experimenting with multiple modes and experiences so we can then train ourselves to shift awareness from what we are used to thinking about (our entrenched oversimplified paradigms) to decentered paradigms (which remain fresh) and to connect our visceral, experiential awareness to patterns outside our normal awareness. VR systems could be a way of bridging that evolutionary gap (again, see The Logic of Failure for more elaboration of this idea).