Many people take it for granted that we occupy two worlds: the physical and the virtual. In 1997 MIT digital researchers Ishii and Ullmer stated that people potentially “live between two realms: our physical environment and cyberspace” (Ishii and Ullmer, 1997). They took on the challenge of developing digital devices that connect the two spaces together.
Advocates of virtuality and cyberspace are generally referring to the storage, presentation and experience of data in some form, understood through the metaphor of spatial geometry.
The concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality are bolstered by the power of dynamic 3d imagery, the automation of rapid perspective rendering, and their combination with networked communications. The ethereal otherness of supposedly virtual spatial experience occasionally dominates people’s reflections on digital media, accented by immersive games, multi-user 3d environments such as Second Life, and other MMORPGs (Oliver, 2002).
The discourse of cyberspace is potent and alluring. But there is growing resistance to the concepts of virtuality and cyberspace. Many critics think the theme of virtual reality distracts from engagement in everyday experience (Kline, et al., 2003). Many of those who now study digital media from a social perspective oppose the imaginative but non-verifiable assertions of the enthusiasts of cyberspace, a protest that is gaining ground amongst researchers into pervasive computing (Weiser, 1991). Concepts of space are after all subservient to concepts of society; space as place is socially as well as materially constructed (Lefebvre, 1991), not the product of three-dimensional geometrical presentations to the eye.
From a pragmatic point of view we could ask: what value does the idea of virtuality add to discussions about computing and digital media? At best we are dealing with a metaphor — the metaphor of spatial geometry. In Technoromanticism I argued that digital narratives that take as their starting point the idea of an invisible other realm, a digital communicative substrate to the material world, find resonance due to our familiarity with Platonic Idealism, though in highly technologized form.
Some architects like the idea of another spatial substrate to the material. Virtual reality brings digital studies into the architect’s domain of space and environment, as “virtual architecture.” Cyberspace clearly inspires fans of fantasy and science fiction.
A simple test of the utility of the cyberspace metaphor is to apply this descriptive technique to other technologies. When I call someone up on the telephone am I immediately transported into “phonespace”? When I watch television am I in “mediaspace”? Operating the washing machine do I merge into “cleanspace” or “hygienic reality”? If the narrative strategy seems to work everywhere then perhaps it works nowhere, or perhaps we are now in the realms of “absurdspace,” or as André Breton called it, “surreality.”
- Hiroshi Ishii and Brygg Ullmer, “Tangible bits: towards seamless interfaces between people, bits and atoms,” Proc. CHI 97, 22-27 March, Atlanta, Georgia (1997).
- Julian Holland Oliver, “The similar eye: proxy life and public space in the MMORPG,” in Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, , ed F. Mäyrä (Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2002)
- Michael Rymaszewski, et al., Second Life: The Official Guide (Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2007).
- Stephen Kline, et al., Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture and Marketing (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).
- Mark Weiser, “The computer for the 21st century,” Scientific American 265, no. 3 (1991); Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, “The coming age of calm technology,” Xerox Parc Report http://www.cs.ucsb.edu/~ebelding/courses/284/w04/papers/calm.pdf, (1996).
- Richard Coyne, Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).
- Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991).
- Breton, A., Manifestoes of surrealism, Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1969.