35
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Fascinations, Reactions, Virtual Worlds and other Matter

Essay by Florian Rötzer, published in "Book for the Unstable Media," 1992.

Fascinations, Reactions, Virtual Worlds and other Matter

Book for the Unstable Media

"TELEVIRTUALITY IS THE APPLICATION OF TELECOMMUNICATIVE MEANS, ALLOWING RAPID COMMUNICATION OVER LONG AND SHORT DISTANCES, ON THE POTENTIAL OF THE VIRTUAL WORLD OF BEING ABLE TO BE AT ANY "PLACE" AT WILL ... ONCE THE APPROPRIATE NETWORKS HAVE BEEN INSTALLED, ALLOWING TELEVIRTUALITY, THE NATURE OF HUMAN COMMUNICATION WILL CHANGE JUST AS RADICALLY AS THE EXPERIENCE OF SPACE AND TIME, DUE TO THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE MILLIONS OF SYMBOLS INVOLVED. PERHAPS WE WILL LONG TO RETURN TO THE ERA OF TELEVISION, WHICH ENABLED US TO FLEE INTO STULTIFYING PASSIVITY WITHOUT HAVING TO FEAR THE TOTALLY INTERACTIVE INVOLVEMENT REQUIRED BY THE NEW TELEVIRTUAL MEDIA. HOWEVER, WE MIGHT ALSO OVERCOME THE TRADITIONAL OBSTACLES OF COMMUNICATION, WHETHER OF A SOCIAL OR A TECHNICAL NATURE, AND CREATE NEW COMMUNITIES GRANTING MAN NEW POSSIBILITIES ON A LOCAL AS WELL AS GLOBAL SCALE." (Robert Jacobson, Associate Director of the Human Interface Technology Center, Washington Technology Center, Seattle

Being able to be at any place at any time, being able to do anything we imagine, even if it is only virtual and not "real": this is the dream of "all-round availability" which has urged on the development of technology since time immemorial. One world no longer suffices, we want many worlds, between which we can zap to and fro as with the remote control of the television set, by means of which we could basically even produce our own film as a heterogeneous mixture of sequences, released from all referential fetters, including those of time, space or scene. This corresponds with a mobility which is no longer "on the way", but which raves and becomes vectorless in that it converts any recorded phenomenon into digital code, and can therefore mix such phenomena arbitrarily with all others, whether recorded or self-produced. As the digital code is a universal code, the representation of the recorded or created phenomena also becomes arbitrary, because the acoustic can be converted into the visual, and vice versa. Programs can be controlled by our eyes, without the need to use our hands to make the usual entries on the keyboard, or to move the mouse. With our breath we can generate visual changes on the screen, which no longer bear witness to any analogy. With our movements, recorded by a video camera, we can paint pictures in virtual space or play nonexistent instruments. The real and the virtual enter into hybrid mergers.

"ONE OF THE SHARPEST FORMS OF FINALITY IS THE ENCLOSED AREA. THIS BECOMES EVIDENT TO ANYONE VISITING A BURIAL CHAMBER." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

More than anything however, we, the consumers, want virtual worlds which we cannot only look at or listen to and switch on and off from the outside, but also step into, and such worlds will have to be just as complex as, but more compact and intense than, the ones we want to catapult ourselves out of. For this reason, these worlds must not only be a "montage of attractions", compressing and accelerating time, but also be able to react to us. However, to realize this, we, the former observers, must become the observed. Even if we have the impression that in the use of interactive and intelligent technologies, we are testing them by trying to find out how they react to us, it is still we who are being tested: the machines observe the answers we give. The price we pay for the freedom of travelling weightlessly in virtual spaces, which are no longer subject to the laws of physics, is the totalitarian control over the environment, over each of our movements and perhaps over every thought as well, should we be successful in connecting the neural CRT (cathode-ray tube) to the computer.

The communicating tubes of the electric, electronic and information technologies shroud us in a cave, in a closed space, which is, at the same time, completely open. As with the fractional worlds of images generated by means of simple recursive formulas, we can move around endlessly within this space, even if we do not experience anything radically new, but only perceive permutations. The monitor is a window looking out on a world which is, in principle, endless, one which still has to be discovered and invented. Its only restriction is the calculating time required, which allows the real to creep back again into the virtual world.

Moreover, in order to be interesting, to fascinate us, the digital worlds and their inhabitants must also be intelligent, autopoietic and mysterious; not boring like conventional machines, which can only reel off their fixed and therefore easily predictable programs, even if, due to acceleration, they produce precisely the kind of intensity by loss of reality once enthused about by futurists, when they spoke of the "incredible pleasure of acceleration, reaching even beyond the infinity of dreams." It is the exceeding of the inner, virtual, worlds of dream and fantasy which fascinates techno-aestheticians, the overcoming of the distance to the real and the perceptible which these allow. The virtual worlds of the wishing machines must fulfil the imagination and, at the same time, leave it behind. This is the reason why the accelerated trips made possible by film, video games and video clips, and in a way also by simulation cabins, fascinate us as they leave us no time to reflect, but captivate our glance and our reactions: it is as tense as in situations involving real danger, which explains the frequent representation of situations of danger and horror. In this light, Jonathan Waldern of W-lndustries (producers of virtual-reality systems) struck the right note when he pointed out that their potential will, at most, be restricted by the simpleness of the imagination.

The aim embodied by all wishing machines, of reaching beyond the virtual worlds of inner dreams or fantasies by means of technical devices, is objectified by the possibility of leaving the real to immerse in a new and different world. This constructed world must be transparent, woven out of a process of calculation. But this mathematical world should not be a mechanistic universe, as the thinkers of the modern age imagined, a universe moving towards perfection according to iron and rigid rules in an uneventful cycle or in permanent progress. Despite all the transparency, it should let the unexpected occur and, as in chaotic processes, continually be open to metamorphoses and catastrophes. We want to enter a world which is safe and, at the same time, offers an element of surprise, an inexhaustible horizon of possibilities, from which events can emerge which are not enforceable, yet evocable.

"FREE AVAILABILITY OF SPACE AND TIME WILL THEREFORE LEAD TO A NEW FORM OF URBANIZATION. THE OLD TERM TOWN PLANNING" IS ALIGNED WITH THE ORGANIZATION OF FIXED HOUSING AND SETTLEMENTS. IT DOES NOT MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF A FLUCTUATING WAY OF LIVING. SOMEONE WHO IS NOT TIED DOWN BY TEMPORAL DEADLINES OR PLACES OF RESIDENCE WILL SCARCELY SEE THE POINT OF A PERMANENT DWELLING PLACE. HE WILL PREFER AN UNRESTRAINED, NOMADIC LIFE. HE WILL THEREFORE CREATE FOR HIMSELF AN ENVIRONMENT WHICH, WITH ITS ARTIFICIALLY GENERATED AMBIENCE CONSTRUCTIONS, ALLOWS HIM PRECISELY THIS WAY OF LIFE." (Constant: New Babylon).

Constant's New Babylon was the attempt of the Sixties to imagine a totally mobile, and therefore solitary life, in a virtual or rhizomatous event-architecture, which has now come one step closer through cyberspace. The media environment, in which we move with ever better connections, is a first realization, if only a partial one, because so far it only exists on the screen. With the ramified, network-connected, information technologies, the architecture of built space, that is, space laid still, will have to change drastically. With the advance of televirtuality, public matters will happen more and more in intimate places. Perhaps the outside will be drastically relieved of passengers, or be abandoned entirely to indifference. Since the striking disappearance of the great city utopias, there has been a continual architectural search for temporary arrangements with only a fleeting existence and instant changeability. Along these lines, the media and information technologies are bringing about a process-related communication network which, due to its virtual and non-material nature, is widely indifferent to spatial form. Basically independent of location and the form of the enclosed area, the image and information channels replace the physical traversing of space and allow an urban way of life without real urbanity. The space of locations is replaced by a space of flow-line processes.

"A REALLY MODERN PERSON WHO WISHES TO BUILD HIMSELF, FOR EXAMPLE, A HOUSE, WILL FEEL AS IF HE WERE TRYING TO BURY HIMSELF ALIVE IN A MAUSOLEUM." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Domotik allows images on the wall to be replaced by screen walls, with continually changing images and the capacity to project the inside to the outside or the outside to the inside – even architecture becomes mobile, it becomes the design of the interface, a vehicle of images which no longer needs to travel and yet can be everywhere at the same time. This mobile life could entrench itself again in permanent dwellings, yet constantly be in virtual movement. But will anything still happen in the course of this?

In the virtual world of simulation, there is no irreversibility and everything concentrates into a symbolic economy, which insulates itself from the real, even if interactivity is possible by means of a structural coupling. It is never more than timeless and utopian images, sounds, signs or numbers circulating among themselves. Whereas, during the era of the real and representation, people tried to reach the realm of signs, of illusion and the imaginary, in order to escape the experience of reality, the reverse is pursued in digital spaces: what we are now searching for is the gap in the web of the communicative tubes, through which the real can enter as an event, no matter how terrible or trite this may be. This reversal could be observed even as early as the days of Romanticism, when not only the trite and the commonplace, but also the evil and the irrational, were provided with an aura as a protest against Hegelian system logics. Its origin can also be traced back to the epistemological systems of the modern age, which not only produced technologies, but also created prisons everywhere. Access to the real, to the "Thing as such", was barred. Recognition is granted only to phenomena, images surrounded by the unknown, which shirks any direct involvement. In this way, man is locking himself, no matter how effectively, in inner rooms, in projections without any windows, with simulacra – still images themselves – appearing or disappearing on the walls. Modern epistemologies suggest to us the image that we are all pilots on a blind flight or in the simulator cabin, merely orientating ourselves by means of data on the mental CRT. But blind flights give rise to the wish to break through the giddiness and deception of simulation and to give way to the only possibility in which the real still shimmers: failure. No wonder that pain, a sign of resistance and human materiality, and shock, a sign of the victory over the data-processing "consciousness" by the sublime, and war, the spectacle of intensity and destruction, also became the aesthetic attractions of a confirmation of existence, which had to destroy semblance. Wherever reality, or rather the experience of reality as an event, as a coincidence and as the essentially non-made, is in short supply, it must be supplied with an aura to enhance its quality now marked by uniqueness, non-reproducibility and fatefulness. 

The occurrence of events in time corresponds with the materiality of things in space. It is no longer the image bearer or the bearer of the symbolic, but it has become, in its non-reproducible quality, the aesthetic object of a phenomenological sign and presentation, which has, indeed, governed the arts as a gesture, ever since the beginning of photography. This trend is emphasized by, for example, Lyotard, as the "aesthetics of the unpredictable, material presence", by way of countermove to the immaterialization and simulation of the digital technologies. With the audio-visual media, the sense of touch is becoming privileged, although there have been efforts to incorporate it into VR technology. It is not the eyes and ears, not the forms, sounds and words, but the collision of the bodies, and finally the accident, which will become the primary indication of reality experience in the age of simulation. Nothing is more typical of the media than the paradoxical attempt to attest the real as an event by constructing it in full detail, by generating it. This fascination with the event seems to be the imaginary aspect of the media, that is: constant production of images, so as to break through the image prison and allow the real to flare up. The media not only fulfil the wish "to flee from "being" into seeing" (Schopenhauer), they also turn the perceivable world into a web of fluctuating data, into a musical glide which is no longer material, into a "Dionysian frenzy in which the limbs are not drunk" (Hegel). In all simulation, the craving for reality prevails. Reality, then, is just another word for event and intensity resisting the principle of representation. The induction of the electronic dream, and therefore, of virtual worlds, owes its attraction to the fact that we are jolted into the real, seeing it with completely different eyes, like entering into the daylight from the dark of the cinema. Would it not mean the realization of a secretly harbored dream and trauma, to destroy the hardware simply by manipulation of the software? Something similar can be observed in the craving for realistic representation, which often seems to mark our dealings with computer technology. This is not so much a matter of once more simulating the real – we only do that in order to recognize the way in which reality is perceived – but one of learning how to build a complex world which has reality content. After all, we want to be drawn into another world, one which, albeit intensified by acceleration and change, abandons to oblivion all that has happened before. Good practice for this are the "mind machines", which, in the same way as rock music or video clips, evoke a state of trance by means of overstimulation, or by exposing perception to a formless noise.

"THE OBSERVER DOES NOT SEE ANY IMAGES OR HEAR ANY TONES, AS IS USUAL IN FILMS AND VIDEO PRODUCTIONS. TRUE TO NATURE, THE DATA FLOW OF THESE MEDIA IS DIRECTED FROM OUTSIDE TO INSIDE. THE ACTIVITY OF CONSCIOUSNESS IS REDUCED TO THE PROCESSING OF THESE DATA. "THE INNER CINEMA", ON THE OTHER HAND, PROVIDES ONLY MINIMAL OPTOACOUSTIC BASIC INFORMATION. THE PSYCHO-ACTIVE PULSE CONVEYS NEITHER CONTENT NOR AESTHETICS, IT SHOULD EXCLUSIVELY AROUSE THE OBSERVER'S OWN, SUBJECTIVE IMAGINATION." (Zelko Wiener/Konrad Becker)

The media have changed not only the understanding of the real, but also, and above all, the expectation of it. We no longer want to flee from the real by means of fiction, on the contrary, we now want fiction to evoke reality. Simulation as a trap for the event. However, if for example deconstructivist theoreticians are trying to prove that the expected event never takes place, or the original event never happened, and that we always move within sign sequences, then these aesthetics of futility, of emptiness and resentment should be regarded not only as a reaction to the pressure of expectation of the telematic society, but also as an affirmation of all self-organizing systems which shut themselves off from the outside and only process the self-produced. The environment of such systems is beyond their knowledge, it is merely the supplier of disturbances which stimulate the "Autopoiesis" and hence may have to be evoked as disturbances, to keep the machine running.

The biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela use the term "Autopoiesis" to characterize complex and closed living systems, which, by means of reversible processes, produce themselves and preserve themselves. In short, systems whose elements mutually interact. Living beings are linked to their environment in a structural way only; they do not adjust to their environment. Influences from the environment only serve to disturb the Autopoiesis, thus provoking more complex internal dynamics, through which the urge of these living systems to survive within their environment is increased. In other fields of science, the concept of Autopoiesis is also applied to other complex systems, such as societies and knowledge transfer systems.

Vilem Flusser, for example, sees the approaching "telematic society" determined as a whole by the search for the creation or experience of improbable events, marked by fateful unpredictability as in an accidental disaster. In an adroit redefinition of the cybernetic concept of information, Flusser forces the principle of simulation, and so, presumably, the calculation of the future, into a paradox: "He who predicts, does not see what he is heading for ... AII future prediction is future destroying. The computer screen is our witness. Developments, tendencies, curves, can be projected out from the present, and we can play with these projections. And the factor of error can be defined precisely as we wish. Yet, such projections show us the results of the calculation, and not what really matters. There is no future. The predicting computer has devoured the future ... Genuine disasters are new information. They are, by definition, surprising adventures ... The telematic society is a structure to evoke disasters."

The announcement of radical changes caused by technologies, or even simply by the prospect of such, has pervaded the futuristic awareness of man since the initial utopias of the dawning modern age, whether apocalyptically or optimistically tinted. The disappearance of distance and duration, due to the new communication technologies which enable us to send words and images across the globe in real time, and so allow for telepresence, is accompanied by a certain neutralization of the forces of gravity: not only can matter and bodies stay where they are, but space traffic also cancels out all boundaries between cultures. Physical borders could only be preserved because the organization of space transport of people, information, objects and matter, is time-consuming and could therefore be stalled temporarily.

The demise of the Wall between East and West, that tangible relic of a border, and at the same time symbol of a conservatism only secured by bunker mentality, is the sign of a general fluctuation as prescribed by the ramified media networks. We are now approaching a global society, prepared long ago by the capitalist system at the level of goods and capital flow. With astonishment we notice how badly communication is functioning; how we hang on to passivity, in spite of the general encouragement of creativity; how resistance is stirring everywhere, against larger units and even more against the global village; how the need to develop ever smaller identity systems is growing. The latter could eventually lead to the breaking up of single people – after all, the realization of the "individual" (Stirner) – into competing systems which can no longer communicate with each other: a psychotization which goes hand in hand with the pluralization and relativization of reality, with the insight that worlds are constructed and that, for this reason, there are many worlds which can exist alongside, or merge with, one another. However, the function of the media is perhaps not so much that of creating new worlds, detached from space, time and physical locality, but rather that of producing an unstable, chaotic world of worlds which constantly penetrate one another, merge into one another, dissolve, appear and disappear without any possibility of orientation. Perhaps the joint media are bent on triggering off a frenzy in which man no longer knows whether he is coming or going: from the deception of illusion to the illusion of giddiness.

It is possible that in cyberspace, technically still mostly virtual itself, there is now a state-of-the-art in computer technology which also creates a problem horizon for consciousness in general. If it is fundamentally possible to enter a completely artificial world, wander through it, interact with other people or even with artificial intelligent beings within this world, then this virtual reality, in which everything is basically manipulable, triggers off the wish to experience this at some time. This is a wish not only inherent in technology, but also in our expectations of art, which has always constructed "wishing machines". In fact, cyberspace demonstrates best of all that computer technology tends to make the dividing line with the media disappear. This implies effort to put the digitally created worlds in the place of the ordinary world as we experience it, to replace this or at least to incorporate the digital world into it – perfectly analogous with the aesthetisizing of the real as it is practiced, for instance, in installations or "environments" in art. Such works turn the real into art, while art is freed of its limitations. Since the beginnings of kinetic art, but above all due to the impulse from the idea of the "happening", arisen in the Sixties, the involvement of what once was the spectator in the work of art – now characterized by openness – has moved into the center, of electronic art in particular. The dominant factor in this was the intention which was also the basis of the concept of the "total work of art" and which determined psychedelic art in the Sixties, that is, the idea of creating an "environment" which triggers off interaction between work and spectator, so that together, these will constitute a whole. The "best" total work of art in this sense corresponds to Plato's Cave theory – regarded as the beginning of occidental philosophy – as a technically constructed total illusion: as critics observed at the time, entry into an artificial world is only possible by temporary or permanent suspension of reality, so that we loose our standards of comparison and can immerse ourselves entirely in the artificial world.

Cyberspace is an intersection between media: the expression of a media association orientated towards a virtual total reality and a total work of art – a total data work – in which there are no longer any spectators, but only participants or parties involved. The – so far – usual aesthetic distance to the image (screen) world is thereby cancelled out, and this has many different consequences.

The novelty of cyberspace is, on the one hand, that by necessity, it still shields the environment, which allows us in fact to enter the digitally produced three-dimensional space with the entire body. Whereas we used to be led as spectators through the spaces and scenes by the moving camera, we can now move within them on our own, just as in the real world. At the same time, we are integrated into the scene as observable actors, insofar as others, who are also wearing the data suit, are telepresent in the same virtual reality in a body mask basically chosen at will, whether they are "real" or participating as actors in a more or less fixed event from the ego-perspective. The anchoring of man in his body, in a bodily world without arbitrary time-space situations, is therefore removed, although cyber-space connects the senses and the human body to the computer in an almost psychotic manner, and so crossbreeds the real with the simulated. As in a cockpit protected from the outside world, one in which only data from the outside are admitted, we fly through the world without having to move from the spot, and without knowing whether we are actually flying or not. In the "final vehicle," says Paul Virilio, "the vehicle of the image merges with the image of the flying vehicle."

On the other hand, by now we have learned how difficult, if not impossible, it is to bring about total simulation of the world of natural perception – the famous paradox of computer sciences. The most far advanced so far is the audiovisual dimension. There have already been experiments with tactile experience to make it possible that, for example, the weight or resistance of the virtual objects can be experienced via the data glove or the datasuit, which would naturally strengthen the impression of reality. This requires mechanical application of some kind of pressure on the hand or other parts of the body. However, it is easy to imagine that the quality of the material touched, the infinite variety of materials, by far exceeds the mechanical reproduction possibilities of simulation. There is not even the recording equipment for the universe of smells and taste, and the thought of a "data tongue" or a "data nose" is not only far-fetched, but, most likely, also technically impossible.

Even if we take the simple example of a simulated drive by car, comparable to a flight in a simulator cabin, the dramaturgic problems arise: we would have to be capable of "virtually" steering a car along a road, which logically also implies the possibility of branching off or driving somewhere else. This could be accomplished, although with great difficulty, as long as we remain inside the car. But what happens if we want to get out of the car? To maintain the perfect illusion, would there not have to be a body-work to get out of, in real space? It is precisely this connection of cyberspace technology, that between virtual space and physical gestures, which hampers perfect simulation. No wonder that, after the first experiences gained with it, technologists are already dreaming of canceling out the interface between machine and body, so as to solve the connected problems of representation. It is probably not only the considerable limitations in the simulation of a complex reality, but also the unpleasant conditions of cyberspace technology, which will be a motive for future development of even more intensely direct intersections between computer and man. There is thought of possibly connecting the computer directly with the central nervous system, to create the possibility of conducting impulses directly from the human brain into the computer, or stimulating the brain directly, without the interface between the peripheral input and output systems of the computer and those of the human body. Of course, this still belongs to the distant future, if it will ever be possible at all. But even as a transitional technology, cyberspace has raised the concept of virtual realities into general awareness, the consequences of which will keep us busy for a long time to come.

"JUST AS IT CAN BE ASSUMED THAT GLASSES OR CONTACTLENSES WILL ONE DAY BECOME INTEGRATED PROSTHESES IN A SPECIES WHOSE EYESIGHT HAS DISAPPEARED, IT IS TO BE FEARED THAT ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND ITS TECHNIQUES COULD ALSO BECOME THE PROSTHESES OF A SPECIES WHOSE THINKING WILL HAVE DISAPPEARED." (Jean Baudrillard

Perhaps we should spell backwards, so to speak, the question of the influence of the electronic media on society and art, that is, starting from the reactions they evoke, which lead to an apparent return of threatened dimensions of experience. This reversal would seem useful, as each diagnosis of change is based on processes of disappearance, often relying on facts whose meaning is only perceived when an obvious novelty appears. Therefore, disappearance should not be placed in a context of destruction, but in one of discovery or even invention of, say, naturalness or humanity. Great shifts of consciousness come to mind, such as, for example, the high regard for body and senses as anchors in reality and as newly reclaimed primary orientation of life, a perception which did not arise until the 19th Century. Only when the body becomes more than a matter-of-fact existence, only when it is consciously ours to use in its presence and real structures, does it become a phenomenon at issue and one of libidinous inhabitation, which has to be maintained, protected and cultivated because of its potential. Something similar can be recognized on a trip into virtual realities which to some extent generate the uniqueness of the unavailable real as an echo, to reveal it, for the first time, in its full complexity. Of course, such contemplations are not meant to define actual causalities, but rather to suggest sources of enigmatic influence, which did not start with the electronic media, but with the first locomotion and image production techniques; even if, at a certain time, they were, or still are, only imaginary. The question is whether we will grow accustomed to the immaterial, virtual worlds, to our cooperation with machines, to the mutual penetration of the real and the virtual (with which we live, saved by science, even without media), or, as justified as ever, cannot live without yearning for a world of facts and resistant materials which we eventually wish to control, so as not to succumb to the feeling that we are always bumping into our own software walls?

 

© Florian Rötzer / V2_, 1992

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