John Armitage (Virilio Dictionary) – Realidade virtual

Virtual reality is not merely a new technology but represents a fundamental change in collective perception. Indeed, an all-inclusive, global cybernetic matrix is perhaps the final quest of the rational mode of consciousness. The imagery of a global cybernetic matrix was the subject of William Gibson’s (1995 [1984]) science fiction novel Neuromancer and The Matrix film trilogy (Tofts 2007). Michael Heim (1998: 7) defines virtual reality technology as consisting of three interrelated components: immersion, interactivity and information intensity. Immersion is the experience the user has of being situated in a qualitatively different space, which is achieved by devices that isolate the human senses. Interactivity is the feeling that responses made by the users are effected in real time, providing the capability for ‘tele-action’. Information intensity refers to the degree to which the virtual reality experience provides a sense of telepresence and vividness.

Digital technologies provide the capability to make Descartes’s abstract world a virtual reality. Virtual reality technologies make use of computer graphics – digital images founded on abstract mathematical spaces. Computer graphics programmers strive to create state-of-the-art photorealistic images, but their art, unlike the Renaissance artists, has evolved into pure mathematical and algorithmic technique. Rather than striving to accurately represent the actual world on canvas, graphics programmers are busy with modelling or simulating reality; the source of their art is not the actual world, but the mathematically constructed image. Their aesthetic motivation is not realism, nor representation, but simulation or hyperrealism.

Virilio predicted how virtual reality substitutes information for direct knowledge and embodied experience. This virtual or, rather, substitution of information for reality will require a duplication, a ‘split-perspective reality’, or an ability to function in what Virilio (1997 [1995]: 41) calls ‘stereo-reality’. The challenge of having to function and operate in two worlds at once is the source of emerging perceptual disorders in society. Virtual reality theorists have noted this trend, referring to it as the Alternate World Syndrome (Heim 1993, 1998). The split-world perceptual disorder seems to erode what Sigmund Freud (2003) referred to as the ‘reality principle’. Noting this trend, Virilio (1995 [1993]: 142) warns:

Once this happens, disinformation will no longer be concerned with solely with dressing up the facts. It will also latch on to the reality principle to try to subtly introduce a new type of a universe: a virtual universe, the ultimate form of an undermining of reality of cosmic proportions in which Newton’s universal attraction will be replaced once and for all by the cybernetic domination of thought.

For example, someone seeking to experience unspoiled nature may, in the future, enter a virtual reality room and ‘visit’ Yellowstone National Park and its various wilderness areas. Why bother actually going to Yellowstone when nature can be ‘appreciated’ in a virtual reality simulator? Many people carry on ‘intimate relationships’ now within Second Life.

Children are being introduced to the virtual reality aesthetic at a very early age. It is not unusual to see pre-school children sitting behind computers, or playing with iPads or iPhones, as part of their daily routine. Instead of exposing children to the sensory richness, messiness and ambiguities of the physical world – the raw, organic nutrients necessary for fertilising the imagination – they are spoon-fed a pre-packaged assortment of information junk food: Internet images, streaming video and other multimedia dazzle. Virtual reality learning requires high impact images in order to compensate for the absence of the real world, but this force-fed stimulation, with all its brilliance and stunning displays, leaves little room for childlike wonder to flourish.

Virilio (1995 [1993]: 147) characterises this as a valuing of the ‘digital image over the image of the naked eye’, coupled with an accelerated production of more high intensity audiovisual images, which ultimately alters the rapport between the real and the virtual. Virtual reality astonishes the user both through sensory overload and by presenting an array of images that can be explored interactively. However, like recreational drug addiction, as the threshold of excitation shifts after prolonged drug use, higher dosages are required to secure the desired effect or ‘high’. Not surprisingly, numerous clinics have emerged over the world to treat those addicted to video games (Wikipedia 2011).

As this new cultural aesthetic becomes normalised over time, we may even question why we should bother caring about the ‘real’ when it becomes harder to diff erentiate the realm of physis, bios and ecos from the realm of techne. We may, in fact, cross a threshold where a sort of collective amnesia sets in, as traces of our history and origins are imperceptibly erased from our long-term cultural memory.

With anticipated advances in virtual reality technologies that allow for remote action (tele-action), this trend toward behavioural inertia in technological society will increase. Is it any wonder that childhood obesity is at an all-time high? Tele-action reduces the need for movement and mobility.

The dystopian vision of virtual reality put forth by Virilio is one of a radically disembodied, solipsistic and easily manipulated instruction follower. He (OS, 21) uses such images as the ‘human terminal’, the ‘citizen-terminal’ and the ‘terminal citizen’ – all in servitude to a growing inertia and automatisation. He aptly builds upon Marshall McLuhan’s (2001 [1964]) insight that every technological advance can be seen as a simultaneous gain and loss, but also as a metaphorical amputation. Every technology, for Virilio (OS, 40), has a hidden face. So, for example, with the driving of an automobile, the driver no longer uses her or his legs for locomotion. Since virtual reality has the capacity to dominate the human sensory fi eld, it essentially amputates our need to perceive reality. Virilio (AM, 145–6) views the emergence of virtual reality as pointing ‘to a future revelation of some “psychogeography” that will be based entirely on cybernetic energy’. This movement is totalising, amounting to ‘a new imperialism of instrumental thought’ (AM, 152).