Michael Heim (Virtual Realism) – Realismo Virtual

Virtual Realism is an art form, a sensibility, and a way of living with new technology. Since the advent of personal computers, our offices and homes have increasingly dimmed to display glowing, colorful screens.

The bright, open space of modern art museums now plays occasional host to electronic exhibits housed in closed dark rooms. The networked nation increasingly incorporates the language and lifestyle of virtual reality into daily life. While computer technology introduces its distinctive style, the Information Society copes with rapid changes in economics, education, and politics.

These social and technological changes stir debate about the future. On one side are network idealists who promote virtual communities and global information flow. On the other side are naive realists who blame electronic culture for criminal violence and unemployment. Between them runs the narrow path of virtual realism. In Virtual Realism, I explain the technology of virtual reality, examine several new art forms, and suggest ways of adapting the technology to create a more balanced life.

My aim is to point out the crossroads in current transformations and to find some guidance for walking the path I call virtual realism. For guidance I look to recent art works, cultural traditions, and my own experience working with computer inventors, art students in electronic design, and students of philosophy and Tai Chi Chuan.

My previous books deal with the merger of computers and human life. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (1987) was the first treatment of the merger of computers with reading and writing. Electric Language describes the three shifts in the psyche when software guides reading and writing. It analyzes writing that has become automated (no longer in-scribed or printed in resistant materials); as well as productivity-based writing (as opposed to contemplatively focused on linear wholes); and writing linked through hypertext networks (as opposed to the private space of traditional books).

The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (1993) measures the reality shift that occurs when human perception merges with computerized simulations to create virtual worlds. The virtual worlds of cyberspace hold both a bright and a dark side. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality was the first book that explored both sides of that increasingly complex reality. Since the publication of Metaphysics, the dark side of VR (Virtual Reality) has become more apparent to the public as the initial euphoric advent of VR wears off. While much of the population still has ears only for professors at engineering institutions who speak of becoming digital and of rendering cities into bits, a growing number of people are beginning to look at the complex tradeoffs. Some, whom I call naive realists, are willing to fight technology with a Luddite passion.

Both of my earlier books proceed from a premise of balance. By balance I do not mean a static equilibrium but a dynamic balancing process. I take history to be a dynamic balancing act, as I explain in Chapter 3 of Electric Language. The mass media, in their current configuration, do not encourage balance. Balance becomes a slogan or gets drowned in an overload of images and sounds. The individual is left to seek a refuge beyond the media. Books may still serve the individual who wishes to take a step back. Today, however, even the book industry leans toward commercial excess.

Electric Language approaches computers from the philosophy of language; The Metaphysics of VR from the ontological experience; now Virtual Realism examines the new aesthetics.

Virtual Realism steps back to meditate on the merger of computers with the human spirit. What does it mean to merge with technology?

How do artists today design worlds where humans interact with computers? Can art preserve human integrity in the merger? How can this marriage maintain a healthy partnership to keep both sides of the equation in balance? Such questions occupy these meditations.

When I write of merging with technology, I do not want to cover the merger with overstatements like “humans have become cyborgs,” or “we all walk around with technical prostheses.” Overstatements have a value and a place, but so does analysis. I would like to turn a bright light on the connection between art and interactivity, cyberspace and nature, information and ecology, virtual environments and planetary health. But if analysis casts a light on these questions so narrowly that the big issues fall from view, then we must remember not forget the issues just to follow our own light.