Trevor Batten: Some Personal Remarks regarding "Virtual Reality"

  (Text presented April 9th 1998, in the form of a Video Tape by
  Toine Otto, at the AKI School of Fine Art, Enschede, NL
  as part of an AKI/University-Twente collaboration)

    In "The Spirit of the New Machine" Tracy Kidder describes how an
    ambitious team of designers developed a commercially successful computer
    despite the company's internal politics which initially tried to prevent
    it. In the final chapter the author remarks how clever the reactionary
    forces of commercialism have been in reducing such a revolutionary
    machine as the computer into a safe tool for preserving the status quo.

    To be honest, I am not sure that the reactionary forces will win. The
    computer does not seem to shed its subversive paradoxes too easily.
    The design, production and marketing of Hardware and Software is a
    risky business and there have been many commercial victims of
    miscalculation. Will Microsoft succeed in gaining a monopoly -and if
    they do what effect will this have on society in general? It is even
    too early to know, for example, how the fight for control over the
    internet and the world wide web will eventually be decided. PC or
    Net-computer -chaotic individualism or an ordered hierarchy? Individual
    freedom in a consumer paradise or the hell of enforced wage slavery in
    a monopolistic capitalism? "Brave New World", "1984", or what? The future
    remains, I hope, labile and unpredictable.

    Nevertheless, the computer may be unintentionally subversive -it is
    certainly not openly revolutionary. The reactionary forces have indeed
    largely succeeded in using Pandora's little black box without apparently
    actually having to open it! While virtually every aspect of modern life
    is becoming more and more dependant on the functioning of the computer
    there are very few people who are interested in understanding the nature
    of the thing we are so dependant on. Employer, employee and hobbyist are
    generally more interested in the computer as a tool for gaining money and
    status than as a medium for understanding the world we are creating.

    So returning to Tracy Kidder's original question we again ask how it is
    possible that so a potentially revolutionary apparatus as the computer
    can be packaged and presented as something normal, unimportant and safe?

    There are, I believe, (at least) two main means through which this
    illusion is performed.

    Perhaps the most pernicious -in its pervasiveness, its subtlety and its
    effectiveness is the user-friendly interface! Yes I know it is like
    telling someone that their lovely, cuddly, pet dog is in fact a killer
    infected with rabies. Nevertheless, the Faustian pact between programmers,
    marketing managers and clients to keep users as ignorant as possible is
    probably about as socially responsible as selling heroin on the school
    playground. It is certainly very similar in effect! Otherwise how could
    it be possible that a formal, rule based, machine becomes the basis for
    a society which is becoming less and less able to understand or accept
    the restraints of formal rules. How is it otherwise possible that we
    can believe that all our desires should be instantly satisfied without
    limit and there are no social restraints -provided we separate our
    newspapers from our jampots to prevent the world ending through global
    warming? How otherwise could we believe that we can consume and
    communicate freely and anonymously when surrounded by electronic servants
    that do nothing else but store and process information (increasingly about
    us and our consumer habits). How otherwise could we be so stupid as to
    believe that we could be master instead of servant of a machine of which
    we know nothing but which knows everything about us? Without the
    user-friendly interface we would be forced to think about the machine
    we were so dependant on! Surely clever people using stupid computers
    are to be preferred above stupid people using clever computers -but
    how are people to become clever if they are told there is nothing for
    them to learn and the computer is designed to support their existing
    image of the world.

    The second, and possibly related, means of preserving the reactionary
    illusion is the return to an artificially created photographic realism.

    Unfortunately, our society is still largely bound by the supposed
    division between mathematics and language, the objective description
    and the subjective expression, the sciences and the arts, and so it
    is difficult to trace the interactions between art, science and
    technology within society. The perceived effect of the invention of the
    photographic camera on visual art is well known -unable to compete
    with the mechanically produced images of the interplay of light on
    the exterior surfaces of the visible world, the artist began to search
    for images that were under the surface of apparent reality. Less
    understood are the possible effects of the new, so called, "abstract"
    art on the scientific perceptions of reality. Certainly, photography
    was not slow in following art. Portraits, of both individuals and
    landscapes often tended to imitate the more traditional forms of visual
    art -but the use of telephoto and macro lenses, high speed film and
    eventually, the moving image all tended to (seemingly objectively)
    record things that were earlier impossible to record -and thus help to
    prick through the apparent surface of the world around us. Within a
    fairly short period, around the turn of the previous century, there is an
    explosion of experiment and discovery. The expressionism of van Gogh,
    the abstraction of Kandinsky and the cubism of Picasso and Braque
    -but also the psychological shock of Freudianism, of the fragmentation
    of the atom by Rutherford, the relativity of time and space by Einstein,
    the relativity of language by Wittgenstein and the relativity of logic
    by Goedel. From the 1860's with the mathematical discovery of
    non-Euclidian geometry to the 1960's with the social discovery of
    Flower Power there certainly lies an exhausting century of artistic,
    scientific, cultural and political revolution.

    In the 1970's, the 1980's and the 1990's the growing forces of reaction
    and counter-reaction begin to clash in complex and often chaotic ways.
    In the Netherlands it seems that people waited for 1984 to pass before
    introducing the tools which would enable the scenario in the famous
    book with that title to be realized. The Macintosh computer was by then
    informal enough to be acceptable to the powerful social sector who,
    conform the social divisions in society, were so terrified by formal
    systems that they had not noticed that they had already abandoned
    everything in favour of a kind of social-cybernetics based on the very
    systems they were most afraid of. At the same time, the foundation SCAN
    in Groningen and the "Hogerschool voor de Kunsten" in Utrecht in
    collabouration with the Foundation for Creative Computer Application
    in Rotterdam were importing (largely from the University of Ohio and
    the Polytechnic in Middelsex) the ability to generate photo-realistic
    images and animations. The Media Industry, largely based on a revival of
    Renaissance pictorial space and partly fueled by the Ministry of
    Economics was getting of the ground. In fact, due to the government
    philosophy which became fashionable in this period, which seemed to preach
    that the only function of government is to encourage global competition
    and cut social spending (except on computers and media), the computerized
    Media Industry quickly became almost the only productive industry in

    Either captivated by the sums of money available, or disgusted
    by the triviality of its imagery, most people did not notice how the
    computer industry encapsulated the procedures developed with great
    difficulty by creative scientists and artists (either living or long
    dead) into Hardware and Software which was then sold for use by industry
    and later for individuals at great profit. Nevertheless, people gradually
    came to believe that creativity involved the possession of techniques and
    not the development of skills.

    Possibly the technological, scientific, artistic and social changes now
    taking place are no less profound than those of the previous period but
    they are apparently less visible, and the outcome is probably less
    certain. We live in a time of increasing paradox, but then Renaissance
    pictorial space is also a paradoxical space. On the one hand, it appears
    so natural and "real" while  on the other hand it only truly works for
    people who have one eye and happen to be standing precisely at the
    position chosen by the artist to be his point of view. Similar to the
    way that Aristotelian Logic excludes any possibilities which are not
    possible within a Euclidian space (which has lost its claim to
    exclusivity now for over a hundred years), so does Renaissance space also
    falsely create the illusion of being the only true way to represent space
    because it literally allows no other perspective.

    Not only is Renaissance space limited in perspective -it is also often
    false. The apparently realistic church interiors of Saerendam are actually
    painted from a viewpoint that requires the viewer to be outside. Even
    the famous marriage double-portrait from Jan van Eyck places the viewer
    in a position which is impossible without being reflected in the mirror
    on the wall.

    If the clock is considered to be characteristic of the age of Reason and
    the steam engine as being characteristic of the age of romanticism then
    can it be pure chance that images based on the limited and illusionary
    Renaissance pictorial "realism" generated by a machine based on
    old-fashioned Aristotelian logic is becoming so characteristic of our
    current age.

    Strangely enough, I have no objection to the concept of "Virtual
    Reality". In fact I believe it has always been with us and will always
    remain with us -as long as there are human beings in existence.
    Actually, the truth is even worse, I believe there is only "Virtual
    Reality", that it is the only way we can deal with our environment, with
    each other and with ourselves. Every story, every book, every image,
    every sensory experience and even every scientific theory is in fact a
    form of "Virtual Reality". By inventing images, stories, myths, theories
    and machines we literally create the world around us. It is our own
    invention, not reality, with which we are confronted every day.
    Certainly, things happen which are apparently outside our control
    -or even outside our knowledge: We may be in an accident and die
    without knowing what happened to us or natural illnesses or other
    disasters may harm us without our understanding their causes. This is
    undeniably so, but without some kind of language or physical medium to
    capture and express these experiences they will remain outside our
    understanding and even our perception. Even when we are entranced by a
    field of stunningly beautiful flowers we should be aware that it is the
    specific physiological construction of our eyes that give the flowers
    their appearance and that other creatures with other eyes would perceive
    the field differently (and without suitable sensors would not perceive
    it at all). There is no "Objective Reality" which exists outside
    our perception, nor a Platonic "meaning" which exists outside our

    Just as our specific sense organs determine our sensory perception of
    the world so do our mental and physical constructs determine our
    interpretation of these sensory stimuli. I am sure that anyone involved
    with the epic dance of Indonesian shadow figures is just as convinced
    of the "reality" of the situation as is a participant in a totally
    immersive "Virtual Reality" (possibly even more so because the focus
    on minimal visual information may make other sensory conflicts less

    "Reality" is not virtual -it is relative!
    Obviously, there are specific situations when coloured images are
    essential, but in general, most people seemed to experience black
    and white TV as being "real" until confronted with the "reality" of
    colour television, which literally gives a new dimension to viewing.
    The limitations of black and white television presumably forced the
    program makers to use only images that do not depend on colour in order
    to be understood, so the viewer will only see images that reinforce a
    belief in the unimportance of colour. The appearance of colour
    television then means that both program makers and public must be
    re-educated to understand the importance of colour. The new types of
    program which now become possible (nature, fashion, interior decoration
    and art) demonstrate the importance of colour and reinforce the new
    vision. Presumably, people who were, for some reason, highly sensitive
    to the importance of colour would not find television an acceptable
    medium until it was able to transmit colour.

    However, we should not fall into the trap of believing that because we
    can only perceive and conceive the world in terms of our model of the
    world that our models are "reality" and we can disregard the world outside
    the model. The world is (by definition) not our model. It will always
    behave differently because the world is always modified by our model of
    the world. Our model of the world needs to include the modifications
    it causes and so must reflect itself in its own reflection. So in order
    to be complete the model must invoke itself in an infinite regress. The
    unexpected will therefore always be with us, we will unintentionally
    create it while intentionally or unintentionally creating the rest of
    the world -but it is the creativeness of our models that will determine
    how we experience the unexpected and how we shall deal with it.

    We should perhaps also be careful of making our dreams and our metaphors
    too concrete for then they will cease to be dreams and metaphors and
    they will lose their creative magic. Even the most pragmatic of people
    should then understand that when things loose their creative magic there
    will be nothing new to tempt the palate of the hungry consumer. Without
    the creative magic of the weavers of dreams and metaphors there will be
    nothing to sell and nothing worth buying and without the dreams of the
    consumer there is no reason to buy.

    The computer is based on Aristotelian logic and on Euclidian space and
    yet it enables us (if we wish and if we dare) to explore other kinds of
    logic in other kinds of space. It is the reincarnation of the western
    male phantasy of an intelligence without a body and yet it enables us to
    simulate and to extend the body and to explore the importance of body
    and the interaction with mind. Programming a computer is essentially
    mapping mind into body. It is the culmination of a tradition of logic
    based on a fragmented dualism and yet to program it efficiently means
    to search for pattern and unity. The computer was the plaything of the
    military and its pervasive sensors and information processing
    capabilities may make it invincible although it may be completely
    vulnerable if power and communication channels fail when under serious
    attack, so we are forced to redefine war as the struggle for control over
    information and not over land. The computer is the plaything of the
    businessman and yet it may make human labour redundant and force us
    to totally redefine our economic principles. The computer is the
    plaything of the scientist and its simulatory powers force science
    to be redefined as an experimental exploration rather than an empirical
    observation. So what will happen when the computer becomes the plaything
    of the artist?

    Despite the problems and the paradoxes involved, modern media technology
    bases itself on a pictorial space which came into fashion as a result of
    the fall of the Roman Empire in Constantinople, a space which has been,
    with justification, rejected by artists for more than half a century.
    The computer is clearly a Goedelian machine, full of paradoxes -but we
    live in a Goedelian age. We must learn to reject our beliefs in an
    objective "Reality" which is only sustainable because it appears constant
    and consistent -as parallelled in Renaissance geometry. We should also be
    careful not to lose our understanding of the power of that which remains
    invisible outside our model. It was the invention of the abstract
    calculus which initially destroyed the fragile unity between visual and
    mathematical space developed in the Renaissance -just as it was the rise
    of abstract painting which made the Euclidian space of traditional
    mathematics so unattractive to the artist. It is the power of our ability
    to create and to understand abstract patterns that will determine our

    I am sure that there are military, scientific, cultural and entertainment
    reasons for creating and using simulations of sensory experience that
    are virtually indistinguishable from those that are natural. However we
    should be careful to understand the difference between a simulated
    and a natural environment. We should never let our concept of space be
    limited by outmoded forms of image making. If "Reality" means "the Primal
    Abstract and Undefinable Chaos which escapes our model" then "Virtual
    Reality" implies "Virtual Abstraction" and it may be interesting to
    explore. If "Reality" implies an equivalence with sensory appearances
    then "Virtual Reality" is not interesting -because Non-virtual Reality
    is much richer. We should also be aware of the need to preserve our
    dreams and our metaphors. Surely it is how "Virtual Non-reality"
    becomes "real" that is truly fascinating for both the scientist
    and the artist!

                                                 Trevor Batten
                                             Amsterdam, November 1997