Geir Svansson

Being There (Virtually): Thoughts on digital life/experience (in) @worlds

00 [C]ette fois il me semble que nous tenions la solution finale, l’équivalent définitif : la Réalité Virtuelle sous toutes ses formes ...
                                                                                                               Jean Baudrillard[1]

01 It is by now a near tautology that reality has gained a dimension: Virtual Reality. Real time digital simulations in three-dimensional graphics. Interactivity is the order of the day: experiences in a digital space. Live-experiences. In cyberspace, a non-spatial, infinite dimension, where there are no distances. Sensations, sentience: Telepresence in a cyberspace of digital systems. — Virtual Reality represents a new ontology. A new view/way of life. A new take on reality. A new appearance of being. An appearance that shatters received values and culturally constructed „facts“? In Virtual Reality it appears that one can switch genders/identities. To gain freedom (salvation)?

02 Virtual Reality is hardly a reality. Yet. More of a possibility. The Promised Land: Cyberspace. The access of human consciousness/awareness to an information-space complete with visual cues. Efficient interfacing of brain and computer. Perfect interaction. But there is still a long way to go: “Sensation” in VR is currently induced through devices such as binocular TV headsets and Datagloves, fitted with multiple sensors. The quest to upgrade VR-interfaces of this kind is underway but the dream of direct man-machine connection is still just that, a (tele)dream. A direct and perfect access to the Matrix is still the stuff of Sci-fi; it is the thesis of the film The Matrix and before that of Neuromancer, William Gibson’s neu-romantic cyberpunk-fable.

03 The concept of cyberspace was first mentioned (and defined) in Neuromancer. The anti-hero Case is a cyberspace-cowboy; a rustler/hacker. He jacks in to the matrix with brain-implants enabling him to navigate the virtual reality of cyberspace. He makes his living penetrating corporate systems to steal data. While jacked in he is as good as unconscious of his body, the „meat“, and he can surf and navigate through a virtual reality that is a „consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation [...] A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...“ (67).

04 The promised goal: The fusion of human consciousness and machine consciousness; of human brain function and that of the Artificial Intelligence; the ultimate merger of the soul and the silicon chip. The transference of consciousness, from the body to cyberspace (and to another person’s senses/sensuality if s/he is connected and accessible): In this transference of consciousness lies the ideal virtuality. To be consciously and in every sense “in” cyberspace. Telepresent to another (cyber)being.

05 @world, like any other virtual world to date, only hints at the unlimited freedom implicit in the utopia of virtual realities to come. This parallel-world is still only a limited one: anarchic only with a small @; a place of virtual being where the user is hardly “at” home; where he is guided or tricked, in a peremptory way, down open wells. While the user/art-lover has some choices, he hardly has any freedom. In “reality” the whole of @heimur is a/the LIBERAL STATE OF THE ART” as in Ómar Stefánsson’s project, where the Avatar is arrested, dragged before a Shadowy being and forced to confess. The name of the state is in every sense a misnomer: A liberal State (of art); The liberal state
(status) of art; and even, State of the art liberality: The „liberality“ is ironic; a parody, a travesty. Is @world then a commentary on the „gospel” of virtual reality (and “liberalism”, in a wide sense)?

06 All freedom is virtual freedom.

07 What will become of “man” in this play of virtuality/virtuosity? What of the metaphysical concepts—of “the soul”; “life”; “morality”; “will”; “memory”—that have up until to now defined man, as distinct from the machine? Will the theories of cybernetics wipe them out and introduce new terms in their place? A new Weltanschaaung: a new philosophy; a new morality? What will be the identity of the one who surfs in virtual reality? What will be his sex and gender? What about sexuality? Needs and desires?

08 Does teledildonics constitute a realistic, satisfying mode of communication/communion? Is the jouissance comparable? Surely, it must feel impersonal and alienated? Or is there perhaps no difference at all in corporeal sex and “machine-ated” sex in telepresence? Is it perhaps never possible to „come together“? Ecstacy a pale simulation, a virtual experience, in spite of bodily merger (through corporeal, human-tissue interfaces)? After all, desire is never fulfilled, in the perfect sense of the word, except in death. Sexual „climax“ is, as Lacan put it, a petit mort; it is an ephemeral announcement of lack; an exhausted messenger of want, the reason for desire.

09 Satisfaction is like a shadow-image on the cave-wall: The white liquid squirts out of the walls and runs down the valley in the Love Corporation’s LOVE-SCENE in @world. Seminal landscape in the valley where the mountains move and mate; the flowers and (cloned) sheep fuck; the moon and the sun make out with each other. But the Avatar is untouched and walks through the valley without getting his feet wet. (In ecstasy one is of course always “beside/outside oneself” (and others), in jouissance; cf. ekstasis/existanai to derange, in Greek; ek-stase; “to stand outside”; from ex- out + histanai to cause to stand ...)

10 All presence is telepresence.

11 State of the art virtual reality seems to offer the possibility of new genders, each time one jacks in. In Neuromancer (echoes of necromancer) it is possible to take on the guise of another, his gender and sex. Literally. Case has (tele)intimate relations with Molly; he jacks into her, via an interface on the computer and browses through her cyberspace, in her virtual consciousness: they are connected, one-in-two: “’How you doing, Case?’ He heard the words and felt her form them. She slid a hand into her jacket, a fingertip circling a nipple under warm silk. The sensation made him catch his breath. She laughed. But the link was one-way. He had no way to reply.” What is Case’s gender in Molly?

12 How can one tell what sex, gender, sexuality of the individual/identity one is having tele-intimate relations with, e.g. in teledildonics? Who or what is the Avatar in “reality”: a man, a woman, a homosexual, a lesbian, straight, or queer? Or perhaps a construct of an AI? Does it matter (really or virtually)? How is sex wherein the participants can’t be sure of the “real” gender of the other participant(s) different from “normal” sex?

13 (Are all relations teleintimate?)

14 Virtual reality, the matrix is to become our new consciousness. A new con-science. A new subconscience (a sort of an IO id) where everything goes. Repressed desires and libidos unchecked. No prejudices? Teledildonics must be unbearable for the homophobe. (And an irresistible temptation ...)

15 In the two novels that followed Neuromancer; Count Zero and The Mona Liza Overdrive, the three comprising a trilogy, it turns out that it is possible to “live” without the body, being totally in virtuality, as a sort of a universal (net)consciousness in cyberspace. —Mysticism is the only answer Gibson comes up with as a counter-measure against the horrific dystopia of the virtual future he depicts.

16 Gibson’s ideas are adopted in The Matrix where reality is certainly not as it seems. The protagonist, the good citizen Thomas Anderson alias the hacker Neo in his spare time, is told by Morpheus, early in the film, that his world not quite there: "It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

17 The truth in The Matrix is that “reality” is the matrix—a cyberspace and a simulation—in a fantastic software program designed by man’s superiors, artificially intelligent computers and machines, to indulge an outmoded life form. The Matrix refurbishes an old idea and perhaps the old human fear of the inorganic; a fear of the take-over by the robot. For man in The Matrix is redundant on Earth and would be expendable were it not for his utility as a power generator that the machines need as other sources are either depleted or destroyed. For this purpose the machines have gone on to clone the humans and grow them by the billions in pseudo-wombs (or pseudo-matrixes) where they are sustained for the duration of their life spans. To maximize the power yield and to strengthen the durability of the “batteries” the humans need to be humored and titillated by giving them “free rein” in a specially designed VR based on ordinary city-life at the end of the 20th Century.

18 Much to the machines' chagrin “free man” persists: a society of “ex-matrixed” (in both senses of the word) men and women have escaped and built their city, Zion, near the center of the Earth (in Gaja’s womb!). These Zionists are a mean group of hardened “realists” who turn their backs on virtual reality and are committed to guerilla warfare against the totalitarian state of the (state-of-the-art) machines. Their leader is Morpheus and is Neo neither more nor less than the Messiah of the realists: The one who can lead the revolution against the machines for a New World (a New Age?).

19 All is not lost in The Matrix. Indeed, even though a bit detrimental to the film’s cool image, the resistance to the dictatorship of the machines is based on a religious/superstitious hope and a sort of a gospel. To wit, the film is permeated with Christian and mythical references. Neo is called, albeit ironically, a Christ in the film and the resistance-woman Trinity, Neo’s girl, carries a name that refers to the holy trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Zion is of course a holy name for Jerusalem.

20 As in the Neuromancer-trilogy, the answer is mysticism. Ideologically the message of the film borders on syncretic New-Ageism that promotes the facetious worship of youth and the superstitious belief in eternal life (in youth). The Matrix is designed for a generation of computer-game-kids that always have “one extra left” or can at least start a new game when “Game Over” flashes on the screen. (This is the reason for which Neo, not unlike Gibson’s anti-heroes, must have his resurrection and gain everlasting life in the cyberspace called The Matrix: at least in The Matrix 2 and perhaps The Matrix 3.)

21 [But is all as appears?: In Greek mythology Morpheus is the son of Somnus, the god of sleep. His name, Morpheus, carries the meaning of transformation (cf. morphology) and he can take any form and likeness. Who is he in reality? Is he perhaps the one playing around with Neo (and the viewers) leading them astray? A virtual "machinator" (from Hollywood, the “evil empire”) bringing in his wake apathy and indifference? Or is his role to wake us up to the overhanging threat of the machine take-over?]

22 Writers of science fiction are not the only ones to have considered virtual reality, its possibilities and implications. The Sci-fi writers have long had an edge over the scientists in putting forth daring ideas about future developments. Fiction certainly relieves the writer of, at least, some of the responsibility and precision that scientist are supposed to adhere to. But recent writings by a good many scientist and non-fiction science writers, on the development of computer science, robots, and Artificial Intelligence, is hardly less spectacular than run-of-the mill sci-fi; science, it appears, is catching up with science fiction.

23 In his book In the Mind of the Machine, wherein he discusses recent and future development of Artificial intelligences, Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading in England, is certain that before long artificial intelligence will outperform the human brain. This is only a matter of time, in Warwick’s view, even though much is still unknown about how the brain actually functions. And he obviously has little faith in the ethical rules of robotics that Isaac Asimov designed, in his sci-fi stories, to make sure that his robots wouldn’t get the crazy idea to hurt human beings. He believes that the machines will, as time goes by, not be content to let a much less intelligent entity, such as man, control them. He proposes, much like the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix, that the machines will subjugate man and  grow humans, genetically engineered and cloned, of course, and keep them as sort of  household animals for specific tasks. Man will be geneticallyprogrammed to be more docile and easier to control.

24 [But why on earth should machines want to take over? They will possibly and probably gain some sort of awareness or sentience, even though not quite in the human sense, especially if man and machine merge in the cyborg, and they will be able to learn and think. More difficult is to imagine why they would want; from what source would they get the will and the desire to rule the world? According to Freud, drives and desires are needed motivate the human animal. The sexual drive, the life force, the will to power, as Nietzsche said. What drives the machine? Do mechanical goals suffice? Maybe they do ... Perhaps there is a (nasty) ghost in the machine!]

25 Warwick is not the only scientist to think it unavoidable that Artificial Intelligences will, sooner rather than later, out-perform human intelligence, in all respects: More and more of them are considering the ever more probable merging of machine and man. Conjectures on the possible “machinal” subjection of man seems to be put forth in all seriousness. The horrific dystopian world  portrayed in The Matrix is therefore, maybe, not totally out of this world. The scientist Ray Kurzweil seems certain in The Age of Spiritual Machines that drastic changes will take place already in the first decades of the 21st Century; that the difference between man and machine will become negligible, that artificial intelligence will take on human dimensions, that the soul and the silicon chip will, at last, unite. The direct interfacing of man and machine is therefore just around the corner. Before two decades are up, Kurzweil, believes, it will be possible to download information directly on to the human brain.

26 Warwick and Kurzweil have different emphases but both of them announce the disappearance of man: in one instance by merging with the machine, in the other, by being annihilated or subjected by the machine. The World of Man becomes the World of the Machine: The Age of the Cyborg or The AI-machine; aware entities capable of dreaming of all types of sheep, whether electronic or cloned.[2] And its collective con-scious will be Cyberscpace; The Matrix become sentient. (Are the Borg coming true: a “civilization” of One-Mind: One-Thought?)

27 The Wachowski’s borrow the idea of the deserted condition of reality from Jean Baudrillard and his contention that reality has disappeared, replaced by simulations, more real than “reality” it self, henceforth become “hyper-real”. The only remains of reality are bits and pieces, lying around in “the desert of the real”.[3]

29 Baudrillard’s statements  about the hyper-real condition of the real are neither to be taken as an idealistic pose against reality nor as a blinkered sci-fantastical view of the world; more fruitful is to view his somewhat radical descriptions as a trope to “describe” the multi-mediated reality we live in; e.g., the bizarre alienation that we sense (or don’t sense), for example, when we “witness” catastrophies (possibly our own) in the live broadcast, in real time, in total indifference. In a certain sense, we do not experience (encounter) death (nor life) any more except symbolically, and hardly at that. Even the sign has become impotent. The virtuality of the “real” discloses itself.

30 All action is virtual (not just interaction in cyberspace).

31 Baudrillard is suspicious of virtual reality, as he is of most things. All human  systems, says Baudrillard, whether based on magic, metaphysics, religion or politics, have been aimed at hiding the radical uncertainty/indeterminacy of the world by trying to find the equivalence of all things and thereby to establish their meaning and sense. Up until now all systems have failed before the uncertainty that harbours the “impossible exchange”; the fact that no absolute “equivalence” exists, and that it is impossible to escape or blot out the uncertainty (the absurd). But now, he says (cf. the quote at the start of the present text), “it appears to me that we  have happened upon the final solution, the definitive equivalence: Virtual Reality in all its forms—the digital, information, universal computation, cloning.” (24)

32 At first glance, VR is so technically and virtually a perfect simulation that it can easily replace “reality” and therefore dispel any uncertainty. This manufactured simulation of the world is ultimately “truer” and more “real” than the “original”, says Baudrillard. It is “[t]he ultimate equivalence, a total screen, the final solution. The ultimate comfort in the niche of the net wherein it is so easy to disappear. The Net thinks me. The Virtual thinks me. My double wanders about the circuits of the information nets, where I will never met him. Because this parallel universe is without rapport with itself.” (25).

33 But: there is more than meets the eye: Virtual being is no longer real in reality, says Baudrillard. It has lost all reference and is destined never to recapture the real world. Having absorbed the world it produces the world as indecidable. Is this universe (all @worlds)  therefore not fated to disappear, asks Baudrillard: One more system doomed to failure; a system built on “a fantasy unable to ward off the incertitude and the chaos that results from the impossible exchange.” (25).

34 The World is always already shown but never quite there for the taking.

Baudrillard, Jean. L’Échance impossible, Paris: Galilée 1999.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacres et Simulation, Paris: Galilée 1981.
Dick, Philip K. Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), New York: Ballantine Books 1990.
Gibson, William. The Neuromancer, London: Grafton Books 1984.
Gibson, William. Count Zero, London: Grafton Books 1986.
 Gibson, William. The Mona Liza Overdrive, New York: Bantam 1989.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines, London: Penguin Books Ltd. 1999.
Wachowski, Larry & Andy. The Matrix, Warner 1999.
Warwick, Kevin. In the Mind of the Machine, London: Arrow 1998.

[1] Cf. L’Échance impossible Paris: Galilée 1999, p. 24.
[2] Cf. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
[3] Cf. “La précession des simulacres” in Simulacres et Simulations, p. 9.