Monday, August 29, 2011

Virtual realities

Yes, why not go for the plural - we are so accustomed to thinking of VR as a singular thing which it most clearly is not. Heim, who I referred to here, has a list of seven kinds of virtual reality, or seven realities if you would rather. Some of them seem to overlap, but I'll try to be faithful to the source (Heim, 1993: 109 ff). Here we go: 1. Simulation. I think he means high definition graphic environments; audio/graphic realism; precision rendering; and all the other ingredients for producing lifelike dataworlds. 2. Interaction. Here he seems to want to include everything from desktop environments with their folders, files and wastebins to virtual classrooms. (Does he mean places you can navigate within as if they were actual spaces?) 3. Artificiality. Here he really goes off on one, exploring the philosophical position that reality, as-we-know-it, is a human construct and that as a result more or less everything could be seen as being virtual. This threatens the entire VR edifice, so Heim abandons it as being too broad to be of use. 4. Immersion. This is mostly about a total sensory experience - the sort of thing associated with HMDs. At this point, Heim isn't concerned with the psychological dimension of 'being there'. The sort of immersion that Schroeder has written about. 5. Telepresence. Here he's talking about robotic presence. Controlling materials at a distance. 6. Full-body immersion. No, this isn't about body suits or flotation tanks, it's about 'becoming' a represented body/thing in a virtual environment. For this I read Second Life avatar. 7. Networked communities. Here, users 'stipulate and shape objects and activities' and 'share imaginary things and events' (116). Dubbed 'post-symbolic communication' this may move beyond words and real world references. All told a rather complicated list, but there are some ideas that are definitely worth developing here. Watch this space!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mobile divisions

Now that the Guardian is available on Kindle it seems as if some sort of order has been restored. I don't have to read the Independent any more, and I can save time on pointless debates with friends. We will have the same opinions, unless, of course, the Guardian suggests that there is some sort of discussion to be had. But seriously, a Kindle newspaper is a curious thing. It has all the advantages of portability. Thanks to 3G I avoided all the faff of finding an English language paper when I was on holiday in Spain. It was just delivered digitally, on time, at no extra expense. But there's the catch, you pay for the convenience - something you don't do with the Guardian online. What's more what you read on the Kindle is a slightly reduced print version. Reduced in the sense that it's rather like reading a 1950s edition with its low image, black and white visual content. All the online advantages - the add-ons, video footage, hyperlinks, comments and so on are absent. In some senses Kindle reading can have a rather retro feel to it. Of course you can still go to the Guardian online on the Kindle, but because of screen size and navigation that's a clumsy and frustrating experience. But so what? Well doesn't this all suggest that the mobile internet, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is, despite its considerable promise and potential, a huge disappointment. Mobility costs, it's carefully packaged by the new media industry and end-users are endlessy locked in and locked out of different services. Maybe this is the beginning of the end of the free internet. OK it's never really been free, but in comparative terms it is essentially unbounded. It may be too early to say, but with all the convenience and capital that mobile devices give us, might they also divide us in much stronger ways than digital technologies have done to date?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Virtual reading

Michael Heim's 'The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality' makes for a curious read in that it was published in what seems like another era - 1993! He mixes a sort of cautiousness about technology with occasional bursts of enthusiasm. For all this I liked the description of what he calls cyberspace, which seems to me more like virtuality: 'We inhabit cberspace when we feel ourselves moving through the interface into a relatively independent world with its own dimensions and rules. The more we habituate ourselves to the interface, the more we live in cyberspace.' (1993:79). But what if that interface is print text? Heim has a view on this, too. '...the magic of the story comes from our ability to cross over from the words of the narration to an inner vision of the sequence of virtual events (which occurs to us when we walk through the wall of words on the page). (1993:133). So somehow our belief, or immersion, in a represented world defines this kind of virtuality. Carroll's looking glass, C.S. Lewis's wardrobe and Philip Pullman's subtle knife all act as metaphors for this in the sense that they are gateways to an imaginal world - a sort of parallell universe of the prosumer's fantasy sketched out for us by the author/designer. In this sense all that changes with technology is our ability to mediate or represent that parallell universe.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Government may try to disrupt social media

The idea that the government or the police should have the power to disrupt social media in the event of further civil unrest seems to me to be more like the action of a totalitarian state than a liberal democracy. I'd be particularly worried that a power such as this might be evoked to control legitimate protest or even the everyday communication of innocent citizens in times of unrest. Ironically, the advice to us at the university ran like this: 'For up to date information about the situation in Sheffield please monitor the South Yorkshire Police social media channels, which are regularly updated. Follow them on Twitter @syptweet or on Facebook For national Government guidance about the situation please visit'.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What did you get in London?

Whatever our opinion about the motivation of rioters, it needs to be acknowledged that mass unrest is a kind of spectacle and a political statement - even though it might not be a product of an articulated political doctrine. But as spectacle a riot is now densely mediated. It makes compulsive TV viewing, particularly when you are familiar with the location. Watching one sequence I was aware of watching 'from' the Sky News helicopter as 3 citizen 'journalists' photographed 1 rioter in a hand-to-hand scuffle with a policeman in Lewisham. Hidden from my view more images were probably collected from the nearby police helicopter and from behind their lines. After the event, if it is anything like the student unrest earlier this year, it will become a battle of images. But technology was to the fore in at least two other ways. Firstly, as has been widely reported, social networking sites and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) were used both to distract police attention and to co-ordinate activity and looting. Rheingold may have been ahead of his time with Smart Mobs, but this is mobile mahem writ large on the streets of London - so much so, that the police, roundly outflanked by youth are reportedly looking at (hacking?) BBM chatlogs. Secondly, the main targets appeared to be mobile phone shops and Curry's Digital. Gadgets have become objects of desire, significant cultural capital and a potent symbol for all. We do not need to speculate prematurely about whether this is a restless underclass seizing what has been denied to them, or a lawless mob stealing what can easily be sold (maybe both are true at the same time) in order to see the significance of the main retail targets.

Sunday, August 07, 2011


Way back when I was doing my Masters, Bill Harpin upbraided me for taking the scenic route in my studies. He wanted me to read his book on writing; I was reading Derrida. I'm not sure it made any difference, but old habits die hard. Now somehow, a week or so ago, I ended up getting Brian Massumi's 'Parables for the Virtual'. Maybe I liked the title, or perhaps it was the cover. Anyway I got 2 copies. I thoroughly enjoyed the first copy and read it cover to cover. Just as this reading was coming to an end I realised that I'd hardly understood a word of it, and so I decided to go to the second copy and it is, indeed, exactly the same. Word for word, the same. But I'm going to it as a second reader, to try to find the point at which I got lost, and maybe to watch myself getting lost all over again. This much because I like Massumi's starting point. It goes a bit like this. He critiques cultural/social theory for its inadequate account of the 'body in movement'. He says: 'Earlier phenomenological investigations into the sensing body were largely left behind because they were difficult to reconcile with the new understandings of the structuring capacities of culture and their inseparability both from the exercise of power and the glimmers of counterpower incumbent in mediate living. It was all about the subject without subjectivisim: a subject "constructed" by external mechanisms. "The Subject".' (2) That creates a sort of stalemate because for example: 'Aren't the possibilities for the entire gamut of cultural emplacements, including the subversive ones, precoded into the ideological master structure?' (3). Instead Massumi focuses on the sensing body, seeing structuration as a back-formation - 'positionality is an emergent quality of movement' (8). As you can see, I'm doing OK so far, but that's just the introduction. When will I see myself getting lost? That's the mystery. No. The real mystery though is why Amazon sent me two copies. Maybe they knew I'd struggle with the first reading, who knows. They made me read it twice.