Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Back in the world

There's been a bit of technical glitch which is now fixed, and so I'm back in Barnsborough once again! And that's quite strange - the same old 'place', familiar, even the bits I'd forgotten about. So I snapped myself outside the police station as a memento. I remember what it's like inside, but I didn't return. I know the cells. So is it a place? Well, that's the experience I report. Boellstorff would say that. He would argue that it's an act of homo faber: a created world 'for human sociality' (p. 237) in other words a distinct place. But what sort of relationship does it have to the 'actual' world? Is it an extension, a parallel world, an imaginal space, a mulimodal palimpsest, and does it matter? That's the debate I'm currently exploring in the book chapter. I think it's at this point that I may need help from my co-author!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Naming cyberspace

Marking Penguin's reissue of six of William Gibson's novels, yesterday's Guardian ran a good article on the godfather of cyberpunk. Most of it is drawn from the Paris Review (here), but what is so interesting is Gibson's account of how he coined the term 'cyberspace'. There's no reason to doubt him, is there? I was reminded of the way that Jaron Lanier claimed the term 'virtual reality'. Because these histories are recent, the people are still around to tell the story. Like 'virtual reality', the term 'cyberspace' has entered the vocabulary in a way that makes us think we know what we're talking about when often we don't. It's ten years now since I wrote a paper titled 'Teenagers in Cyberspace' (here), but I'll own up and say that at that time I hadn't read 'Neuromancer'. It was pure imitation, I'd heard the term cyberspace, liked it and used it. And so it goes on. The cyberspace/virtual reality meme really was nailed by Gibson as the Guardian article explains: 'Case, the hero of Neuromancer (1984), applies the dermatrodes of his cyberspace deck to his forehead, powers it up and jacks in to the matrix, his "inner eye" sees a "transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity", on which, or in which, is "a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system".' The idea was a stunning mash-up of drug sub-culture and what new technology was beginning to promise, and it generated a fascinating interplay between this imagined future and what computer labs were trying to develop.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Digital-analog circuits

'The analog is always a fold ahead' (Massumi, 2002:143). He really does have a way with words. And sometimes he gets quite cross. You can almost hear him fuming and saying 'twaddle' under his breath when he writes this: 'A commonplace rhetoric has it that the world has entered a "digital age" whose dramatic "dawning" has made the analog obsolete. This is nonsense. The challenge is to think [...] the co-operation of the digital and the analog, in self-varying continuity.' (2002:143). He may sound cross, but it's still a convincing argument. He develops this by illustrating how the digital always connects to the virtual through the analog. In other words to paraphrase his 3 examples word-processing involves analog operations: the digital is just what happens behind the scenes/screens, in between encoding and decoding; music, unless entirely synthesized, may be 'digital', but the digital is sandwiched between its disappearance into code and its reaappearance as C minor, or whatever; hypertext is open in its analog recepetion. And so as the man says 'the digital always circuits into the analog.' (138). So think on!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You don't say

What you don't say or write about can be as interesting as what you do. I mean this in a particular kind of way, though - not in the sense of self-censorship, or anything like that, but with reference to the ideas that seem to slide away in the act of expression. In writing about virtual reality and virtual worlds, I've been noticing this. A small tribe of ideas scurry away into the darkness each time I approach them. Partly this is because they don't really belong in the daylight of what I'm writing about. But I thought I'd sketch an approach here. Describe the hidden people, why not? The tribe belong to the fellowship of strong social constructionism. To begin with, I started thinking a year or so ago, that the socially constructed space of a virtual world (I think Gibson talked about a 'consensual hallucination') was a pretty good guide to how things actually work when we strip away the taken-for-grantedness of what we call reality. So reality forms from data as we experience or co-construct it. We inhabit a consensus reality which is established through some pretty sophisticated programming. The little that I know about consciousness studies seems to point in this direction. Work in that field suggests that the selectivity imposed upon us by the limited bandwidth of our perceptual faculties makes the world appear in a particular way to us. That takes you to a sort of psychological constructionist point of view. I don't know if that's an official term, but it has the right sort of feel to me. Philosophically, of course, that leads one to ask if there's anything really out there at all. The example of the virtual world can be helpful in addressing this. There is something there (of course), but we create it at the same time that it creates us. What's more its created out of stuff that we wouldn't recognise as a virtual world in the first place. So it gets metaphysical. I imagine the discussion on the holodeck 'There's something out there, but it's not what you think it is.' Thinking about the virtual can, in this respect, be quite powerful. I think. OK, maybe its best not to write it after all, but I'm glad I tried!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Returning to the virtual

I've been (re)turning to the virtual, once again. Yesterday I was interviewed in SL by a docotoral student. That was interesting because I hadn't been there for a while. Also, although I've conducted interviews in virtual worlds before (and have written and talked about this quite a bit) this was actuallythe first time I'd been the interviewee. That's interesting, because in this particular situation all I had was chat - in other words there was no sound and, as it played out, our avatars were stationary. So, apart from the experience of being in that particular part of cyberspace, the communicative interplay was just the writing. And although in some ways I was my avatar, my answers (and of course the questions that provoked them) were those of Guy Merchant. At the same time I continue to explore the virtual in my writing. I'm exploring how online environments have distinguishing characteristics that set them apart from other contexts, but suggesting that they should not be dismissed as not being real. In developing an alternative perspective, I take the view that virtuality bridges the material world and the world of information and data, or as Sakr (2008:8) argues ‘Virtuality is a negotiation between materiality and information.’ This negotiation regularly takes place through interactions between people and technology - perhaps that interview illustrates some of this.

Monday, September 05, 2011

More virtual

I've been looking back at writing on virtual reality and virtual worlds to help me in shaping my editorial contribution to the forthcoming publication 'Virtual Literacies'. First of all I tracked down a copy of an interview with Jaron Lanier (Journal of Communication 42:4), a rather wide-ranging piece from 1992, which will be useful background. It seems widely held that Jaron coined the phrase 'virtual reality', and this seems about right. Morningstar and Farmer's (1991) piece on Lucasfilm's Habitat uses cyberspace and virtual world throughout. The latter is a chapter from 'Cyberspace: First Steps', a collection edited by Benedikt - and this is a fascinating piece. I reckon that it would interest a broad readership because of the fascinating insights it gives into virtual citizenship, governance and of course design. These guys designed a commercially viable system which could support a population of thousands. I think that's a first, but need to check my facts. All of Second Life is prefigured here: 'users can communicate, play games, go onadventures, fall in love, get married, get divorced, start business, foundreligions, wage wars, protest against them, and experiment with self-government.' But if that's not your bag, it's still worth a read because they tell the story of creating and then populating a world so well. In the beginning it was an idea and then people started logging on, and that changed everything!