Feb 3
Zach and Bola C. King:
    Theory Group 3: Virtual Worlds

    What is "virtual"? It is often placed as an opposite to "real," but is this accurate? If so, is it useful? How do we relate the virtual to other things that are not "real," such as fiction, dreams, or outright lies?

    Let me begin with a quote and a question. The quote:
    What is “real”? How do you define “real”? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then “real” is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. This is the world that you know. . . . You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo. – Morpheus, The Matrix

    The Matrix

    Feb 3
      This is Descartes' point as well: nothing that we experience via the senses can be taken as evidence that there is actually a world out there. It is always possible that we are being deceived by an "evil demon" feeding us sense data. Or, in contemporary philosophical parlance, that we are merely "brains in a vat." While Descartes is primarily concerned with establishing a base by which we can reconstruct a justification for our belief in the external world (the bad news: it turns out we need to believe in a benevolent God), this epistemological quandary can certainly be reformulated as you have below. In the absence of Descartes' God, we could certainly claim ontological equivalence. Of course, his "method of doubt" can also be equally applied to the virtual. It may turn out that they are equal in the unjustifiability of our certainty in their existence...
    The question: If we accept this point of view, then is there no (ontological) difference between the virtual and the real? Or, more accurately, even though there are differences (there's no olfactory component to a virtual world, for example), are they equally real?

    Feb 7
      Couldn't there be an olfactory component to a virtual world? Would it be nonsense to speak of a virtual world consisting only of an olfactory component? Why, in constructing virtual worlds, do we grant primacy to the visual? Why does it make sense to speak of visual virtual worlds only? Perhaps we think of the visual field as inherently simulatable. Indeed, as you note, it is hard to point out what makes one visual world "real" and another "virtual."

      If someone feeds me something that isn't a carrot but tastes like a carrot, is this a virtual carrot?
    Feb 4
    Bola C. King:
      Actually, there could be; there were experiments with "smell-o-vision" for TV and for computers in the '90s, I believe. An olfactory component is probably inevitable. I'm not sure about a world consisting only of an olfactory component, but since I can imagine an interface designed that way, then why not?

      As to the primacy of the visual, think about the fixation with data visualization. I think it's easier for us to abstract, differentiate, collate, etc. data visually. Or at least we're trained that way. But virtual worlds even at this moment have at least visual, aural, haptic/tactile, and possibly kinetic components (there are interfaces that translate your body movements beyond the mouse & keyboard).

      Feb 7
        Yes, I think the primacy we attribute to the visual is linked to our fixation with data visualization. In some sense I wonder if we have a hard time thinking about data in any other sensory form. I think that in our hypothetical world consisting of only the olfactory that we would feel like we had no access to data. I wonder how much of our "worlding" is based upon the apperception of data? Extensible, measureable space, quantifiable distance and time. (Really the old Kantian categories.) In our olfactory virtual world, there is no space, right? Other senses are needed.

        On the other hand, I'm thinking of Facebook, a robust virtual world. It seems to consist almost entirely of data, and we interact with it almost entirely visually (though there is an auditory component at times). How does a blind person experience Facebook?
      And lastly, we definitely need to define terms. Why is a "virtual" carrot something that "isn't a carrot"? That statement implies that a virtual world isn't a world - an idea against which I will vehemently argue. In addition, that gets to the question about lies: if I feed you something that tastes like a carrot, is it asparagus in disguise? or is it a cardboard carrot? or is it a genetically engineered, fortified carrot? I sense that the metaphor will only take us so far, but I hope you get my point.
    Feb 7
      Indeed. I certainly wouldn't argue that the virtual is not real (though anyone who wishes to is welcome). But some definitions could prove useful. Will you take a stab at "Virtual" and "World"?
    Feb 11
    Bola C. King:
      "Virtual" is usually just a synonym for "computer-mediated" these days; sometimes, it is simply supposed to mean "digital." The term is a little nebulous, and it is used without any theoretical foundation. Like some others, therefore, I consider it a useless term.

      "World" is a bit harder to deal with...

      "A world of any ontological status contains a set of entities (objects, persons) organized and interrelated in specific ways (through situations, events and space-time). A world as a system of entities and relations, is an autonomous domain in the sense that it can be distinguished from other domains identified with other sets of entities and relations. . . . Worlds, whether fictional, possible, or actual, are hence distinguishable from one another." -- Ruth Ronen, Possible Worlds in Literary Theory, p. 8.
      "Ostensively, there are countless discernible worlds: those of opera, baseball, surfing, stamp collecting, country music, homosexuality, politics, medicine, law, mathematics, science, Catholicism. . . . Some worlds are small, others huge; some are international, others are local. Some are inseparable from given spaces; others are linked with sites but are much less spatially identifiable. Some are highly public and publicized; others are barely visible. Some are so emergent as to be barely graspable; others are well established, even well organized. Some have relatively tight boundaries; others possess permeable boundaries. Some are very hierarchical; some are less so or scarcely at all. Some are clearly class-linked; some (like baseball) run across class. But note that the activities and communications within these worlds focus differentially around mat-[page break] ters intellectual, occupational, political, religious, artistic, sexual, recreational, scientific; that is, social worlds are characteristic of any substantive area." -- Anselm Strauss, "A Social World Perspective," pp. 121-22.

      Ronen's definition comes from logic and philosophy; Strauss's is about what he calls "social worlds," or areas of study. People who use the term "virtual world" seem to *think* they're using it in Ronen's sense, but I think Strauss's sense is the more realistic. I currently prefer the term "online digital environment." This allows us to skip (and, eventually I hope, to obviate) the false terminology of the "virtual" as something separate from the real as well as the false terminology of the "world" as something separate from the real world.

      So, answer to your question: no, because I prefer to think of "virtual" and "world" as bad words.

    Do the communities that arise within virtual worlds constitute their own "cultures"? Why or why not?

    What, if any, is the relationship between virtual worlds and the posthuman? Between virtual worlds and questions of materiality?

    How might we begin to approach a theory of virtual worlds? Would we want to? How would such a theory interact with other theoretical perspectives?


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