Virtual Worlds (Part 1)

I’ve been interested in virtual worlds since I first heard of them. Actually that’s a lie. I’ve always been suspicious of virtual worlds. I love mixed reality – virtual representations of real world things, or real world representations of virtual things – it has almost unbounded potential for usefulness, and virtual reality technology is great for games and storytelling, but how is pure virtual reality actually useful?

Dave Taylor has an interesting blog entry on his take on Second Life, and virtual worlds in general. I think he makes some good points, first about the user experience, which at least in Second Life needs a lot of work, and then later about the need or lack of it for realism in virtual worlds.

“My take: Second Life is an evolutionary step”

I agree that Second Life is an evolutionary step, but it’s a step backwards. Part of the beauty of the internet (I’m including web and various other services, such as IM etc.) is that when I’m online, I am disembodied, a pure spirit, floating in a sea of concepts. My ‘I’ is diffuse, and in a sense, I am simultaneously everywhere (or at most, a single step away from everywhere). My location in concept space is really only defined by my attention, which itself can be diffuse – on a server in Australia, learning about the behaviours of Finnish animals in one tab, while simultaneously listening to radio from the US, and keeping an eye on pictures posted by my friends on holiday in Russia. All this time, I am as easily accessible to those who know me as if I were standing right next to them, no matter where I or they are in “real” space. In concept space, I am right next to them.

This is a good thing. It is the kind of evolutionary step people are talking about when they write science fiction with “ascended” races. When we’re on the internet, we mimic as best we can many of the attributes that throughout the ages humanity has given to its gods. Omnipresence, omniscience, ability to be communicated with from anywhere. Pure spirit, existing in concept space. That is the next evolutionary step, and to anyone who has seriously used the internet, virtual worlds with their characteristic localising, their embodying, their tendency to demand your whole attention are an evolutionary step backwards, a seriously limiting experience. That is their nature and it is not something that can be fixed through technology.

This reason alone is enough to convince me that they are not the next leap forward.

However, I am a believer in the power of limitations. Great art is made by people who discover ways of making limits seem irrelevant, but it can’t be done without a deep knowledge of those limits. If we truly had no limits, then art would be boring. Limits and structure suggest and encourage different ways of interacting, and the kinds of limits imposed by virtual worlds can (when used in parallel with concept space rather than instead of it) help fix some of the problems that we humans have had in the ascent to concept space.

Serendipity

When you’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time, as you are in concept space, it’s awfully hard to bump into someone by chance. Without limitations, you see what you want to see, and talk to who you want to talk to, but actually that’s a pretty impoverished condition compared to the many interesting chance interactions that can occur to you when you’re limited to a particular body and location. Though we grasp at omniscience, until we actually have it, chance encounters are an important part of life and learning.

Teleprototyping

Sometimes, even in concept space, the concept or place that we’re reading about or talking about is a three dimensional, real world object, with solidity and function. No matter how abstracted we have become, it’s much quicker and more intuitive to give someone a parallel to the object in a world with similar constraints to the “real” world the object exists in. You can explore and learn by playing. If a picture of an object is worth a thousand words, how many more words is a functional, virtual prototype of the object worth?

Art

Art is always looking for new mediums to express itself in, and with a virtual world, it has an old one (reality) with a new twist. What could be better for giving people a new way of looking at the (real) things around them?

Communication

As humans, our communication relies much more on non verbal channels than any of the disembodied spirits floating in concept space like to admit. As we spend more time in concept space, we will come up with more and more ways of expressing our different modalities of communication in that space, but perhaps it’s easier just to pull across wholesale many of the ways we communicate in the “real” world. Particularly as our interaction with computers is so serial at the moment – keys, mouse clicks, mouse movements. Simulating what is essentially parallel communication is a big challenge until we get more and better peripherals, so borrowing from the real world is a good idea.

These are things that by their nature Virtual Worlds are good at – in some ways an improvement on the internet of concepts. In Part 2, I’ll talk about a mixed reality of concept space and virtual space. The ways websites are starting to locate (in a philosophical, not big brother sense) their users, and some ideas for how virtual worlds can support diffuse attention and concept-type interaction.

Communication Through Art

In happy hours, nature appears to us one with art; art perfected, — the work of genius. And the individual, in whom simple tastes and susceptibility to all the great human influences overpower the accidents of a local and special culture, is the best critic of art. Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not. The best of beauty is a finer charm than skill in surfaces, in outlines, or rules of art can ever teach, namely, a radiation from the work of art of human character, — a wonderful expression through stone, or canvas, or musical sound, of the deepest and simplest attributes of our nature, and therefore most intelligible at last to those souls which have these attributes. In the sculptures of the Greeks, in the masonry of the Romans, and in the pictures of the Tuscan and Venetian masters, the highest charm is the universal language they speak. A confession of moral nature, of purity, love, and hope, breathes from them all. That which we carry to them, the same we bring back more fairly illustrated in the memory. The traveller who visits the Vatican, and passes from chamber to chamber through galleries of statues, vases, sarcophagi, and candelabra, through all forms of beauty, cut in the richest materials, is in danger of forgetting the simplicity of the principles out of which they all sprung, and that they had their origin from thoughts and laws in his own breast. He studies the technical rules on these wonderful remains, but forgets that these works were not always thus constellated; that they are the contributions of many ages and many countries; that each came out of the solitary workshop of one artist, who toiled perhaps in ignorance of the existence of other sculpture, created his work without other model, save life, household life, and the sweet and smart of personal relations, of beating hearts, and meeting eyes, of poverty, and necessity, and hope, and fear. These were his inspirations, and these are the effects he carries home to your heart and mind. In proportion to his force, the artist will find in his work an outlet for his proper character. He must not be in any manner pinched or hindered by his material, but through his necessity of imparting himself the adamant will be wax in his hands, and will allow an adequate communication of himself, in his full stature and proportion. He need not cumber himself with a conventional nature and culture, nor ask what is the mode in Rome or in Paris, but that house, and weather, and manner of living which poverty and the fate of birth have made at once so odious and so dear, in the gray, unpainted wood cabin, on the corner of a New Hampshire farm, or in the log-hut of the backwoods, or in the narrow lodging where he has endured the constraints and seeming of a city poverty, will serve as well as any other condition as the symbol of a thought which pours itself indifferently through all.

— Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Essay XII

Artists On Art

After I had finished with the politicians I turned to the poets, dramatic, lyric, and all the rest, in the belief that here I should expose myself as a comparative ignorammus. I used to pick up what I thought were some of their most perfect works and question them closely about the meaning of what they had written, in the hope of incidentally enlarging my own knowledge. Well, gentlemen, I hesitate to tell you the truth, but it must be told. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that any of the bystanders could have explained those poems better than their actual authors. So I soon made up my mind about the poets too: I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean. It seemed clear to me that the poets were in very much the same case; and I also observed that the very fact that they were poets made them think that they had a perfect understanding of all other subjects, of which they were totally ignorant.

— Socrates, quoted by Plato in The Apology of Socrates (translated by Hugh Tredinnick)