Ronald E. Purser, San Francisco State University


This paper explores the impact of virtualization on society, tracing possible developments in Virtual Reality technology. I differentiate between two modes of virtualization, which are mirrored in the design and conception of different trajectories of VR technology, what I refer to as "VR1" and "VR2." I discuss how VR1 leads to further cultural fragmentation, whereas VR2 could evoke a renaissance in culture.


Cyberspace, the Internet, Virtual Reality (VR), and computer-mediated communications are manifestations of what Einstein predicted as the "information bomb." These new technologies are embedded in, and byproducts of, a much larger social, cultural, and scientific milieu. Historically, the emergence of new technologies is correlative to profound changes in the epistemic order of society, images of the self, as well as radical alterations in the collective field of perception. For example, Lowe (1982) demonstrates how communication media acts to frame and filter the way we perceive the world. Basing much of his theory on the work of Walter Ong, Lowe traces shifts in culture that correspond to changes in media: from orality to chirography in the Middle Ages; from chirography to typography in the Renaissance; from typography to photography in bourgeois society; and from photography to cinema and television in the modern world.

We now stand at the brink of another profound cultural shift, moving from mass communication to interactive digital media—what Levy (1998) refers to as a process of virtualization. Levy (1998) defines virtualization as a dynamic that leads to a "…change in identity, a displacement of the center of ontological gravity of the object being considered" (p.26). In this sense, virtualization is not strictly a technological change, nor merely an epistemic reordering of cultural perception; rather, it amounts to a fundamental ontological shift in our very grounding in what we call reality (Heim, 1993; Velmans, 1998).

This paper explores some very fundamental questions having to do with the social impact of VR technology. The answers to these questions will determine whether VR will be developed as an enabling technology for the evolution of consciousness, or whether it will simply function as a hyper-modernist extension of consumer society. If the latter trajectory prevails, VR will simply throw us deeper into nihilism and cultural fragmentation.



Postmodern culture has been characterized as a "crisis of representation," in which differences between the sign and referent have been obliterated. What is left is simply a play of signs or surfaces—"a precession of simulacra," to use Baudrillard’s phrase-- where nothing can be taken too seriously. Virtual Reality (VR) technology has been equated to being an emblematic symbol of postmodern culture. VR technology transports the user into a totally self-contained world that requires no grounding or reference in reality. Since the source of simulation no longer needs to be derived from the actual world, we are confronted with an ontological problem. That which appears in virtual worlds has a "simulated presence." With an increase in simulated presence comes a diminution of situated presence. Before I explain this axiom, we need to understand that the ontological confusion resulting from VR technology is not a new phenomenon; it has its roots with the emergence of photography.

Let us consider the nature of photographs. Photographs are not exactly replicas, nor do they simply present us with the "likeness" of things (Cavell, 1979, p.17). In many respects, "we do not know," as Cavell suggests, "what a photograph is." In contrast to audible recordings, we are quite accustomed to hearing things that are not actually present. When we listen to a CD and hear a piano playing in the background, it is not at all troubling for us to say, "that is the sound of a piano." Even when we are in the presence of a real piano, when we say we hear the piano playing, we do not literally refer to the piano, but to the sound of the piano. Whereas with the auditory sense we are quite accustomed to hearing sounds that are invisible, not so when it comes to the visual sense. When we look at some thing, we expect it to be visible and present in front of us. Yet, when we look at a photograph, we literally see things that are not actually present. As Cavell (1979) points out, "…I don’t worry about hearing a horn when the horn is not present, because what I hear is exactly the same (ontologically the same, and if my equipment is good enough, empirically the same)" p.19.

Copying and reproducing sounds does not result in any ontological problem simply because copying (or mimicking) is the way we learn how to reproduce sounds and learn language. The issue here is not that photographs are not good copies of objects, but the relations between photographs, objects and the nature of vision. Whereas a CD recording reproduces in high fidelity the sounds of a piano, we cannot say with equivalence that a photograph reproduces a sight (see Cavell, 1979, p.19). "A sight is an object, not the sight of an object" (Cavell, 1979, p.20). With photography, and here is the overlap with VR, what is seen are manufactured images of the world. When we look at the image of the object in the photograph, we have a tacit sense that our consciousness is a step removed from the actual thing. We also know, at some level, that a mechanism has reproduced the visual image. Photography presents us a picture, an abstraction of, the world that does not require my presence. Since the advent of photography, we have learned to visually accept a simulated presence, but only by simultaneously accepting a loss of our own presence from the world.


Because Virtual Reality (VR) technology is still in its infancy and embryonic stages of development, it is difficult to predict the path VR technology will take. However, it is certain that VR technologies will soon have the capability "de-localizing" all sensory input. Telepresence and teleaction imply that we will be able to "see-at-a-distance," "hear-at-a-distance," "touch-at-a-distance," and even "smell-at-a-distance." VR technology will present us with an additional or "double" reality, to make sense of alongside our "actual/concrete" reality. This duplication of reality will require a "split-perspective," or an ability to function in what Virilio (1997) calls "stereo-reality." The ontological challenge and confusion resulting from having to function and operate in two worlds at once will be the source of a great deal perceptual disorders in society.

Let us also suppose that one probable developmental path that VR technology might take is to reproduce reality in what we may call a "supra-high fidelity" mode, where it will be extremely difficult to differentiate between virtual from actual worlds. Let us call this path, VR1. With VR1, what we normally apprehend as "reality," or the "actual world," will become relativized at the level of ontology. Simulated presence will rival situated presence, and may actually become a substitute for "reality." The technological marvel of VR1 is that it can literally substitute information for reality. The seduction of simulated presence with its promises to provide instant gratification and unencumbered enjoyment, could become the next great technological opiate of the masses.

VR1 accelerates the dynamic of virtualization, but in a direction, which leads to a loss of contact with embodied experience. Habitual immersion in, and addiction to, VR1 worlds--where people lose interest in living in the actual world--could result in a fundamental disorientation and massive social inertia. Teleaction reduces the need for movement and mobility. Commenting on this foreseeable trend, Virilio (1995) states:

…the overequipped able becomes the equivalent of the equipped disabled. There is a menace of infirmity and paralysis. But also a psychological menace, for the future generations of implemented interactivity who could see the world reduced to nothing. Generations may experience a feeling of "great internment," of an Earth too small for the speeds of transport and transmissions, a feeling of "incarceration." (p.101)

Once VR images appear to be "more real" than the actual object or experience—what Giddens calls a "reality inversion," someone seeking to experience unspoiled nature may, in the future, enter a VR1 world and "visit" Yellowstone National Park and its various wilderness areas. Why bother actually going to Yellowstone when nature can be "appreciated" in a Virtual Reality simulator? As this new cultural aesthetic becomes normalized over time, we may even question why we should bother caring about the "real" when it becomes harder to differentiate the realm of physis, bios, and ecos from the realm of techne? Over time, as VR1 proliferates, it eventually could lead to a progressive displacement of imagination in culture.

A major design aspect of VR1 is that it does not provide the user any capability of programming their own software, making them completely dependent and subservient to commercial interests. VR1 technology intentionally positions the user as a passive consumer of images and packaged experiences that are programmed in advance. In fact, VR1 depends on a collective representation of the self as a consumer, inexorably driven toward the consumption of more experience. This mode of consciousness, which is exploited by VR1, is intentionally directed toward generating not just images, but experiences as mass commodities. VR1 technologies are simply a means of procuring the unlimited desires of an isolated consumer self.

The seductive attraction of VR1 as a sophisticated form of sensory escape, essentially privatizes human experience, and virtualizes what remains of our public spaces. VR1 also reproduces an image of the human subject that is colonized by cyborg and artificial intelligence "anti-consciousness" discourse, along with metaphors of the brain as a cybernetic information processing device.

Rather than facilitating the evolution of human consciousness, VR1 results in the virtualization of consciousness. Consciousness is progressively automatized as it contracts into a solipsistic, disembodied subject, and compliant instruction follower. In many respects, what emerges is a mentality that operates and acts very much like the sort of "bi-cameral mind" that Julian Jaynes (1990) describes was prevalent in early civilizations. According to Jaynes’ bi-cameral mind theory, archaic humans did not possess consciousness, conscious minds, or subjectivity, lacking the ability to introspect. Volition, planning and initiative can all occur, according to Jaynes, without consciousness. Instead, archaic humans took their commands from the "gods" mainly through auditory hallucinations, which really was one hemisphere of the brain communicating via the corpus callosum to the other hemisphere. Bi-cameral civilizations in the Near East (circa 5000 B.C.) were notoriously rigid theocracies. Social order was invested in the formation of "idols…carefully tended centers of social control, with auditory hallucinations instead of pheromones." (Jaynes, 1990, p.144).

In the future, VR1 addicted masses may not hear the voices of the Gods telling them what to do, but will follow (mindlessly) the instructions and commands of ubiquitous computers—our new cultural idols. In VR1 worlds, humans will find solace in visual hallucinations-the world of simulacra—while difficult decisions of the "real world" are "delegated" and entrusted to the agency of computers.


Virtualization, in principle, has the potentiality of either erasing or heightening or situated presence in the world. Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of VR technology, laments the fact that the majority of work on VR is moving in the direction of VR1. Being an artist as well as a computer scientist, Lanier’s original intent and hope for VR was for it to become a new form of cultural expression, allowing an individual, or even groups of people, to project their own imagination into a collective space. What we might term "VR2," would empower the average individual to be an artist in virtual reality. The consciousness-raising potential of VR2 could facilitate the emergence of a new cultural aesthetic that would result in the rebirth of the collective imagination. VR2 would foster a collective inquiry into the processes by which we construct and call the world (and self) into being.

Ideally, VR2 would facilitate a mode of conscious virtualization, as we learn to how to become more proprioceptively aware of how thought and imagination construct a world. Whereas VR1 is a con-fusion of fancy with the real, VR2 is a jazz-fusion of participation with imagination. It allows the user to consciously participate, and experience in real-time, what it means to invent and co-construct a reality with others. The architecture and software design assumptions of VR2 are epistemologically aligned with the philosophy of radical constructivism.


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Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. NY: Houghton-Mifflin, 1976.

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Lowe, Donald. The History of Bourgeois Perception. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1982.

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Virilio, Paul. The Art of the Motor (trans. Julie Rose). Minn, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Virilio, Paul. Open Sky (trans. Julie Rose). London: Verso, 1997.