Cyberspace and Its Limits:
Hypermodern Detours in the Evolution of Consciousness
Ronald E. Purser
Department of Management
College of Business
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94132
Paper to be Delivered to:
XXV Annual Gebser Conference
October 21–24 1999
Organized by the International Jean Gebser Society
For the Study of Culture and Consciousness
Hosted by: Governors State University
Cyberspace and Its Limits:
Hypermodern Detours in the Evolution of Consciousness
The cultural significance of cyberspace, the Internet, virtual reality, and computer-mediated communications goes far beyond the fact that they are innovative technological devices. Indeed, these new information technologies are embedded in, and byproducts of, a much larger social, cultural, and scientific milieu. The evolution of consciousness can be viewed as a history of the shifts in the way human cultures have ordered and represented their worlds. Historically, the emergence of new technologies often provides the base for profound changes in the structure of the self, as well as radical alterations in the collective field of perception. David Lowe, (1982) in his study, The History of Bourgeois Perception, argues that perception is shaped by a collective interplay of factors. Communication media, one of the main factors in Lowe’s theory, 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 chirograpgy in the Middle Ages; from chirography to typography in the Renaissance; from typograpy 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 Paul Levy refers to as a process of virtualization. The question that will be answered in the next few decades is whether virtualization will be actualized as an enabling technology for the evolution of consciousness, or whether it will operate as a hypermodern detour, throwing us deeper into a cultural crisis, amplifying personal and collective fragmentation, feeding regressive drives, and prolonging our experience in a deficient phase of rationality.
The evolution of consciousness into Gebser’s aperspectival world will depend on the future trajectory of these new information technologies, and the personal and collective choices we make regarding such developments and applications.
Modern Vision and Perspectivism
Perspectival vision emerged in fifteenth-century Europe with the Renaissance artists’ discovery of the technique of linear perspective (Bryson, 1983). In 1425, Fillippo Brunelleschi devised a technique using mirrors and a caliper for representing three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional plane. Ten years later, Leone Battista Alberti produced a systematic treatise that explained the rules and optical methods for rendering the three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional canvas. Alberti’s treatise showed the artist how to see with perspective, as if looking at the scene through an open window. The scene, or landscape, represented on canvass now depicted an image that was projected from a single, fixed vantage point—from the eye of the artist.
Linear perspective vision was revolutionary in several respects. First, as Gebser (1985) points out, the emergent consciousness during the Renaissance finds expression in the objectification of spatial awareness (p.18). Perspectival vision initiated a long historical technological development toward reducing the world to abstract surfaces, mathematical coordinates, and the view that space is uniform, continuous and homogenous. Second, the advent of linear perspective art ruptured the Medieval vision, supplanting the "inner eye" of the Christian soul with the "physical eye" of the artist (Wertheim, 1999, p.108). Linear perspectival painting initiated the spirit of realism, creating a movement toward simulating the world. In this sense, the convention of linear perspective amounted to a radical abstraction and reconstruction of optical experience.
Perhaps most fundamental in terms of this epoch, is the impact that the Renaissance revolution in concretizing space had on the relationship between the observer and observed. With the advent of linear perspective, space became dimensionalized in our consciousness. Gebser, quoting Panfosky, (1985, p.19) noted that:
The history of perspective (may be) considered equally a triumph of the sense of reality with its detachment and objectivation, and as a triumph of human striving for power with its negation of distances, just as it can be seen as a process of establishing and systematization of the external world and an expansion of the ego sphere.
Wertheim (1999) suggests that the perspectival image, with its projection of a single point of view, represented not only a shift in representation, "but also in the reception of images" (p.111). The world in the Renaissance could now be re-presented, and taken in as a spectator. By taking a fixed position, standing over and against objects at a distance, the world became a picture that could be captured on canvass. Land became landscape. Indeed, objects could now be located in a spatial grid, with the observer positioned wholly separate from the objects viewed. The convention of perspective refocused the center of attention upon the eye of the individual—that is, the monocular viewpoint became the privileged center of perspectival vision (Jay, 1994).
However, Gebser notes that the achievement of perspectival vision also brought about a reduction, or narrowing of vision. The inner depth of the Medieval visual world contracts to the exterior surface cone of the modern visual field (Gibson, 19xx). Perspectivism operates as a cultural focal setting, whereby we see our visual field as a container, and actually conceptualize ourselves as being located inside it (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). This is due, as Gebser points out, to a sectorization of space, and the perceptual and existential limitations it creates. As Gebser states, "…man separates from the whole only that part which his view or thinking can encompass, and forgets those sectors that lie adjacent, beyond or even behind" (p.18). Then, only what is seen is real, exists in the moment, else it is considered a mere fantasy, subjective experience, or mind created object.
We can consider that perspectival art amounted to a new visual code, a way of looking at the world. The simulation of the "real world" on the space of the canvass--with its sense of depth, distance and realism—would later give birth to Descartes’ abstract geometry, that also enabled the description of three-dimensional perspective on a two dimensional plane. However, with Descartes’ abstract geometry, a correspondence point-of-view for representing the world was not required, since his abstract coordinate system required no reference to the physical world.
Taking our cue from Gebser, we can see that this epochal transformation in consciousness, away from the mythical to the mental structure of consciousness—amounted to a fundamental ontological shift—a new order of spatial collective representation. Space is conceived and experienced as essentially inert, dead, and infinitely extensive. Qualitatively space "exists" not as a spiritual plenum as it did in the Medieval period, but as a neutral vacuum, a "nothing," an empty container for objects. Thus, in the modern world, we no longer inhabit or dwell in space or place--rather we occupy space, like any other physical object. Through perspective, space became objectified space, which provided a sort of mental "fix" on experience. Pre-perspectival consciousness could literally not get a "fix" on the world; the mind was unconsciously immersed in the phenomena. It was not until the mind could gain some perspective, some distance from the phenomena, that Western culture fully evolved into the mental structure of consciousness.
By the time of Descartes, Nature was conceived as something wholly other, something completely external to the human observer. As the frontal, outward directed vision took ascendancy in cultural perception, the Cartesian gaze—intent on abstracting objects from their spatial context—amounted to a completely new way of organizing the world. Indeed, it amounted to a new cultural metaphysic—that everything we perceive and experience is separate. In achieving spatial fixity, perspectival consciousness gave rise to the modern attitude of detachment, which was congenial to science and capitalism. However, in being fixed, loss of participation and connection began to occur.
Perspectivity also brought about a new order of participation, shifting the center of gravity to the human as independent observer of phenomena. Renaissance artists, and perhaps the aristocratic class that came into contact with their paintings, came to attribute a new meaning to their relationship to space. No longer holding the Medieval plenum of space as hierarchically sacred in meaning, the sophisticated and cultured Renaissance observer felt as if they were now "…an isolated subjective interior gazing out through the window of his eyes on a separate world" (Talbott, 1995. p.273). The self was now an onlooker or bystander, firmly positioned, and looking out from a particular vantage point. Perspectival consciousness meant that the world came to be viewed through the lens of the self, or "I," which appeared to be fixed, unchanging, and independent from the phenomena. This amounted to the externalization of the observer from the observed. By taking up a position or vantage point, the self could impose its meaning on the world. The self now identified with its unique "point-of-view."
Looking out through the window of the self also meant that the observer appeared to be located in a stationary position—but somehow standing back from the temporal flow of events. This disembodied observer-self was positioned "here and now," in the moment, but observed the flow of events "out there." From an atemporal viewpoint, the observer-self, in order to ensure its continuity, needed to persist and endure through time. Taking a virtual position outside of time, the observer-self projected an illusory perspectival image that it was never truly "in time," but was a step removed. Thus, time for perspectival consciousness was also spatialized. This resulted in a severing of participation with the phenomena, a retreat into the stance of a spectator self. The dynamic and intensity of time was in effect frozen, dimensionalized, and made extensive with space. In order to confirm its tenuous identity, continuity in time, and need for self-recognition, consciousness was enfolded into a linear temporal pattern, constructed out of a narrative structure. The bystander-self confirmed its identity and existence by linking moments, through the maintenance of a coherent narrative, by telling itself stories (Tulku, 1987). Further, the objects of the self’s desires always remain perspectivally distant—fulfillment is also spatialized in time—located perpetually in the future.
Cyberspace and Hyper-Perspectivism
Now, at the turn of the millennium, the human observer gazes through a technologized version of Alberti’s window. Gate’s Microsoft "Windows"—the dominant frame into the world of cyberspace--carries forward residues of perspectivism. I will attempt to show that the new communication medium of cyberspace, as it is presently conceived and utilized in the late twentieth century, is a hyper-modernist extension of the perspectival world.
Cyberspace floats upon a modernist conception of space as a homogenous and uniform void, an infinite container for objects. Within the medium of cyberspace, objects are encoded in bits and bytes and transmitted as information. Enabled by search engines on the Internet, we can access information on just about any topic imaginable. Indeed, the problem for many users of the Internet, are not a lack of information, but a dizzying feeling of becoming lost in an endless maze of information sources. But as Albert Borgmann (1999, p.14) asks, is having information the same as knowing? This is a key distinction, because knowing about something (savoir), is very different from a more direct and intimate knowing (connaitre). Borgmann gives a simple example to distinguish these two modes of knowing. I can know of Death Valley, perhaps by reading about it on Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia, and looking at pictures of the desert. But this is very different from actually living in Death Valley, or actually making the trip to experience or study the desert first-hand. The first instance is what I refer to as "distanced knowing." The information that we gain access through the medium of cyberspace is always a form of distanced, or indirect knowledge. Owen Barfield would call it "dashboard knowledge."
Gebser (1985) reminds us that perspectival consciousness is primarily spatial, and is founded on a spatial separation between subject and object (p.19). Perspectival technologies have historically been thought of in terms of bridging spatial distance. For example, the telescope was considered as a device that allowed the observer to overcome spatial distance. But as Romanyshyn points out, the invention of the telescope also created the phenomenological sense that the moon was farther away from us. Talbott (1995) points out that perspectival technologies are both "a symptom and cause of increasing distance" (p.278).
Cyberspace is structured and ordered by a form of perspectival distance, as information about the world is now encoded and displayed through the window of the video display screen. What is unique, however, about the medium of cyberspace, is that the "real world" no longer needs to serve as the anchor or reference for the scene depicted on the screen of the video display terminal. As Nune (1995) states, "The real no longer serves as a referent for this postmodern version of Alberti’s window." I will return to the subject of the hyper-real and simulation later.
What is of significance here is that cyberspace seems to collapse perspectivity, but it does so by imploding the sense of distance on the one hand (creating instantaneous connections), while maintaining the phenomenological sense of a distanced subject that "interacts" with informational objects. In essence, perspectivity in cyberspace is a movement across surfaces of information objects—often metaphorically called, "surfing the net." It is no coincidence that our main "interface" with the world in cyberspace is a flat video screen. Talbott (1995) contends that, even when we are not staring into a video screen, we have learned to see the world as an exterior relation of surfaces.
The point is that depth is now represented for us by a highly abstract, mathematically conceived container-space full of objects related only by their shared coordinate system—an "extensive" depth—whereas once the world’s depth was more "intensive," with every object bound meaningfully to every other (and to us) in a way that our perspective renders nearly impossible to experience. It is our vision that is flat, abstract, shallow, governed by surfaces without true insides. It lacks nothing in quantifiable information, but lacks nearly everything in weight or qualitative significance (Talbott, 1995, p.377).
Since the emergence of linear perspective, we have progressively intensified our ability—especially through electronic and digital technologies--to distance ourselves from the world. Cyberspace has taken root in a period where the subject is "…already virtualized, volatized and fragmented" (Simpson, 1995, p.159). This technologically mediated detachment has provided the cultural infrastructure for the postmodern ironic subject (Simpson, 1995). Indeed, viewing the world from a distance becomes the habitual posture of the disengaged, self-as-bystander.
What we are witnessing today is the extreme manifestation of the rational-mental structure operating in what Gebser referred to as a "deficient phase." In this phase, rationality takes center stage, disallowing all other structures of consciousness from coming into awareness. In a sense, rationality becomes hyper-rational, deficient, and imbalanced, its mentality proliferates into collective consciousness, dividing and segmenting the world to such a degree that the result is fragmentation, anomie, and a decline in meaning. In effect, the rational-mental structure has imploded in on itself—not into a mutation, not into aperspectival consciousness, but into a hyper-extension of the perspectival world. Hyper-perspectivism, in conjunction with cyberspace, has created a new epistemic order based on non-referentiality or depthlessness, collapsing the distinction between signified and signifier. The result is a cultural fascination with surfaces, images, and a restless energy intent on gratifying arbitrary and ephemeral desires. Simpson (1995) maintains that this detached stance, especially as it is mediated by information technologies, is actually "a way of anesthetizing oneself to loss," reflecting an existential dread of being in linear time (p.136). In a hyperperspectival world, the postmodern subject takes up a cynical and ironic stance, keeping the world at arms length.
That the dominant mode of consciousness in digital culture is hyperperspectival (and not aperspectival) can be ascertained simply from the fact that cyberspace is founded on a spatial metaphor. Gebser (1985), in numerous passages, associates perspectival consciousness with spatialization and concretion of space. "Perspectival thinking spatializes and then employs what it has spatialized" (p.258). The psychic experience of our period, according to cultural critic Frederic Jameson (1997), is that of being dominated by categories of space (rather than of time), of being immersed in the synchronic rather than the diachronic (p.16).
Hyperperspectival thinking is an extreme form of spatial fixation and attachment, manifesting in the technological conquest of the globe
The over-emphasis on space and spatiality that increases with every century since 1500 is at once the greatness as well as the weakness of perspectival man. His over-emphasis on "objectivitely" external, a consequence of an excessively visual orientation, leads not only to rationalization and haptification but to an unavoidable hypertrophy of the "I," which is in confrontation with the external world. …what we may call an ego-hypertrophy: the "I" must be increasingly emphasized, indeed over-emphasized in order for it to be adequate the ever-expanding discovery of space (Gebser, 1985, p.22).
This cultural mode of thought that Gebser saw coming into being has led to the increasing primacy of "hyper-rization," that is, a technological speed up, acceleration and compression of dimensionalized experience—contracting our being in space and time, while simultaneously altering our sensibilities of "the real." The speed up and acceleration of our daily affairs is intensified by the instantaneous connective capacity of cyberspace. Spatial distance collapses into a sense of immediacy. The time it now takes to traverse space has remarkably shrunk, creating popularized images of the "global village," "spaceship earth," and the "Worldwide Web." But in the midst of this technological conquest of space, time has also been domesticated and compressed to the point that what is left is momentary, depth-less, and alienating present.
Cyberspace and the Spatialization of Time
The overwhelming sense of "time-space compression" that David Harvey (1990) describes is indicative in Gebser’s observations that the perspectival age is dominated by a spatial image of time. And it is in the decline of such an age that our anxiety about time intensifies, manifesting, as Gebser points out, in our technological attempts to "save time." Gebser (1985, p.22) sums up our temporal angst: "…our contemporary anxiety about time is manifest in our flight from it: in our haste and rush, and by our constant reiteration, "I have no time." And he goes on to say, "It is only too evident that we have space but no time; time has us because we are not yet aware of its entire reality."
The juggernaut of globalization is causing a great disruption to traditional political, cultural and philosophical systems. We are now in an intense phase of time-space compression that is transforming how we see ourselves in the world. As traditional cultural anchors and modern institutions sink into the turbulent sea of change, the disorienting tendencies of globalization and time-space compression are reconstituting the very foundations of the self. Further, as society undergoes continuous change and revision, the self becomes increasingly a project of reflexivity—a constant challenge of trying to maintain and reconstruct a sense of coherence and meaning in a world where shifting contexts is the norm (Giddens, 1991).
Our perception of a changing world relies much upon a process of figuration. Human beings actively participate in how they perceive "the world," but much of this process escapes our conscious awareness. Figuration is a pre-logical, or even pre-mental process; our representations of the world rely to a large extent on primary processes of imagination (Barfield, 1988). We are largely unaware of how of our figuration represents the world that we perceive and interact with. The figuration of cyberspace as pure simulacra involves a relentless abstraction of the visual, the commodification of images, and an aesthetics of production An aesthetics of production, which is inseparable from simulacra, involves processes which can "pull space away from place," "empty the dimension of time," and literally "lift out" social relations from their contexts (Giddens, 1991; 1990). Giddens attributes the dynamism of high modernity to these processes of time-space distanciation and disembedding mechanisms.
Time-space distanciation is similar to Gebser’s observation that the modern period witnessed a progressive ability to spatialize time. Time is increasingly made more abstract, resulting in clocks, universal dating systems, standardized time zones, and in the future, a globalized 24 hour stock market. Indeed, the phenomena of globalization can be viewed as a progressive increases in time-space distanciation. In addition, the global connective capacity of technologies of image production act as "disembedding mechanisms," which in turn, are accelerating the phenomena of time-space distanciation. The feeling that we are—to use Giddens’ phrase—"living in a runaway world" is due to the convergence of new media and information technologies that have an amplification effect on time-space distanciation and disembedding mechanisms. We feel as if we are caught in an ever accelerating cybernetic loop.
Spatialization of time, intensified by the advent of cyberspace, only pours fuel on the fire of perspectival consciousness. There is a notable and insidious escapist mentality prevalent in our hyper-perspectival world. Mark Drey (1996) claims that cyberculture is on the verge of attaining what he calls "escape velocity," (which is also the title of his book). But escape from what? In many respects, we could answer, from life itself—from the fleshy existence of being embodied. More on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that this escape velocity is rooted in a desire to flee the alienating onrush of hyper-perspectival time. The compression of time brought on by technological advances has intensified the phenomenological sense that time is merely a linear succession of impoverished present moments. The postmodern, fragmented self—blinded by the glare of literalism and tunnel vision of hyper-perspectivism—cannot fathom time as being anything other than a spatialized phenomena. There is no vision or sense of possibility of time-freedom, as hyper-perspectival consciousness is confined to a spatial grid of linear timed-out moments, which unfold endlessly, even infinitely, except for the anomalous event, the ultimate "vanishing point," death (Tulku, 1977).
The time-compression characteristic of postmodernity resonates with the ironic stance of the self, as alluded to above, in that the self also maintains a detachment, or distance, from the flow, quality and internal dynamism of time. In other words, the self also adopts a bystander, or spatial position, relative to time. Time is reduced to "clock time"--a background phenomena--a mere spatial and abstract index for measuring or locating events on a spatial grid or calendar (Tulku, 1977). "To the perspectival age time meant nothing but a system of measurement or relationships between two moments" (Gebser, p.285). The only contact with time is through the fleeting present, which inexorably marches on.
Postmodernism, as Simpson (1995) points out:
…can be characterized as an attitude toward time or an experience of time that, because it cannot have the atemporal, places emphasis upon maximum intensity in time, not the living in time that would be a form of praxis, but a more passive fascination or playing…The result is a flashing pointillism, a lived experience as a series of disconnected intensities. Not being able to commit to a future or to take the past seriously, the postmodernist makes do with the present. (p.144).
The "disconnected intensities" which Simpson (1995) attributes to the lived experience of the postmodern self is symptomatic of hyper-perspectival tendency to falsely spatialize time, confining time to the perspectival three-dimensional world conception. Temporal compression of this nature—through cyberspace’s capacity for instantaneity-- is deceptive as it projects the illusion of being able to "stop the clock." With its capacity to reduce the time to conduct "transactions" (for example, e-commerce), the commodification of time vis a vis cyberspace sends a subliminal cultural message that we can get something for nothing (Simpson, 1995, p.152).
But what sort of time will we be getting in such a global cybertopia? The ability to conduct economic transactions in what is now called, misguidely I might add, "real-time," is the penultimate form of the hyper-perspectival worldview—that is, the concretion of immediacy over extension. In business, speed is now the name of the game. Managers and employees are constantly barraged by exhortations from management gurus and technology consultants to reduce cycle time, and to produce faster, faster, and faster. Regis McKenna’s (1997) book, Real Time, seized the day, as it opens with the invitation: "Imagine a world in which time seems to vanish and space becomes completely malleable. Where the gap between need or desire and fulfillment collapses to zero." James Gleick, who informed the popular mind on the new science of complexity and the phenomena of chaotic systems, has just released his new book entitled, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Paul Virilio contends that what is really being globalized by instantaneity is time. But this is still perspectival time consciousness, amplified, dispersed, and commodified through the network and multimedia capabilities of cyberspace. Virilio (1995) predicts that if this trend continues unabated, we will come under the dominion of a "single, monolithic perspective," the so-called perspective of "real-time."
For the first time ever, history will be played out under a single form of temporality—global time. Previously, history unfolded according to local temporalities, local spaces. It unfolded in regions, in nations. Now, however, globalization and virtualization have initiated a world time that prefigures a new kind of tyranny…Tomorrow, our history will be played out in the universal time of the instantaneous. On the one hand, real-time becomes more important than real space, and distance and expanse take a back seat to duration, an infinitesimal duration. On the other hand, the global time of multimedia and cyberspace dominates local time or cities and neighborhoods. Dominates it to the degree that even now we are considering replacing the term "global" with "glocal," a contraction of global and local.
The hegemonic global temporality which Virilio foresees is another manifestation of hyperperspectivism: a digitalized extension of the perspectival conquest of space. With perspectivism, techniques for representing the globe on a flat surface produced accurate maps. Geographical knowledge and cartography were not only key to achieving command over space in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but such maps could abstractly represent the whole population of the earth in one single spatial frame (Harvey, 1990, p.250). Space not only became conquerable, but this totalizing vision altered the epistemic order of society. Rather than feeling themselves as inhabitants or dwellers in a more organic lifeworld, individuals in Renaissance society began viewing themselves as occupying a particular mathematical location in space. This spatial precision provided the tools for drawing property lines, specifying territorial boundaries, delineating social and administrative domains, and of course increasing the accuracy of communication routes (Harvey, 1990. p.249).
While the Renaissance revolution domesticated space, the Information revolution will domesticate time. Global time has the potential of relocating and reorienting the whole population of the earth in one single time frame. In addition to a total spatial mapping of the globe, we are now witnessing an effort toward total digital mapping, an attempt—to use Bill Gate’s term—to create an ubiquitous "digital nervous system," a total temporal connectivity. We could interpret the emergence of the "real-time perspective" as another indicator of the irruption of time. But the concretion of immediacy over extension does not engender transparency so much as a hyperrealistic opacity. Virilio’s dystopian vision of global time suggests that the deployment of cyberspace in this temporic mode will, as Gebser warned, "perpetuate the mistakes of perspectival man by erroneously converting intensities into spatial extensities."
Hyperextensivity and the Information Superhighway
Owen Barfield (1967) reminds us that we can intuit the most fundamental assumption of an age by uncovering the implicit meanings of words or phrases in common usage. We can see evidence of this hyper-extensivity in the metaphorical figuration of cyberspace. The temporal dynamic in cyberspace is projected onto the computer screen, where the operator interacts with various images and icons. "Real potential" or temporal intensity is converted to "virtual kinetic" energy, activated through the computer interface. Temporal intensity in cyberspace is experienced by navigating and traveling down the "Information Superhighway."
The popular metaphor of the Information Superhighway extends the perspectival image of spatial distances that have to be traversed, albeit electronically, through the instantaneous connective capacity of computer networks. The vehicle is no longer a referent in the physical world, but merely a simulation projected onto the depthless surface of a video screen. And the roadway to be traversed is not some quaint scenic route where one can enjoy and appreciate the diverse offerings and historic context of the locale, but a mega-Interstate Superhighway that propels us through a fragmentary urban sprawl, past "cities of bits"--where speed, acceleration, and efficiency of movement are kinetically privileged. This metaphorical figuration of cyberspace as "Information Superhighway" suggests that the telos of the Information Age is still space-bound. The spatialization of temporal intensities in the physical world, which metaphorically was expressed as "living in the fast lane," "caught in the rat race," or "being on a perpetual treadmill," are projected onto the hyperreal highway of the Internet. As Nunes (1995) point out, "…the (computer) screen becomes a hyperreal vehicle for traveling across a simulated world."
The system of collective representations that metaphorically constitute the Information Superhighway is having a profound effect on contemporary culture. Rather than enabling us to consciously evolve into space and time-freedom, our metaphorical figuration of cyberspace as an "Information Superhighway" may have the unexpected effect of contracting our understandings of space-time to an even greater degree. We seem to have no say in how this technology is developed. Technological development, and the construction of the Information Superhighway especially, appears to be autonomous force and out-of-control. But perhaps this is because as a culture, our everyday human consciousness is on automatic pilot. We are largely unconscious and lacking the depth of awareness that could bring about a fundamental shift in how we order and represent the world. There is nothing inherently deterministic or automatic about the movement of technology, for technology is a product of our imagination and material reflection of our consciousness. On the other hand, there is a cultural predilection toward accepting the inexorability and absolute necessity of technical progress (but progress toward what?). Couple this with the fact that the deficient mode of rationality still predominates in the industrial world, it is not surprising there is little serious questioning or public debate about the ends technology might serve.
Cyberspace and the Hyperreal
Conquest of space would not have been possible without the products of perspectivisim--accurate maps and representations of the actual terrain, which allowed the observer to occupy an externalized perspective in which the globe could be viewed as a knowable totality. There was a sensibility, however, that the map was an imperfect representation of the actual terrain--that the "map was not the territory." Cyberspace introduces a new global vision and fundamentally different sensibility, where the cartographic image of the globe no longer needs to stand in for or represent the "real world" because in cyberspace the image has become "the world." Within a hyperperspectival world, the map is the territory, and, following Baudrillard’s (1983) argument, even precedes or supersedes the actual world. As Nunes (1995) points out, the potential for connectivity in cyberspace "precedes the virtual world it purports to trace; the ‘map’ of this territory it itself the territory—both globe and world at the same time." Perspectivism gave us the lens to see a map of reality; hyperperspectivism essentially is creating a new epistemic order, wherein the map is the reality. In effect, metaphorical figuration is now completely digitalized into the pure abstract space of simulation.
An all-inclusive, global-cybernetic matrix is perhaps the final quest of the rational mode of consciousness. The imagery of a global cybernetic matrix was the subject of William Gibson’s sci-fi novel, Neuromancer (and a recent Hollywood movie, "Matrix," that was based on it). As noted earlier, the foundation for this quest began with Descartes abstract geometry, which created a new order for representing objects in an imaginary, mathematical-coordinate space. Digital technologies provided the capability to make Descartes’ abstract world a virtual reality. Indeed, computer graphics are digital images founded on abstract mathematical spaces. Computer graphics programmers strive to create state-of-the-art photorealistic images, but their art, unlike the Renaissance artists, has evolved into pure mathematical and algorithmic technique. Rather than striving to accurately represent the actual world on canvass, graphics programmers are busy with modeling or simulating reality; the source of their art is not the actual world, but the mathematically constructed image. Their aesthetic motivation is not realism, nor representation, but simulation or hyperrealism.
Normally we might think of a simulation as merely a cheap imitation of the "real thing." In the perspectival world, we can usually intuit and sense that there is something essentially absent or missing in the imitation which the original possessed. But in the hyperperspectival world, technology allows image creation to move into the pure realm of abstraction; the source of the simulation no longer needs to be derived from the actual world. In this case, how can we tell if something is missing or absent if there is no longer any original in which to compare? For if an original no longer exists, one can no longer speak of a "counterfeit." This raises the question of the ontological status of appearances in hyperreality. Hyperreality presents an image of a totally self-contained world that requires no grounding or reference in reality. Appearances in hyperreality have a "simulated presence. Postmodern and cultural theorists have referred to this state 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.
What is key to this development is that images, or simulacra, no longer need to be situated or grounded in a geographical or historical context. Such notions of origin or locale can simply be erased, and the social relations that lie behind the image can also be conveniently concealed from view. Such an ability to sanitize the image is the power that is derived from substituting information for direct knowledge and embodied experience.
As a new communication medium, cyberspace has a great deal of affinity with postmodern culture where "image is everything, and everything appears as art." The obliteration of the distinctions between sign and referent goes hand in hand with obscuring the differences between absence and presence. Because hyppereality is a depthless world, ironic and cynical detachment appear to be more "realistic" attitudes than staking one’s claim in practices or relationships that demand deeper commitments and longer-lasting engagements. Timeless wisdom is obscured by the immediacy of the ephemeral. Indeed, this is the age of the "temporary"--temporary jobs, temporary relationships, and temporary communities--where even meaning is continuously put off, or deferred indefinitely. Hence, "real presence" begin to seems "heavy" and burdensome in comparison to the "lighter fare of the hyperreal" (Borgman, 1992).
There was at least a saving grace in the perspectival world—when we perceived and experienced space-time distance as embodied subjects. But in the hyperperspectival world, distance—whether spatial or temporal--can be technologically compressed, encoded, reified, and then reproduced as simulation. We need not enter the "real world" as embodied subjects, but are enticed to shed the weight of our embodied existence and disburden ourselves so we can enjoy the simulated presence of the hyperreal without resistance, without being encumbered by the gravity of the real.
Emerging technologies of image production, if they follow the path toward perfecting the hyperreal, will aim toward a mediated sense of reality in which the image appears to be "more real" than the actual object or experience—what Giddens calls a "reality inversion." For example, someone seeking to experience unspoiled nature may, in the future, enter a Virtual Reality room 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? We may, in fact, cross a threshold where a sort of collective amnesia sets in, as traces of our history and origins are imperceptibly erased from our long-term cultural memory. This is not actually that far-fetched given the fact that we are shifting from typographic to digital storage media. Despite the reliability and economy of digital storage, media is actually quite fragile and subject to recurring cycles of technological obsolescence. As Stewart Brand (1998) points out, file formats quickly become obsolete, and even the physical media for data storage—such as disks and tapes—lose their integrity in 5 to 10 years. The book may not be consigned to museum display cases, but may gradually fade out as the medium of choice as digital technologies take ascendancy.
What is at stake here is a radical diminution of human intelligence, as knowledge and ideas become reduced to "information." The postmodern zeitgeist is based on the premise that information is a commodity that we lack. In effect, we have traded in Lewis Mumford’s "myth of the machine" for the shiny new "myth of information." But in the process, what have we unknowingly traded-off? I have suggested cyberspace promotes "distanced knowing," a byproduct of a hypermedia that is capable of extracting and abstracting knowledge from its situated origins. Context and depth are filtered out, creating a sense of cognitive distance from the phenomena. In cyberspace, there is a vast breadth of information that can be accessed. On the Internet, we scan, search, and surf for information across an oceanic surface. Information is spread out, extensive, but lacking in depth. Computer-mediated, distanced knowing cannot provide the user access to what Michael Polyani refers to as the "tacit dimension." Only first-hand, direct knowledge can provide us the opportunity to know something with depth.
Cognitive distance is useful if one is a B-2 fighter pilot. The enemy target appears on a computer display screen, similar to the images on popular video games. Technology also provides the emotional distance necessary to carrying out massive bombing missions. As an American pilot confided in an interview, "The great thing about flying a B2 is that you start in the morning, accomplish a mission, and you're back home in the evening, with your wife, your kids, and a cold beer." "Hi Dad!" - welcome to the world of postmodern warfare and computer morality (Medvedev, 1999). A fighter pilot would be paralyzed to act if the target was known and experienced in a more intimate and direct way. But what if we are studying trees in an ecosystem? Let’s say old-growth forests. Would an ecologist truly know these trees if he or she only studied and observed computer simulations of these living systems? Perhaps if the intent was solely for the purpose of manipulation and control, in which case, we would not be interested in trees for their own sake, but in the informational structure of an organism’s components. We see this sort of knowledge acquisition at work in the booming genetic engineering industry. But if our purpose is understanding and holistic appreciation, then it seems that direct experience still has something to offer. This offering—or gift of vision—may not make us a profit, but it provides us a long-term investment in sustaining what is meaningful.
Our images of progress, however, often obscure the fact that those who can learn from direct knowledge are fast becoming an endangered species. Progress—is another great modernist myth--and one that still lives on even in the so-called postmodern age, which is supposedly hostile to all metanarratives. Technological progress seems, however, to be an exception. And this partly the reason why we have difficulty discerning our situation. We assume that all knowledge is created equal, and that knowledge development in a technological society is cumulative. We put our faith in the belief that each technological advance simply pushes the envelope of our intelligence to the next level. Each new version of Windows, each breakthrough in Pentium processing computing speed, each new technological device—we assume simply puts another building block into our rapidly growing cultural edifice of knowledge. But this is a seductive and deceptive type of accounting, since there are no lines on this balance sheet that registers our loss of tacit knowledge. As computers become both ubiquitous and invisible in daily life—a techno-vision of those in the high tech think tanks—we may not even notice that our capacity for knowing the world directly has vanished into the blackhole of the cyber-matrix.
We see this trend already taking hold in education, with the uncritical acceptance and rapid diffusion of computer-mediated learning, on-line courses, and virtual universities that depend completely on "distance learning." Some critics of this frenzy to embrace computers as the cure-all for the crisis in modern education see it as catering to the MTV generation of students, where educational lessons become just another form of "info-tainment." All of this is leading the television-adapted student, in Talbott’s (1995) opinion, "…ever further from human community toward a world of fantasy and abstractions, a world too artificially plastic and manipulable, a world desperately removed from those concrete contexts where she might have forged a sturdy, enduring character" (p.142).
Students in education are being weaned away from concrete contexts at a very early age these days. It is not unusual to see pre-school children sitting behind computers as part of their daily routine. Instead of exposing children to the sensory richness, messiness, and ambiguities of the physical world—the raw, organic nutrients necessary for fertilizing the imagination--they are spoon fed a pre-packaged assortment of information junk food: Internet images, streaming video, and other multi-media dazzle. Talbott (1995) believes that such attempts to "impress" students through dazzling displays of video images, supercomputer animations, and other Hollywood-like special effects, may backfire—creating "a demand for the next advance in our ability to deliver a high-impact image" (p.144). Computer-mediated learning requires high impact images in order to compensate for the absence of the real world, but this force-fed stimulation, with all its brilliance and dazzling displays, leaves little room for childlike wonder to flourish. As Talbott so eloquently points out, "The crucial requirement is not that the child receive maximal impact from some display, but rather that he actively discover within himself a connection to the phenomena he is observing (p.144)." The discovery of this connection requires an active participation in concrete contexts that allows space for the imagination, and an appreciative attitude, to develop. Only then does our knowledge grow in depth and become embodied, stored deeply at a tacit level. Borgmann (1992) fears that human intelligence may wither away we surrender our knowing to the logic and demands of "hyper-intelligence. He questions the efficacy of distance learning:
What kind of expert does distance learning aim at? Since in cyberspace prodigious amounts of information are easily available, it seems foolish to commit information to memory. What the student needs are higher order skills, learning how to learn, finding whatever information is needed, and solving problems generally. The goal, then, of education in cyberspace is to produce the learner, the person who has learned how to learn but otherwise knows nothing. (Borgmann, 1999, p.206)
Hyperreality is symbolic of the progressive withdrawal of our participation in the world. The emergence of the simulacrum and the dominance of the image in postmodern society have been enabled by developments in digital media. While the ontological shift to seeing the "world as a picture" can be philosophically traced back as far as Plato’s notion of eidos, its technological genesis is in the Renaissance. Being (in the Heideggerian sense) in the perspectival world suddenly became something that appeared through our own unique point of view—our own picture. In the hyperperspectival age, Being is now reduced—with the aid of digital media—to the ontology of the image. In postmodern culture, not only are the phenomena a result of our point-of-view, but Being is now, exclusively, for us. As Levin (1988) points out, "Everything which presences, which is, must present itself for our re-presentation. And only re-presentation is regarded as real." Another way of understanding this shift is in terms of a shift from meaning to value (Simpson, 1995). Everything which is of any value in hyperreality must be something which can lend itself to control, to being consumed or used for my own instrumental or personal purposes—and that includes time as well. In essence, that which is of value must fulfill my desires.
The trend toward the hyperreal was intimated by Heiddeger’s analysis of the modern age, which he characterized as the "age of the world picture." Heidegger noted that "the world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world, but the world conceived and grasped as picture." His analysis was concerned over the fact that what was considered real was now totally determined by our own collective representations, which we unconsciously imposed upon the world in order to increase our capacity for control and power. Heidegger explains:
…to represent means to bring what is present at hand [das Vorhandene] before [or in front of] of oneself as something standing over against oneself, …and to force it to remain in this relationship..Therewith, man sets himself up as [the godlike arbitrator] of the setting in which whatever is must henceforth set itself forth, must present itself, i.e., be picture (quoted in Levin, p.119).
Cyberspace and digital technologies have increased our capacities, to use Heidegger’s phrase, to "enframe" the world. In hyperreality, Being is simulated presence, derived from images which are engineered, coded, and reproduced for mass consumption. With the advent of digital media, the world as picture could literally become a reality (an image) by conceiving of the world as information. As I mentioned in the beginning of this paper, the epistemic order of modern society is shifting as it becomes more dependent on indirect knowledge of the world. This increasingly dominant mode of perception, based on what I referred to as "distanced knowing," is possible because we have also collapsed the distinctions between such elementary notions as "data," "information," "knowledge," and "wisdom." Acquiring knowledge about the world is now simply equated to having "the facts," which can be conveniently accessed by logging on to the Internet. As knowing—mediated by technologies of image production--is reduced to simply "having information about things," the difference between absence and presence becomes harder to discern. (Borgman, 1992).
E-commerce and the Production of Space
Gebser would probably remind us that capitalism is also a product of the perspectival world. Like cartography, global cyberspace also gives the capitalist superior command over space. The conquest and control of space is a reflection of the mental/rational consciousness structure, a mentality in which space is viewed as something that is capable of being dominated and manipulated for egoistic purposes. Again, perspectivism is at work here, as this mental framework allows space to be represented as an objective medium and container for organizing and controlling social, political and economic domains. As David Harvey (1990) points out, the "production of space" is required "…in order to form a fixed frame within which the dynamics of social processes must unfold" (p.258).
If we look at what was happening in the late 19th and early 20th century, we can see that a "fixed spatial organization" came into being. Investments in railroads and mass production manufacturing facilities accelerated the turnover time of capital. Spatialization of time was quite apparent in the Fordist system with its long-linked assembly-line, fractionated and fragmented jobs, and a Tayloristic focus on efficiency. Harvey’s historical analysis of capitalism shows that a fixed spatial organization—like the Fordist system--eventually becomes rigidified, causing a severe crisis of capital overaccumulation.
Capitalism attempts to break up spatial rigidities and to overcome such crises by moving into a disruptive transition phase—what Schumpeter called periods of "creative destruction." Creative destruction usually occurs through the infusion of new technologies of space production. According to Harvey, the perpetual search for capital accumulation leads to these cyclic and dynamic periods of socio-economic instability, in which there is an "annihilation of space through time" (p.306). New spatial organizations emerge for accelerating the flow and turnover of time of capital, triggering another wave of intense time-space compression and the formation of a new cultural regime.
The economic crisis which peaked about 1973 in the United States is a case in point. It was during this period that Japanese automakers were producing cars with higher quality and better gas mileage, just at the time of the OPEC oil embargo. The result: dramatic increases in commodity prices, excess production capacity, and a sharp recession. Fordism had enjoyed the benefits of a long post-war boom economy; suddenly it was in crisis. The spatial rigidities of Fordism--highly fragmented work based on standardized tasks, strict separation of management from labor, the inherent inflexibility of mass production technologies that were based on stable markets and invariant consumer demand—could no longer contain the contradictions that were leading to a crisis of capital overaccumulation.
The "annhilation of space through time" came about by the emergence of a new mode of production—what Harvey terms "flexible accumulation"—that consisted in a complete spatial re-ordering of labor processes, labor markets, products and patterns of consumption (p.147). As Harvey (1990) notes:
It (post-Fordism) is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation. It has entrained rapid shifts in the patterning of uneven development, both between sectors and geographical regions, giving rise, for example, to a vast surge in so-called "service sector’ employment as well as to entirely new industrial ensembles in hitherto underdeveloped regions (such as the "Third Italy," Flanders, the various silicon valleys and glens, to say nothing of the vast profusion of activities in newly industrialized countries.).(p.147).
Flexible accumulation strategies shifted away from systems based on an "economies of scale," to "economies of scope." Numerical control, robotics, and other advances in automation provided the capabilities for shifting to small-batch and "customized mass production." Flexible production led to numerous innovations and changes in business organization. Just-in-Time (JIT) systems reduced inventory stocks, outsourcing, sub-contracting and vertical dis-integration radically changed the labor market, and re-engineering of business processes obliterated spatial rigidities in the work flow and business value chain. Advances in information technology, computing, and telecommunications totally transformed the banking and financial service industries. In addition, there was a tremendous upsurge in the fashion and media industries—a key component in mobilizing of mass consumption. Indeed, the "image production industry" was instrumental in ensuring the acceleration of turnover times in post-Fordist economies. Post-Fordism depends, to a very great extent, on the ability to produce volatility and ephemerality in markets.
While flexible accumulation, or "post-Fordism," was a response to the previous crisis of capital overaccumulation during the early 70s and 80s, I believe the late 90s and early part of the next century will be known as the beginning phase of "Gatesism" ("Post-post Fordism" is much too cumbersome of a term). Gatesism is a shift from a flexible to an instantaneous mode of accumulation. This configuration is coupled to the dynamic and logic of late capitalism, in which new information technologies provide the means for accelerating turnover times of capital in production (Harvey, 1990). Emerging technologies of image production provide the means for removing the friction of the real world, with the promise of ever more "user-friendly" interfaces. E-commerce, for example, collapses the distance between producer and consumer, eliminating the need for intermediaries in the supply and distribution chain. Indeed, the medium of cyberspace enables images to copied, circulated, exchanged and consumed far more frequently and faster than the consumption of material goods. This trend toward image consumption began in the fashion industries, moved into services, is now currently spreading into entertainment, and perhaps will soon catch up to what many are now calling the "education industry." It is only a matter of time.
Global cyberspace and e-commerce are collapsing spatial barriers, facilitating instantaneous economic transactions, thus providing a new mode of spatial organization for accelerating the turnover rate of capital. E-commerce is reconfiguring spatial relations, triggering another wave of intense time-space compression. It is yet another round in an attempt to control and conquer space for economic purposes. Digital telecommunications technologies provide even more power and capability to capital to differentiate and locate advantages for its accumulation throughout the globe. The trite phrase, "think globally and act locally" often amounts to nothing more than the application of information technologies to exploit local regions.
Gatesism is founded on Gates’ own vision of a bio-cybernetic future, achieved through a relentless installation of "digital information flows" in every sphere and locale of society. In a seething and incisive critique of Gates’ latest book, Business @The Speed of Thought, the Krokers expose the digital mogul’s ideology:
…the general will merges with the digital will, and the digital will is reduced to the technical, cybernetic procedures involved in booting up the digital nervous system, namely standardization (of digital information flows), surveillance (of knowledge workers and digital customers), subordination (of human intelligence to digital intelligence, of human flesh to machine flesh), and solicitation (of particular wills by the general will of digital reality in the name of greater cyber-communication, better digital knowledge, "raising your corporate IQ," "empowering people," "creating connected learning communities," "preparing for the digital future,"). In the Microsoft rhetoric machine, ideology always interfaces with digital subjectivity. Consequently, the four leading war tactics of Microsoft digitality—standardization, surveillance, subordination, and solicitation—are the dynamic expressions of the hegemonic ideology of the virtual class, thinly disguised as forms of digital technicity. (Kroker & Kroker, 1999).
Even Peter Drucker, one of the first management gurus of the 20th century, has jumped on the Internet and E-commerce bandwagon. Drucker draws many historical parallels between the e-commerce boom and the expansion of the railroads in terms of the production of space. Consider Drucker’s (1999) comment: "In the new mental geography created by the railroad, humanity mastered distance. In the mental geography of e-commerce, distance has been eliminated. There is only one economy and only one market" (p.50). While e-commerce may create a unified global market, Drucker fails to consider in his analysis how this spatial reorganization will result in an uneven redistribution of power and wealth. It may be "one world, one market," but for whom? For the digital elite of course, the new virtual class, many of whom have instantly become millionaires overnight. Many of these GetRich.com entrepreneurs have pitched their corporate tents and camped out outside Stanford University, Inc. and Sand Hill Rd., the epicenter of the digital goldrush in Silicon Valley. There are over 250,000 millionaires in Silicon Valley. The uneven economic development could not be better illustrated than in the stark contrast and inequalities between the cities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. Many Silicon Valley CEOs and wealthy high tech engineers live in Palo Alto or Atherton. Just across Highway 101 a few miles down the road lies East Palo Alto, a city plagued by a crime and drug ridden ghetto, and has for many years suffered from political corruption, chronic poverty, and high unemployment. One world, one market...
Drucker’s analogy between the railroad and e-commerce boom is incomplete; he simply does not tell the whole story. There are other striking similarities between the railroad boom and e-commerce that he either consciously avoids or simply forgets to mention. Being a cultural historian Drucker should know better. He fails to mention the early railroad boom in Europe led to excessive speculation, causing an economic collapse and a series of cultural upheavals in 1848. This economic crisis was resolved only through further spatial and temporal displacements in society, which were brought about through the emergence of new industries, technologies, systems of credit and so on. There is a similar pattern happening today on Wall Street. E-commerce companies are highly overvalued and volatile, trading with price/earning ratios that are unprecedented. Many Internet companies such as Amazon.com or Yahoo, have never even turned a profit! A recent public comment made by Steve Balmer, President of Microsoft, to this effect, sent the markets into an immediate nose-dive.
There are other historical parallels. The current high tech libertarian ideology seems like a déjà vu, having a remarkable sympathetic resonance to the turn-of-the-century hype and worship of the entrepreneur as hero. The railroad boom and industrialization it spurred created larger than life figures, "captains of industry," tycoons like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie. Now our cultural icons are of course high tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Steve McNealy (Sun Microsystems), portrayed in the popular press as "lone geniuses" who single-handedly were responsible for inventing and launching technological innovations in the computing industry. This cult form of hero worship is actually a manifestation of what my colleague Alfonso Montuori and I have called the "myth of the lone genius" (Montuori & Purser, 1995; Montuori & Purser, 1999; Purser & Montuori, 1999). It is a myth that prevents us from appreciating that technological innovation in organizations is largely the result of a collective process—involving the collaboration of many people working and thinking together. This popular myth also conceals and discounts the degree to which many radical and significant technological innovations were outgrowths of huge research and public works programs, subsidized by federal, state, and military funding agencies. Surprisingly, Drucker omits the instrumental role the federal government played in heavily subsidizing railway networks, providing the infrastructure for a new economy.
In some respects, the Information Superhighway is a historically apt metaphor for the Internet. The justification for building both the Interstate highway system and the Internet were military in nature. To gain political support for what would be the largest public works project in American history, Eisenhower advocated the need for an Interstate Highway system that could provide the necessary evacuation routes in the case of nuclear attack. Similarly, the Internet was funded and created to provide a new communications infrastructure for the U.S. military that could withstand a nuclear attack. The Defense Agency Research Projects Administration (DARPA) funded a handful of universities to help develop a network architecture that would not have to rely on a central switching system, like that found in a standard telephone network, which would be extremely vulnerable to a nuclear attack. Packet technology was invented, which helped to spawn what was known at that time as ARPAnet. Soon afterwards, the network communications architecture concept was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which propelled the technology into universities throughout the US and Europe.
The Interstate Highway system was also built to accommodate the massive production of automobiles. Detroit automakers had a great deal to gain from a coast-to-coast Interstate Superhighway, and they lobbied heavily for its funding. The deregulation of the telecommunications industry has opened the floodgates to the webbing of the nation, and a competitive race is on to set the industry standard for Internet access. The new communications architecture will be based on "broad bandwidth" technologies that can handle far more data and multimedia images, far faster, and with fewer connection problems. In other words, broadband technology will handle more traffic, and will be equivalent to speeding down a six lane Interstate, rather than cruising along Route 66.
But once such an Information Superhighway is completed--once all the fiber optic cables, satellites, wireless devices, and cable modems are connected up--we can probably expect to encounter similar problems we find both on and off the Interstate ramps. There are already telltale signs of this creeping up on us. Today, heavy Internet users talk about "information smog," "data pollution," and "information gridlock." With the growth of e-commerce, we suddenly have to contend with the barrage of electronic ads, java script banners, and other types of distractive and annoying eye sores—cyberspace versions of Interstate billboards. Soon the e-commerce equivalent of Walmart will invade every home shopper’s bookmark, feeding an electronic frenzy of strip malls that are hyperlinked to the big retailers. In less than five years, the ecology of cyberspace will in all likelihood resemble the ravage and pillage that we see along the highways of most large cities such as Houston or Chicago. In the future, we may even run up against the Internet equivalent of "information beltways" that allow a more direct access to major business sites, but shut or screen out other non-commercial sites from view. The erection of such cyber-barriers, what amounts to intelligent firewall enclosures, could create a ghetto-like information culture, which is confined to stay within the bounds of its cyber-commercialized information spaces. The more sophisticated and wealthy virtual class will have privileged access to the equivalent of "cyber-suburb areas," which filter out the hustle and bustle of city noise, information riff-raff, viruses, and other types of unsightly white information trash. Will we at some point in the future demand the protection of "information space wilderness areas," "cyber-green belts," and "national information parks," even "historical.org" landmarks? Will a new information ecology movement rise up to combat the over-commercialization and colonization of cyberspace?
What underlies this proliferation is a hyper-linear perspective, a craving to continuously transcend material limits, to push into new territory, "to go where no man has gone before." However, this is not a quest for a more balanced and integral consciousness, so much as it is a willful conquest of that which can be subordinated to the control of human rationality. In short, the modern conquest of space has simply been extended into the digital realm. Despite its narrow and rigid linearity, for many, this call to adventure, this call to manifest destiny, is an enthralling vision. Cyberspace has miraculously become the new open frontier for capital accumulation. It holds the promise of unlimited opportunities; a frontier where fortunes can be made overnight, a space for unlimited growth.
Cyberspace: Unlimited Frontier or Closed World?
A troubling inconsistency arises between the functional limits and the hype/hyper-potentiality of cyberspace. Utopian rhetoric typically markets cyberspace as a vast and undiscovered frontier, a novel territory that promises an unlimited source of opportunities, wealth, and for some enthusiasts, even spiritual redemption. Some cyber-idealists, such as Patricia Wertheim, are enamored by the potentiality of cyberpsace as a spiritual abode for our immaterial self (consider the title of her book, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace). I will return to this issue later, but for now, let us consider that the metaphorical topography as mapped by the idealists forgoes the fact that the supposed vastness and infinite potentiality of cyberspace is nothing more than a product of a technological simulation. Without the hardware and software, cyberspace does not exist. Indeed, it does not exist for the majority of the population on the planet who do not have access to a computer. But barring the issue of access, cyberspace is, at bottom, a manufactured environment, a product and projection of our rational consciousness. Moreover, while the cyber-utopians exhort the masses to explore the vast and unlimited frontiers that cyberspace purportedly offers its users, the functional designers are working endless hours to encode and enclose the globe in a seamless and transparent digital web. In reality, the frontier is only as vast as the coded simulation will allow. Unfortunately the cyber-utopians fail to appreciate that there is a vast difference between spiritual transcendence and upgrading to a new program. Their faith hinges on a fundamental logical typing error, mistaking the potentiality of technology with human potential and spiritual growth.
The frontier mentality that now pervades cyberspace discourse is yet another example of how capitalism seeks modes of spatial-temporal displacement to ensure new markets. Colonization of cyberspace by commercial interests is bringing back to life the cornucopia image of the 50s and 60s post-war boom economy, an image that flatly ignores and denies the reality of limits. After all, cyberspace can accommodate an infinity of websites. Under the trance of such a hyper-logic, it seems as if there are indeed no limits to growth. But this is a dangerously deceptive image, as expansion in cyberspace—while technologically possible—does not account for the actual environmental and social impacts that occur in the real biosphere. Instead, we are enticed and seduced into believing in the unlimited carrying capacity of cyberspace—where physical limits, and "everything solid melts into air."
This recent capitalist "no limits to growth" revival, facilitated by the fortuitous conjunction of Gingrich-Toffler techno-republicanism--what we might call cyber-economics—has linked up with the cyber-utopian philosophy being spewed out by web-savvy Silicon Valley ex-hippies. We have, in essence, the export of what some critics have called a peculiar, "California Ideology" --a strange mix of conflated McCluhanesque beliefs that expound the benefits of technological progress, capitalism, and anti-authoritarianism. Wired magazine, a key ideological mouthpiece for the digerati, is dominated by such writers as Kevin Kelly (author of Out of Control) and Stewart Brand (former editor of Whole Earth Review). Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, avant-garde artist, and one of the eminent pioneers of virtual reality technology (and an occasional contributor to Wired magazine), admitted recently that he was somewhat taken aback when he realized how anti-ecological his friends in the Wired crowd had become. In an interview, Lanier talked about the ideological differences in cyber-circles, between the "extropians" and the "stewards." He makes a key, logical typing distinction between biospheric systems and the realm of cultural aesthetics. As Lanier (1996) elaborates:
It has become taboo to talk about limits to growth in Wired magazine. So I realized that there was this new sacred orthodoxy around extropianism—extropy is the opposite of entropy. In entropy, there are limits to the universe. In extropy, idea and new organizing principles overwhelm that process. I became aware that this was a new point of ideological confrontation. In terms of the foundation of sustenance, I am a steward and adopt a traditional ecological position. I think it is amazing that this actually needs to be discussed. And yet it does. (p.3)
A common ideological thread runs through Gatesism (instantaneous accumulation), post-Fordist (flexible accumulation) and Fordist modes of production: each system discounts the future through ignoring or externalizing the costs of ecological degradation. The extropian hype and propaganda of the Silicon Valley digerati is a thin veneer for "business as usual," especially when it comes to "protecting" the Internet from any form of government regulation. But what’s really being protected are the interests of mass capital, which is cleverly and rapidly shifting its mode of production into cyberspace. Image production technologies are providing a new infrastructure for manufacturing and proliferating desires. Indeed, instantaneous accumulation—with it potential for speed, connectivity, and image saturation—colludes with capitalism’s interests to stimulate and stoke the fires of desire.
The inevitable and forthcoming crisis of post-Fordism makes it an absolute necessity that capitalism take advantage of the commercial opportunities that cyberspace offers. In this connection, E-commerce is just another wave of technological innovation that capitalism requires for creatively destroying outmoded and rigid systems of production. Surely one can expect that image technologies will be exploited to ensure and maximize the production of ephemeral desires. No wonder all the hoopla over cyberspace by those who stand to gain enormously: A purchase is just a mouse click away, eliminating the distance between the producer and the consumer. Moreover, space seemingly offers no resistance to satisfying the ephemeral desires of a hungry, alienated, cyborg self. In the minds of those who have staked their claims on cyberspace, it certainly does appear to be an open frontier that can accommodate an unlimited amount of financial transactions. To make such a reality operational, the digital netting of the world requires the creation of an enclosed technical space—a digital network that is amenable to appropriation for commercialized interests. The so-called "open frontier" is an ideologically laden metaphor; it captures and resonates with the American ideal of challenging limits. But what is "opened up" is not human consciousness, but the world to the free market.
Unfortunately, as we can see from this discussion, the current trajectory of the digital age is not a fundamental break from the past; cyberspace is not catapulting us into integral consciousness. Instead, we are taking a hypermodern detour, down the rocky road of fragmentation, accelerated by an extended version of perspectivism, perpetuating a hyperactive mode of simulated being. Except for its capability for acceleration and instantaneity, how then is cyberspace qualitatively any different in texture or meaning than the physical space of our current economy? Are we really entering into a novel territory? The more one treads through the Internet, the more distractive ads and commercial solicitations one encounters, the more cyberspace begins to look like an illusory frontier, a closed world.
Cyberspace as we know and experience it today does not beckon us toward transparency and diaphany. Rather, our awareness is confined to a series of hypertext encounters with the known. After all, what is behind the Cyber-Wizard-of-Oz but a set of comprehensive codes and established Internet sites that are, in reality, enclosed repositories for known elements. Cyberspace is indeed, and must, by technological necessity, be a closed system. The sense of quasi-presence in cyberspace is completely dependent on having previously mapped and connected the nodes in a digital network. Nunes (1995) reminds us that:
If a machine "goes down" on the "net," it is not absent; it ceases to be part of the virtual world. The code cannot call forth presence from absence; any attempts to "reach" that site return nothing, not even the equivalent of the telephone’s absent ringing (or its tantalizing busy signal). An off-line machine no longer exists: host unknown. (p.3)
The boundaries of the frontier have already been etched in silicon. Every so-called journey or exploration in cyberspace is conditioned by the past, by the limits of the already established. Every site, every node, every point, every connection in cyberspace is already comprehensively mapped. And every image, every word, every association, is ultimately the product of a code. Whatever information one encounters, whatever one searches for, can be traced back to a rearrangement of existing bits and bytes. No matter how fast our access, or how sophisticated our capacity for hypertexting, whatever knowledge that we may acquire in cyberspace is no more than a retracing of the known. As Nune (1995, p.3) points out, "One never discovers on the Internet; one only uncovers."
In other words, our collective consciousness and basic presuppositions of space have not fundamentally changed; technology has simply extended our power to abstract space from the physical world, and encode it into the simulated world of cyberspace. Space still appears and functions primarily as an exteriorized container or physical backdrop for the appearance of images—nothing more. We have shifted our attention from looking at the scene on the canvass, to looking at the screen of the computer. We are still looking outwards, at things, that appear to be distant and separate from us. We are still bound to perspectival consciousness. Even with the advent of cyberspace and computing, space is still perceived and experienced as a 3-dimensional container. The container metaphor is inclusive of our physical spaces, information spaces, and psychological spaces. Phenomenologically, we experience our worlds as being compressed, as it is rapidly being filled up with the mental and physical products of our perspectival consciousness. We feel an increased sense of pressure, overload, and stress.
Where then is the mystery in cyberspace? The ineffable? While cyberspace has a profound and even infinite capacity to accommodate images and information, this space is an expression of extensivity—an expansion and proliferation outwards, across the surface of appearance. The nature of appearance itself is not fundamentally challenged. Cyberspace does not open into a new depth, nor does it challenge the position of the spatially fixed self-as-bystander. Within a field of manufactured images that are consumed on demand, where everything is already established, there is little capacity for imagination or wonderment.
Virtualization and Integral Consciousness
Setting aside the hype, pathologies, and crass commercialization associated with cyberspace, we face an unprecedented historical situation. Never before have human inhabitants experienced the capability to instantaneously communicate via a global information network. We are fast approaching a technical capability that could drive home the reality that we actually do live in one world. Given the exponential rate of technological innovation in telecommunications and computing, we can expect to see dramatic advancements and rapid diffusion of technology. In a short time, we can expect more of the earth's population will gain the ability to connect to global cyberspace. Couple this with advances in language translation programs, and improvements in video conferencing, we will soon be able to easily communicate without barriers to virtually anyone on the globe that has access to the Internet. While I am not one to subscribe to Teilhard de Chardin's vision of a "noosphere," the prospect of attaining "oneness" on a technical level of connectivity forces us to ask what it means to be a participant in world where boundaries between nations and differences between cultures are being virtualized. Indeed, we will soon be faced with the question of what it means to embody a planetary consciousness.
Our cultural response to such a fundamental historical question, I believe, is not predetermined or inevitable. One possible response to virtualization is simply to continue down the current path of mindless consumption, in which case cyberspace becomes nothing more than a sophisticated globalized shopping mall. In this McWorld-like scenario, planetary consciousness is homogenized by the flattening effects of consumption. We will recognize that we live in the same world-- not because of some deep appreciation for the universality of human consciousness-- but because people will identify with global brand images. Anyone, no matter where they are on the planet, will recognize a pair of Levis or Nikes. Unfortunately, this scenario already has a great deal of cultural momentum behind it.
Virtualization, in principle, has the potentiality of either dimming or intensifying human consciousness. Paul 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). But Levy's definition, while helpful, is deceptively neutral in its tone. The potential of virtualization to alter identity and its capacity to fluidize spatial and temporal reference points, warrants further analysis into how virtualization is manifesting itself in culture, and it potential import in the evolution of consciousness. I am particularly interested in examining how the dynamic of virtualization will unfold with the advent of Virtual Reality (VR) technology, which has the potential of becoming a new mode of aesthetic expression. While Virtual Reality technology is in a very embryonic stage of development, its potential can be discerned in how it is already being used commercially in rudimentary applications, but also, and perhaps more significantly, in how VR has been equated to being an emblematic symbol of postmodern culture, likened to a new form of postmodern art.
In this last section, I differentiate between two modes of virtualization, which are mirrored in the design and conception of different trajectories of Virtual Reality (VR) technology, what I refer to as VR1 and VR2. The first mode, VR1, as we shall see, is a further amplification of the hyperreal trajectory of cyberspace which I have discussed at length in this paper. In this mode, VR1 accelerates the dynamic of virtualization, but in a direction which spirals downward, into further chaos and fragmentation. This trajectory will leads us further astray into a hyperreal world-into the depthless and nihilistic void of pure simulacra. In fact, I argue that with VR1, we enter a closed world with a proliferation of commodified images, while human consciousness becomes even more fixated and one-sided. The very meaning of human intelligence descends to a functionary level, ruled by the hyperrational logic of algorithmic reasoning. What emerges is an image of the human subject that is colonized by cyborg and artificial intelligence "anti-consciounsess" discourse, and metaphors of the brain as a cybernetic information processing device. Indeed, science fiction images of cyborg brain implants and the like may even come to pass. In sum, the human being becomes an extension of the Digital Nervous System-a dutiful consumer of images.
Rather than helping us to evolve into integral consciousness, VR1 results in the virtualization of consciousness. In effect, a hyerrational structure dominates, while our consciousness contracts into a solipsistic, disembodied subject, and compliant instruction follower. In other words, consciousness is progressively automatized. 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. Only in the new millennium, people don't hear the voices of the Gods telling them what to do, but the instructions are now ubiquitously present by the computers that surrounds their lifeworld. In this hyperreal world, where human beings find solace in visual hallucinations-the world of simulacra--difficult decisions of the "real world" are "delegated" and entrusted to the agency of computers.
The other alternative, VR2, is a trajectory which has the potential for bringing about a new collective aesthetic and liberating forms of cultural expression, a new conscious figuration, or trans-figuration, a fundamental change in meaning of being a participant in the world. The narrow view of rationality that has ordered how we represent the world, as a privileged viewpoint, is opened up, or transparentized. If VR2 develops momentum, it could potentially trigger a new renaissance movement, a mutation, that stimulates a personal and collective inquiry into the nature of appearance. Ratio becomes re-balanced, allowing for the emergence of integral consciousness to come to the fore. If this movement takes hold, the integral, consciousness-raising potential of the VR2 path will result in the rebirth of the collective imagination, where society at large, in different fields and domains, radically shifts to considering how human beings are implicated in the creation of "the world." This shift in consciousness will legitimize and support a new form of discourse, fostering a collective inquiry into the processes by which we construct and call the world (and self) into being.
Similar to Gebser's notion of "transparency" and "diaphany," VR2 inspires a "transparentizing" aesthetic in culture that provides evocative spaces and unleashes a creative temporal dynamic that leads to a concretion of the spiritual. VR2 intensifies human intelligence and our capacity for aperspectival vision by challenging the nature of reality as substance. VR2 technologies and art forms stimulate the collective imagination, open up our capacity for verition, rendering appearance diaphanous. I use the word imagination in the Barfieldian/Coleridgian sense, which "in its deepest sense signifies that very faculty of apprehending the outward form as the image or symbol of an inner meaning" (Barfield, 1977; p.19). Ultimately, the evolutionary path of VR2 presentiates conscious virtualization, whereby we enter, through the space-time freedom of "verition" and "waring," the virtual reality that is already present in the truth of Being.
The characteristic differences between these two modes of virtualization, and their technological correlates (VR1 vs. VR2), are reflective of the cultural tensions that signify the transition between perspectival and aperspectival consciousness. Similar to the transitional crisis periods during paradigmatic shifts in science that Thomas Kuhn has described, the movement toward and emergence of a new era is usually uneven and full of contradictory developments. Clearly, the transition to a new era is far from smooth. VR1 appears as a technological extension or continuation of perspectivism, while VR2 offers the possibility of a discontinuous break from the mental-rational structure.
VR1: Virtualization of Consciousness
This pathway toward virtualization scatters human awareness across the surfaces of images. Rather than serving to intensify awareness inwardly into the greater depth available in space and the freedom that time offers, VR1 plunges culture into the manifold distractions and seductions of simulacra. VR1 breeds confusion, an outcome of a fusion of mere fancy with the real. Imagination is subverted to constructing images that exploit the self’s insecurity and desire for recognition, along with its insatiable appetite for more stimulation. The whole spatially fixed sense of a separate, on-looker consciousness, the whole proprioceptive structure of embodied experience, is left untouched by the VR1 aesthetic. In fact, VR1 depends on a collective representation of the self as a fixed and permanent entity that "has experiences." The whole movement and momentum is inexorably driven toward the consumption of more experience. This mode of consciousness, which is exploited by VR1 type technologies, 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 commercial promise of VR1 is to offer the consumer a self-contained realm of unencumbered and sanitary enjoyment. The whole meaning of "safe sex" will be taken to whole different order as VR1 technologies become more advanced with body suits, allowing its users to enjoy simulated sexual sensations and encounters. This is actually a hideous path of how our imaginative capacities could collectively devolve to the level of mere fancy. VR1 positions us to be passive consumers of technologically constructed and packaged experiences. Over time, as VR1 proliferates, it eventually could lead to a progressive displacement of imagination in culture. The seductive attraction of VR1 as a sophisticated form of sensory escape, essentially privatizes human experience, and virtualizes what remains of our public spaces. With VR1, the user does not simply view the simulation from a distance, but enters into the image, and participates in what appears as a self-contained world.
The technological marvel of VR1 is that it can literally substitute information for reality. What appears in VR1 has brilliance, vividness, and a "separate reality" that seems more real than reality itself. However the "separate reality" experienced in VR1 does not have any likeness in quality to the sort Carlos Casteneda describes, but is a heightened manifestation of our modern idolatry (Barfield, 1988). The VR1 experience is, at heart, a postmodern form of "radical idolatry." By radical idolatry, I refer to Owen Barfield’s notion that images, which are in effect our own creation, in the course of time, can soon be perceived as completely separate objects and things. As Barfield (1988) states, idolatry "…results when man begins to take his models—his representations—literally" (p.51).
VR2: A Tool for Conscious Virtualization
We can think of VR2 as an enabling technology, which can provide civilization a new aesthetic expression that fundamentally alters our identity and calls into question the ontological status of reality. However, I want to stress that an enabling technology, in this case, VR2, does not automatically guarantee or cause integral consciousness to arise. The convention of linear perspective art was not the "cause" of the mental structure of consciousness, but it certainly was a critical precursor to a new way of representing the world, which provided the cultural context for the emergence of the scientific worldview. Similarly, VR2 technology has the potential of stimulating a collective dialogue around in a new art form that in turn could lead to a fundamental change in the epistemic order of society. The introduction of VR2 into society could be a critical trigger, on par in magnitude to that of the linear perspectival art. Indeed, I believe VR2 could potentially become an emblematic cultural symbol of aperspectival consciousness.
One of the unique features of VR2 technology is that it would provide the capability for ordinary people to program their own software, allowing an individual, or even groups of people, to project their own imagination into a collective space. Essentially, VR2 technology would empower the average individual to be an artist in virtual reality. According to Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of Virtual Reality technology:
The result will be a mass theatre of spontaneous shared imagination and dreaming. My fond hope is that it will take the form of networked VR with inspirational authoring tools that are capable of quick, improvisatory creation. But whatever the specific form, what we are building will encourage people to share interior vision and treat it as a tangible, worthy thing, even into adulthood.
As Lanier suggests, VR2 would be an empowering, interactive art form, allowing the average user to invent the contents of a virtual world. Not only this, VR2 would, according to Lanier, come with a shared virtual world interface, allowing users to share and co-mingle with their imaginative creations in a collective virtual space. Whereas VR1 is a con-fusion of fancy with the real, VR2 is a jazz-fusion of participation with imagination. It alllows 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 radical constructivism. The observer in VR2 can experience directly the simulated world as a product of their own interiority, an admixture of collective representations and a dynamic mosaic of their own mental constructs.
Certainly the most radical feature of VR2 is the capacity for users to directly share the contents of their imaginative experiences directly with others. Lanier predicts that this new media could give rise to a "post-symbolic order," transcending the limits associated with the narrative structure of language. In a VR2 world, images can be projected and experienced directly, without the mediation of words or language. In many respects, a VR2 environment is analogous to our dream world, where we encounter and experience events that are projected by our own imagination. As Lanier elaborates:
It’s really different than language. It’s a new way to communicate, where people would directly create a shared world by programming it, by modeling it in real time, as opposed to merely using words, the intermediaries that we have to describe things. So it’s like cutting out the middleman of words, and finding a new form of communication where you directly create shared reality—real-time, waking-state, improvised dreaming.
If VR2 technology evolves to the point that Lanier envisions, I believe it could provide the necessary aesthetic mutation for the evolution of consciousness. Just as linear perspectival art was a catalyst for the mutation into the mental structure, VR2 could do the same for the integral structure. Linear perspectival art was also a symbolic order, which intensified consciousness to the point that it could break from the mythical structure. Consciousness was able to mutate to a rational structure, whereby it could see itself as a separate and independent observer of the phenomena—a distant on-looker. VR2 technology creates a new aesthetic that is akin to a state of lucid dreaming. It stimulates an ecstatic experience, an intensification of consciousness, which opens ratio into the whole of appearance. What appears in a VR2 world appears as a magical display, co-arising with participation-as-observer. In VR2, the cone of perspectivism is rendered transparent.
"World as Spectacle" versus "World as Shared Lucid Dream"
Whereas VR1 technology posits the world as a distant spectacle, VR2 technology presents the world as a shared dream.Virtual Reality technology (whether VR1 or VR2), relies on sophisticated sensors—typically head-goggles and hand-gloves—which are donned by the user to enter a virtual world. These sensors track the changes and movements in the user’s sense organs, and then digitally represent these changes as visual and kinesthetic outputs that then again feedback to the user’s senses. The user becomes part of the cybernetic circuit. From a hardware standpoint, VR1 and VR2 are not far apart. Rather, it is the software, and the design assumptions that determine the user interface, where these two technological variants part company.
Within a VR1 world, the depths of user’s imagination, the source of figuration, is not incorporated into the experience. Instead, the user of VR1 enters into a pre-programmed world, perhaps rich in the variety and range of interactive experiences that can be accessed, but it is by design, limited to experiencing artificial worlds that will be packaged for mass consumption. In addition, since a VR1 user cannot actively participate in creating a shared virtual world with others, this limitation is compensated by injecting content that is designed to shock the senses. VR1 presents imagery in such a way that it forces the user to stay within a perspectival posture, albeit in a so-called interactive mode. Participation within a VR1 world is primarily vicarious in nature. One feels the thrills and exhilaration of the simulation through immersion in a world designed to titillate and over-excite the senses. We already see indicators of this in the rise of shock TV, docu-dramas depicting "ER" victims with blood and guts, "COPS," and the fascination with the suffering of others—as spectacle. VR1 dazzles the user through both sensory overload, and by presenting an array of images which can be explored interactively in succession. Clearly, the allure of VR1 will be the intensity of experience that it offers. However, like recreational drug addiction, as the threshold of excitation shifts after prolonged drug use, higher dosages are required to secure the desired effect or "high". We can expect VR1 will have a similar mass appeal, and hence the need for more novelty, more shocking experiences, and a continuous upstaging of previous narratives.
The emphasis on pure sensory stimulation suggests that VR1 has an empirical bias. Its design assumptions and architecture seems to reflect a belief that our only form of contact with phenomena—is through our senses. The interiority and imagination of the user is simply not part of the VR1 equation. VR2, on the other hand, is used as a tool that can extend and display the user’s imagination. The connection between the phenomena and the user goes deeper than simply what meets the eye (or other senses). The link between the user and the phenomena in a VR2 world has a non-material, imaginative connection, which goes beyond mere passive sensory stimulation.
VR1 confines the user to a structure of interactivity that is preordained by the software, with the purpose of defining the user as a consumer of commercialized VR experiences. In other words, in VR1 the user has the experience of being active, interacting with vivid images in real-time, but all the while maintaining a cognitively passive receptive stance-not unlike a highly engaged teenager engrossed in a video game. VR2, on the other hand, puts the user into an active mode of configuring the software so as to be able to project and share their imagination with others in a virtual world. To summarize: VR1 merely copies experiences and makes them available for mass consumption, whereas VR2 is a tool for tapping one’s own creative imagination, and sharing it with others, providing a real-time experience of co-creating a virtual world.
Figure 1 below illustrates graphically the qualitative differentiation between a VR1 vs. a VR2 experience.
Succession of surface experiences; Deepening into a-dimensional
perspectivity remains intact. experience; subject-object duality is transparentized.
The integral potentialities of VR2 are apparent in several respects. The VR2 user, in constructing and interacting within a highly imaginative virtual world, draws upon long repressed magical and mythical dimensions of human consciousness. The richness and depth of the virtual world can inspire awe and appreciation for the myriad dimensions of consciousness that are co-present all at once. Virtual worlds in VR2 are evocative, requiring the user to consciously become aware of their participation in the figuration of appearances. Rather than repressing or disengaging the user’s consciousness, VR2 turns the lights on, intensifying verition and active imagination. In other words, VR2 could open up human experience to a simulation of integral consciousness, providing a technologically mediated glimpse of a new vision, a new way of seeing the self in relation to the whole.
This is an exciting possibility, since it could potentially provide the capacity for people to express and participate in the creation of aperspectival virtual worlds. However, VR2 differs from VR1 in that it does not simply provide more surfaces to interact with, or a greater span of visuality. Rather, VR2 offers the possibility for entering into the interiority of space, of expanding inwardly into the depth of the image. In VR2, the user can, for example, see how a rainbow arises as an active construction or collective representation, involving both the user’s perception, the image that is apparently distant, and the meaning-giving process that flows between percipient and the phenomena. In other words, the user would have the opportunity to actually experience what a participatory consciousness feels like in a VR2 environment. Experience within VR2 would evoke a meta-awareness of participation-as-observer. What I mean by this is that in a VR2 environment, the user feels and experiences that his or her presence arises together with the appearances. There is a dynamic feel as the presencing of appearance comes into being. In VR2 one experiences, through immediate feedback, how one’s figuration of appearance is implicated in what appears.
The capacity to share and exchange interior images in VR2 shifts the center of gravity away from a fixed vantage point. Indeed, the whole meaning of what it means to be an observer, with a "point-of-view" is radically decentered and transparentized in VR2. This technology actually would allow one to virtually get inside another person’s shoes, to feel and experience the other’s perspective. Not only could a user try on for size another person’s mental models, we can expect that more sophisticated versions of VR2 technology would provide multiple users shared interfaces that would allow any one user to see from any perspective. In what would amount to a collective, improvisational virtual world, it would quickly become difficult to know who was the subject and who was the object. Entering a virtual world of subject-object reversals would be somewhat dizzying and disorienting at first. But the intensity of subject/object blurring experiences would generate a sort of ecstasy, a Sufi dervish-like whirl, and a sense that one was everywhere and nowhere at once.
The most radical implication of VR2 is, I believe, its evocative power to simulate a mode of consciousness in which appearances become virtualized. Apperances within a VR2 world would appear and be experienced as projections of light, as phantoms, including the appearance of the observer that is watching. That which appears to the observer in a VR2 world is recognized as not being the ultimate reality, but as having virtual substance, vivid but transparent, like an apparition, like a mirage, like an echo, like a dream object. It is this transparentizing aesthetic that could potentially open vision into aperspectival knowing by open the viewing angle to the whole.
VR2 can be thought of as ritual technology that not only inspires the collective imagination, but also deepens the intensity of awareness or verition. Instead of vision being refracted and distorted through the cone of perspectivism, instead of only perceiving with the light of reason, ratio opens up into the whole, into the zeroless dimension. What arises is a sort of "a-dimensional" mode of awareness, whose origins are "ever present," prior to the establishment of a viewpoint, prior to the splitting of the perceptual field into duality, prior to the ratio, "before" measurement takes hold. Vision opens perception into the depth of space, accommodating the observer and the observed simultaneously, in a synaresis. As transparentizing of awareness intensifies, expanding inwardly into greater depth, space becomes more accommodating of multiple modes of consciousness.
The hypertrophied rationality so characteristic of the current Information Age is the virus that no software program can cure. Ratio without grounding in a human matrix of the whole will continue to infect every corpuscle of society, its radiance so brilliant, so piercing, so inexorable that it blinds rather than enlightens. Without the proper antidote of a more balanced, integral consciousness, the ratio virus will proliferate, seeking to maximize and diffuse its power both outwardly in our material affairs, and inwardly, into the information matrix of the biosphere. In whatever domain, ratio, now fused with the powers of information technology and cyberspace, can rapidly spread, altering our sensibilities to a point that we may lose touch with our very sense of humanness. Computation now reigns supreme as the dominant metaphor for modeling our understanding of the world—whether of brain functioning and intelligence, economics, or biology. This hyperrational metaphor promises a world of total calculability and control, where the clarity of rationality supersedes the search for meaning. We have been led to believe that ratio, on its own, could solve all our problems. Computation delivers us to the Promised Land of accuracy, but upon our arrival we discover that it is a rather cold and desolate place, devoid of human meaning.
The colonization of cyberspace by commercial interests, and VR1, are technological developments that simply mirror our progressive decrease in intrinsic awareness. The production of endless simulacra, images, and spectacles never get down to the key issue: to realize the true nature of reality. Instead, these media will keep us preoccupied and entranced which, in reality, simply mimics our "real world" ignorance and state of deception in duality. I am sure that VR1 will no doubt appear at first glance as a technical marvel of the highest order, and why shouldn’t it be an object of awe. This technology has the capacity to project a world that in reality has no substance. Yet, despite this technological feat, our consciousness in VR1 will still be habituated to grasping at experiences that we will predictably judge as either pleasurable or hideous. Our intoxication with consuming novel experiences will perpetuate a way of knowing that remains trapped within a perspectival world. We will continue to be mesmerized and taken in by the proliferation of images—real or virtual—all the while mistaking the image, the appearance, for the thing-in-itself. The modern spell of idolatry will not have been broken.
Whether we are inside or outside VR1, we inevitably remain locked within our own self-made 3-dimensional universe, confined to the cyberspace cave, unable to see through it. Lacking transparency and diaphaneity, lacking the necessary temporal intensity and space-freedom, our knowing will remain dimly aware of the virtual nature of our everyday lived experiences. William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace, likened it to a "consensual hallucination." It’s true, cyberspace, but especially VR1, will also appear as a dream, but with a key difference: infected with the ratio virus, the consciousness of the dreamer will continue to be divided against itself. Disjunctive thinking, dominated by a mode of consciousness still caught in subject-object duality, will be bound to a Cyber-Faustian dream—a delusionary state of hubris, where seductive techno-dreams eventually turn into nightmares with real consequences for sentient beings.
In this respect, VR1 stands as a cultural symbol for our hypertrophic rational structure of consciousness. The wizardry of VR1 is a "wizardry of wrong notions," an entrancement to a magical display which results in a proliferation of spatio-temporal displacements, time-space compression, and a dimming of Being (Guenther/Longchenpa, ). The texture of experience in VR1—excitation, nervousness, and acceleration—is very different in quality from that of VR2. In VR2, we are allowed to enter a world that has become more spacious, where time can be slowed down as well as speeded up. We are granted the ability to exercise our imagination and intelligence, to observe the observer, and to use VR technology to help us witness and pay attention to the subtle process of proprioception, both at the level of our body and our thoughts. In this virtual world, the habitual reflexes of mind can slow down, allowing us to cultivate verition, to deepen our capacity for "waring," and to seed the ground for insight to grow.
Ultimately, though, even VR2 depends on the intentionality and consciousness of the user. VR2 is not some magical "techno-enlightenment" machine. This technology is not a substitute for active and disciplined inquiry. However, VR2 can serve as a new cultural symbol, functioning as a sort of souped-up bio-feedback device for the perceptual apparatus of mind. Having the power to transport the experiencer into a virtual world where imagination and speculation can alter all the rules and perspectival conventions for space and time holds great potential for the inception of an aperspectival cultural aesthetic. In this connection, VR2 could function as an intermediate and experimental space for the evolution of consciousness. The next great mutation, the leap into the integral structure, will ultimately mean shifting from experiencing the world (and the self) as substance to experiencing the world as one virtual holomovement, as emanating from an ever present origination, an on-gong presencing of the whole, the pure wizardry of Being.
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