Virtual Reality and the Pioneers of Cyberspace
"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation...A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..."
--William Gibson, Neuromancer
Suddenly I don't have a body anymore.
All that remains of the aging shambles which usually constitutes my corporeal self is a glowing, golden hand floating before me like Macbeth's dagger. I point my finger and drift down its length to the bookshelf on the office wall.
I try to grab a book but my hand passes through it.
"Make a fist inside the book and you'll have it," says my invisible guide.
I do, and when I move my hand again, the book remains embedded in it. I open my hand and withdraw it. The book remains suspended above the shelf.
I look up. Above me I can see the framework of red girders which supports the walls of the office...above them the blue-blackness of space. The office has no ceiling, but it hardly needs one. There's never any weather here.
I point up and begin my ascent, passing right through one of the overhead beams on my way up. Several hundred feet above the office, I look down. It sits in the middle of a little island in space. I remember the home asteroid of The Little Prince with its one volcano, it's one plant.
How very like the future this place might be: a tiny world just big enough to support the cubicle of one Knowledge Worker. I feel a wave of loneliness and head back down. But I'm going too fast. I plunge right on through the office floor and into the bottomless indigo below. Suddenly I can't remember how to stop and turn around. Do I point behind myself? Do I have to turn around before I can point? I flip into brain fugue. "Just relax," says my guide in her cool clinical voice. "Point straight up and open your hand when you get where you want to be."
Sure. But how can you get where you want to be when you're coming from nowhere at all?
And I don't seem to have a location exactly. In this pulsating new landscape, I've been reduced to a point of view. The whole subject of "me" yawns into a chasm of interesting questions. It's like Disneyland for epistomologists. "If a virtual tree falls in the computer-generated forest..?" Or "How many cybernauts can dance on the head of a shaded solid?" Gregory Bateson would have loved this. Wittgenstein, phone home.
At least I know where I left my body. It's in a room called Cyberia in a building called Autodesk in a town called Sausalito, California. Planet Earth. Milky Way. So on and so forth. My body is cradled in its usual cozy node of space-time vectors.
But I...or "I"...am in cyberspace, a universe churned up from computer code by a Compaq 386 and a pair of Matrox graphics boards, then fed into my rods and cones by VPL Eyephones, a set of goggles through whose twin, parallax-corrected video screens I see this new world.
When I move my head, the motion is tracked by a a Polhemus magnetic sensor and the imaging engine of cyberspace is instructed to alter what I see accordingly. Thus, having made a controlled ascent back up through the floor of the "office," I turn to the left and I see red chair with a desk behind it. I turn to the right and I see a door leading out onto the floating platform.
The configuration and position of my right hand is fed into the system by a VPL DataGlove, also with an Polhemus attached to it. The relationship between my hand and the eyephones is precisely measured by the two trackers so that my hand appears where I would expect it to. When I point or make a fist, the fiber optics sewn into the DataGlove convert kinesthetics into electronics. For a decisecond or so, my hand disappears and then reappears, glowing and toon-like, in the appropriate shape.
Despite the current confines of my little office-island, I know that I have become a traveller in a realm which will be ultimately bounded only by human imagination, a world without any of the usual limits of geography, growth, carrying capacity, density or ownership. In this magic theater, there's no gravity, no Second Law of Thermodynamics, indeed, no laws at all beyond those imposed by computer processing speed...and given the accelerating capacity of that constraint, this universe will probably expand faster than the one I'm used to.
Welcome to Virtual Reality. We've leapt through the looking glass. Now what? Go ask Alice.
The Next Big Thing
Money from Nuthin'
"I think this is the biggest thing since we landed on the Moon," says Jaron Lanier, the dread-locked CEO of VPL Research. (Who was 9 years old at that time.) I don't choke on that one. Indeed, I'd take it a bit farther, guessing that Columbus was probably the last person to behold so much usable and unclaimed real estate (or unreal estate) as these cybernauts have discovered.
At Autodesk, the Sausalito publisher of AutoCAD drafting software, they spent the summer of '89 in product development heaven, talking telephone, automobile, airplane, computer. They invoked Edison, Bell, Ford, and Jobs. And there was that loincloth-and-machete sense of enterprise which one might have experienced in the Wright Brothers' Akron Bicycle Shop or Paul Jobs' garage in Mountain View...as well as countless less-chronicled shots at perpetual motion or baldness cures.
Neil Armstrong's small step ran about 70 Billion Real Dollars, but when John Walker, the Hacker King of Autodesk, committed his company to creating the first commercially-available "world in a can," he figured that the prototype "gizmo" could be built for about $25,000.
VPL, the other trading post on VR frontier, isn't much fatter, although internal synergy seems to magnify output. Since their incorporation in 1985, they've had two Scientific American covers and produced the DataGlove, DataSuit, the PowerGlove, Swivel 3-D and VPL EyePhones, the only commercially available head-mounted display. They've been in a couple of big lawsuits (one, just concluded to their satisfaction, with Stanford University), and create, at a distance, the mirage of a fair-sized company going at it pretty hard.
But up close, one can get on a first-name basis with every VPL employee in the course of an afternoon. They have yet to outgrow the third floor of their slightly tacky building at the Redwood City yacht harbor.
While Apple's research gazillions yield such dubious fruit as multimedia and the AppleFax Modem, while IBM replicates methods for chaining bureaucrats to its mainframes, it begins to appear that the Next Big Thing will begin its commercial evolution as humbly as the personal computer.
As usual, the Big Guys have neither the means nor the desire to engage in such open-ended creation as settling the virtual universe will require. Like the Union Pacific Railroad awaiting the fact of empire, they prefer to let the rag-tag pioneers die all over the frontier before they come out to claim it.
When the Altairs and Osbornes of Virtual Reality have made their fatal errors are headed for Chapter 11, IBM probably will issue forth the SolutionStation VR Network or some such and accelerate natural selection in the field.
But as I write this, VPL and Autodesk still have it to themselves.
Actually, they are not the first to make virtual landfall. They are only the first at financial risk. Unlike the first automobiles or telephones their commercial fledglings had the advantage of long incubation by government and Academia.
Virtual Reality, as a concept, found first form at the University of Utah over twenty years ago in the fecund cranium of Ivan E. Sutherland, the godfather of computer graphics and the originator of about every Big Computer Idea not originated by Alan Kay or Doug Englebart. In 1968, he produced the first head-mounted display. This was the critical element in VR hardware, but it was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling...atsome peril to its wearer. Damocles was mentioned.
Besides, once you got it on, there wasn't much to see in there. There wasn't a computer in existence which could churn out enough polygons per second to simulate a reality much more full-bodied than a game of Pong.
So Virtual Reality passed a generation waiting for the equipment to arrive. In 1985 the Japanese finally (and unintentionally) provided us with the right video displays when NASA's Mike McGreevy happened to notice that the Citizen Watch Co. LCD displays in a Radio Shack mini-TV were small enough to fit two in a head-mounted.
I hardly need to detail what happened to CPU horsepower during that period. By 1985, graphics engines of appropriate juice were almost within financial range of entities not involved in the defense of our nation.
Also by this time, NASA had made a strong commitment to VR research, though mostly in the service of "telepresence," the ability to project one's judgement and actions into a robot located some real place you'd rather not be, like space. They were less persuaded by the attractions of unreal places.
The Air Force was also conducting research at Wright-Patterson under the direction of Tom Furness, but most of this was directed at the usual dismal purpose, simplifying the annihilation of non-virtual humans. Heads up displays and looks that kill were their speciality.
For all this expenditure of tax dollars, Virtual Reality still lacked two critical elements: a sense of whimsy and a fluid, three-dimensional method for "grabbing" and manipulating the furniture of cyberspace. VPL was on the case.
VPL's Tom Zimmerman had always wanted the ability to actually play air guitar. It was the sort of desire his "boss," Jaron Lanier, could understand. Jaron had only gotten into computers after concluding that musical composition was not a reliable day job. And his ownership of more than 300 musical instruments might indicate, if nothing else, a probing dissatisfaction with the limits of each one.
Over a two year period, Zimmerman and Young Harvill (also of VPL) created the DataGlove, a hand with which to strum those invisible strings. While they were creating this hardware interface (though the Spandex feel of the DataGlove makes "leisureware interface" seem like a more appropriate term), Jaron and Chuck Blanchard were writing Body Electric, the software necessary to map the actual movements of the DataGlove and eyephones onto the virtual landscape.
The commercial colonization of cyberspace was beginning. VPL's strategy was to build the most powerful simulations current technology would allow, without regard to hardware cost, selling the spin-offs at increasingly affordable prices. Once such item, the PowerGlove, is a Nintendo game controller based on the DataGlove which VPL has licensed to Mattel. (Available this Christmas at a store near you for $85.00.)
Another VPL spin-off product is Swivel 3-D, odds on the best 3-D modeler for the Macintosh. Young Harvill wrote it as a tool to create an artificial reality quickly and easily on Mac before integrating it into Body Electric and sending it over the twin Silicon Graphics CPUs which blow it up to full size.
In September of 1988, John Walker wrote an internal Autodesk white paper called Through the Looking Glass: Beyond "User Interfaces." In it he proposed an "Autodesk Cyberpunk Initiative" to produce within 16 months a doorway into cyberspace...available to anyone with $15,000 and a 386 computer. The project's motto: "Reality Isn't Enough Any More." (I wondered if they considered: "I'd rather have a computer in front of me than a frontal lobotomy...")
Since NASA's Virtual Realities were running in the millions and VPL's in the middle hundreds of thousands, Walker envisioned a significant discount over previous models, but he knew that his customers, if any, would be more bargain-conscious than, say, the U.S. Air Force.
Autodesk's Cyberia Project was running hard by Christmas, 1988, staffed by William and Meredith Bricken, Eric Gullichsen, Pat Gelband, Eric Lyons, Gary Wells, Randy Walser, and John Lynch. When I arrived on the scene in May, they had been keeping hacker's hours for a long time.
And they were ready to make a product. They'd made a promo video starring Timothy Leary. Gullichsen had even registered William Gibson's term "cyberspace" as an Autodesk trademark, prompting an irritated Gibson to apply for trademark registration of the term "Eric Gullichsen." By June, they had an implementation which, though clearly the Kitty Hawk version of the technology, endowed people with an instantaneous vision of the Concorde level.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, things were getting complicated. While everyone who went to Autodesk's Cyberia agreed that Virtual Reality was something, there was less agreement as to what.
Part of the problem was the scale of possibilities it invoked. They seemed to be endless and yet none of them was anywhere near ready to return an investment. But when something has endless possibilities, each of them is liable to dilute down to a point where people start to say things like, "Sure, but what's it really good for." At which point the devoted cybernut might lapse into random syllables, his tongue heavy with all that golden potential.
Virtual Reality induces a perception of huge potency underlying featureless ambiguity. There is a natural tendency to fill this gap between power and definition with ideology. And the presence of such unclaimed vastness seems to elicit territorial impulses from psychic regions too old to recognize the true infinity of this new frontier. Disputes appeared like toadstools in the rich new soil of cyberspace.
Thus, by mid-November, the Autodesk half of the Next Big Thing was down to one full-time hacker: Randy Walser. The Brickens had headed to Seattle to join Tom Furness in a (non-lethal) VR research program at the University of Washington. Eric Gullichsen and Pat Gelband had formed their own VR company, Sense 8. (Get it?)
Within, VPL's soulful band remained as tightly bonded as a Hell's Angels chapter. Without, they found themselves increasingly tangled in legal hassles. They were in court with AGE (a group of New York toy developers who are not just in it for their health), trying to protect their rights to the PowerGlove. They'd just settled a suit with Stanford University. In general, they were having experiences which made me question the axiom that you can't cheat an honest man.
Still, everyone realized that a baby this size would be bound to occasion some labor pains. As the general media began to pick up on Virtual Reality, its midwives were preparing themselves for interesting times. It would be worth it. But why?
To the people who will actually make the future, such a question is beside the point. They will develop cyberspace because, like Mallory's mountain, it's there. Sort of.
There some practical reasons for the settlement of cyberspace. They aren't as much fun to think about as the impractical ones, but they exist. First among them is that this is the next logical step in the quest to eliminate the interface...the mind-machine information barrier.
Over the last twenty years, our relations with these magic boxes have become intimate at a rate matched only by the accelerating speed of their processors. From the brutal austerity of batch-processed punch-cards to the snuggly Macintosh, the interface has become far less cryptic and far more interactive.
There have remained some apparently unbreachable barriers between us and the CPU. One of them was the keyboard, which even with the graphical interface and the accompanying infestation of mice, remained the principal thoroughfare from human perception to RAM. The thin alphanumeric stream which drips from our fingertips and into the computer is a pale reflection of the thoughts which produce it, arriving before the CPU at a pace absurdly mis-matched to its chewing/spitting capacities.
Then there is the screen itself. While a vast improvement on the flickering LED's of the Altair or even the amber text of DOS, the metaphorical desktop remains flat as paper. There is none of the depth or actual spatiality of experience.
After we get past what few documents we can keep on the screen at one time, we are back to the alphabetized hierarchy. We can't pile it, as most of us tend to do in real life. We have to file it. And this is not the way the mind stores information. One doesn't remember the names of his friends alphabetically. When looking for a phase in a book, you are more likely to look for its spatial position on the page than it's intellectual position in context.
The actual operation of human memory works on a model more like the one Saint Thomas Aquinas used. Aquinas, who carried around in his head almost all the established knowledge of his simpler world, is said to have imagined a mind-castle with many different rooms in which varying kinds of ideas dwelled. The floor plan increased with his knowledge.
Nicholas Negroponte recreated a modest version of Aquinas' castle in the 70's. He came up with a virtual office, represented in cartoon form on the screen. One could mouse around to the "piles" of "paper" stacked on the "desk" or "filing cabinet," leafing through them not by the first letter of their subject name but by their archaeological layer of deposition.
The problem was the screen. Negroponte created a flat picture of an office rather than something more like the real thing because that was all one could display on a screen. In two dimensions, the image of desktop seemed a lot more natural than the image of the desk. Thence the Macintosh.
I used to think that the only way around these narrow I/O apertures lay in such heroic solutions as brain implants. I think I was about 14 when it occurred to me that this was the answer. Brain surgery seemed a minor nuisance if it left one with the ability to remember everything.
I suppose I'd still be willing to put a Cray in my cranium, but my faith in technology has moderated since early adolescence. I'm more comfortable with the possibility of an interface which fills the gap between keyboarding and neurological hardwiring and involves no cortical knife-play. Virtual Reality is almost certainly that.
And indeed, Virtual Reality may be so close to the implant side of the continuum that, as Randy Walser of Autodesk insists, it's not even appropriate to call it an interface. It more a place...kind of like Fibber McGee's Ultimate Closet...than the semi-permeable information membrane to which we're accustomed.
Whatever you want to call it, Autodesk's John Walker puts it this way, "If cyberspace truly represents the next generation of human interaction with computers, it will represent the most profound change since the development of the personal computer." Right.
But that still doesn't tell us what it's good for besides extending human quirkiness to the storage of immaterial stuff. After all, most of what humans do with computers is merely an improvement over what they did with other keyboard-bound devices, whether typewriters or calculators. Word processing and numerical analysis will be no easier "inside" the machine than it was outside.
But let's quit being giddy for a moment. We're talking bucks here. Right now a good working platform costs almost as much as a CAT scanner. Who's going to buy one without something like Blue Cross footing the bill? And why?
Alright, there is a reason why Autodesk is involved in this enterprise besides some daydream of the Ultimate Hack. Whatever adventures they might entertain they afford by selling AutoCAD, the Dbase III of architecture. How many architects have dreamed of the ability to take their clients on a walk inside their drawings before their miscommunications were sealed in mortar?
Virtual Reality has already been put to such use at the University of North Carolina. There Sitterman Hall, the new $10 million home of UNC's computer science department, was designed by virtual means.
Using a head-mounted display along with a handlebar-steerable treadmill, the building's future users "walked through" it, discovering, among other things, a discomforting misplacement of a major interior wall in the lobby. At the point of the discovery, moving the wall out was cheap. A retrofit following the first "real" walk-through would have cost more by several orders of magnitude. Thus, one can imagine retrofit savings from other such examples which could start to make DataSuits as common a form of architectural apparel as chinos and tweed.
Given the fact that AutoCAD is already generating about a hundred seventy million dollars a year even without such pricy appurtenances as cyberspace design tools, it isn't hard to imagine a scenario in which developing workstations for virtual architecture comes to look like very shrewd business.
Then there is the burgeoning scientific market. Computers are the new microscopes. Increasingly, they allow us to see into worlds which are not only too small but too weird to bring to human scale before. For example, they are showing us the infinitely detailed order of chaos, never before observable, in a form which makes it possible to appreciate its simplicity as well as its complexity.
Virtual Reality promises the ability to not only see but to "touch"forbidden realms. Again at UNC, work is already quite advanced in which one can assemble complex molecules like Tinkertoys, the attraction or repulsion between individual atoms in the assembly modelled to the scale of human tactile perceptions. The drug industry alone could have uses for such capacity sufficient to sustain a lot of CyberBiz.
One can imagine a lot of heretofore inaccessible "places" in which one's presence might be scientifically illuminating. A Fantastic Voyage through the circulatory system will become possible (with or without Raquel Welch). Or travel to alien worlds. (Thanks to JPL, I have already taken an extremely convincing helicopter ride down the Vallis Marinaris on Mars.)
Then there all the places which have never before had physical existence on any scale: the rolling plains of mathematical topologies, the humming lattice of quantum states, cloud chambers in which mu mesons are the size of basketballs and decay over weeks rather than picoseconds.
The possibility for less sober uses seems equally fertile. One can imagine VR salons, video game parlors for big kids with Gold Cards, in which a central supercomputer provides the opportunity for a score of people to be Ms. Pacman. Or whatever. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and something of an expert on the subject of video games, is already at work on something like this.
The list of possibilities is literally bounded only by the imagination. Working bodies for the damaged. Teleconferencing with body language. Virtual surgery. Hey, this is a practical thing to do!
And yet I suspect that something else altogether, something not so practical, is at the root of these yearnings. Why do we really want to develop Virtual Reality? There seems to be a flavor of longing here which I associate with the desire to converse with aliens or dolphins or the never-born.
On some level, I think we can now see the potential for technology, long about the business of making the metaphorical literal, of reversing the process and re-infecting ordinary reality with luminous magic.
Or maybe this is just another expression of what may be the third oldest human urge, the desire of have visions. Maybe we want to get high.
Drugs, Sex, & Rock 'n' Roll
Boot Up, Jack In, Get Virtual
Technology is the new drugs.
Knowing that Garcia is a sucker for anything which might make a person question all he knows, I gave him a call not long after my first cyberspace demo. Hell yes, he was interested. When? If I'd told him 6:00 AM, I think he'd have been there on time.
He adapted to it quicker than anyone I'd watched other than my 4 year old daughter Anna (who came home and told her sisters matter-of-factly that she been to a neat "place" that afternoon.)
By the time he crossed back over to our side of Reality Horizon, he was pretty kid-like himself. "Well," he finally said, "they outlawed LSD. It'll be interesting to see what they do with this."
Which brings me to a point which makes Jaron Lanier very uncomfortable. The closest analog to Virtual Reality in my experience is psychedelic, and, in fact, cyberspace is already crawling with delighted acid heads.
The reason Jaron resents the comparison is that it is both inflammatory (now that all drugs are evil) and misleading. The Cyberdelic Experience isn't like tripping, but it is as challenging to describe to the uninitiated and it does force some of the same questions, most of them having to do with the fixity of reality itself.
While you can hardly expect people to lay down $15,000 for something just because it shakes their basic tenets, that's enough to make it worth the trip for me. I think the effort to create convincing artificial realities will teach us the same humbling lesson about reality which artificial intelligence has taught us about intelligence...namely, that we don't know a damned thing about it.
I've never been of the cut-and-dried school on your Reality Question. I have a feeling VR will further expose the conceit that "reality" is a fact. It will provide another reminder of the seamless continuity between the world outside and the world within delivering another major hit to the old fraud of objectivity. "'Real'," as Kevin Kelly put it, "is going to be one of the most relative words we'll have."
And that's just fine with me, since so much of what's wrong in America is based on the pathological need for certainty and the idiotic delusion that such a condition can even exist.
Another reason for relating this to acid is the overwhelming sense of its cultural scale. It carries with it a cosmic titillation I haven't experienced since 1966. There is also the same dense shower of synchronicities surrounding it. (I must have run into William and Meredith Bricken ten times, always unexpectedly and sometimes in the strangest of places. Today, as I was typing his name, Jaron called me for the first time in three weeks. Then I felt strangely moved to call Eric Gullichson after a couple of months of silence. He told me that yesterday had been his last day at Autodesk. Etc. Etc. Etc.)
Finally, Timothy Leary is all excited again. Now I don't endow every one of his pronouncements with oracular qualities...I remember the Comet Starseed... but I have always thought that Uncle Tim is kind of like a reverse of the canary in the coal mine. Whenever the culture is about to make a big move, he's the first canary to start jumping up and down.
He's also, like Zelig, a kind of Zeitgeist chameleon. He spent the 40's in the Army. In the 50's, he was a tweedy young college professor, a Jules Feiffer cartoon. In the 60's, he was, well, Timothy Leary. In the 70's, he became, along with H. R. Haldeman, a political prisoner. He lived up the material 80's in Beverly Hills. Whatever America is about to do, Tim starts doing it first.
When I visited him recently, he was already as cyberpunk as he had been psychedelic when I last saw at Millbrook 22 years ago. Still, his current persona seems reasonable, even seraphic. He calmly scored a long list of persuasive points, the most resonant of which is that most Americans have been living in Virtual Reality since the proliferation of television. All cyberspace will do is make the experience interactive instead of passive.
"Our brains are learning how to exhale as well as inhale in the data-sphere." he said. Like our finny ancestors crawling up on land, we are about to be come amphibians again, equally at home in visceral and virtual frames.
The latest bus is pulling out of the station. As usual, Leary has been on it for a while, waiting patiently for it to depart.
Then there is the...uhhhm...sexual thing. I have been through eight or ten Q. & A. sessions on Virtual Reality and I don't remember one where sex didn't come up. As though the best thing about all this will be the infinite abundance of shaded polygonal party dolls. As though we are devising here some fabulously expensive form of Accu-jac.
This is strange. I don't what to make of it, since, as things stand right now, nothing could be more disembodied or insensate than the experience of cyberspace. It's like having had your everything amputated. You're left mighty under-endowed and any partner would be so insubstantial you could walk right through her without either of you feeling a thing. (In fact, when people play tag in Jaron's Reality Built for Two, one strategy is to hide inside the other person's head.)
And I did overhear the word "DataCondom" at one point... Maybe the nerds who always ask this question will get a chance to make it with their computers at long last. (I prefer not to think too much of how anyone who would want to make it with a machine might treat the women in their lives...if any there be.)
Fortunately, I think these dreams of cybersex will be thwarted by their own realization. Yes, it will work for that purpose and it will be easy. But the real point of Virtual Reality, as with life itself, is contact. Contact with oneself alone is certainly a laudable enough goal, but the presence of half a million dollars worth of equipment between that subject and object is neither necessary nor desirable.
Even if Virtual Reality turns out to provide the format for the ultimate pornographic film...a "feelie" with a perfect body...it will serve us better as the ultimate telephone.
Life in the DataCloud
Scratching Your Eyes Back In
There was a man who lived in town
And he was wondrous wise.
He jumped into a bramble bush
And scratched out both his eyes.
And when he saw what he had done,
With all his might and main,
He jumped back in the bramble bush
And scratched them in again.
-Old English Nursery Rhyme
Information is alienated experience.
Since the Sumerians starting poking sticks into clay and claiming that the resulting cuneiform squiggles meant something, we've been living in the Information Age. Only lately did someone come up with a name for it. I suppose that was because we quit making anything else of value. Before that, they just called it civilization.
Indeed, one could make a pretty good case that consciousness, as we define it, arose simultaneously with the ability to communicate its products symbolically. (See The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Brain by Julian Jaynes for related conclusions.)
The Sumerians had a pretty clear perspective on what this stuff was good for. The preponderance of their runic tablets turn out to be, on translation, calendars, inventories, and mnemonic devices for such data as one might need to remember but which was too trivial to merit conversion into the other storage form of the era, epic poetry. They didn't use it to describe anything.
Perhaps they recognized that even the most mundane experience would beggar any effort to describe it if one were serious about creating a genuine simulation.
The Egyptians didn't have any such illusions either, but, in addition to keeping track of cubits and high water, they found symbols useful for their elaborate liturgical purposes. With so many dramatis personae in the pantheon, some method was required for sorting out each one's ritualistic preferences.
The Greeks, as was their wont, expanded the envelope further. To the previously established (and sensible) uses for writing, they added commentary, philosophy, calculation and drama.
Still, they restrained themselves from attempting to simulate experience on paper (or whatever it was they wrote on). One might argue that drama was an effort to do that, but I think that the likes of Sophocles probably just found it easier not to have to personally teach his actors all their lines.
As early as the 5th Century B.C. we hear the first warnings that information might constitute an abuse of experience. Socrates suggested that writing things down might damage your ability to remember them in their proper, full-bodied form. (An admonition we know about since Plato went ahead and wrote it down as soon as Socrates was hemlocked out of the ability to stop him.)
It wasn't until the 17th Century that things really got out of hand. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and fiction was born. From that point, any experience could be plucked from its holy moment in time and pressed like a flower in a book, to be reconstituted later in the imagination of the reader.
The thin, alphanumeric trickle that is language was suddenly thought to be a acceptable surrogate for the boiling torrent of shapes, smells, colors, sounds, memories, and context which amalgamate in the cauldron of a human skull and become there something called Reality. No longer did one have to "be there." One could read about it and get the flavor well enough.
This absurd delusion is now universal. The only reason anyone believes it is that everyone does.
I, on the other hand, began to have my doubts around the time I started trying to create some of this magical information myself. Sometime in the 4th Grade, I began to write about the things that happened to me. For awhile, the approval others showed my efforts was enough to inspire their continuation.
Gradually, however, the effort became painful. The inadequacy of my word-replicas for experience was increasingly clear. I tried poetry. This seemed to work until I realized that it did so because a poem is about itself and thus has no "real thing" to be compared to.
Writing about something continues to cause me nothing but anguish. The symbolic tools are hopelessly mis-matched to their three-dimensional analogues. For example, the word "chair" is in no way like any chair.
Nor does it begin to imply the vast range of dissimilar objects to which one might apply it. You can hop it up with adjectives... "big red chair"...or additional phrases... "big red chair that Washington sat in"...but the result is usually bad writing without much advancement of your cause. I mean, "the big, deeply red, densely-brocaded, Georgian love seat that Washington sat in while being bled by leeches" is still, for all its lugubrious mass, not a chair.
And if it were, it wouldn't move in the way that real things do even when they're standing still. Words just sit there. Reality vibrates and hums. I have a pet phrase for this element of the mismatch: Using words to describe an experience is like using bricks to build a full-sized, operational model of a fog bank.
Perhaps it was a subliminal recognition of this fact that caused America to fall in love with statistics. As a descriptive tool, numbers are even worse than words. They are very purely themselves and nothing else. Nevertheless, we now put everything from flowing water to the human psyche into these rigid numerical boxes and are especially straight-faced as we claim it fits in them.
In doing this, we usually follow a rule I call, with characteristic modesty, Barlow's Law of Real Numbers. This states that the combination of any two speculative numbers by any arithmetic operation will always yield a real number. The more decimal places the better.
Computers have hardly been part of the solution in this area. We pass our measuring grids over pulsating reality, shovel the results into our machines, thrash them with micro-circuits, and pretend that what floats up to the screen is "real."
What computers can do, and have done to a fare-thee-well, is to provide us with a hyper-abundance of such processed lies. Everything from U.S. News and World Report to Penthouse is now a dense thicket of charts, tables, graphs, and %'s. All purporting to tell us something about what is.
But it's all just information. Which, apart from the fact that it's not to be confused with experience, has several problems which Jaron Lanier succinctly enumerated for me: "The first problem is that it's information. The second problem is that it's linear information. And the third problem is that it's false information."
Or, as we say in Wyoming, "Figures don't lie, but liars can figure."
Virtual Reality is probably not going to cure this nonsense any more than television, its one-way predecessor, has done. The global supply of words, numbers, statistics, projections, analyses, and gossip...what I call the DataCloud... expands with thermonuclear vigor and all the Virtual Reality we can manufacture isn't going to stop that.
But it may go a long way toward giving us means to communicate which are based on shared experience rather than what we can squeeze through this semi-permeable alphanumeric membrane. If it won't contain the DataCloud, it might at least provide some navigational aids through it.
Maybe it can scratch our eyes, blinded by information, back in again.