Char Davies
Warren Robinett
David Rokeby
David Rothenberg
Chris Titterington
Response by Chris Titterington

Char Davies

There was a pre-Columbian culture in South America that educated its priests by keeping them in a cave from birth. For nearly a decade the children lived in darkness and silence, contemplating the internal reality of the world. They were then released into the light of day and the flowing reality of nature with its myriad of life forms. This experience must have given them a profound reverence for life — not exactly Plato's allegory. Western culture, on the other hand, has denied its embeddedness in nature for centuries, valuing mind over body, and humans (Western, white, male) over every living creature, categorizing the world as a collection of objects to be subjugated for human use. With such a worldview, it is not surprising that we have made a mess.

And now, just as more of us were hoping the Cartesian paradigm was on its last gasp, virtual reality has appeared. It beckons us further, in lemming-like flight, from the visceral reality of our bodies and our interdependency with nature. It tantalizes us with even more power and control than we have as a species already. It offers us escape from an increasingly desecrated planet into the clean orderly world of our minds. This is not surprising, given the origins of the technology — specifically, the military with its urge for domination and power, and the space industry with its quest to leave the planet earth for untrampeled virgin territory,

Regardless of the name, virtual reality, and all it infers, the inclusive three-dimensional environments of virtual reality are not a reality at all, but (only) a representation of human knowledge. If we create a model of a bird to fly around in virtual space, the most this bird can ever be, even with millions of polygons and ultra-sophisticated programming, is the sum of our (very limited) knowledge about birds — it has no otherness, no mysterious being, no autonomous life. What concerns me is that one day our culture may consider the simulated bird (that obeys our command) to be enough and perhaps even superior to the real entity. In doing so we will be impoverishing ourselves, trading mystery for certainty and living beings for symbols.

We might well become oblivious to the plunder going on around us as we construct a disembodied, desacrilized world in "man's" own image.

Given the dominant values of our society, it is important to remain wary of virtual reality, measuring its potential uses (benefits in communication, education, design, medicine…) against its probable uses and the attitudes these may foster. The technology associated with virtual reality is not value-free. Inherent in three-dimensional computer graphic tools are a host of conventions such as objective realism, linear perspective, Cartesian space, all of which tend to reinforce the Western scientific/mechanistic/dualistic worldview. I have been creating images in virtual three-dimensional space for several years now. For me, the challenge of working with this technology involves subverting its conventions and the ideology behind them in order to make images that can act as antidotes, reaffirming our organic participation in, rather than our separation from, the world.

Warren Robinett — Technological Augmentation of Memory, Perception and Imagination

Sitting naked in the woods, I can remember the past, experience the present, and imagine the future. I can do these things without need of physical materials or devices. However I can do them better using various tools that we have invented.

Memory fades; but writings, paintings, photographs and videotapes endure. Experience is limited to the perceptible; but the microscope, telephone, and ultrasound scanner have expanded the range and breadth of our senses. Imagination lacks detail; but flight simulators and scientific simulations predict what could be, unimpeded by complexity.

With the tools we have created, experience can be recorded, simulated, transmitted, and transformed. To remember and to imagine are different than to experience directly, but our invented aids transform remembering to re-experiencing a recorded past, and imagining to experiencing a simulated future. We are thus now able to project ourselves into the past or future, to distant places, into microscopic worlds and into the invisible.

In the excitement over this new thing called virtual reality, we must not forget that it follows a centuries-old tradition of building devices to augment our mental powers. The head-mounted display offers some astonishing new possibilities, but it nevertheless follows this tradition.

Using a head-mounted display, we will be able to get inside interactive three-dimensional simulated worlds through which we can move and in which our actions have effects. We will be able to get inside and move through three-dimensional scenes or actions recorded at earlier times. We will be able to project our eyes, ears and hands into robot bodies at distant and dangerous places. We will be able to create synthetic senses that let us see things that are invisible to our ordinary senses. These capabilities are all technological methods for enhancing human memory, perception and imagination.

We cannot live without our devices, and so we are cyborgs. The eyeglasses, hearing aids, telephones, hand tools, and automobiles of today may give way to more powerful instruments, but now and tomorrow, these tools are part of us. We cannot now function without our devices any more than we can function without the bacteria in our stomachs.

The image of the cyborg — half human, half machine — conjures up a fear of powerful, intelligent, inhuman creatures. But does the telephone dehumanize? The photograph? The written word? The CAT scan? I don't think so. The electronic augmentation of human mental and physical powers leaves our humanity, our ethics and our judgement intact and in control.

One vision of the future is the human being whose senses and muscles are greatly amplified, a human decision-maker aware and powerful. A competing vision from the field of artificial intelligence is the super-intelligent robot, autonomous, inscrutable and beyond human control. These are two plausible directions that the development of computer technology can take. Personally, I find it preferable to be the cyborg running the show, rather than the pet of a robot.

David Rokeby - Evolution and the Bioapparatus

Virtual reality technologies are only a tiny subset of the possible manifestations of the bioapparatus but provide a useful example of a broader paradigm. Virtual reality implies a virtual universe, a multi-dimensional world that has no physical dimensions. This implies an explosion of space, or more generally, an explosion of potential, and there seems to be a belief that we can exploit this new universe of potential by cleverly outflanking the encroaching consequences of our earlier, spoiled experiments in altering reality.

There is a kind of colonialism implicit in western approaches to the unexplored territories of virtual realities. We seem to assume that virtual space is ours for the taking and that we can colonize this space, imbuing it with our own notions. The privileged ones who design, program, and have access to the technology will define the models and rules, much as the Europeans coming to North America defined the rules and models of the "new world" society. Many humans assume that we can imbue this new world of virtual reality with an implicit sort of neo-humanism, another form of colonialism.

Capitalism and democracy have consciously adopted the tenets of evolutionary theory; evolution is perhaps the true twentieth-century theology. Mating with technology has become in many minds a viable survival strategy. We assume that while mating with the technology and reaping benefits from the advantages of that hybridization, we (or at least the human fractions of us) can, and are entitled to dominate the resulting progeny.

It seems no accident that technology has been a major enabling factor in the rise of the ideologies of both capitalism and democracy. Technology is enhanced evolution; the three forces powerfully reinforce each other. For instance, the recent giddy ascent of democracy and capitalism in formerly communist countries, largely enabled by the existence of communications technologies, could be seen as a convenient way for technology to guarantee itself a conducive environment for reproduction and evolution. Even the resulting acceleration of arms reduction talks could be seen as a welcome change from the investment of capital in the destructive technologies of war into the more evolution-friendly consumer products.

These kinder, gentler technologies are more likely to achieve widespread acceptance and integration as they have proven to be extremely addictive for the consuming public, especially the younger generation of willing bioapparatuses.

While this scenario is perhaps disturbing, I wonder if it does not represent an unconscious solution to the mind/body war. (Even the so-called body consciousness in contemporary western societies often seems masochistic and puritanical in its rigour, as though we are trying to transform our bodies into machines.) Mind and body annihilate each other, leaving only the evolutionary potential of technology.

Whatever the long-term implications of body/machine hybrids, I believe that we will spend more and more time living in virtual spaces, in virtual relationships, even perhaps in virtual time. It would seem that, if general trends continue (and they tend to be self-reinforcing), we will be spending this time living within our own models. We are already capable of (ignoring perceptions that run counter to our conceptions. We will have to take care to avoid massive collective self-delusion within these self-constructed models.

David Rothenberg

Bioapparatus: an awkward word, so do we need it? Have not all tools been extensions of the mind and body, meaningful only as they translate a human motion into something outside our fleshy limits? Is a computer screen, data goggle or data glove any more sophisticated than a hammer, needle or pencil because it can direct our rough movements toward points far more precise than the finger or hand?

Reality is virtual when the significance of life appears in a place we cannot find, a space invisible to the gaze or the touch. My text as I type it lives between the keystroke, the program, the screen and my glance — there is no page, no object, until I release it from the mysterious black box, which recognizes this information in a way far from what I intend: where I see words that connect, it sees only standard characters. Where I wish an idea to come through, it knows only arrays of data to be shifted and stored, transformed and spewed out, without comprehension or question.

It is so much easier to talk about technology than decide what it does for us. We can compare programs, memory, platforms, processing power and debate the advantages offered by competing machines. The words go on and on because there is so much information to be digested and exchanged. But how can we know what to do with it? Can the device contain surprise or only endless options without reason or rhyme?

I play a synthesizer. It can let loose any of a million sounds. But can any sound retain the life of a living tone, which is ever more than input and output, trigger and release? A bird song is never just a sample of a bird song, never mind the digital accuracy. There are endless variables in the continuum of nature, and the more independent and complete the machine, the more it must quantify and re-create, rather than direct, our attention. I blow across the mouthpiece of a flute. There are endless ways for my breath to strike the tool.

The synthesizer may have endless choices as well, but I must first enumerate them. The many facets of the world must be calculated to exist before the logic machine admits them.

When I look up at the stars I have no need to count them to know they are there. Life- device, human thought cannot deny our need for tools. The computer that envisions a new, intangible environment is just another step on the way toward replacement of earth with what some wish it could be. It all looks more human than ever.

We have little choice but to face the humanization of all through the expanse of measure. Beyond that is the unknown which should never be lost, never be replaced. Be not wooed by the endlessness of technical profusion. Treat the new machine as you would any human tool — with respect but only practical admiration.

Chris Titterington

One thing that interests me is our species' fear of its dependence on tools. Sometimes I think I see it expressed in the opinion that we are over-reaching ourselves — putting our survival at the risk of designed rather than evolved behavioural structures and apparatuses. I have no quarrel with this careful wariness of the new, though I think I also see another opinion at work here, one that lies deeper in the human consciousness than mere prudence — and one that I believe is a source of great unhappiness and misapprehension in contemporary ways of conceiving of ourselves and our conduct in the world. That opinion, simply expressed, is that our creations are somehow "just not natural," and it is around this notion that most of my own work is developed. I am also interested in an accompanying constellation of ideas, specifically those that revolve around the sense that mental phenomena themselves are not properly part of nature.

One might trace this idea through the etymology of the words artifice and artificial. In the fourth century, the Syrian Bishop Nemesius was still able to praise man for "his wondrous artificial" works. Later, in Hamlet's famous monologue, Shakespeare was again able to affirm the excellence of human artifice. But by the time of Wordsworth (though I do not saddle him with this simplistic view) the term artificial was almost always compared unfavourably to the natural, and that prejudice continues to exist in present times. The problem concerns the conceptual world. The world we conceptualize about doesn't change — no matter how we order it mentally — therefore our tools are only separate from nature if we conceive them to be so.

Up to this point, I have used the concept of nature in the most conventional modern sense. For me, however, this usage has been damaging. It implies a givenness to the world that must be accepted and not destroyed (read changed) and it also leads to a timidity and ambivalence about my place in the world that creates much emotional and intellectual suffering. At one time, I would have preferred to delete it from my vocabulary (replacing it with history), although I now see that the act would have only been a symptom of the . struggle to regain confidence. One way to promote understanding may be to rethink the Romantic concept of nature, to rebuild the conceptual environment. It is unlikely that the artificial has ever been conceived of as part of the natural — even in medieval or Renaissance times. The dignity and legitimacy of artifice came from its sublimation within the larger set of ideas known as creation. Thus in essence our problem (my problem) today lies in the demise of the essentially religious concept of creation and the resulting isolation of its two former subsets: nature and art.

This need not be so. Consider the great collections made by John Tradescant and given to the University of Oxford in the seventeenth century by Elias Ashmole. These collections mixed artificialia and naturalia seemingly indiscriminately: tools and sea shells occupied the same display cabinets, as did fossils and miniature carvings on cherry stones of Virgin and Child. Those who dismiss this conceptual scheme (or as they see it, lack of it) miss an important point.

Tradescant's collection was indeed ordered — ordered according to the principles of the princely German and Italian Wunderkammeren in which the phenomena of the world were laid out for contemplation as a unified whole. Within this scheme, the invented apparatus of mankind was as legitimately part of the wonder of the world as any other part.

Response by Chris Titterington

It's probably an impossibly bad habit, but with me its incurable. I am going to think about the opinions expressed in the papers of this section in terms of what I take to be parallels in history, parallels specifically of that period immediately before 1800 in Britain. To me this technique allows for a period of "fence-sitting" as I call it, before conviction takes over and I decide on one side or the other. Now, there will be those of you I suspect who dislike that very desire for removed objectivity. But for me, it is valuable and fundamental. I should also say that the very terms of the argument concerning objectivity are central to the issues contended in the papers.

In my assessment, these terms are competing views of what it ideally should mean to be human and, in fact, I am left with the feeling after reading this document that the real issues, or at the very least the really interesting issues, at stake in our group are less about virtual reality and what it can or should be than what human beings should be.

The British are keen gardeners. In the eighteenth century, gardening was also a major passion, but it was more than that — it was also the locus of metaphor, an arena in which competing versions of what humanity should be were fought out. Basically there were three kinds of gardeners: one group favoured the classical style of the softly rounded managed landscape of trees and lakes deployed and arranged in a decorously planned parkland manner. Let's say their symbolic head was Capability Brown. And this group, by the later part of the century, was considered to be very ideologically unsound. By contrast, the ideologically sound group favoured the wild, natural style — carefully neglected parklands simulating rough country. This group could be symbolically headed by Richard Payne Knight. Then there were the total no-nos — the complete outcasts — those who favoured straight lines in gardening, gardens as extensions of the house with vistas cut for miles through forests, even beyond the walls of the grounds. These poor throwbacks were so beyond the pale that in the eighteenth century their names are hard to find. Their gardens belonged to a bygone age and were soon bygones themselves as their owners "got educated" and ripped them out.

Now, amongst the papers of this section, if I may speculatively categorize them, I find David Rothenberg and Char Davies possible Payne Knightists in their implied or stated opposition to the expanse of measure and linear perspective. David Rokeby I cast as a potential Capability Brownite in his softer attitude toward life, to quote him, "within our own models." I suspect that David Rothenberg might object that this is, in fact, closer to his position. Lastly, I see Titterington (myself) and Robinett in the unmentionable division, atavistically lost in the par terre, the knot garden or better the geometrical maze. Well, at least in my own case, I am still fascinated enough by it not to want to rip it out so quickly. I should probably add that, like myself, Mr. Robinett is also attached to the wilderness model favoured by the first group. Is it just perhaps that we both see the par terre as beautiful, too. Well, I mentioned that the garden was the site of metaphor — an area of mental topography that was fiercely fought over — and, amongst intellectuals, professionals and amateurs alike, the other crazed pastime of the eighteenth century was empirical psychology. Here, at least superficially, the group seems to be more black and white. On the one side, let's place the rationalists of the British, perhaps John Locke, but certainly a few nasty foreigners — Descartes and the other French — who were thought of simply as the enemy whose horrible straight line gardening had somehow crept into Britain. These people were confident of the ego, if I may call it that, and reason and consciousness of self. Well, ranged against this position were the British associationist-irrationalists, people like Abraham Tucker and Edmund Burke (to an extent), and also, those such as the poets Woodsworth and Coleridge who had changed sides and come in from the cold world of reason and sequential logic for a so-called warmer world of intuition and the irrational. Well, I have saddled these poor creatures of history with enough caricature and so I am not going to extend it to the present and savagely categorize the authors of the papers of the discussion. But, nevertheless, I do note a relative distrust — perhaps even disgust — concerning reason and ego in some and an unrelative comfort with it or at least less ambivalence in others.

The problem is difficult to come to grips with; it is slippery and elludes grasp but somehow the concept of nature and what is natural is involved or at least invoked, either consciously or not. I believe the nature concept as it stands is unhelpful and confused. It is often a concept trotted out to lend emotional weight to an expressed opinion. Let me try to give an example of what I mean. Char Davies, for instance, while charging western white male culture with denying our embeddedness in nature for centuries, does not recognize that such embeddedness implies that subjugation by "man" is subjugation by another embedded part of nature. Phrased as "nature changing nature," much of the darkness of the original position is alleviated. While this analysis is not particularly sophisticated on either of our parts, it does nevertheless show the emotional use to which the concept nature is put. I find a similar idea in David Rokeby's piece where he appears to use reality in the sense of nature as a given that, in being changed, must necessarily be spoiled. However, our embeddedness complexifies the issue of whether we are spoiling reality or nature by our activities. Of course, we are causing changes that may indeed bring about serious consequences and so spoiled does seem an appropriate term. But there is so often a blanket application of the concept, and I feel all alteration is not automatically bad (read here — in our present value system as not automatically artificial). Davies also uses the idea that a human constructed world would be, and I quote, "a desacralized world" in man's own image. But for something in the human image to be desacralized, humanity must first be desacralized. And I question why that opinion is so automatic, why is it that we do not see the wonder of ourselves. Davies gives another example of this, citing the case of a cyberbird and stating that such a thing is impoverished, having no otherness, no mysterious being, no autonomous life. But I ask why should otherness be a prerequisite of wonder? Have we no mysteries being ourselves? Why should all autonomous life other than ourselves be precious? To me, that cyberbird and its technical hardware is at least the equal of any other phenomena of nature. The point seems to be to rediscover that lost recognition of the marvelousness of our own constructs and not to automatically assume that nature is superior to art.

There is a common fear about the loss of behavioural variety in the export of western machinery and its attendant values — swamping other ways and forms of thinking about things. David Rokeby fills out the scenario, warning that time usually effects a kind of growth on the evolutionary change: in human terms, making good design appear grown, and bad (failed) seem designed. So the loss of behavioural variety puts all the eggs in one behavioural basket, with the ensuring risk that that involved.

David Rothenberg adds to this in that he cites the case of musical notes that must be programmed into the machine in order to exist while there are endless variables in the continuum of nature. This is the classic/romantic naturalist argument — the neoclassical imagination being castigated by romantic landscapists as too liable to produce monotony compared to nature's "infinite variety." The quantigraphic paintbox can produce a million or so colours. But so what? I ask myself. A smaller range produced, seen from the position that does not automatically assume the superiority of nature to art, is wonder enough.

I suspect Warren Robinett's paper is problematic for our group. There are overtones of the conquest of nature detectable in sentences such as, "We will be able to project our eyes, ears and hands into robot bodies at distant and dangerous places." And the two phrases, "human decision maker, aware and powerful," and "I prefer to be the cyborg running the show," sound off alarm bells in many opinions. Contrast this, for example, with Char Davies' statement that our culture has "categorized the world as a collection of objects to be subjugated for human use." Well, I hear those alarm bells too, but I am fascinated by them — fascinated by the spectacle of a mode of life and thought, calling into question its terms of existence. And I'm aware of the left social aims of the anti-ego philosophies and their followers in varieties of deconstruction discourse. But I am fascinated too with the spectacle of self-consciousness manoeuvering into a position of self denial and destruction — ranging from our postmodern fantasy of the self as a kind of individual performance within the world meta-language net, to similar historical events such as the rise of the cult of the primitive, the child and the unconscious in the late eighteenth century.

I am also sure that regardless of the truth of the reality of the self in the world, the presently fashionable conceptions of this are indeed fantasies representing our desires. These desires are, of course, historical and the sum of history is evolution (or change, to rid the word of its presently undesirable connotations). I'm also fairly sure that my own ideas that cast uncertainty around our present questioning of human power and control are also fantasy and desire. But the net effect is for me is to problematize the contemporary automatic or gut objection to the "cyborg running the show" and to the idea of the "human decision maker, aware and powerful."


Nell Tenhaaf: When you speak about denial as a denigration of the self that results in a split, that results in calling nature something that we are not a part of, it sounds very universalized. You describe it as though we all, all contemporary humans, are caught in this kind of construct. But what I am trying to grapple with is whether in fact there aren't those humans who have no problem with denial of the self, who are very confident in their sense of being one with, and therefore having a kind of control over, nature.

Chris Titterington: There are probably lots of groups, even within our own culture. It is not universal; there is a section of the population that perhaps does not feel at one with nature but does not have a problem with so-called subjugation of nature or extension of humanness into nature. It is sort of an industrial, commercial aspect of our culture. It seems to be prevalent mainly amongst intellectuals of one sort of another. I did mean it to be western rather than global.

Kathleen Rogers: I think what you describe is almost an anthromorphic model where there are these hierarchies embedded in western culture through a Judeo-Christian idea whereby we kind of create metaphors, we make things stand for things. To me some of the issues that are very interesting which have to do with gender difference, concern the way in which you embody, for instance, the metaphor of garden, where you talk about this garden and then you have these masculine architects of the garden who are describing, in a way, their own mind set. I find it limiting.

David Rokeby: I think that the direction I come from with respect to the notion of what is natural is perhaps different than a lot of other people in the residency. And that I come to it through a phase of many years of programming and producing and enjoying the production of the artificial. And my questions derive from my own experience of working with the material, with technologies in a very intensive way and feeling the way subjectively, finding myself not trusting myself with technology. Diving into the technology left me with no reference point from which to gauge what I was doing. That reference point may then become projected as nature.

Chris Titterington: There is something in there that is very hard to talk about — when you get into position where you are relative to nothing, the nature concept of reality is invoked. In a sense, whatever we do, we are embedded within nature or whatever is nature. To look for external reference is nonsense if you truthfully believe in embeddedness of humanity within the whole.

David Rokeby: That makes some amount of sense to me, particularly with computer technology. I was isolating myself, looking at my own reflections in a mirror so much so that nothing was left. It was not a brave new world, but it was becoming highly and purely self-referential, like a kind of an infinite regress. That is just my subjective experience. From an objective point one can make lots of different things from it — that doesn't solve my problem of how to live in that context.

Nell Tenhaaf: It is an interesting point David brings up because instead of taking the term embeddedness as a kind of grounding, it's almost like a counter-position to embeddedness. Is this kind of intense self-referentiality embedded? Not really, because it turns back totally onto itself.

Last verified: Sept 16th, 2008.