Click here to read the entire Chapter "Natural Artifice" with contributions by Char Davies, Warren Robinett, David Rokeby, David Rothenberg and Chris Titterington.

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.

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Put online: October 2017. Last verified: Nov 6th, 2017.