Thinking more about uses of the word simulacrum (and plural form simulacra), I keep thinking I’m really on to something. I don’t mean that I’ve had some huge major profound insight, epiphany, revelation, or something, it’s just that so much of what keeps grabbing my attention in recent years really fits the word. It’s a festival of fake.
Many years ago, I had quite an interest in the subject of virtual reality. I was pretty interested in what was going on in that area, and spent a lot of attention and time on forums on Compuserve (before the WWW changed what “online” meant quite a bit), including ending up being the Sysop of what was the newly formed Virtual Reality forum, and reading (and occasionally posting to) the Usenet sci.virtual-worlds newsgroup. I eventually wrote roughly one-third of the book Virtual Reality Creations (while co-authors Dave Stampe and Bernie Roehl, working partners, wrote the rest, the main body of the book), published by the great, but now long-defunct, Waite Group Press.
[Side note: WGP is long defunct, but certainly did not fail. Founder/publisher Mitchell Waite sold his wonderful and very successful little niche publishing company to a large publishing corporation, thinking, based on what turned out to be empty promises, that it would be a great thing because of the greater resources and reach of the large publisher, who, it turned out, simply wanted to absorb and then dissolve what they saw as pesky competition.]
I drifted away from interest in the subject for assorted reasons, but one significant reason was looking around and thinking that an awful lot of people were not keeping it all in very good perspective. You could say that more than a few people were just seriously unhinged about the whole deal, and this wasn’t just a matter of differences between what they imagined as possibilities compared to the practical reality of computing hardware capabilities of the early nineties. Some people got just plain nuts about the fantasies. I still remember having a glimmer of awakening and realization about this when I read an online comment from somebody saying “one day, we’ll raise our children in Virtual Reality!”.
That was a real “holy shit!” moment. I’m still not sure what they were actually thinking about that.
I was veery interested in what was going on in VR and where it might go as the hardware developed and allowed some possibilities to catch up with imagination. I could see great potential in fairly practical terms in doing various kinds of simulations, anything from things like engineering and design mockups to things like driving and flight simulators, and I thought there were interesting possibilities in doing things in terms of art, a brand new and incredibly broad medium of creative imagination.
I started to realize, especially with the encounter with what I just mentioned, that there were possibly some very unhealthy possibilities, with people maybe getting a little unhinged about what they thought and wished, about what could be done and where it should go. Some of what I’m talking about was found among the Mondo 2000 crowd, on display in that long defunct magazine, and quite a lot of the character of that little subculture was summed up by the title of a book that came out of it: Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge: Cyberpunk, Virtual Reality, Wetware, Designer Aphrodisiacs, Artificial Life, Techno-Erotic Paganism, and More.
I was thinking about people being able to interactively check out design work without the expense and time of physically making and then altering prototypes and mockups, or even having to build the actual physical article to see how it would work out. I was thinking about things like vehicle simulations, to allow practicing and trying things operating an aircraft or car, easily, immediately, without all that goes with it in the physical requirements and costs (and results of mistakes and mishaps). I was thinking in terms of interesting entirely new artistic creations that involved people being able to perceive the work from virtually inside the work, an artificial environment of some sort that would be interactive and dynamic.
I began to realize that for a lot of people, a few too many, perhaps, the promised and imagined future of Virtual Reality might be less about practical tools and new media of works of creative imagination, and more of an opportunity of opening the door to evading actual reality, leaving it as much as possible. It was rapidly becoming apparent that for quite a few people, their notions of the future of VR was in being a fantastic new route into more realistic fantasies and delusions. As I said, I never did quite get a clear idea about what somebody was thinking when they talked about raising our children in virtual reality. I could certainly imagine there being some interesting developments in educational tools, for example, but I started to wonder about what some people might imagine, like, never mind going outdoors to play and explore the world around you, just put on your head mounted display and headphones and immerse yourself in the Virtual Park.
It isn’t a big stretch to imagine people deciding (not just for their kids playtime and learning, but for themselves, too) that if the reality of the environment they are in is unpleasant or boring, just go into the pretend virtual world, where “reality” is whatever the software and programming makes it. Is the world around you a wretched toxic wasteland devoid of natural life and overwhelmed by garbage, waste, and pollution? Just go play in the virtual forest! It’s all good, dude!
Today, you don’t see and hear much about Virtual Reality as a subject, almost like it’s some sort of passe cultural fashion item (which, for some people, it seems to have been). In its stead, you could regard some things around now as kinds of substitutes for what people were imaging 20-25 years ago, a sort of “close enough” semi-VR, like online gaming and Second Life as “virtual worlds”, even though that stuff, as impressive as they are in some ways as technical acheivments, are nowhere near what people imagined as full-immersion VR. You can find a thread of teetering between genius and mad-scientist delusional lunacy in people yapping about artificial intelligence in Ray Kurzweil Singularity fantasies about uploads of self living forever in digital consciousness.
Much closer, present, and immediate, we have plenty of things that are right here and now, and more mundane, in people avoiding reality with electronic device amusements. There’s plenty of that, in people who seem to regard the rectangular screen of a television as being more “real” than the actual reality around them.
Never mind full interactive surround of a simulated 3-dimensional virtual world in a head mounted display, now an amazing portion of the people around us seem perfectly happy to narrow their tunnel vision to an even tinier screen, compared to a TV, in the form of their latest “smart” phone pocket digital wondergizmo.
Conscious cognitive awareness of reality? Where can I download the app for that?
People can sit and watch the TV screen while the barrage of market data swirls before their eyes, while talking heads chatter on CNBC (or maybe Fox Business Network, for people whow think that CNBC is part of that “Liberal Media” they keep hearing about), and seriously think they have a grasp on the economy, and that “the economy” is just swell, grand, peachy. Since the last time I mentioned the ongoing phantasms of the stock markets, the Dow Jones Industrial Average magic number dropped back below the 17,000 threshold that got people all excited just before the July 4th holiday of Independence Day. Now, it’s back above that number and I suppose that the financial news talking heads are all jazzed up again about new record highs.
People are just swimming around in all kinds of assorted pretend alternate reality substitutes.