I am Gregor Samsa

Eric Korn

  • Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold
    Secker, 415 pp, £19.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 436 41212 8
  • Cyberpunk by Katie Hafner and John Markoff
    Fourth Estate, 368 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 1 872180 94 9
  • Glimpses of Heaven, Visions of Hell: Virtual Reality and its Implications by Barrie Sherman and Phil Judkins
    Hodder, 224 pp, £12.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 340 56905 0

In the novels of William Gibson and other writers of cyberpunk, the new SF sub-genre, in the glittery non-realism of the movies, cyberspace is crystalline and neonlit and shiny, a place of infinite depth and detail, of towers and canyons and technicolor hypergeometry, the ‘consensual hallucination shared daily by billions ... a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity ... clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights receding.’

It wasn’t much like that at the Virtual Reality Centre near Piccadilly Circus. But then Gibson’s man is coupled to the computer, brain to brain, while we had to make do with lumpy goggles, like a high-tech condemned man’s bandage over the eyes. We waited in line like brave sheep while the preceding flock of cybernauts sat in steadfastly motionless dodgem cars, their heads swaying and turning wildly as they hunted and hid and ducked and dodged invisible monsters. It was like watching a ward full of alcoholics in simultaneous delirium. Overhead monitors showed us each player’s separate delusional view of the world, a treeless landscape of lumpy hills and squat smooth-walled buildings in which crude cartoon robot-creatures prowled.

This is the available face of virtual reality, some way behind the current state of the art, as practised in research laboratories (academic, military, commercial), and also by the technocrats of various spook, criminal and world-domination-by-2011 organisations. ‘Virtual reality’ is a computer-generated multi-sensory interactive display, a world (a perceptual universe, a phase-space, a game, a matrix, an array) which responds to the commands of its operators (players, citizens) according to the laws of physics, economics or morality or according to alternative rules if the programmer prefers.

The simplest example is the flight simulator, a device that began life as the Link trainer, an enclosed cockpit with stubby wings that dipped and pitched and banked and bucked and generally obeyed and thereby demonstrated and hopefully taught some of the rules of aerodynamics. (Mr Link’s imagination was limited by the technology he was supplanting. There was no need even in the Thirties for the joystick to have moved actual flaps.) Now anyone can sit in a factitious cockpit and watch the clouds obediently dip or wheel, can dodge or destroy the images of enemy aircraft, can go into a spin and at least visually burst into flames. (Doubtless someone will add a seat-of-the-pants heating unit for extra verisimilitude.) The saving in lives and hardware is considerable. And the programmer can import his own morality or not into the heuristic device: in some advanced car-chase games players are penalised for hitting bystanders. The imaginary vehicle can mimic every detail of the response of an F-15: or it can possess everlasting fuel tanks, planet-busting weaponry, or anti-gravity; it can obey the rules of any paradoxical physics you care to choose. (As early as 1971, Myron Krueger was setting up rooms in art galleries with glowing displays that responded to the watchers’ movements, or didn’t, in entertaining ways.)

Currently VR involves head-mounted displays, wrap-around screens, or rooms, involves mainly sight and sound; touch – despite all the talk – can’t yet be convincingly digitised, and smell and taste are still beyond us. Virtual toe-sucking must be a dismal affair. But the sixth sense, muscle proprioception, is available: the Dataglove is a mitten which responds to pressure of the fingers and presses right back. From this to the bodyblanket or the interactive ewe is a short step of the imagination for the psychonauts and futurologists of the California-based magazine Mondo 2000 (ex-pharmacophiles who have seen the light from an LED) but a giant leap for development and marketing.

It is our turn. We enter the future. I had expected to walk upon clouds and move by wishing, but I find a new and more disabling clumsiness as I wave my unfamiliar limbs. I am not Superman but Gregor Samsa. I do not for a moment feel as though my consciousness is situated in a bipedal fighting machine in the world of Exarex, or that my fellow explorer has metamorphosed into one of the three enemy creatures that surround me. Two are being operated by the computer, one by my human friend. I think she’s the red-plated one, but I cannot detect any differences in style or soulfulness. I let loose a few experimental laser bolts, Cupid’s virtual darts, but they bounce off the metalloid hide. I lumber, I dance wooden-legged, I fall off things: this is Turing’s problem as nightmare. I grow indignant: after trying for decades, God knows, to use these legs, this voicebox with sense and grace, why start with a prosthesis I don’t yet need? The world of the chessboard is livelier than this, where I often see my opponent’s malignant grin translocated onto the face of his bishop.

I try to cram myself further into the mind of the monster whose body I temporarily inhabit. I realise that identity problems would be still more acute if my helmet delivered a split-screen image, my subjective view and God, the Overhead Monitor’s view, or better yet my view and my opponent’s. In the near-future, we shall see ourselves as others see us, the target and the target’s target, the loved one’s love.

I find a description of all this, surprisingly, in Anne Carson’s study of Greek lyric poetry, Eros the Bittersweet:

Possibilities are projected onto a screen of what is actual and present by means of the poet’s tactic ... That godlike self, never known before, comes into focus and vanishes again in one quick shift of view. As the planes of vision jump, the actual self and the ideal self and the difference between them connect in one triangle momentarily. The connection is eros.

And again, with uncanny precision: ‘tactics of imagination ... all aimed at defining one certain edge or difference: an edge between two images that cannot merge into a single focus because they do not derive from the same level of reality – one is actual, one is possible. To know both, keeping the difference visible, is the subterfuge called eros.’ Ludus, jouissance or agape maybe, but there wasn’t a great deal of eros in Piccadilly Circus.

Earlier generations, before databases or filofaxes, read books on memory training. Many of these recommended mapping memoranda in a mental landscape, where the scenery was data and dates of battles and popes and deaths of kings. Convert a datum to a rebus or a visual icon and put it in an ordered arbitrary numerical sequence. Luria’s Mnemonist used such a technique, not by choice. He would walk down a street in his mind and see the facts he set out to memorise, each beside its house number, sitting on porches, leaning against gates or laid out in store windows. These techniques may or may not work for the forgetful majority of us; may or may not illuminate the structure of the brain or of cognition; but certainly show the way we think about the mind or about any other data-handling system. We spatialise it: the world as a system of spread-sheets. We construct computers this way, either because that is the way the brain is or because that is the way we have chosen to perceive it.

A computer shuffles quantities, or rather the analogical representation of quantities, from one location to another: these quantities may represent quantities in the real world, or other locations in its memory. Neither in the brain nor in the mainframe need these locations be topographically fixed. The attempt to match thought location with brain anatomy led to phrenology, lobotomy, engram-hunting: centuries of snark-chasing. From no particular part of the brain we arrange the world by making specialist perceptual spaces, which may model, contradict or ignore real space.

We are all quite good at this. If you fiddle with a shortwave radio and find the newsreader from Vietnam is being interfered with by the Vatican, you think of them as near-neighbours in radio-space, and do not think that Ho Chi Minh City is a suburb of Rome. If you drive a car with power steering the link between steering wheel and roadwheel is indirect but not tenuous. A moderately skilful helmsman can manage either a steering wheel or a tiller without fatal muddle. Pilots can learn to pull the stick back or forward to climb. Diplomats and social climbers steer conversations around rocks, whirlpools and Sargasso seas. Exchange dealers operate in money-space, in which a currency out of alignment is a tower that must be shored up or encouraged profitably to fall. Poker players navigate in card-space. These spaces are mostly visual but may contain sound and olfactory clues. The expert has, we say, an eye, a nose or a feel for such things. Cybernetics is the science of steersmanship.

So there is really nothing new about the notion of a cyberspace. What is new is techno-fetishism, the fascination with glittering mimetic feelie-reality, a distraction from new methods of knowledge acquisition based on drabber but more practical applications of hypertext. Only when the real world is inaccessible is it instructive to create a plastic simulacrum: on the surface of Venus, inside a brain, at the heart of a reactor, at the controls of an aircraft not yet built, in the lobby of an architect’s dream. The surgeon can transform his eye into a tiny parasitic worm and explore a three-dimensional visual model of the diseased organ before he spills a drop of blood. A step, just, beyond Nineties technology, and the cybersurgeon views through goggles the transparent and enhanced and hypertext-annotated steric image of the diseased organ; his hands saw the empty air like a mad guitarist, whereupon inhumanly tremorless microknives cut the flesh of a patient, who may be in front of him, or in a hospital on another continent, or trapped in burning wreckage. More prosaically, a tractor could be lighter and more agile and cheaper if the telefarmer sat warm and dry at his console and saved the cost of wellies.

This is not what excites the prophets, however. What they are waiting for is teledildonics. Our machines will do the living and loving for us. Rheingold is sure that telesex will be used not for fornicating with mainframes but for coupling with other humans without any of the disabling complications of physical contact. This is in accordance with the sciomorphic principle, that technical innovations are used to facilitate old ways before they introduce new ways. I’m not so sure. For the fin-de-millennium visionaries of the Californian magazine Mondo 2000, the body is a carnival mask, identity a matter of aesthetic choice.

The now familiar notion is that we will don goggles to see the loved one’s image while the cyberglove with its pressure-gauges and sensors detects the movement of our fingers over the surface of the virtual playmate, encodes it and transmits signals which in turn will elicit a pattern of caresses on a distant dermo-stimulatory digital duvet. When we send our simulacra to consort with other simulacra, the possibilities for concealment, substitution and other subterfuge will be Decameronic. As we chastely kiss the forehead of our teleinamorata we may wonder if the receiver’s tactile blanket is being worn upside down. Or on the floor or on the family pet. No Prince Charming ourselves, we will try not to think that we may be french-kissing a frog. ‘What will happen to social touching,’ asks Mr Rheingold, ‘when nobody knows where anybody else’s erogenous zones are located?’ Reading the personals on the electronic noticeboard (Blocked belletrist seeks triste belle, Oralist wants megabyte, Hacker needs Hackee) we will know the advertiser may not be the age, class, sex or profession that they claim to be, perhaps not even the same species, indeed not persons at all. And since the communications need not be played out in real time, telephilanderers with short memories may suddenly recall that they are making love to themselves.

Soon the experience will seem unmechanical, like the use of other sensory extensions. When you quarrel on the telephone with your lover or your bank manager, it is no consolation that the anger is merely a vibratory movement of a microphone, any more than we think, when we see them eye to eye, that they are no more than electrochemical charges arriving from the optic nerve.

This, hopefully, will not come too soon. So entrancing are these speculations, so thrilling the existential terrors, so delicious the moral outrage, that it is easy to forget that much of the hardware is still imaginary. Pressure sensors are large and crude and expensive, the cyberduvet, interactive clyster and the intelligent condom are decades away. In the state of the current art, undressing a cyberdoll or a microchippendale would be like using those fairground cranes that used to drop the fountain pen and the watch and proffer at best a lapful of popcorn.

Rheingold is indefatigable, and tolerably clear, in tracing the ancestry of this showy new hybrid. Graphic display and visual methods of data-handling are on one line; on another, notions of interfacing with computers and through them ‘telepresence’ (and that remarkable unannounced ‘hole in space’ by which social performance artists briefly linked New York and Los Angeles); and more distantly, carnival notions of the immersive environment: Cinerama, sensurround, multimedia, and that curious one-off 3-D-smell-and-rumble machine on the pier at Santa Monica; theme parks, world’s fairs, ghost-trains, dolls’ houses, ecodomes, microworlds and Huysmans’s dream of travel without diarrhoea or visas.

Rheingold sings unsung or only locally sung heroes, prophets honoured in countries of their own manufacture. Licklider, the psychoacoustician who first used the computer not to crunch numbers but to make models; Myron Krueger and his ‘gazetracking responsive environments’, screen-lined rooms that make unexpected responses to the audience’s movements; Jaron Lanier, the Rastafarian cyber-Hobbit who has supposedly been inventing for decades a new computer program that will replace all human and animal language; likewise acronyms and programs with their own personalities: Glowflow, Metaplay, Psychic Space, Videoplace, Critter and Videodesk (a keyboardless computer that responds to your hand gestures by producing the image of a keyboard on or around which you can then work); futurologists, freaks, Timothy Leary and other state-of-the-art gurus (‘if our destiny as organisms is to become wetware symbiotes of our own tools’); virtual personalities, cyber-gloves, flight simulators and cybernetic cadavers (for teaching surgery); Rheingold has clambered aboard, donned, interviewed or otherwise interfaced with them all.

Sherman and Judkins provide some of the same material, a lively update, a wholesome desire to make our synthetic flesh creep and the cheeky claim to be the first to consider the social impact of VR. Cybercrimes and cyberprisons, cybersex and cyberpsychoses. What will it be like to experience the crucifixion in an amusement arcade? What about the re-entry problem? And what will the Mafia do?

In England, Rheingold was entranced by what he found in the workshops of Fluck and Law, the brilliantly innovative puppeteers and now roboticians of Spitting Image. Just recently someone has created a virtual-reality puppet, a screen image that dances on conceptual threads to the movements of the operator’s hand in a digital glove: to re-invent string, so close to the millennium, takes a genius of sciomorphism. The same sort of perversity is shown by computer criminals: in an age when money buys information they use informational brilliance to acquire wads of dirty notes. Hackers and other cyberpunks are truly the cyberdumb, delinquent train-spotters in the age of the space rocket, with personalities lagging an epoch or two behind their technologies. They see themselves as jolly pirates or romantic anarchs, and are generally, and accurately, seen as a seedy lot with ill-formed social behaviour and bad dietary habits. Hafner and Markoff’s Cyberpunk tells you as much or more than you care to know about three groups of hackers: first Kevin Mitnick, a compulsive obsessive who simply seems unable to stop breaking into giant systems but uncertain of what to do when he gets there; his satellites, Susan Thunder, sometime prostitute, valued by the mob for ‘social-engineering skills’, which meant bamboozling janitors and secretaries and other human inconveniences, the deluded Roscoe and Lenny DiCicco, the betrayed disciple, later Judas; next a German group who thought of themselves as hacking against security-crazed Western imperialism and ended up selling trashy industrial programs (sometimes available for free) to credulous operatives from the Stasi and the KGB; finally Robert Morris, a genuine sorcerer’s apprentice who more or less accidentally more or less shut down North America.

I call in at the newest local arcade for a fix and update. And find an oddly-slanted world-view with gigabytes lavished on witless graphics, millions of yen for development of which about 11p goes to the translator: ‘CHASE A DREADFUL CRIMER BEING ON THE RUN! GET ABOARD YOUR OWN BOT AND BRING FREEDOM TO EARTH!’ I take comfort from the fact that in an enterprise designed to abolish human error, and incidentally everything human else, the human factor still intrudes, ensuring that the Last Program will be under-funded, will jam up in rush hour, develop a squeak, have warts, get bored, let in the rain. It’s an interim comfort, at best, that the lumpy, grainy, jerky images, the slow responses, the fetishist’s paraphernalia are a long, long leap behind Direct Retinal Imaging, TotalStim (TM) and the Orgasmotron. Futurologists’ promises, or premises, ignore the nature of the future. The French Government did not guess (or if it did it kept schtum) that Minitel, the harmless computer telephone directory, would turn into an electronic Bois de Boulogne where everyone can be whatever sex they choose. Everyone predicted E-mail and no one predicted the Fax. Be sure more rancid surprises await.