"...good enough for the man in the pseudo-street."
We are getting very good at making things look real. Emerging technologies involving electronics and computers may soon create synthetic perceptual environments (such as what goes on inside a movie theater) which are indistinguishable from, and confoundable with, natural perceptual environments (such as what goes on outside the movie theater).
A natural environment provides a blend of sensory information (sights, sounds, feels, and so forth) from which we ordinarily infer the existence of a external world of objects in relation with each other, which objects are the thought to be the ultimate causes of those sensations. It is that outside world of bedrock objects and facts about those objects which constitutes "physical reality."
In a synthetic perceptual environment, which is called cyberspace,sensory information is provided to the subject by machines. The best of these machines now consist of tiny projectors of visual and auditory data (miniature TV screens and headphones) which are mountable on our heads, worn as a sort of helmet. The projectors create 3-D vision, and surround-sound, and are shortly expected to create kinesthetic sensations (bodily feels) as well. The projectors are managed by computers, and the subject-user has control over the computers. This creates an interaction between the subject-user and his perceptual environment. Pulling on the throttles changes that environment.
The subject-user at the controls of these devices will infer the existence of a countless number of equivalent, alternate realities — each apparently real. Each virtually real.
The expression "virtual reality" designates the technical processes by which such convincing synthetic perceptual environments are created, and signals an important human response to these environments, which is to consider them real.
Obvious uses for the new machinery have suggested themselves, including the training of personnel for performance in esoteric circumstances (like the piloting of jet aircraft, in which context the earliest "reality simulators" were developed); the creation of exploded renditions of bodily organs on the basis of Catscan and like data; the education of students, using full-immersion techniques; the perfection of the latter-day electronic game, in which computer programmers play God; and players play at life, instead of being stuck in one; the liberation of users from various media-based tyrannies such as network TV, and Time Magazine.
There are institutions already concentrating on the development of the new devices, and lively popular discussions on what these devices may mean for the man in the street on the one hand, and the man in the pseudo-street, on the other.
Our concern in the paragraphs following here is for one of the men in the street, who is the philosopher, who has monitored debates on the matter of what is ultimately real, and what is not, for centuries. These debates will have to reckon with the eventual performance and acceptance levels of the reality simulators, which may be very much higher one day than we now anticipate, and to clarify (among other things) what it is we will mean in the distant future when we classify something as "virtually real."
Some of this latter-day metaphysical thinking can be forecast on the basis of what we already know, and on the basis of what we can see (or think we are seeing!) just around the corner. The most important elements of that forecast are given in the essays which follow here.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.