What is “real” anyway? – An essay by Extropia DaSilva

This fantastic essay by Extropia DaSilva is kindly reprinted here with her explicit permission. It makes for very good reading, and goes straight to answering the difficult question of what reality is. – Gwyn

What is ‘real’ anyway?

An essay by Extropia DaSilva.

It’s probably the question that is put to every SL resident who creates and sells products in-world. “But why should anyone want to pay for something that’s not real?” But how are we to judge what is real and what is not? That might sound like a silly question. After all, each of us was born in RL and have lived there all our lives. Surely, we must be overqualified to pass judgement on what is ‘real’? To see why this may not necessarily be so, I will describe RL as I see it right now. I’m in a garden. I see plants, shadows, blue sky… Stop. That sounds like reality, but what if I were to describe an environment in SL? I might say that I’m standing near a waterfall that cascades down past a statue of the Buddha… But here one might object and say that this does not describe the reality of SL at all. In reality, SL is not islands and waterfalls and what-have-you. SL is code; zeros and ones. Its electrons carrying information from which a computer constructs a reality. But now let’s go back and re-consider how I described RL. That description was based on what I saw, what my brain computed based on the information gathered by my senses. How would reality appear if one could step out of one’s head and view it as an objective (rather than a subjective) observer?

Unfortunately, this is a very tricky question to answer because nobody has ever known objective reality. Our brains are not in direct contact with the world. They are enclosed and isolated from it in that black box known as the skull. So when we talk about reality in terms of what we can see, what we can feel, these things are the product of a model that exists only in our heads- a virtual reality, based on information gathered by our senses. And what medium carries this information? Electromagnetism.

Now, in some parts of the world, the Internet is transmitted over the air, wirelessly. With the right equipment, you can pluck the Net (and, therefore, SL) out of the ether. And as we have just seen, our eyes can also be regarded as instruments designed to tune in a particular wavelength of electromagnetism. We could therefore imagine that our eyes tune into a different wavelength: That which enables homes equipped with wireless Internet to tune in on SL. Furthermore, we can imagine that computers tune in on visible light, showing us what we call RL, only now we argue over how real these images are…

But really, such arguments make as much sense as arguing over which radio broadcast is real. It’s all just information interpreted by appropriately-tuned equipment. Now one might object to this description of the eye as an instrument comparable to a wireless receiver. If the eye is to be compared to anything, it must be a camera, objectively documenting reality? Partially, yes. But studies into how the brain turns the raw information gathered by our senses into the sensations of everyday experience forces a rethink into how ‘objective’ our model of reality is. Although we have the illusion of receiving high-resolution images from our eyes, what the optic nerve actually sends to the brain is just outlines and clues about points of interest in our visual field.

For example, one group of cells known as ganglion cells sends information about changes in contrast. In all, the optic nerve carries about twelve output channels, but each of these carries only minimal information about a given scene. We then essentially hallucinate the world from cortical memories based on the (relatively) sparse information gathered by the 12 output channels carried by the optic nerve.

Earlier, I said that it is very hard to describe RL objectively, because the world we know is a virtual model that exists only in our heads. But it is possible to conduct experiments that reveal our reality to be inherently subjective. In the 1930s , James Gibson ran an experiment in which a subject was asked to close his eyes and stroke a straight metal rod. Then, he was asked to open his eyes, whereupon he saw a different rod, this one bent. Again, he was asked to feel it and it felt as bent as it looked. Not especially surprising… but in both cases it was the same rod! It only appeared bent because a wedge prism was distorting the image of it. So why did it feel bent as well? Because vision redirects the tactile perception so that no conflict was experienced.

Other experiments have shown that when size and shape perception is made to conflict between the senses via the introduction of distorting lenses, perception conveyed by active touch is modified to conform to visual perception. Notice that, when the experiment is conducted, there are two conflicting opinions concerning the nature of reality. The subject understands the rod to be bent and the experimenter understands it to be straight.

One might say that, given the fact that the experimenter is aware of the contrivances fooling the subject, his view of reality was more accurate. But we are not always aware of just how subjective our reality is. You don’t have to set up elaborate experiments to see that we each hold different (sometimes conflicting) concepts. Each of us posesses the VR-generating machine known as the brain, but every single one is wired up differently. The way each brain wires itself is inherently an evolutionary process and the result is that the information gathered by the senses gets filtered through whatever cultural conditioning we have been exposed to.

In the culture I was brought up in, one is taught to regard dreams as imaginary worlds and not real like the world we waken to. But other cultures regard their dreams as worlds no less real than RL. From what we have learned about the brain as VR machine, now this view is not so daft. Both dreams and RL are simulations. When you are conscious of a visual image during a dream, the same parts of the visual cortex activate that you use when you watch something while you are awake. That is why some dreams have fully-convincing visual reality.

There is, though, a crucial difference between dreams and reality. RL has continuity. We are where we are today as a consequence of choices made in the past, both by ourselves and others. Dreams are not like that. You find yourself in a situation with no ‘backstory’ (so to speak) to explain how and why you are there. When you awake, nobody else will have shared your dream and upon returning to sleep a new dream awaits. With no sustained cause-and-effect, it is little wonder that I don’t regard my dreams as real like RL.

But now imagine there exists a group of people for whom the situation is rather different. These people enter a VR world where cause DOES precede effect. What is more, they are in contact with people who share the experience, who comment on what happened yesterday and plan for tomorrow. What if our dreams were like that? Alternate but consistant worlds populated by people with whome one share the experience? Surely, we would not treat this world as any less real than RL; even if, in this world, one can fly and teleport… Ah yes, you guessed correctly. This hypothetical world is SL!

That some people tend not to regard SL as ‘real’ is (IMO) a product of two misunderstandings. One regarding how videogames work and the other regarding what purpose VR serves. People who don’t play videogames often dismiss them as boring, whch can seem strange to any player who has been captivated by great game design. I think this is because the nonplayer thinks games are comparable to television programs and films. And why not? They run on TV. And if it is dull to watch, it must be dull to play.

However, the fact is that watching videogames being played is inherently boring, NOT because they ARE but because they work differently to films. Where the latter is concerned, the story is projected out to the audience but the reverse is true of videogames. We are drawn in. To draw the player into the gameworld, videogames exploit a truth about the brain that is even more surprising than the fact that reality is virtual. The brain does not know where the body ends and the world begins. It seems hard to believe, because each of us has such a strong sense of self-identity; of occupying a particular place in space and time. But remember that the brain does not really know or sense the world directly. The only thing it knows is the pattern streaming in on the input axons. Your perceived view of the world, including your sense of self, is created from these patterns.

Studies by neuroscientists have revealed our sense of self to be a lot more flexible than it feels. As you manipulate your in-game persona via the game controller, your brain changes its expectations to accomodate the new patterns of tactile input, so that your avatar is literally incorporated into your body map. This symbiosis between the player and inworld representation is the key reason why good games are so great to play and so dull to watch. When we watch a film, it is a given that there will be characters with human personalities because, without people to identify with, the story would not be interesting. But plenty of games can just as easily feature falling bricks or coloured blobs and still be compelling, because the player herself provides the human interest in that her skills are being constantly evaluated by the game. By involving the player in a direct way, videogames can be much more abstract than a movie or novel. And games featuring human characters deliberately avoid giving the character too much individuality because players with diverse personalities will ‘fill in the gaps’. But to not actively play these games is to watch an empty shell run around for no aparrent reason.

The notion of being ‘sucked in’ to a virtual world brings us to the second misunderstanding, which is the primary purpose VR serves. The term tends to conjure up images of people with their heads encased in strange helmets, catatonic while they act out imaginary fantasies. To be fair, this image does contain a grain of truth. VR was born as a movement and medium back in the late 80s and early 90s, and it did indeed seek to create head-mounted displays that would immerse people in computer-generated worlds. The idea (aparrently) never really caught on. Was this because the graphics of the day could only handle crude environments, leading to boredom? Was it because the hardware could not track head movement smoothly enough, thereby inducing motion sickness?

Well, these did play a part but the real reason was that you were alone in these simulations. As Bruce Damer noted in ‘Global Cyberspace and Personal Memespace’, “VR and those that supported it largely ignored the fact that human beings are social, communicative animals”. No wonder that these empty worlds soon lost their novelty value. But to say VR failed is as mistaken as saying artificial intelligence never came to anything. Actually, AI is everywhere, spun off into thousands of applications deeply embedded in the infrastructure of every industry and performing useful and specific functions that once required a human being. What we don’t have (yet) is the AI that can act with all the subtelty we associate with human intelligence.

The same is true of VR. It too has spun off into MMOGs, MUDS, MOOs, single-player videogames, online worlds. The telephone has enabled auditory VR for over a century and in its latest incarnation as cellular phone has enabled text messaging networks and a list of new phrases: “Cell dancing”, “Smart mobs”, “Drunk dialling”. What we don’t have (yet) is the ability to jack into totally immersive worlds ala ‘The Matrix’. One word unites all these diverse spinoffs of VR and that word is: Communication.

And this brings us back to the question of what is ‘real’ and what is not. I included the telephone in the list because to the 19th century enthusiast it really was considered auditory VR. Today, it’s just part of the social infrastructure. Nobody would suggest that the interactions we have via phone or text are not ‘real’. Phones connect us to only a few people at any one time. But some of the applications listed above (most especially MMOGs and online worlds) allow one to interact with up to a million inhabitants, engaging in any social or business negotiation you can think of. And yet, for some people these relationships are not “real”. I think this stems from an ability offered by these VR applications that is not available on the phone: In an online world, you don’t have to be the person you are in RL. Sherry Turkle wrote in ‘Wither psychoanalysis In a Computer Culture’, “in cyberspace, as is well known…the obese can be beautiful slender, the beautiful plain”. Bruce Damer described the virtual lives of a boy who “in one world is a mayor of a town, in another a vandal and a thief”. This flexibility breeds a certain amount of distrust. Is this person REALLY a Brad Pit lookalike? Is that person my daughter chats to online really another little girl?

Again, one can’t deny that people have been let down when they ‘flesh met’ their online partner and paedophiles do lurk in chatrooms. But sociologists and psychologists who have studied the nature of online interactions have found that, generally speaking, communicating online is more conducive to openess than a face-to-face rendevouz. Philip Linden, interviewed by Tim Guest for his column in Edge, said “I think people come to virtual worlds sometimes because they think they can be more anonymous and hide behind a pretend identity… but SL is going to pull a little more out of you than you wanted to say”.

Why is this? Most experts agree that it is all down to the ‘hyperpersonal effect’, a term coined in 1996 by Joe Walther. When communication is conducted via written messages, we do not have the cues we rely on to form impressions, such as mannerisms and tone of voice. This frees people from worrying about how they look and sound and it requires them to concentrate on imparting meaning through words. Shielded from disaproving body language and knowing a swift exit is a mouseclick away, people tend to be more open and honest in online encounters.

What about people like that boy Damer talked about? The one with a different persona in different worlds? Here too, the predominate theme is ‘communication’, only its communication between the different facets of his society of mind. We all have personalities within us that are difficult (even impossible) to express with our RL bodies and environments. But in online worlds we can design avatars that better suit these repressed personalities and try out situations we would shy away from in RL. Damer hoped “This experience will help that kid decide who he wants to be an adult”. Plenty of single-player videogames offer opportunities to explore facets of our personality (the jury is out on whether this encourages anti-social behaviour or provides a safe outlet) but I wish to talk about another opportunity that awaits us.

When my niece was born, I thought about how everything she would sense would be new. Birdsong, the feel of grass, the sight of a flower, what she was physically capable of. All these were unknowns awaiting discovery. But then it ocurred to me that her brain not yet be developed enough to appreciate these things. By the time it was, so much novelty would have faded into the background as unnoticed familiarity. When was the last time YOU really noticed how amazing a flower is? I think that one of the things that makes a videogame so captivating is that it puts you in touch with the infant you once were, born into a world where everything is an experience waiting to happen. The difference is that now you can appreciate the world. Perhaps it is the simple joy of discovery that is the reason why videogame players hardly ever consult the manual. Rather, they prefer to mash buttons and see what happens. It might seem to be a random process but it is anything but. Through trial and error, the player builds a model of the underlying game, based on emperical evidence collected through play. Thus, the player learns what is possible in the world in a manner akin to that he or she used to define possibility in RL as an infant. Esteemed game designer Will Wright sees the videogame generation adopting “a fundamentally different take on the problem-solving approach of their parents… The fact that they’re learning in a new way means they’ll treat the world as a place for creation, not consumption “.

SL is, of course, a world that was built to nurture creation from the very start. But equally the firm roots it has in videogame evolution has ensured an influx of inhabitants with the mindset Wright sees developing from the hypothesis, experiment, analysis cycle of gameplay. No manual could do SL justice. It would be out of date within moments. Rather, the 100,000 inhabitants rely on Clarke’s Second Law of Technology: “The only way to discover what’s possible is to venture a little way into the impossible”. With no pre-defined rules telling us what we can and cannot do, we must discover the limits for ourselves. And, in my experience, they keep getting pushed further back.

We began this essay with the question, ‘what is real?’. But maybe the retort “it’s not real” should not be taken to mean “it does not exist” but rather, “It is of no consequence”. SL most closely resembles a videogame, something you play. It is those words, ‘play’ and ‘game’ that trivialises the impact of VR worlds in some people’s minds. “This fixed relationship between games of any type and values such as innocence and trivia skews any potential political or social debate about games” wrote Ren Reynolds. But just look at how many of our assumptions have not held up under scrutiny. We think we live in objective reality; neuroscience shows we do not. We think online relationships are inherently untruthful; in actual fact the opposite is true. We fear that videogames are breeding a generation of destructive youths; it is forging a new way of seeing the world, based on creation rather than consumption. As for SL, far from being inconsequential, it offers many lessons that would fare anybody well in the business world. I mean, that Anshe Chung, she made a fortune selling land to people that DOESN’T EXIST! What company would turn down a salesperson like THAT? 🙂

– Extropia DaSilva

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