January 19th, 2005
|jake_camp||04:14 am - "The Logic of the Incantation"|
From TheAge news, Australia.
Full text under cut in case the link breaks
Wonder why you felt so bereft when lj went down?
War of the worlds
By Pip Cummings
January 15, 2005
Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake. - Henry David Thoreau
Virtual worlds were once regarded as an escape from "real life", but the distinction between the two is breaking down. Anxiety has arisen about what is seen as a clash between these existences or - more worrying to some - the insidious incursions of cyberspace into "meatspace".
A sweatshop of gamers was exposed in Tijuana, Mexico, acquiring virtual assets for sale in the offline market. Academic studies have been made of the enforcement of existing legislation on virtual communities. The question of whether one can be raped in cyberspace has been hotly debated. And a genre of films that explore virtual reality themes has been spawned, tapping into an uneasiness about the ascendancy of computers in society.
This is partly because virtual reality platforms are becoming so sophisticated
and partly because their applications have expanded beyond gaming to include social worlds, education, military training and commerce. But it is also the sheer number of users - in the millions - who have fallen under their spell that blurs the distinction between where one world ends and the next begins.
It is worth remembering that telephones (a form of cyberspace) held a magical quality for their early users, and similar intimations of the supernatural are reflected in current descriptions of encounters with virtual worlds. When Julian Dibbell published a story in New York's Village Voice about his "tiny life" online in a virtual world called LambdaMOO, one of the conclusions he drew was that "anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era's definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn't so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably ...
"They are incantations, in other words. [The] logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives," Dibbell wrote.
Dr Chris Chesher, director of the arts informatics program at the University of Sydney, agrees, preferring the term "invocational media" when discussing virtual reality systems, rather than "simulations".
"A common assumption about simulation technologies like virtual worlds is that the current systems are imperfect versions of some future (terrifying or exhilarating) technology that will be indistinguishable from 'real' experience," he says. "I argue it's better to say that VR systems invoke other worlds rather than simulate them."
Chesher believes there will never be a convergence of the various virtual worlds -"computer games, training simulations, museum and art gallery installations" - into a universal system.
And while this should allay the fears of those who wonder whether we will one day find ourselves in a Matrix-like simulation, indistinguishable from real life (or may, in fact, already be in one), it leaves us with the contradictions associated with existing across a range of multiverses.
It is increasingly apparent that we don't need to attain the technical ability to fool our senses completely (using tactile head-mounted interfaces) to form social and commercial relationships, commit crimes, acquire wealth or status, fall in and out of love, or organise communities and governments in virtual worlds. Virtual "reality" - a simulated environment that your senses perceive as real - is already upon us, minus the predictedwhole-body tactile interface and 3D sound.
Cory Ondrejka, vice-president of product development at Linden Lab, recently attended the State of Play 2 conference in New York, hosted by the New York Yale law schools.
He subsequently posted his observations to GameSpot (Toward a theory of place in digital worlds), arguing that "a two-dimensional window is enough to create a place" which "allows residents to use many more of their real-world communication skills ... [increasing] the ability of residents to share experiences and creation".
While certain aspects of virtual environments lend them more credibility - a graphic interface, persistence and interactivity - it is likely that the social aspects (shared space and multiple users) are the elements that blur the lines between fantasy and reality. The other users, in other words, are essential to creating the virtual world.
"Nobody knows how to produce an automaton that approaches the complexity of a real human being, let alone a society," observed the developers of Habitat, one of the first efforts to create a very large commercial multi-user environment.
In a seminal paper, first presented in 1990 and still widely circulated, they commented that the essential lesson derived from their experiences with Habitat is that "a cyberspace is defined more by the interactions among the actors within it than by the technology with which it is implemented".
For them, software and hardware innovations were a "sexy and interesting" diversion from the significance that these are multiple-participant environments. Perhaps the "magic" comes not so much from the smoke and mirrors of advanced technology, as from the complex and unpredictable computations that are other people.
This frisson may also account for the fact that there is an observable shift, beyond games, to social virtual worlds. And with more open-ended experiences (without the possibility of winning), the sensation of "living" online, and for longer periods, increases. Even within the social virtual world phenomenon, a trend has been mapped away from holiday scenarios towards social worlds as living and working spaces, including job-related role play.
Precisely because these spaces are much more than a game to their participants, exploitation of them and within them is met with fierce opposition, with players galvanised into governing bodies and vigilante groups, to defend the rights of their fellow virtual world citizens.
Controversies have erupted over perceived online sexual assault ("A Rape in Cyberspace), child prostitution (A Real-Life Debate on Free Expression in a Cyberspace City), and - most recently - child pornography (Virtual Child Porn in Second Life).
Given the increasing commodification of these virtual worlds, play-for-pay sweatshops have been established, employing Mexican, Russian and Chinese players on minimum wages to acquire online assets that would otherwise take hours of play to amass. These are then sold online at a profit.
Play-for-pay gamers are making their presence felt because they are breaking down the sociality of the online communities, seldom making any efforts to converse but aiming to amass loot for their employers.
The transgressions manifested in virtual worlds vex their users so greatly that there has been some discussion on the extent to which the law can intervene and act against the perpetrators in virtual worlds.
Or do they represent independent jurisdictions? At the very least, legal issues touching on intellectual property and property ownership in virtual worlds need to be addressed with some haste.
On Terra Nova, a weblog about virtual worlds, a user going by the name Hellinar recently described the synthesis of virtual and real lives thus: "I would rather use the term Online Worlds when referring to digitally constructed spaces, rather than Virtual Worlds. Virtual seems to carry the message that digital objects are not real and therefore not significant. But to my mind, my Drums of the Beast in EverQuest is as real as my bank account. And both have a higher significance to me than some random empty pop bottle on the street, even though the latter is physically constructed."
We are no more or less "players" in online entertainments, it would appear, than we are in our "real-life" existence.
And the ultimate blurring of boundaries? In a self-reflexive twist, you can now play an offline game that simulates an online role-playing game.
Sony PlayStation 2's .hack//INFECTION is set in the near future, when much of the world's population has become addicted to a role-playing game called The World. It follows the story of a young player named Kite as he traverses the online environment in an effort to uncover the secret of his best friend's game-induced coma. Try getting your head around that. Or take the blue pill and forget about it.
How can we be sure we're not living in a role-playing simulation? This question has provided the somewhat creepy premisefor a slew of films - The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Vanilla Sky.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom, of Oxford University, set a stealthy cat among the pigeons last year when he published Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? in Philosophical Quarterly.
The simulation hypothesis holds that you exist in a virtual reality, simulated in a computer built by an advanced civilisation. Which is to say, we are just as likely to be "ancestor simulations".
First you must accept the premise that in the future it will be possible to implement conscious minds "on carbon-based biological neurons (such as those inside your head) and on other computational substrate such as silicon-based processors". Bostrum says the hindrance is purely technical.
"There is no known physical law or material constraint that would prevent a sufficiently technologically advanced civilisation from implementing human minds in computers," he says.
He goes on to argue that a technologically mature civilisation would be able to build computers powerful enough to run a significant number of human-like minds.
The core of the simulation argument is not to show that we are simulations, but to show that we should accept as true at least one of the following propositions:
1. The chances that a species at our level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small.
2. Almost no technologically mature civilisations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours.
3. You are almost certainly in a simulation.
There is reason to assign a roughly even probability to all three. If the first two are false, then you should accept that you are probably living in a computer simulation.
The full argument and responses to it can be read at www.simulation-argument.com.
Features of virtual worlds
1. Shared space: the world allows many users to participate at once.
2. Graphical user interface: the world depicts space visually, ranging in style from 2D cartoon imagery to more immersive 3D environments.
3. Immediacy: interaction takes place in real time.
4. Interactivity: the world allows users to alter, develop, build or submit customised content.
5. Persistence: the world's existence continues whether or not individual users are logged in.
6. Socialisation/community: the world allows and encourages the formation of in-world social groups such as guilds, clubs, cliques, housemates and neighbourhoods.
From Moving beyond the Game: Social Virtual Worlds, by Betsy Book.
See also ithiliana's discussions about RPG and RL.
Then play on.
Who's posting where?
Cross-posted to occ_camp