[TISEA 1992] Panel: Simon Penny – Virtual Bodybuilding: the cultural specificity of virtual reality design

Panel Statement

Like any other technology, virtual reality is embedded in a cultural history which lends a world view to its entire enterprise. I will argue that this world view is (not unexpectedly) male-gendered, patriarchal and Christian. In the first part of this paper I will examine the cultural context of virtual reality, before discussing some of the issues that might arise as virtual reality embeds itself into Western culture. I would like to suggest that virtual reality is culturally specific to the Graeco-Roman tradition, and is quite different to a virtual reality that might arise in a non-Western culture, if such a thing is possible. Virtual reality in its cultural context Self-proclaimed ‘cyber- visionary’ Jaron Lanier has announced that virtual reality is the culmination of culture. This is a somewhat self-serving judgement given that he is a major developer and commodifier of the technology (as founder of the influential virtual reality research company, VPL). But my concern here is more with the cultural specificity of his remark. The abhorrence of the body is inherent in Christian doctrine, which has served as the basis of Western philosophy until last century. Alluquere Rosanne Stone has recently observed that in the Greek New Testament, the word endyo (meaning ‘to put on Christ’ in the sense of putting on an overcoat) is often used in the context of narratives about Christian conversion (quoted in Dyson & Kahn 1991). This condition of ‘putting on’ is very similar to the condition of being in virtual reality. Such a suggestion strengthens the assertion that the cultural history of virtual reality is as old as Western culture itself. William Gibson’s cyberpunks proclaimed that ‘the body is meat’, but neglected to notice just how similar their position was to that of Saint Augustine.

This paper examines the formulation of virtual worlds and the virtual bodies placed in them in terms of western cultural history. This history places conventions and controls on the nature of representation within VR. It is emphasised that, as VR is a representation technology, it must be culturally specific, and therefore not universally accessible. A cultural pre-history of VR is related, examining technologies of simulation from Classical Greece down the line of conventional western cultural history through the nineteenth century expansion of mechanised image technologies to VR research. The phenomenon of technological utopianism is examined, and similarities of form between the rhetoric of VR and previous episodes of technological euphoria are discussed. The parallel evolution of such technologies University of Florida, USA in the military and civilian spheres is considered in this context. The potential for automated surveillance within VR is discussed with respect to recent writings of Gilles Deleuze. The formulation of the body in VR (alsoi,a cultural construct) is considered as a form of representation; examined from the perspective of Christian dogma, contemporary theory, the psychology of perception and cognitive science. The central issue to the paper, the problematic of a representation which is simultaneously a lived physical experience is discussed with reference to recent critical theory, and a new paradigm for its analysis is proposed. Finally, a politics of interactive system design is proposed, with reference to the work of Winnograd and Flores, Weinbren and others.

  • Simon Penny (Australia),¬†University of Florida, USA