Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Virtual Worlds - A far-sighted essay from the dawn of history

"It is a technology that will allow us to make more and better art; potentially it is a technology that will dissolve the boundaries between us and allow us to see the contents of each others minds. There is also the possibility of improves methods of communication, states of near telepathy between participating human beings, can be coaxed out of imaginative use of technology. because of what VR is intrinsically, there are several ways in whcih it could become the basis of an entirely new form of communication between people."

In 1990, Terence McKenna, the visionary theoretician and dreamer, wrote this as part of an article called "Virtual Reality and Electronic Highs (Or On Becoming Virtual Octopi)". I just re-read it last night and it clicked. When I read Mckenna the first time around, I had no experience of virtual worlds and the impact of what he says here was lost on me.

When he wrote this, McKenna had just taken part in a demonstration in San Francicso of a VR environment that, even by the standards of Second Life, was very primitive. But of all his wild forecasts for the future of humanity... this one seems to be panning out exactly as he saw it would.

"I had the eerie feeling that this might be what it would have been like to stop by the Wright brothers' bicycle shop to shoot the breeze with Wilbur and Orville about the latest ideas concerning lift ratios with airfoils.. These folks are on to something. They know it and I will wager that soon the whole world will know it. We are on the brink of another leap in evolution, folks."

McKenna had some pretty far-out ideas, but in this, perhaps he hit the nail right on the head and saw the true transformational potential in virtual worlds that, even now, many involved in them cannot.

For me, what McKenna pinpoints here is what makes Second Life such a magical realm. It helps me understand why this virtual world of shopping malls, nightclubs and ridiculous looking people is magic to me. I struggle to explain to people I know who try it and don't get it. They are like, "So what? What's the point?"

"Did you talk to anyone?" I'll say, grasping at the feeling that communication with others is the essence of the magic, but I give up in the end...

It's not the builds that are magic... the recreations of ancient temples, modern cities and so on.... that's is so not it. many of them are great and that's fine but it not the magic.... this is more than digital lego. McKenna saw this, and now I can't believe only I skim-read this essay of his in the early 90s.

McKenna says: "In trying to imagine the futures onto which these doors open, let us not forget that culture and language were the first virtual realities. A child is born into a world of unspeakable wonder. each part of the world is seen to glow with animate mystery and the beckoning light of the unknown. But quickly our parents and siblings provide us with words. At first these are nouns; that shimmering pattern of iridescence and sound is a "bird", that cool, silky, undulating surface is "water". As young children, we respond to our cultural programming and quickly replace mysterious things and feelings with culturally validated and familiar words....
... As we learn our lines and the blocking that goes with them, we move out of the inchoate realm of the preverbal child and into the realm of the first virtual reality, the VR of culture. many of us never realise that this domain is virtual, and instead we imagine we are discovering the true nature of the real world."

Discuss :)