The Stubborn Dream of Everyday Virtuality

In an interview in the early 2000s, Steven Lisberger, director of the first Tron movie (1982), talked about his goals for the film. Artists, he believed, could bring inspiring life to new technologies that might still be dry, baffling, and insular to the general public. With Tron, he sought to bestow a new kind of mythological identity on the circuit boards and spreadsheets of the emerging computer industry, and largely succeeded: the film introduced visions of cyberspace that have endured. Its data-mazes and menacing walls of security encryption laid the foundations for the 3D networks of global interconnection described in William Gibson’s book Neuromancer, published two years later, and its fully -fleshed out avatars (with or without motherboard spandex) have become a virtual reality staple.

Lisberger complained in the same interview that the Web had not fulfilled its promise, lamenting that it had, by the turn of the Millennium, become a dispiriting place of porn and gossip. Few could argue with that, but what might have disappointed him more was that the Web didn’t look like Tron. Humanlike avatars zoomed through pure geometry and clinked glasses in virtual cafes in films such as The Matrix, while actual people, sitting at actual computers, engaged in a form of mass, high speed letter writing. Ten years later, we’re still typing away while our uploaded selves frolic only in cable TV science fiction shows.

Gibson’s fiction tracks the changes in our e-expectations. After Neuromancer he wrote two more books set in a post-Reagan capitalist dystopia, where brain-burned proto-laptop cowboys jacked in and out of a quasi-mystical Net. In his later novels, beginning with Virtual Light, he traded Haitian voodoo gods lurking in the silicon for more mundane fare such as the rock and roll chat space in Idoru, where fans from all parts of the globe convened to talk shop inside imaginary, impossible landscapes, wearing zany 3D costumes. By 2003′s Pattern Recognition, the chat environments had become the ones we know-ordinary text-based message boards where film buffs and otaku swapped information about their respective fetishes and collectibles.

Meanwhile, in the real world, one virtual community of the type envisioned in cyberpunk fiction had come and gone and another was on the ascent. Active Worlds, supposedly patterned on Neal Stephenson’s web-like Metaverse from the novel Snow Crash, never acquired a wide user base for its virtual real estate and dialogue features. The platform still exists and can be toured; it now resembles a strange kind of digital mortuary for a vanished species. The almost-identical Second Life, however, with only slight improvements to 3D modeling technology, garnered media buzz and wide participation. Yet despite the sustained hype, the platform began to wane in the Facebook era, with consumers rejecting digital puppetry in favor of text, low-res pictures, video clips, and Tinychat-style teleconferencing.

Australian author Greg Egan envisioned a nightmarish kind of Second Life in his 1994 novel Permutation City, where people didn’t just manifest as avatars but could upload their entire personalities to any online environment. The novel bends time and space by imagining a level of existence not even dependent on an electronic web: his sentient “copies” eventually become self-replicating Von Neumann machines that can clone themselves, their environments, and reality itself at the quantum level. Some copies disappear into solipsistic playgrounds where they relive past traumas; others amuse themselves across centuries of time by watching a simulated ecoverse inside their own simulated reality, as it slowly evolves intelligent lifeforms. Egan’s virtuality is maximally efficient-the rendering algorithms only create a detailed view in the direction a copy is looking; nevertheless, the illusion is complete.

Nowadays Egan alternates between far-future novels where characters beam versions of themselves around the galaxy and a more ordinary reality of email and social media; yet even in the latter, the trope of an all-encompassing virtuality hasn’t been abandoned. In his most recent book Zendegi, gaming has become a major industry in a near-future, post-mullah Iran. The protagonists inhabit a familiar-enough world where people convert old vinyl records to mp3 and complain about tracking cookies on their phones, but then they step into climate controlled pods for adventures in Zendegi, a game of interactive waking dreams based on tales from Persian mythology.

Egan’s fiction shares with gaming and movies a quest for an ideal dating back to classical times, which art historian Norman Bryson has called the Essential Copy. By the Renaissance, many technical problems of creating a trompe l’oeil illusion had been solved through an increased understanding of perspective and color, and through the development of techniques such as chiaroscuro (modeling of light and dark) and sfumato (smooth blending to hide seams). What succeeded in altars and history paintings became problematic a few centuries later when the characters were required to move. Where do shadows go when the ground is heaving? How do complicated joints bend? In the celluloid era, hand-drawn animation tackled some of these dilemmas and arrived at efficient and compelling solutions but these are now deemed too labor intensive; hence, our new Renaissance of conjuring reality with software.

Producers are financing this work-in-progress one game cartridge and movie ticket at a time and it must be said it’s not going so well. People look stiff, rubbery, and strange; landscapes look brittle and inert. A theory of the Uncanny Valley  has evolved to explain this-briefly stated, the more something tries to look like what we know, the odder it becomes. Yet viewers eager for escape are also being gradually conditioned to accept digital entertainment’s shortcuts and workarounds, so these become the norm despite the grotesqueries. In any event we still don’t have Star Trek’s holodeck or the complete wraparound virtuality of the type depicted in Egan’s novels. Likely we never will as long as pure economics shape our culture. We could use a few more of Lisberger’s messianic visionaries to get us across the valley, or explain why we don’t need to go there.

Instead of The Matrix what we have is far stranger and more compelling: a chaotic environment of pure cobbled-together improvisation, bricolage for want of a less overused term, involving a complex, dynamic assortment of waxing and waning media platforms. At any given moment it is possible to exist online as a collection of photos and personal preferences, telecast episodes of a head talking to a camera, a diaristic blog, a list of 140-character quips, a table of streaming music files, an aggregation of visual art (yours or others’), a series of instant message chats that vanish soon after occurring, and a myriad of other publishing and sharing schemes, all in various stages of bandwagon ascent or ignominious, no-longer-buzzworthy decline. Efforts by hosts to enforce a unitary identity for advertising purposes may eventually result in a Matrix as option-deprived as the Wachowskis’ but right now the human batteries are still running around loose.

Hollywood clings to 1980s visions of cyberspace because diving through polychromatic tunnels rivets the viewer in pure cinematic spectacle and illusions of fake real people are fun. 3D imaging and detailed landscapes have also been a success in gaming but at some point the assumptions that we needed or wanted bandwidth-hogging simulation for everyday interaction smacked up against the atomized, increasingly mobile, still frequently unreliable world of the real internet. We thought we wanted Second Life but settled for Twitter; we thought we wanted Tron but settled for You’ve Got Mail (with video). The media convergence prophesied in the dot com era may indeed be coming to pass, but its form isn’t a seamless new reality so much as an awkward melange of old ones. May it always be this messy.