For millions of years, humans have evolved a set of abilities for extracting information from their surrounding environment – information was essential for their survival within this environment. The invention of electronic media extended human perception of reality, providing additional stimuli and augmenting daily experience with what Ray Funkhouser and Eugene Shaw termed a “synthetic experience”. Today we interact with digital displays more than ever: screens migrated out from our living rooms into public space, and mobile displays, designed to compliment our body, travel with us wherever may we go. This distribution of synthetic technologies into the spatial realm affects our perception of passing time, sense of depth, distance and scale, creating a more immersive synthetic experience.
During the mid-90’s the first Automatic Virtual Environment systems (CAVE), which enabled a full body immersion into synthetically generated environments, was developed. However, those systems still depended on fixed spaces and apparatus, while in order to create a fully immersive environment, perceived as natural, the body-motion of the user cannot be constrained. Other, more recent VR technologies such as Oculus Rift, use goggles and computer software to create virtual 3D environments. Despite huge technological progress, it is still extremely difficult to create a total immersive experience, and VR technologies still confine the user’s body to limited real space.
Yet perhaps instead of looking at the concept of VR from a technological point of view, we should concentrate on human experience. This shift of focus, reveals that we are, in fact, already living in a virtual reality system, where technological devices have been integrated into our daily experience to such an extent that our body is fully mobile, but on a mental level, our perception of that motion and our sense of presence in the world is being eradicated. As I am aware of the complexity of this subject, I wish to very briefly sketch out some of my initial observations on the matter.
In her book Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, Tiziana Terranova offers an analysis of the cultural politics of information. She imagines information flow as a dynamic motion. Movement through space, she writes, is not just a linear translation of an object from point A to B. It brings a qualitative change not only to that which moves but also to the space that one moves in, for example a plane journey “is not about bringing a big metal flying machine with a bunch of passengers from one place to another. The plane movement affects the space it moves in and modifies it. (…). It affects the passengers and staff through a transformation of a qualitative change in their relationship with what they have left while they went to change what they are moving towards.”(Terranova, 2004).Terranova convincingly shows that movement of information throughout the network space has a similar potential for transformation- leaving behind an affect, a footprint or a modification of topology.
However, at some stage, this information flow appears visually as an interface. Seen from a phenomenological perspective, if a screen happens to be an interface between information flow and subject, we can assume that the movement of information here replaces the movement of the observer (or at least her subjective experience of movement and distance). To use the airplane example once more, the journey spent looking out a window vs. looking at a computer screen has a different effect on the sense of becoming passenger. If we take a scenario where a person looks at the screen without dropping her gaze, the perception of movement and, therefore, the qualitative changes that this perception may bring become absent, making her travel a static experience. The transformative potential of motion is lost. Of course, we are still free to move in the space, however one can see, how the proliferation of displays in our immediate environment, as well as intensification of stimuli displayed on those screens can easily direct our attention towards the synthetic experience.
Today the politics of information unfolds in communicational environment in which the basic problem is “how to clear out space and establish a successful contact” (Terranova 2004). In order to tackle this problem, communication experts use techniques that amplify stimuli to control the communication by sheer power (Terranova 2004). Image-makers, perception managers and advertisers, make good use of scientific research on perception. The newest imaging technology affords to wildly configure images and colour psychology provides a framework for it. The increasing competition for attention turned into war, which counts many “victims”: our attention span, mental health, imagination, all fall prey to it. Despite computer’s seemingly boundless possibilities to produce highly affective stimuli, the logic of amplification seem to have reached its limits. Today, whether one is looking at adverts on large scale billboards, an internet browser, or at new Nike shoes, the aesthetic experience has been homogenized across many planes and designs, using similar colours, futuristic shapes and imaging technologies. All these seem to signify one and the same thing: the Internet. The distinction between offline and online experiences is collapsing into something I call inter-vironment.
It is important to note that there is a functional relation between perception and action. Research on the phenomenon of “the quiet eye”, illustrates that meaningful action cannot happen without a reflective moment. The quiet eye describes a fixation of the gaze, which takes place just before the final movement occurs. The integration of visual information and motoric movement is probably best observed in professional athletes when aiming. Here, scientists have measured the length and position of their gaze to determine how it influences the efficiency of their shot. Unsurprisingly, the longer the “quiet eye” period lasts, the better the results. The same “quiet eye” moments describes the moment of information retrieval from memory. Similarly, I’ve noticed, that in order to concentrate and retain information, I have to move my gaze away from the screen into the distance. Today, with screens ever more captivating, it is increasingly difficult to engage in those “quiet eye” moments.
Our engagement with the Internet is paradoxical, we seem to imagine it as an external entity separate from us, when, in fact, the activity of mapping, imaging, framing and creating divisions along often random lines, can be seen as an ontological distancing from the environment we are already fully immersed in. It is in this act of distancing that we can see the Internet becoming a new environment that requires a novel consciousness. In his book, Distance and Relation Martin Buber presents a sense of spatiality as the beginning of human consciousness. Buber claims that human beings are able to objectify the world by setting themselves apart from it and creating a gap, a distance. He thinks of human beings in relation to their natural environment. Might it be possible, that we are engaged in the same act of ontological distancing when it comes to the informational sphere? If that is the case, then, ironically, this new space-the Inter-vironment-, is being born just at the time when our “original real” is disappearing. Science is convinced that climate change is real and that it has severe effects upon “the environment”, while new frontiers of synthetic experience are forced upon us.
Perhaps Rancière will be helpful to understand how is it possible that this shift was left unnoticed. Rancière’s sensible describes the total field accessible for perception. It is a distributed system that assigns proper roles and functions according to an established notion of (police) order, thus rendering any exclusion invisible. The partition of the sensible is an act of making the operations of the partition itself invisible. Although Rancière’s line of division runs amidst people, I would expand this definition to include everyday objects, screens, architecture, and physical environment as such. I would risk the claim that the primary vehicle for the distribution of the sensible today is the Internet. If the sensible is distributed through the Internet, then anything that falls outside of it, is rendered invisible.
The Internet occupies a peculiar and paradoxical position of being, at one and the same time, a vehicle for this distribution and its product. In other words, it distributes its own aesthetics while being distributed through other objects such as wearables, tech-devices, fashion, prosthetics, house appliances or hybrid-architecture. One must remember that immersive synthetic experiences are built not only around bodies, but first and foremost around minds. The Internet became a sort of narrative, an umbrella term that unifies objects and imagery across space and time, thus creating total immersion.
The question for artists remains, how to deal with this new scenario: is there a way to resist it, should we embrace it, or is there perhaps a productive third way? Terranova suggests that constant amplification of the signal might lead to a breakdown, just as in a circuit of a stereo system. Looking at the level of exhaustion and schism we are currently experiencing, partially caused by stimuli overload, it seems that the breaking point is already here, but we don’t know where exactly. Will it cause a breakdown in our mental health, aesthetics or perhaps politics? Will it bring us to another place, return us to older forms of orientation or will it just reveal the illusory nature of this new spatiality? We might not be able to undo the Internet, but before fantasizing about its power, we should keep in mind that every environment has its limits and we should be honest about them.
Terranova, Tiziana Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, London: Pluto Press, 2004.