The Failure of Imagination of the “Virtual Metaphor”

The Internet and the world of virtual computing was a creation of ‘Geeksville’. Many of the originators of the metaphors we take for granted in our physical and mental interaction with personal and social computing were drawn from the imaginations of individuals who lacked their own originality and had immersed themselves in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction as well as ‘dungeons and dragons’ role play games. Their adoption of terminology from those worlds led to a world of computing whose language is largely borrowed and derivative. Of course, not all of these individuals were so inclined, but many others still held a strongly escapist tendency and enjoyed the philosophies of escapism and the notion that a virtual world could potentially render our own world superfluous or solve our material problems by creating a virtual universe of unlimited resource – we only had to find a way to minimise our bodily function and transpose or transfer ourselves into a realm of the realised imagination.

Science fantasy and role play are powerful forms of escapism and many of these ‘techies’ had a profound wish to escape the mundane, grey “real world” that the rest of us live in.. The worlds of visionary science fiction and fantasy were far more compelling for them. To lose oneself in imaginary realms of literature and fantasy game-playing was a widespread need and pursuit (and, for many, still is). The imagined “virtual worlds” of fantasy – of Tolkein, of Niven and Heinlein, already offered magic- or technology-enabled Utopias or dystopias which were exciting and called forth the escapist urge. The ‘holodeck’, the lived dreamworld, the “other realms” (Michael Moorcock springs to mind) took us to places that were richer in colour, broader in possibility, and law-of-nature defying in comparison to our own resource-diminishing, mundane world.

A lot of programmers were also loners and had found a home in the world of computer programming where working environments could be one-on-one (with the computer) or in child-like play environments with no need for office uniform and with popcorn and Pepsi littering the desk. Social interaction in a physical sense could be minimised. Quickly enough, I.T and computing departments became the ivory towers of lowers and social avoiders. Email was a perfect way for them to communicate, without need for eye contact or the risks of physical presence and even touch. Many, of course, indulged these experiences in the realms of fantasy and the soon to be created first-person role play games.

So, of course, virtual computer environments were imagined. computers were a virtual “place” and the things and landscapes of computing were versions of physical reality – a mix, interestingly, of both fantastic and mundane. There were menus as in restaurants, desktops and folders. We read our mails and sent and received things (at the move of a finger). And the Alice in Wonderland need for escapism led to motherboards (motherships), saving things (saving your life or your planet) and even mice, as well as “cyberspace” and  “hard drives”. And verbs abounded soon enough – we “went” online, and our avatars were “pinged” and our work now lives in a cloud.

The virtual became a faster, more colourful, more flexible, more exciting version of our more mundane physical reality. Renditions of physical reality gave us wings to fly (in Second Life for example), and we could even transmigrate into a fox or an eagle. The rush of verbs – – ‘going online’, ‘surfing’, ‘meeting up in a chat room’ etc and the arrival of we as ‘avatars’ all promised a recreation of our better selves in a new, virtual world.

The emotional intelligence of many of the anti social, escapist geeks also, of course, ran behind the rest of us (due to a lack of physical social interaction) and other terms came into being such a ‘twitter’ and ‘yammer ‘- both of which are in reality unendearing terms to describe annoying, endless and largely pointless chatter yet which are somehow celebrated as neat ways to speak online. The irony is of course lost on the geeks who would really love it if Sauron or a Death Star actually existed.

But here it is: We never can really ‘go online’, there is no ‘cloud’, and our second lives are a poor rendition of our first lives. These worlds are so badly imagined and realised that most of us have to deeply collude with their mediocrity in order to gain any lasting value out of them. The most elaborate computer virtual world role play game is still only a hugely face-painted version of the old computer tennis game Pong, clearly boundaried, deeply repetitive and with clever rendering of reality required our profound suspension of disbelief and disappointment. We have to play along, defend the blandness, and we are seen as betrayers of the ’cause’ if we complain. Almost every online game is still binary, as was Pong, requiring kill or be killed, pretending to be somewhere, left, right, forward, backwards, repeat etc. The models for virtuality are simplistically behaviourist, set at the level of social skill of the imagination-piss poor programmers.

The desktop, with its files and folders and places to put things, have for years now, simply recreated the worst of office disorganization, our email folders are clogged up, most of our texts are renditions of the geeks’ own short phrase inane joking across their Dr Pepper-infested scripting nests, and their deep inability to look someone in the eye for more than three seconds (a disease more and more people are catching). And Emoticons are diluted shadows of shadows of emotion.

And the worst imagination of all still pervades, still grips us, leading to ever more repetitively mediocre versions of social media and computing. Most of our friends on Facebook are not friends at all, and online meetings are akin to tedious radio broadcasts over crackly voice connections. Our bullet points fire no bullets, and our web isn’t a place of connection between us, but a place where we are actually the mindless drones travelling mostly aimlessly and often unfreely along the strands made by the self-locked away geeks, many of whom have become rich gurus who cannot believe how easy it was to dupe us all. We are not even close to having escape anyway! We haven’t found virtual worlds that are anything other than trashy either-or novelisations of our tactile if somewhat frightening physical lives.

At the core of it all is a failure of imagination so profound, so tragic, that we can’t bear to see it, let alone name it for what it is. The emperor is wearing no clothes and we are all to disappointed and weary to shout it out.

So what of this failure? When I sit before a computer, I sit before a phenomenon. I sit before potential and possibility. I am not at the door of a place, and there is no desktop. There is no door for me to walk through and escape into as a virtual me. This realm of potential is no home for me, no place of escape. It is of itself. It is potential capability and functionality. It can be made to process data into knowledge and knowledge into functionality. or even usable knowledge We can activate aspects of it. And we can also allow things to emerge from it.

It is a realm of content – content we can put into it raw and that content can begin to link with other content and a kind of semantic dance can begin, a sentence links to meaning, and meaning bonds to purpose, as image morphs with image and a new image emerges, a data links to diagnosis and diagnosis dances with database and analysis results in therapeutic suggestion. We can create avatars and reproduce useful aspects of ourselves which operate according to behavioural models which lead to a kind of productive fictional interaction,  a puppetry where we can pull the strings, and then even let the puppets dance into autonomy. Most of this kind of work has been carried out by people who are not escapist by nature, a newer generation of scripters and designers, often rooted in philosophy, in comedy, and in a love of their physical lives – they seem computing as a place to map the genome, and for the world of computing to serve mankind without a dimming of our free consciousness. They have no wish to enter the matrix – the digital playground isn’t so much a place IN WHICH we play, it is a place we play OUT OF.

But we are never the avatars. It isn’t that one day we could be, it is that we shouldn’t be. The thing-in-itself that is the computer works better as a thing of itself, with us as outside agents, feeding in the one thing that eludes it – the success of unique imagination. This imagination is a product of a time based constellation of who we were, are and  will be, it is a product of our growth, our chaos and our fear, of the alchemy of mortal flesh and transcendent dreaming. We are set apart from computer intelligence by one thing above all – by our emergent clumsiness. In the realm of imagination, our clumsiness is our priceless value, but in the realm of creative processing, we will only get in the way. Processing doesn’t need human clumsiness trying to micro-manage it, or to be “in” it. Efficient and effective processing needs us to be on the outside, offering vision, imagination, and taking the results into our creative physical realisation.

The newly emerging semantic web, and the potential of social media, is leading to a recognition that, in the realm of the “online”- of web based content, we are better out of it – we are too clumsy in the realm of processing, we interfere with the semantic web in ways which undermine and slow it down. Our metaphors of “virtual” are poor because they assume it is we who need to enter cyberspace. Virtuality is a failure of imagination because it imagines we are somehow vital and important to processing. We aren’t. We’re clumsy clowns. What we have created is not a place of virtual reality but a new reality in itself. The content must be allowed to link up in itself, not informed by our inhabiting behaviour but instead by our inputting imagination.

We haven’t even found the words yet, nor even clear thoughts or pictures or imagine what is possible here. And it is time we did or the failure of imagination will become even more realised as failed realization and we’ll soon find the virtual world – poor and disappointing, invading and influencing our physical realm in ways which will make us ill, and even worse, tiredly indifferent or wretchedly content.

When content dances of itself, in itself, with itself, in ways we can only guess at, because all we did was create a predictable possibility, then what emerges might terrify or delight us. It is already happening. When Twitter is used well, the ‘twittersphere’ starts to connect content, and one senses a withdrawal of the importance of each individual self, each separate personality – what becomes more important, exciting and even better in terms of performance are not people but verbs – linking, connecting, combining, forwarding, emerging.

The web realm becomes a place where content and the processes we could imagine for it, are the vital force – we sit not among, but apart, still connecting physically, and it is our success , not failure of imagination that becomes like sunlight and air to the realm upon which we focus our creative urge and uniqueness. The geeks are simply not up to anything more than the technical task and, perhaps, not even that.

The Internet becomes not a space for us, but a new activity in itself, a tool, not for consciousness, but OF consciousness.

So where does this imagination lead? I think it leads to an as yet, unimagined functionality, though the notion of the semantic web hints at part of it. I think it leads in new directions, to an entirely new set of possible imaginatively realizable directions for computing, that are more based on verb and process than noun and place. It won’t be about desktops, but about dancing …

… Helping content to dance, first with our help, and then in and with itself
… It will be about eloquence – eloquent processing
… It will be about the redemption of binary inevitability and working with polarization as a kind of pain. As in physical reality – we’ll seek for the quality of quality, not only its quantity
… It will be about process potential and finding compelling gestures in the movement and interaction of content
… It will be about gaining insight from the dance of content- the output will be a kind of useful and usable music in physical reality
… Computing won’t be virtual but a tool that enhances our consciousness not by a rendering of tat consciousness but be a love of our role as clumsy imaginers

It is just beginning.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on November 21, 2010, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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