Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The World of Fantasy; Virtual Reality, Literature & Popular Culture

The written word has always been of the utmost importance to the human race. Through these intimate interactions with the page, people are able to interpret, understand, and above all else imagine what the author is trying to portray. It is not the apparent usefulness of opposable thumbs that gives humans the aura of a higher purpose then that of other animals, but the basic and rudimentary skill that we can remember the past, live in the present, and imagine the future.

Fiction has always been important to society. Through the recorded lexis we embark on journeys of the highest magnitude. From the Helvetian Islands in Homer’s Odyssey to the wonderful wizarding world of Harry Potter, we are able to transport ourselves to a different time a place and from these fictional endeavors find meanings, morals, and a life time of learning. True we must look to history to discover the errors of the past in order to ensure that they are not repeated, but the study and examination of our past’s fantasy and fiction is as important as any World Civilization text.

Virtual reality has rapidly become one of the most exciting new computer technologies - exercising a strong hold on the popular imagination, attracting hundreds of researchers, and spawning a booming industry. It is the field of imagination where total immersion is not just a concept, but a actuality. When compared to the world of fantasy and fiction we see similar challenges, problems, and occurrences in pop culture that will help and haunt us for many years to come.

The World of Imagination
Mans imagination is infinite. Only through this mind’s eye can we see the possibilities of the future. Without this crucial tool, or as some philosophers name it the essence to the true soul, none of the amazing and wondrous innovations of the past would have existed; this is true of fiction and VR too. Based on the imagination, fiction and fantasy takes its readers to different worlds and lands sculpted from the dreams of their creators, which can in some instances be an author and others the participant. These visionaries use fiction to expose and analyze many different aspects of the human condition.

Fiction and Virtual Reality creates alternate realities, different dimensions that can mirror ours. Sometimes they are poles apart from our real selves such as dystopian dynasties and out-of-our-worldly universes. At other times we see a likeness so similar that it opens doors to creative thought and philosophic consideration, but the timeliest, the most important form of fiction for the coming age of our world as we know it, will be seen in the manifestations of our world seen through slanted light, of our world with a slight tint (Wright, 2006).

These slight changes to the very fabric of society breed such an eerie familiarity and yet utter strangeness to our consciousness. It is these imaginings that we must look to in both Virtual Reality and in the world of literature.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods tells the tale of Shadow, an ex-con caught up in the storm of the millennium, the war between the Gods and myths and legends that travelled to America with their adherents on the first ships to the shores in Massachusetts and its ‘new’ Gods. These new Gods are not from religions of the East or whispered into prophets ears over the last 100 years, but are made up of the aspects of our society that we ‘worship’; technology, fast-paced living, and television among others. It is these aspects of our present being that we sacrifice to in the forms of our time, health, and some cases ultimately ourselves and other people.

Do we really worship television? Do we truly sacrifice to technology? The words worship, sacrifice, and television sound strange in the same sentence, and yet the question lingers on the edge of your thoughts chiding you for an answer. Through this intimate and yet totally unknown landscape of present day America, we find deep insights into the path that humans are treading towards the future despite it being complete fiction and fantasy. The fact that this is brought up in fiction is also a signal to readers and adherents of technology that we should consider the implications that technology has on us.

Policy makers must take into consideration the lessons and morals that fiction in ultimately the use of Virtual Reality can teach us. Instead of looking at the world as it stands perhaps we should first wander through the looking glass and ponder life slanted in a world of Virtual Reality in order to make justified decisions about our futures (Mick, 1998). Through skewing our present realities we can see more then just the surface reflection of our problems.

Through attempting to see a different world and immersing ourselves in it, be it literature or the Virtual realm, we are able to react to changes and see what would happen scenarios without the complications of completing the action in the real world. We gaze deeper into the human condition, able to identify traits in ourselves that may not be positive, but are part of us and a major component of who we are.

The morals that we read in literature are there for a reason. They are there for readers, students and teachers alike, to question in terms of their life and the lives of the people around them. We as a society need to read more and learn more in order to love more. We are able to empathize with the hero and still sympathize with the fallen antagonist through reading fiction, seeing both sides of the human condition (Douglas, 1996). This thought remains true in the world of the Virtual, where a person can be anyone they want to be and any place they want. We need to remember that this immersion should be used for good, to learn lessons and make choices that will help us in the reality of our lives.

A Technological Revolution
Through the introduction of new mediums, the media has had to transform and adapt to the situation. Current trends in this technological revolution lead us to believe that journalism is a dying art, and newspapers in print will be struggling for the following years before being made obsolete by products that offer instant news and viewing along with interactive user faces and designs. These introductions happen either at the same time, or more likely are accompanied by that of social changes in the world around us. Gone are the days when a person could know everything that was going on in their world (Analysis, 2003).

Current technology has dis-enabled us from the privileges of past knowledge and overwhelmed us with countless worlds of information accessible online, in print, and at our very fingertips. This technological revolution has opened the western world, and a growing number of developing economies to mass media, but is this media really mass, or is it something a little less grand?

Interactive technologies have their precursors in literature and echoes in pre-electronic literary and artistic traditions (Wright, 2006). Formerly a culture of immersive ideals--getting lost in a good book, for example--we are becoming a culture more concerned with interactivity. Both traditional literary narratives and the new textual genres are made possible by the electronic revolution of the past few years, such as hypertext, interactive movies and drama, digital installation art, and computer role-playing games.

Today, this culture of science and technology is present in our everyday lives. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but it's clear that computers, the internet and the social component of connecting, had a lot to do with it. This new ‘tech culture’ is a pop culture based in technology, for technology. Some have name it ‘nerd culture’ (Winner, 1996).

“For the last two decades, as technology supersaturated our cultural environment, the gravity of technology simply became too hard to ignore. For this current generation of Nintendo kids, their technology is their culture. When they reached the point (as every generation of youth does) of creating the current fads, the next funny thing happened: Nerds became cool.” (Noble, 1999)

Popular Culture and Virtual Reality
Popular culture does not simply surround us but infiltrates every aspect of our lives. The criticisms of pop culture are widely spread, not simply raised in Europe and North America, but appear in all countries. Through globalization, international marketers and advertisers have been charged with enforcing western norms and values from their own countries in the states that they do business in and these values are seen cognitively in all people through popular culture norms. Due to enhancements in technology throughout the globe, and the increased interconnectedness of nations, the infiltration of advertising in every aspect of each persons lives’ has been gaining more and more precedence in the international arena (Douglas, 1996).

In the second half of the 20th century, what is loosely called popular culture has been extensively studied, reviewed and referred to in many western countries and ultimately across the world. The term combines two like subjects, that of the culture produced by a ‘people’ and that of popular consumption found in our media, advertising, and entertainment images.

Textually, we all watch, listen to, and in some cases feel many different types of popular culture. Our attraction to some and aversion to others can be rooted in the cultural norms we were brought up with as children and the environments that we find ourselves in. Some of these are easily transferable to many other cultures and breed an ‘international’ sense of pop culture while others tend to land in sub groups of culture and popular images, such as Virtual Reality and the online gaming community (Winner, 1986).

"Pop culture" has been deemed one of the US' most lucrative export commodities, making everything from Levi's jeans to the World of Warcraft popular on the international market. This can also apply to many of the negative influences the western world has had over the Earth including cigarettes, wars, and the battle over technology. These ‘negative’ influences are in many places seen as a sign of social power and not a sign of lower class. These western influences like American movies, television, and consumer products such as jeans and Mickey Mouse ears are a representation of how far and how close their culture can be to the values of ‘America’ or the ‘American Dream’.

Popular culture dominates our cultural landscape and affects all people sociologically and economically. As a whole, advertisers, marketers, and businesses spend in excess of $280 billion annually in all different forms of media advertising. What Western society and in some way the whole world is now dealing with is a sensory overload. Popular culture images and values are everywhere, so ingrained in our culture that they themselves have become part of the American landscape.

The New Medium and New Message
The process of communication is founded on the principles of sender, receiver, message, and medium. Each component is intertwined in a looping stream of consciousness. Marshall McLuhan, actor, scholar, and founder of media theory, suggested that the medium is the message. A concept that may seem fragmented, but ultimately comes together as whole, McLuhan postulated that the form of medium that a message takes, be it TV, a movie, or print, influences the way the message is perceived by the receiver. It is this symbiotic relationship between medium and message that greatly affects all societies in both negative and positive ways.

McLuhan proposed in the early 20th century, that the medium should be the focus of all media theory. It is the component of communication that should be studied in order to understand peoples perceptions and opinions and not the content that is carried along through it. If we look at current mediums such as social media, the internet and Virtual Reality, these dramatically affect the way that a message is understood by a viewer. The medium affects society due mainly because of its own characteristics which are unique to each medium. This contrasts with that of the message, ‘For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (McLuhan).

Each different medium has different characteristics and each characteristic affects its receivers in different ways. If we look at current media such as reading from the Kindle, a viewer could potentially re-read a passage of a book until it is understood. You would have the opportunity to refresh and renew to make sure you fully understand the meaning. In the opposite spectrum we have television, which is (unless you count television over the internet) is streamed once. Thus the medium through which a viewer watches a message/content has a great affect on a person’s clear understanding and personal perception of it; “the medium shapes and control the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan).

McLuhan uses the metaphor of a lightbulb emitting electric light as a comparison for how the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ makes sense. The light itself is pure information that is transmitted from a source. Overall the light has no ‘message’ or content, like a magazine article, but it does have an effect. This light can fill spaces and dispel darkness which affects us socially. We are now able to use the space. A lightbulb thus “creates an environment by its mere presence” (McLuhan).

Particular media, such as movies, are stated to enhance a single sense, vision. Thus viewers are not exerting too much effort in completing the information and receiving the message. McLuhan compares the medium of movies to that of Cubism.

“For cubism substitutes all facets of an object simultaneously for “the one point of view” or facet of perspective illusion. Instead of the specialized illusion of the third dimension on canvas, cubism sets up an interplay of planes and contradiction or dramatic conflict of patterns, lights, textures that “drives home the message” by giving the inside and outside, the top and two dimension, drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole”

Thus, due to their minimal presentation of visual detail, cubism and movies along with other media, require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. This dramatically affects the way that a viewer will interpret the meaning of any message.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan describes the "content" of a medium as “a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (Mick, 1998). Thus we as humans will focus on the message, being the most ‘valuable’ part of the communication as it has information. However, in doing this we can miss the subtleties that are found in the medium which changes over time and reflects the changes of our society better then the content itself.

The Future
The decision makers of the future, being the current youth of the nation, must bring the lessons taught in fantasy to every discussion. These lessons include that of possessing and using limitless imagination in every endeavor. ‘Our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future’ said Charles F. Kettering, creator of over 140 patents. This thought must ring true in Virtual Reality as well. Through perusing the halls of a virtual gallery and meeting people of all different nations in an online game, we are able to compete, meet, talk with, and connect with people across the world. Most importantly however, we are able to immerse ourselves in a different time and place, having experiences that will change our lives.

We must listen to our dreams, endeavors in virtual worlds, and moments found in fiction, and continually question what we could be doing if we had no limits and if we could not fail, because that is what fiction and the virtual world is. You have the ability to make it up, to say things that are not true in order to expose or analyze or question the lives that we live now. Fiction gives the readers and authors a window onto another world, but also begs the question why this world if wonderful, free, and utopian, is not our own now?

In a world without limits amazing feats would be accomplished. In a world without limits in the imagination of each and every person amazing feats will be accomplished. Pablo Picasso once stated that ‘Everything you can imagine is real.’ In a world where not only literature can shift viewpoints, but Virtual Reality can immerse ourselves in worlds where problems in our world can be solved with no complications, there is no reason why we could not create a better world founded on an immersive culture.

We must imagine and create, live and try, in these immersive worlds, enabling the leaders of the future to make mistakes and learn from them in an open and friendly environment.

We must imagine a future that we can live with and make it real.


  1. Virtual Reality could definitely be used as a glimpse into the future and we could go to the extent of exploiting it, as we probably do already, for practical goals too. Pilots first learn the fundamental techniques of flying an aircraft by use of simulators that literally immerse the user into the whole experience in an utterly realistic way.
    Police officers and the army use tactical engagement simulation programs to train their recruits in a more effective way. It really is astonishing, and combines the goods of both worlds, eliminating the possibility of injuries or deaths due to inexperience. The concept that Bolter and Gromala talked about in their book “Windows and Mirrors” comes to mind once again, about how users cannot help but completely immerse themselves into the VR experience, thus at some point forgetting that it is not real. They therefore gain a lot of knowledge from those programs and also learn how to react in certain situations. That knowledge is then carried and applied to real life situations. These programs have adopted a more commercial form now, and are even sold to wider publics, like gaming enthusiasts for example.
    I too am of the opinion that American culture defines all trends, from cinema, attire, music, to even baby diapers maybe. The huge amounts of money invested in advertising more than justify this outcome, together with the pursuit of the American dream. But like George Carlin very appositely once stated "The reason they call it the American dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

  2. I love this essay! I found it to be so interesting and you discussed many things that I enjoy reading, watching, and thinking about. I also thought the virtual choir video is unbelievable. I love the idea that virtual reality can immerse us into worlds we thought we could never experience. I love how this relates to movies that are coming out like Avatar and movies that are in 3-D.