Chesher, C. (1998?)  'Colonising Virtual Reality. Construction of the Discourse of Virtual Reality, 1984 - 1992', in cultronix, Vol 1, No 1 [online]

[This lengthy article offers a detailed history of the emergence of a number of discourses or tropes about virtual reality, which far exceed anything that has actually happened in the way of developing new technology. Some of the impulse is for these developments are economic and technological, while others are cultural and ideological. If you wanted to put a marxist gloss on this history, you might see it in terms of the 'articulation' of these two levels, but there is so much specificity and detail, that a figurationalist history would also seem to be possible. Chesher him/herself refers most explicitly to Foucault and the ways in which discourses develop to involve more and more cultural elements, but he/see also uses the literary term 'trope'  ' [a] cluster of meaning associated with the phenomenon, or [a ] network of cultural connections. Trope is a broader and more ephemeral category than discourse' {nb because this is an online essay, it is impossible to give page references}. It is possible to get the main themes from the Introduction and the Conclusion if you are in a real hurry. I have had to omit much of the considerable detail and the many close supporting textual references in these notes].

 'New technologies do not appear from nowhere as a mystical spark of inspiration from the mind of one individual. Nor are they inevitably accepted for their self evident benefits. A technology emerges through a process involving a broader cultural, linguistic, institutional and technological contexts'.  [Much of what follows supports this opening statement, and Chesher also takes care to identify a number of historical myths surrounding the emergence of VR]. From the earliest days, VR was being associated with  'familiar, comfortable cultural icons... "a work of art", "a dream", "and additional reality" and a "new continent"'.

VR actually originated  'within marginal subcultures: from science fiction, cyberpunk, and computer hacker culture, and from institutions including NASA, computer companies, and the military'. It then moved into the cultural mainstream via a process of eliminating some of the more 'uncomfortable associations with social criticism, drugs and insanity'. These processes were  'independent of actual technology development'. The discourses are traced through various papers, magazines, essays and books, especially those posted to a dedicated Usenet news conference sci.virtual.worlds. These texts are analysed in terms of their metaphors, analogies, narrative structures and implied audiences. Overall, VR was placed  'in the context of pre-existing cultural tropes to naturalise the new discourse'. Such tropes permit VR to be associated with all kinds of other issues, including  'simulation, hyperreality and "postmodern" society'.

[There then follows 'a brief chronology']. What emerges is the significance of the computer industry and initially the military, with its interest in flight simulation and new interfaces including  'head-up displays'. A classic science-fiction novel -- Neuromancer -- also introduced the idea of cyberspace as a phenomenon of  'high definition immersion of graphical representation of data'. There are also commercial interests, including video games and office systems. Cyberpunk culture, via the magazine Mondo 2000, also reacted enthusiastically, and the Usenet group mentioned above was established.. Popular books emerged to further develop the concept, as did the movie Lawnmower Man. Thus the discourse developed far more fully than the actual technology did, and was significance in encouraging substantial investment and research.

[The various details of input are then described under headings such as]

Military (the legacies of which still remain in shoot-'em-up games);

Science fiction (some of which was  'intended as social criticism, rather than prediction', although these critical elements were soon lost and replaced by a more corporate culture);

Counterculture  (again with conservative implications which were soon realised --  virtual cultures can be changed far more easily than real cultures. The early associations with liberation and even psychedelia were soon shorn away. However the cultural significance of technology as a set of fixes has deep roots in American culture, says Chesher, citing worthies such as McLuhan and Bell. This enthusiasm easily becomes 'transformed into entrepreneurial fervour');

Drugs etc  (VR was seen as  to'"electronic LSD"', possibly from the press, but Timothy Leary was also involved. Press stories appeared about the dangers of addiction. All  these associations had to be denied, and, as the technology went mainstream, druggies lost interest);

Science  (initially, involving psychology and physiology, vision, cueing and perspectives, and including newly fashionable stuff about the human brain which was connected somehow with VR. But generally,  'the connection with theoretical science is more distant than... [the propagandists]... would like to acknowledge');

Experience (the interactivity claimed for VR involves some more direct relationship with the computer, avoiding abstractions, overcoming 'the dualistic division between mind and body', no less, offering a whole new paradigm of embodiment:  'VR can provide direct experience rather than encoded or mediated knowledge');

Hollywood, TV and Disneyland, and here, VR claimed to be a major step forward by offering increased interactivity.'In practice this is yet to be proven convincingly', yet the impetus provided by earlier historical analogies and narratives helped. Computing became increasingly linked with film-making  , and George Lucas himself experimented with  'interactive virtual-reality theatres'. A successful British company was eventually acquired by an entertainments consortium, and their products so far have included some interesting video games. The film Lawnmower Man  'further expanded the profile of VR technology'. 

VR was seen as the equivalent to the Wright brothers in flight --'retroping historical success stories'. These claims particularly appealed to American myths about entrepreneurs and the  'triumph of individual brilliance, persistence and vision', and was attractive to investors wanting to be in on the ground floor of a new technology. Other analogies were also drawn, with Gutenberg, Edison, Bell, Ford and Microsoft. The industry was actually able then to grow because it succeeded in attracting investment, and salesmen were able to castigate the faint-hearted for their lack of will and ability to grasp an opportunity. Chesher him/herself is of the view that  'VR technologies [themselves, specifically]... do not compare in significance with the development of prints, light bulbs or flight'.

These are examples of the connections between VR discourses and tropes and broader, popular  'romantic historical narratives'. They are just like the early claims about widescreen formats like Cinerama. Generally, the whole history of human communications leads up to the new technology  [compare with the AT&T ride at Disney's EPCOT Centre]. Artistic representation is seen as a history of overcoming the limits of artistic media. As a result,  'This kind of historical narrative is so common it often evades being read as a construction. Using the authority of so-called historical objectivity, speculation is presented as description'. The significance of a particular technology is overstated, and processes of causation limited. VR has been associated with social Darwinism, childbirth, space exploration, palaeontology and so on. A particularly important metaphor is the frontier, a powerful myth in the USA, evoking historical destiny, fundamental aspects of the American character, the  'freedom to move and opportunity to grow and prosper', progress and individualism. The spatial aspects of VR and cyberspace are particularly useful in developing this metaphor. However, Chesher points out, additional meanings are almost invariably added by metaphorical descriptions, crossing the fact that VR  'remains essentially a computer with its attached peripheral devices, and not a real metaphysical or ontological challenge'. Metaphors also become literal truths, with some assistance from developers and their spokespersons: proponents  'tried to reposition the tropes (reality, space) from a relationship of metaphor to synonymity'. The exponent of VR become  'a new kind of computer pioneer - hero' with its associations of action and directness.

The way that VR entered the mainstream can be best described as a kind of linguistic  'colonisation' of other discourses. Shared terminology and assumptions were established, aiming at dominance and involving ordered discourses  'among them design, art, entertainment, communications and even philosophy'. The claim was that VR could do these things better. En route the less respectable associations were abandoned, and new sponsors appeared, in arts, architecture and philosophy. This was accompanied by a shift in the perception and use of computers more generally, from early associations with military and corporate uses to the use of a computer as a medium  (McLuhan was instrumental in this). The spread of PCs also obviously helped. Computers became seen less as tools and more as books. The industry grew in power and confidence. Computer games became a means of popularising computers as entertainment, and it is the games industry that has contributed a good deal to VR research in exchange. Some of the more exaggerated claims referred to computers as  'reality generators'. As the term VR became loosely applied to a wider range of phenomena, 'almost any interactive graphics system', so more  'serious' proponents had to exaggerate the philosophical and scientific aspects.

Further applications include medicines science and architecture, and these were encouraged by 'serious' VR proponents. There have been some buildings using VR at the design stage, and some scientific and medical applications. These have been particularly powerful in persuading universities to buy VR systems.

Another important trend is the digitalisation of information. Again introduced with promises of liberation, and substantially embodied in the internet, these trends 'clearly led to quicker development of the discourse than otherwise would have been possible', literally after the establishment of the Usenet group. These developments are driven by a  'dream of all information being universally accessible... [which leads to]... a never-ending quest to record everything in a digital and network accessible form'. A number of online databases indicate the possibilities. However,'The claim to comprehensiveness is quite misleading. Anything which is not entered is rendered non-existent'. Further,'not all knowledge or all experience can fit this form. Meanings change with context and digitisation tends to remove information from its context. Standardisation of the manner in which information is presented will impose a culturally loaded form on what really are diverse data'. Anything that cannot be codified and digitised will be marginalised.

Just as with the myth of the frontier and expansion, expansion in one area can mean decline and genocide in another. Digitisation can similarly  'alienate minority perspectives... not from direct policy but by the economics and practice of access to the technology'. In particular,  'Social class is an equally potent division in virtual reality as it is in social reality... language barriers are not transcended by cyberspace... Language will always be a divider, to the benefit of dominant languages'.

More generally, VR  'can be an extension of a tendency in Western capitalist societies to commodify human experience'.  Other examples include package holidays, quick and convenient sex, drugs, extreme sports and so on -- all alike are  'designed to allow the customers to transcend their prosaic everyday lives'.

In practice, VR is, like all technologies,  'neither a panacea nor a calamity. It will tend to reinforce existing inequalities and propagate already dominant ideologies'. The real issues, ownership and access,  'tend often to be passed over. It is always assumed there will be technical solutions just around the corner'.

Thus it is the discourse of VR that has led to the acceptance of the technology, and that has emerged from a number of strands and a trend towards commercialisation and mainstream acceptability.'VR's appeal has been largely due to its marketing'. It was given a history and lofty philosophical goals. The technology has been moderately successful, but the main factor has been  'the cultural context into which the technology was introduced'.

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