Archive for January, 2009

Virtuality

January 2, 2009

Somewhere along the time-line of the Earth, extending from 4.7 billion years ago until now, everything you know about, care about, like or dislike, love or hate or are indifferent about came into existence. Nothingness may have existed somewhere forever, but no thing on the Earth that is present now in some form existed in that form at the formation of the planet. Every earthy thing came into its earthy form somewhere along that line. When you become convinced of the correctness of this proposition, a great many question spring up in any discussion or debate. When did the IT that you are debating begin? From whence did it come? What were its precursors in the time before? What were the causes, contingencies and coincidences of its formation?

At a New Year’s/birthday party, the assertion came out: “Virtuality was born in 1948, with the advent of television.”

While it is clear that “virtuality”, as an earthy thing, had to come into existence from its predecessors at some time, I think AD 1948 is way too late. It has erupted into the forum of debates at parties only much more recently, to be sure. But that is because it has only drawn attention to itself after being exponentially magnified by the digital revolution.  Before the digital revolution, virtuality was constrained, living only in the pages of novels, the scripts of plays, the exhortations of poets. In this guise it was frequently mistaken for “truth”, that is, something better than the imperfect grit of the world as it actually exists.

But it has been around here in that earlier form for a long time. And even before the printed page and literacy began molding the human mind, there was the oral world of myth and magic doing the same job in a simpler way. Pavlov’s dog showed the way. By the simple association of the sound of a bell with the presentation of food, Pavlov could prompt the dog to salivate simply at the sound of the bell- a virtual presentation of virtual food. Of course, he also found out that you couldn’t fool even the old dogs indefinitely.

The first practitioners of virtuality manipulation were the storytellers using the controlled bells of their voices to invoke the spirits around the campfires of our ancestors. That is also where we all start our journey through virtuality toward actuality, believing in the “truth” of the stories we are told. But from time to time, things fall apart- there’s a novel for you! Perhaps we are living in a Hegelian dialectical moment, when virtuality taken to extremes will succumb to its antithesis.