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VWN Product Reviews: Virtual Realities and Their Discontents

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This is very much, through and through, a sceptic and downcryer?s book. A 180 page tome of essays that often argue utterly against the use of virtual environments for any purpose whatsoever, and decries them as a force of change.

The book is a mishmash of contributing authors, with Markley providing structure. The layout is thus:

Introductions: History, Theory, and Virtual Reality ? Robert Markley

Boundary Disputes: Homeostasis, Reflexivity, and the Foundation of Cybernetics ? N. Katherine Hayles

What is an electronic author? Theory and technological fallacy ? Richard Grusin

Boundaries: Mathematics, Alienation, and the Metaphysics of Cyberspace ? Robert Markley

The Business of Cyberpunk: Symbolic Economy and Ideology in William Gibson ? David Brande

Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson?s Snow Crash ? David Porush

Cyberspace and the Technological Real ? Michelle Kendrick


Tellingly, the book focuses more on the ?death of print media? and the use of cyberpunk fiction as the stage setting for what virtual reality is. Whilst at numerous points the authors ? particularly Robert Markley ?downcry the advancement of virtual reality as anything particularly worthy of note, and labelling it as hallucination, at no point do any of the authors attack uses of virtual reality as an enabling device for the seriously disabled, or its use as a medical treatment device, or industrial or research aid.

Whilst decrying the advancement of VR, they collectively avoid talking about those aspects of the technology that are providing long-term, documentable, tangible benefit to individuals. This does weaken the argument considerably. However, perhaps it is best to stick to those areas of VR, the book does detract against. After all, it is very difficult to stick to a conviction, if that conviction cannot stand an attack by a radically different mindset. That, above all else, is what makes this book worth owning.

The book is rigorous and scholarly in its arguments, but does not get unduly bogged down in wordage. This is a definite plus, as it helps frame the rigour of the arguments presented. Markley in particular, takes great pains to consider the 50-year history of VR, focussing some attention on the early experiments of the 60s. Also of note is the continued attempt at tackling the weighty problem of defining just what, exactly, virtual reality is, and is not. The definition chosen, is sometimes quite narrow, aiding the arguments against it, by excluding all that does not quite fit.

Also worryingly, Markley does at one point, on page 10, still in the introduction, describe anyone who is a proponent of virtual reality as an antagonist, and anyone who is utterly against it, as an ally. This suggests that quite possibly, rational discourse with the author outside the scope of the book, may be difficult, if not impossible, if the individual identifies themselves as someone in favour in any way, with any part of virtual reality.

Katherine Hayles segment which follows next, reminds you, quite refreshingly, that not all the authors of this book, are necessarily bigoted, and that detractors are capable of being sane, rational beings with valid arguments. Whether or not those arguments can be overcome, is for both sides to figure out down the road. Hayles does not decry virtual reality as the enemy, merely decries it as a revolutionary force, creating a future different from the past. This argument is rather debatable, which after all, is the whole point of a soundly reasoned detractor viewpoint.

The remaining authors are a mix. Some are outright nay sayers, bordering on luddites. Others, like Katherine, present detailed, well thought out, well reasoned counter arguments, and provide a wealth of background material with which the reader may, or may not be familiar.

There is certainly more than enough counter-argument in this volume to justify reading it through, and reasoning the arguments out. Some are valid, some are less than valid, and some widely open to debate and speculation.

 

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