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- PJG Stokes

Locating the Site; Virtual becomes Mixed and realities become dimensions

Perhaps the greatest challenge for those researching “the internet” are the issues around locating the site. Locating the site, making it somehow tangible, deciding on boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, performing methods that are ethical but also lucrative, while facing the almost impossible task of making it all valid make internet research very difficult. This is part of what attracts researchers.
This chapter looks to locate the site. It does so not be making a geographic analogy (cyber space), not by producing a false dichotomy (the virtual and the real), rather this chapter works through those conceptions of “the internet” and arrives somewhere that is perhaps only slightly closer to a clean definition of where this research is taking place, than we are at now.

By 1991, cyberspace and ‘virtual reality’ existed as much as figments of a (sub)cultural imagination as they did as ‘real’ phenomena. A group of (often overlapping) popular cultural discourses has preceded the medium’s introduction by framing, contextualising and predicting the development of cyberspace systems and their virtual experiences. These have served to fix cyberspace in the popular imagination in particular configurations.“ (Hayward & Wollen 1993)

Upon entering the field, with a view to letting the research lead the research and a reflexive approach I aimed to move away from these fixed popular configurations of cyberspace.
In The Two Paths of Virtual Reality, John Suler attempts to explain the essence of Virtual reality (VR) (and therefore I would hope shed some light on where it takes place, conceptually, so I can locate the site).

“So “virtual reality” is a reality that has the effect of actual reality but not its authentic form. It’s a kind of simulation or substitute, but one with potency and validity. It gets close to the real thing. In its effect on people, it’s practically the real thing. The term, unfortunately, can be a bit misleading. It implies that VR is an attempt to recreate the world as we consciously experience it with our eyes, ears, skin, body. This, indeed, is one of the two paths of VR. But there’s another path. VR also strives to create new environments that are more imaginary – fantasy realms that feel “real” in unique ways but do not directly correspond to the world as we usually perceive it. Let’s take a look at these two paths of virtual reality and see where, in the future, they may take us.” (Suler 2004)

Dividing Virtual Reality into two types Suler goes on to explain that one type is concerned with being as “true-to-life” as possible, although I’m not convinced that the aims of the technology necessarily dictate that nature or essence of the reality.

“The amplification of physical vigor and the minimizing of discomfort is more fantasy than reality. It doesn’t live up to the definition of “virtual.” People who WANT the exertion, the thumping heart, the sweat, the feel of the branches in their grip, will be disappointed. It ain’t nuthin like the real thing, baby.” (Suler 2004) (More on this later in the article “No-Fap Week 2″)
The second type of VR according to Suler is “Imaginary” VR. “They do not have to recreate the actual world. Instead, they can construct imaginary environments, fantasy realms where the usual laws of reality are stretched, altered, or negated. You appear in any form you wish: animal, vegetable, or mineral. You shape-shift between persona as you please.” (Suler 2004)

Suler’s perspective is psychoanalytical rather than an attempt to understand these realities in terms of society or culture. These realities as stable or passive the way Suler seems to but rather as active creation-re-creations of a reality produced by its own users-producers.

In any event, what is crucial to my work from Suler’s quote above is the shape-shifting persona, since reality bleeds between these spaces (virtual and otherwise), persona are now more pliable, more changeable, more shiftable and this effects developing adolescent identities (more on this in “Ana and Anon” later).

Magnus says, “[I]t is in part only a terminological dispute as to whether the label [Virtual reality] should be applied to technology that impersonates reality or technology that creates new reality.“ (Magnus 2000)

An important terminological dispute nonetheless, and we need space for technologies that do both.

J.G” the pen-name, or Avatar of The Eyeslit-Crypt’s chief editor, unpacks Slavoj Zizek’s conceptions of the site as a interface where much of what takes place is out of our control. The experience of engaging in cyberspace, of living through this interface, presents one with challenging experiences as to the virtuality of the self and to the virtuality of reality. That is, the ability to create (or have created for you), maintain (be maintained) and, ultimately lose control of one’s internet identity and the greeting of the disconnected other fosters what Slavoj Zizek calls “the hysterical experience” of cyberspace.“(J.G. 2008) Certainly this conception approaches an approximation of what my research has indicated.

What was so shocking about virtual space was not that before there was a ‘real’ reality and now there is only a virtual reality, but through the experience of VR we have somehow retroactively become aware how there never was ‘real reality.’” For Zizek, our experience of “reality” is always caught up in our phantasmatic perceptions of reality. That is, we are constantly seeing things as we interpret-ably experience them to be, how they are talked about and how we phantastically relate to them in terms of what they mean to us. We do not see the other in all of his or her traumatic (and horrifying) intensity, but in our fantasizing as to who we see them to be (perhaps in relation to ‘the big Other’). As he says, “I think a certain dimension of virtuality is co-substantial with the symbolic order or the order of language as such.” That is to say, the idea of “virtual reality” is nothing new, that in fact, our experience via language or via symbols are already immersing us in the virtual.” (J.G. 2008)

Crucially, this idea of “nothing new” can be said about the cyber. If we take the cyborg to represent the meshing of human with technological, then technologies, however rudimentary (the bicycle, the ball point pen, the bow and arrow – perfectly, elegantly make us cyborgs) or complex, we must conclude; That language, as a technology, as that key component of being a human being, places us all inside the cyber, regardless how wired in we are, how far off line or however long ago we existed. These symbolic worlds where humanity exists reduces, or produces us to cyber. What does the massive shift in speed and location of the symbolic order, (making it ubiquitous) do to us?

Virtual becomes Mixed

Virtual Reality however it was defined or understood was locatable, at least broadly as “inside” computers or “across” networks (but is it any different to the virtual world of literature? – a reality that has so saturated the physical reality that we no longer separate the two?). As canvases in the virtual world started coming from the real world more and more (with the advent of digital cameras, scanners, etc) a mixed reality was represented on the screen.
For some years1now researchers, media analysts, social theorists, etc have been looking at Mixed Realities. Wikipedia says “Mixed reality (encompassing both augmented reality and augmented virtuality) refers to the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualisations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time”. University College London provides the following diagram by way of explanation;

Mixed Reality Diagram

Mixed Reality Diagram

That is to say, a real object is captured into virtual reality and mixed with an object created within virtual reality as is illustrated below.

Mixed Reality Image

Mixed Reality Image

The work on mixed realities goes from physics (Gintautas and Hübler 2007) to Art2, but in terms of social research applications, the work is limited. In fact, while Mixed Reality as a concept actually worked for a brief period of time, for the purposes of this research (and I would argue for all social internet research going forward) we need to develop a more comprehensive model that reflects the massive changes that have emerged over the last few years.

What are these changes specifically?

  • Capture and distribute devices become, and make the world wide web, ubiquitous
    Mobile phones with built in digital capture capabilities (camera, video, sound) are always on, always connected to the web making the web ubiquitous, it is everywhere all of the time, and at the same time, users selves are always available online, either contactable through phone, email, messaging or as online representations/profiles/personae.
  • User/producers drive the web forward with a new grammar of production
    Users become the producers and the distributors. Consumption and Production become one and the same (more on this in the following chapter)
  • User/producers develop new grammars of understanding and new logical boundaries
    The web, no longer wired to a place or contained within a device shifts locale. Mobile phones become a part of the self1 and in the process the web becomes an integral part of the self. More over, the logics that once applied to a virtual reality and a physical reality become merged.

Art Imitates imitations

Aram Bartholl is a German artist from Berlin, his artwork flips the idea of Mixed Reality, as physical reality captured into the virtual, on its head. Below is a picture from the video game “Need for Speed Underground 2” the red arrows act as impervious boundaries to where the user may race. In the game, they are virtual components that are not meant to approximate to anything in physical reality (unlike the car which does have a real world approximation).

Virtual Virtual Artifact

Virtual Virtual Artifact

Bartholl then takes a virtual artefact and places it in the physical world. (Bartholl, A 2006)

Real Virtual Artifact

Real Virtual Artifact

[See for more]

The logic of moving artefacts from the virtual and placing them in the real has become quite popular in art and design4.
Artist Antoinette J. Citizen does the same with her instilation “Landscapes”5 (the word itself relocating the virtual) by bringing Super Mario into the real world, or us, really into Super Mario Land.

Real Super Mario Land

Real Super Mario Land

Crucially, for social research is that these logics that seem to blur the boundaries, rather than mix the realities come from the mass of user/producers found across the web. The following two images can not be references because they were produced by “Anon”, a collective of “meme” producers, distributors, re-producers and re-distributors.

Lady Sovereign’s video, below, begins with a flattening of reality down to a manipulatable canvas that can be endowed with virtual qualities.

Twin Towers Missing Images

Twin Towers Missing Images

A ticket to/for One Internet

These images apply the logic of the virtual to the real (all be it in a virtual context) and the logic of the real to the virtual. So, the perception of the realities to user/producers is no longer of two or more different realities being mixed. Instead we have one reality, one space that is bound by the same cognitive, creative, logical processes. This has happened for a number of reasons,

  • The wide spread use of the internet by young people (digital natives)
  • The ubiquitous nature of the web
  • The ubiquitous nature of selves on the web

So for the purposes of social research, rather than look at the site as a virtual/real space, or even a cyber space (not cyberspace but the place occupied between user and used technology) I will look at the site as being a multidimensional space. The symbolic world constrained by users perception the same way across all these dimensions, be they mediated by electronic networks, postage services, telephones, books, media or even face to face (more on how well users transfer affect later).

Language in its multitude of forms engages in a play across these dimensions. Language shapes itself around technology, around the printing press, the telegram and the world wide web, and each time has reshaped itself accordingly. What is crucial is as we reshape language, language as the cornerstone of human-ness, reshapes us.

To relate this to some kind of existing methodology I turn to Appadurai’s Social Imaginary, and the methodology of conceptualising, and pursuing the site as a collective of “scapes”. (Appadurai 1996) Many of the challenges realised in the 90s for social researchers (concerned with the global) can be compared to those as we encounter a new form of globalisation through ubiquitous media/technology/selves. It all seems to spin out of control, become intangible. Skin colour, language, geographical locations, political affiliations, etc are no longer how we define a site or researched group. To find answers I had to look at specific strands on the “webs of significance” (Geertz 1977).

1Milgram, P and Kishino, F 1994 A Taxonomy of Mixed Reality Visual Displays in IEICE Transactions on Information Systems, Vol E77-D, No.12 December 1994

2The Mixed Realities – An International Networked Art Exhibition and Symposium which took place in Huret & Spector Gallery (Boston),, and Ars Virtua in Second Life.

3“If you took away my phone you would take away a part of me”. (Comment from a 15 year old girl interviewed in “Childnet’s research. Quoted in Children & Mobile Phones: An Agenda for Action” Childnet International July 2004)

4Super Mario Sticker Graphics to make your own “real” Super Mario “virtual” world.


References and Links

Andersson G.H. Alternate Realities, Simulacra and Simulation: The Shift from Cinespace to Cyberspace in Teccholudic Cinema, symposium paper for “Space and Perception” May 20 – 21, 2005, Riga, Latvia.

Appadurai, A. 1996 Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press

Bartholl, A 2006 for the instillation Public Space Exhibition Plattform Bohnenstrasse in Bremen

Boykett T. Digital physics and emotional Godlets: Experience and Perception in Protocognitive Mixed Realities, symposium paper for “Space and Perception” May 20 – 21, 2005, Riga, Latvia.

Chipperfeild, Alkan. Towards and Anthropology of Mixed Reality, ymposium paper for “Space and Perception” May 20 – 21, 2005, Riga, Latvia.

Geertz, C. 1977 The interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books

Gintautas, V. and Hübler, A.W. 2007 Experimental evidence for mixed reality states in an interreality system in Phys. Rev. E 75, 057201 (The American Physical Society, Physical Review E)

Hayward P & Wollen T. Future Visions: New Technologies of the Screen, eds. Philip Hayward and Tana Wollen (London: British Film Institute, 1993): 180-204

J.G. 2008 Virtual Hysteria: Cyberspace and Reality The Eyeslit-CryptMarch 31st 2008
Interview referenced: Hysteria and Cyberspace, Ulrich Gutmair and Chris Flor interview Slavoj Zizek October 7th 1998

Magnus P.D. 2000 (revised 2004) Reality, Sex and Cyberspace conference paper for MacHack 2000

Suler J. 2004 The Two Paths of Virtual Reality


MR (Mixed Reality Toolkit) University College London

The Mixed Reality Lab, University of Nottingham

GameScenes. Art in the Age of Video Games

© 2009 Pearse Stokes

One Comment

  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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