Analogy is better than Reality

POSTED: December 2, 2005

This paper was delivered at the second annual League of Worlds conference, held in October 2005 at AppState University, Boone, NC.

1. Introduction

In this paper I try to tackle a problem that has been disturbing me for some time now: the way that the self-serving term “virtual reality” has been allowed to fashion and shape much of the discussion that takes place around this topic, to the detriment of everyone except a small group of hucksters and cheerleaders. I conclude by suggesting a way out of this: an analytical approach that is, I believe, more securely anchored, and more logically coherent, than the mish-mash of second-hand film theory and third-hand semiotics that currently passes for ‘virtual theory’.

The ideas expressed here make use of the works and thoughts of the American logician Charles S Peirce, and the Canadian media-poet Marshall McLuhan, to make sense of the many-layered nature of digital stuff. (I use the word “stuff” because I know of no more specific word that conveys the combination of work, play, communication and exploration that exists simultaneously in the digital domain.)

The arguments presented here have their starting points in two long conversations at different conferences: with Scott Cunningham from the Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism, at Texas Tech University, and Lisa Palafox from the School of Arts and Sciences, National University, at the 2005 conference of the Society for Phenomenology and Media; and with Maria Wahlstrom Bäcke, from the Department of English at Karlstad University, at Cybercultures 3. These arguments have since been developed further by email and instant messenger.

As always, I should stress that while the good bits might well be theirs, the bad bits are definitely all mine.

2. Where is cyberspace?

In the last decade two terms have become familiar in academic research, grant applications and journalism: “cyberspace” and “virtual reality”. Both of these are confusing and misleading.

The widespread adoption of the term “cyberspace” has had the effect of imposing a set of spatial metaphors on an area of activity that is tangentially spatial at best. These, in turn, have served to characterize the way that work in this area is approached, discussed and thought about. There is, to take but one example, a site, that cheerfully declares itself as “an atlas of maps and graphic representations of the geographies of the new electronic territories of the Internet, the World-Wide Web and other emerging Cyberspaces”.

I would suggest that this claim is nonsensical as it stands. Moreover, it will remain so unless it is supported by detailed argument explaining why these new “electronic territories” are, in fact, territories, what kind of territories they are, and what features they possess that can reasonably be said to be geographical.

The term “cyberspace” introduces uncalled-for ideas of distance, geography, neighbourhoods, frontiers, and more, into discussions that are actually concerned with the reception and interpretation of digital data. Its proponents appear to assert that our use of the Internet causes us to travel to a place that has the kind of intractable and non-negotiable reality that, by definition, places have.

Consciously or not, they imply that we ‘go’ to these places in a similar way to the way that we go to Legoland or Melbourne. It is true that we might make games or educational environments that exhibit persistence by retaining information from one user session to the next, and also that we might begin engaging with an onscreen environment which predates our involvement. These points only address our status with regard to the digital environment, though. They say nothing about our ontological relationship to it, which remains a coming together of a creative imagination and a set of ongoing relations.

3. Neither virtual nor real

If cyberspace is not a place, then ?virtual reality? is neither virtual nor real.

The use of the word “reality” implies that “the new electronic territories” are an object, or a collection of objects, that “has the properties it has independently of any individual?s arbitrary wish or desire”. (Ketner, 1996). In practice, the onscreen experience is a process that has to be willfully sustained by the user. Rather than an alternative reality, it is much closer to what William Gibson has referred to as a process of “consensual hallucination” (Gibson, 1984)

At the start of a session, the user has to suspend disbelief, and then during the session has to work at keeping it suspended. At any time, deliberately or accidentally, the user can lose focus, or have focus snatched away from them; and thus be bounced out of imaginative communion with the onscreen world. The process of engagement requires the user to remain willfully insensitive to all activity at the fringes of their senses: the sound of traffic outside the window, the sight of a fly in the room, the smell of cooking from the restaurant downstairs.

There is no similar set of maneuvres required to remain in situ in reality. By definition you cannot be bounced out of communion with a geographical reality. However much you may wish to live as a solipsist, you do not exist in Legoland or Melbourne by force of will, and you cannot beam out of there by withdrawing consent. Real objects, and real places containing real objects, have an existence that is outside our interaction with them. We work within the limitations that they impose upon us.

It might be argued at this point that nobody is claiming that what is shown on screen is real, only that it is virtually real. However, the word “virtual” is as bogus as the word reality. When we are told that somebody was “virtually dead” or that “the company was virtually bankrupt when the new CEO arrived” we understand two things from this. Firstly we understand “virtual” to be almost synonymous with “almost”: the phrase means something very similar to the person was “almost dead”. Secondly we understand “virtual” to imply the imminent possibility of movement towards a final state. The person was “almost dead and in a condition that might become real death at any moment”. The company was “almost bankrupt and might have collapsed into actual bankruptcy in a matter of days”.

The phrase “virtual reality”, then, seems to imply that what we are seeing might not be reality now, but contains the possibility of motion necessary to move it into a final state of actual reality. There is no evidence whatsoever to show that this is anything other than wishful thinking. It is, at best, an optimistic fantasy and, at worst, a deliberate sleight of hand.

4. Pedantry and snake oil

It might be possible to acknowledge that these terms are unfortunate, and even that they have been deliberately misused, while denying that this is anything to be concerned about.

My contention is that there is something to be concerned about. These terms have not simply been used to describe an (allegedly) new phenomenon. They have also been used to direct attention and energy; to make certain activities appear self-evidently sensible, while marginalising others. By insisting on discussing digital activity in terms of geography and reality, “innovations” like Swatch Internet Time can be made to seem important, as a way, for example, of making the information superhighway navigable. If cyberspace is not a place, then Swatch Internet Time was a badly flawed solution to a completely nonexistent problem.

When this was launched on October 23, 1998, Nicholas Negroponte, its chief architect and cheerleader, found the idea that there were “new electronic territories” to explore very useful for his purpose. He was happy to take the metaphor literally, and encourage others to do the same. He said: “Cyberspace has no seasons. The virtual world is absent of day and night… Internet Time is not geopolitical, it is global. For many people real time will be Internet Time”. (Swatch, 1998)

This kind of language strives to make it appear as though we are working with objects that are “out there”, that we have discovered somewhere new and unexplored, when in fact we are working with processes, with relations, that are negotiated communally, and whose every aspect is contingent.

5. Objects and Relationships

The processes that we are exploring can be described as processes of immersion into a coherent set of patterns, intended to be imagined as a world. The purpose of these processes, or relations, can be described as learning through play, or perhaps as play through learning. The difference between process and place, between relation and object, though, is unbridgeable.

These relations have three characteristic facets that together can be labeled “engagement”: immersion, interaction and identification. Users become immersed in what is depicted on the screen to the extent that they can keep their attention focused there. Often the onscreen data enables them to interact with other users, while providing a mediating framework within which this interaction can be contextualized. Lastly, users may identify with their own onscreen avatar, but more importantly, if their experience is successful, they will come to identify with the environment itself, with the laws, relations and events they find there.

6. The world of tools

The onscreen worlds that we create are not “realities”, for the reasons that I have described, but I believe that they can fairly be described as worlds, if we use that word in the sense of “the world of theatre mourns the death of Lauren Bacall”, or “he strode the world of tennis like a colossus”. Richard Bartle, among others, has suggested the use of “world” in this context. (Bartle, 2003)

Used in this sense the word “world” means a club, a group with insiders and specified laws and codes of behaviour; a group however that serves a public function involving outsiders. In this, and only this, sense, it is appropriate to talk of onscreen worlds; to talk of “entering the world of” Ultima Online or Rebel Dawn.

We do not, and cannot, live in this sort of world. We do not eat and drink there; we do not have sex there; we do not make friends or enemies there, except insofar as we can and do the same things when we use a tool like a telephone. An onscreen world is a tool for facilitating complex interactions between people, sometimes by providing them with a backdrop in front of which they can move and talk, and sometimes by providing them with created entities with whom they can practice or simulate interaction.

These worlds that we “enter” are sophisticated communications tools that bear a family resemblance to older tools like telephones. In Marshall McLuhan’s terms both are cool media.

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool medium like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like the TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in ‘high definition’. High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, ‘high definition’. A cartoon is ‘low definition’ simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.

(Marshall McLuhan, 1964)

We are working with a low definition, cool medium, and our claim is that the worlds that constitute, or result from, this medium have an educational use and an entertainment value. We need to be able to justify this claim, and to resolve the doubts of those who have been seduced by the hype and disappointed by the reality.

7. Semeiotics

If we are to be able to resolve doubts, which is after all the underlying point of all scientific research (in other words, the enquiring activities of a scientific intelligence, “that is to say, by an intelligence capable of learning by experience”), we need a firm starting point for our investigation, a logical method for resolving doubt. As Ketner points out, “Logic is the fundamental academic discipline, basic to any academic subject which proposes to use an objective method.” (Ketner, 1996)

I suggest we could do no better in this respect than to examine some of the concepts proposed by the American scientist and logician Charles S Peirce. He was a pragmatist, who believed that it was futile to look for an absolute starting point for our thinking. He believed that we “cannot start from any other condition than that in which we actually are … We really believe many things, and, therefore, philosophic doubts upon such matters must be mere pretence and can result in nothing but a show of demonstration of things really taken for granted”. (Ketner, 1996)

Peirce evolved a logical system, semeiotic, which was triadic in form. In line with his belief that we have to start from where we actually are, semeiotic “conceptions can be viewed as abstractions from common-sense practices, and as such are by no means infallible or eternally valid.” (Bergman, 2000) His work is described as triadic because he demonstrated that, while the conventional binary logic (yes-no, cause-effect) is adequate for describing brute, natural events, it is completely inadequate to describe any relations that involve purpose; that is, any events that involve or derive from human agency. Binary logic proceeds by writing intention or purpose out of the equation, which, from Peirce?s perspective, misses the whole point!

He argued that “John gives the book to Mary” is a single set of relations containing three elements. He demonstrated, mathematically and linguistically, that it could not be reduced to sets of two, as proponents of sequential cause and effect would argue. “John holds out the book. Mary takes the book” is not the same as “John gives the book to Mary” precisely because the element of intention has been removed.

In terms of communication, we should also note that an important element of Peirce’s semeiotic is its ‘future-orientedness’. (Bergman, 2000)

8. Diagrammatic Thought

For our present purposes, Peirce’s key concept of diagrammatic thought is of particular relevance. Kenneth Laine Ketner explains this as follows. “How then can we analyze thought, or signs, or communication” … If “analyze” means “come to have a better understanding of x” then the answer seems to be that we must analyze signs (triadic relations) by means of other signs or triadic relations. In particular, if there is a matter about which we lack understanding, we can use a set of relations that we comprehend reasonably well to model the relations in the area of relative ignorance … Stated in a very abstract fashion, this is Peirce’s method of diagrammatic thought, a technique he originally developed out of mathematical considerations, but adapted for other problem areas.? (Ketner, 1996)

Peirce himself described this faculty of “abstractive observation” as one that “ordinary people perfectly recognize, but for which the theories of philosophy barely leave room. It is a familiar experience to every human being to wish for something quite beyond his present means, and to follow that wish by the question: Should I wish for that thing just the same, if I had ample means to gratify it? To answer that question he searches his heart, and in doing so makes what I call an abstractive observation. He makes in his imagination a sort of skeletal diagram, or outline sketch, of himself, considers what modifications the hypothetical state of things would require to be made in that picture, and then examines it, that is, observes what he has imagined, to see whether the same ardent desire is there to be discerned. By such a process, which is at bottom very much like mathematical reasoning, we can reach conclusions as to what would be true of signs in all cases, so long as the intelligence using them was scientific.” (Ketner, 1996)

Despite his clear and powerful arguments, and the demonstrable success of his method, people habitually ignore this method, assuming that it to be “unscientific”. Current theorists attempt to replace it with approaches such as Sassurean semiotics and structuralism: approaches that claim to be able to analyse purposive relations in terms of dyadic concepts. Peirce’s semeiotic differs radically (and very usefully) from these approaches, because it is concerned explicitly with the analysis of triads, and so proceeds through diagrammatic mapping, which is seen as a legitimate scientific tool for resolving doubts.

9. Mapping relations

Unsurprisingly Peirce did not write a comprehensive philosophy of media theory, but subsequently others have drawn the major aspects of such a philosophy out of his books and manuscripts. Interestingly, his work can be seen as a direct precursor of the work of Marshall McLuhan, with many of the same themes and strategies observable in both.

Peirce, for example, was explicit that ‘whatever we know, we know only by its relations, and in so far as we know its relations’, and indeed, he claimed that ‘in reality, every fact is a relation’. (Ketner, 1996) In this he is in complete agreement with Marshall McLuhan, who stated that ‘objects are unobservable, only relationships among objects are observable’. (Marshall McLuhan, 1964)

Both avoided statistical approaches to analyzing relations, in favour of ‘abstractive observation’. Peirce proceeded by constructing diagrams (or models, or artfully argued analogies). Marshall McLuhan talked of his approach as ‘building probes’ that have no methodological point of view. He claims that his method is ‘like that of a safecracker. In the beginning I don?t know what’s inside. I just set myself down in front of the problem and begin to work. I grope, I probe, I listen, I test ‘until the tumblers fall and I’m in. That’s the way I work with all these media.’ (Ketner, 1996) He describes himself thus: ‘I am an investigator. I make probes. I have no point of view. I do not stay in one position. I don’t explain. I explore’. (Ketner, 1996)

This is the heart of the matter: it is futile and self-limiting to look at onscreen worlds as objects, rather than discussing their characteristic facets as the cultural production of repeatable dialogic relations. It is impossible to do this by amassing statistics. It may indeed be impossible to do this by any means other than a process of mapping.

10. Movies, immersion and diagrams

We might begin to discuss the relations embodied in immersive worlds by noting that these constitute a cool, low definition medium. In this, as Marshall McLuhan himself noted, they are very different to movies, which are a high definition, low participation medium. The apparent similarities between the two, between movies and computer-generated worlds, then, are superficial and misleading.

This means that there is no reason to presume that anything we know, or think we know, about the reception and interpretation of movies will have any, direct or indirect, relevance to the study of immersive worlds. (I am not yet prepared to say that film studies are entirely irrelevant for our purposes, but I will say that any attempt to introduce them into the discussion will need to be carefully argued every step of the way.)

If we cannot use film theory for our purposes, then what can we use? Logically we should look to find a body of critical theory that deals with a related cool medium. I believe that we can find just this in literary theory.

In slightly different ways Peirce and Marshall McLuhan are themselves pointing towards a literary critical approach to analysis This approach begins by creating exploratory models and then proceeds by discussing and debating the feelings and reactions these models engender. They are both arguing that logical analysis is a process of dialogue, not an operation of sifting facts and computing numbers.

The kind of dialogue that we need is a challenging one; one taking place at the boundaries of narrative and the borders of language. We need a dialogue that begins where Marshall McLuhan began, In the words of Jonathan Miller, Marshall McLuhan believed ‘that there is a point where apparently language is broken down in the lines of getting ideas across, and he is try to open up the possibility of not remaining silent, of being communicative by using new techniques which language has perhaps not provided’. (Stern, 1967)

11. The fallacy of the fracture

If we adopt a literary critical approach we will immediately see that the work we are engaged in is not completely new, nor unprecedented. It is a continuation of work carried on for at least one hundred and fifty years. The idea that history has altered, that everything you know is wrong, and that today is nothing at all like yesterday is revealed as just more of the self-appointed digerati?s snake-oil salesmanship.

All of the aspects of what I have termed engagement have, for centuries, been available through the act of reading. Any novel invites the reader to engage with it in the same way as an onscreen ?world?, by using strategies that rely upon the willing engagement of the user.

As Marshall McLuhan has pointed out repeatedly, we are not at the beginning of a revolution. Our problem is that the revolution began decades ago and we didn’t notice it. The move from goods to information (from “atoms to bits”, in Nicholas Negroponte’s phrase) began with the introduction of movies, telephones and radio; gathered steam with the introduction of television; and continued with the introduction of computers and networks.

The key to this is not computers, but electricity: ‘electricity not only gives primacy to process, whether in making or in learning, but it makes independent the source of energy from the location of the process’ (Marshall McLuhan, 1964), which is why Marshall McLuhan designated the current period the electronic age and not, for example the television age. The Internet, and the 3D environments that we are capable of accessing through it, are the most recent and most powerful electronic tool available to us, but they are part of a lineage, a cultural history, that stretches back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

If we understand this, we can see why there is no place called cyberspace, where the rules of life are different or somehow suspended. ‘Minimally all humans share one discursive universe, ie reality. This reality is a conception brought on by the fact that world refuses to conform to our will.’ (Bergman, 2000)

From this perspective we can see the thread of continuity in our work that links us to the Dadaists, to Joyce and Burroughs, and we can see the ways in which our work is fulfilling the prophecies of Ted Nelson concerning hypertext, in ways he never imagined.

12. Diagrammatic worlds

Peirce preferred visual diagrams, arguing that the visual was the most highly developed sense, although he was liberal in his definition of ‘visual’. He viewed algebraic equations, for example, as visual examples of the diagrammatic method. Onscreen worlds such as Marinetta can be seen as visual diagrams, or more exactly as a lattice-work of visual diagrams woven together but still able to be viewed discretely from different perspectives.

This kind of on-screen world can be viewed as diagrammatic maps or texts to be analysed most efficiently through the tools of literary criticism. The objects on the screen may not be “text” in the sense of letters on paper but they are interpretable cultural markers and the relations between the users, the screen, and the onscreen “world” can certainly be seen as textual.

The terms we use for the machinery (hardware and software) that does this, and for the outputs of that machinery, must be terms that describe process, not terms that conjure up an imaginary “out there” and insist on discussing it as though it were real.

If we start from here we shall avoid the pitfalls of pseudo-geography, and the traps laid for us by the elves of self-promotion. We should be able to start talking about our work in terms of its antecedents and its intended goals; in terms of analogies and diagrams, rather than dubious ‘realities’.

We should now be able to engage in dialogues that are, in method as well as subject matter, congruent with the constructed worlds whose narratives we are ‘writing’. From here we can develop critical tools, based on the similarities in approach between Peirce and Marshall McLuhan. We can, in fact, look for ways of explicating Peirce?s trivalent logic and putting it to practical use as a key part of the foundations of a logical and objective system for analyzing and understanding on-screen diagrammatic worlds.


Richard Bartle, 2003. Designing Virtual Worlds. New Rider Publishing
Mats Bergman, 2000. Meaning and Mediation. Helsinki: University of Helsinki
William Gibson, 1984. Neuromancer
Kenneth Laine Ketner, 1996. Elements of Logic. Arisbe Associates
Marshall Marshall McLuhan, 1964. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill
Patrick H Samway (ed), 1995. A Thief of Peirce. University Press of Mississippi
Gerald Emmanuel Stern, 1967. Marshall McLuhan Hot and Cool, New York: Signet
Swatch web site, .beat section, 1998