What Was Virtual Reality?

If you visited a tech blog in the past two years, you will have undoubtedly noticed: no topic has been generating more buzz than non-real-reality (virtual, mixed, augmented—pick your flavor).

One of the more fascinating aspects of this tidal wave of excitement (and venture capital) is its obliviousness to its own history — a rich tradition of gamers, tech geeks, and scientists building and hyping virtual worlds. At Backchannel, a reprint of “Being in Nothingness” by John Perry Barlow, a seminal essay from 1990, shows the uncanny similarties between our current conversations and the obsession over “cyberspace” 30 years ago. It also brings home a crucial point: that cutting-edge technology is not only about slick, robot-filled futures; it’s fueled just as much by our undepletable nostalgic longings.

The list of possibilities is literally bounded only by the imagination. Working bodies for the damaged. Teleconferencing with body language. Virtual surgery. Hey, this is a practical thing to do!

And yet I suspect that something else altogether, something not so practical, is at the root of these yearnings. Why do we really want to develop Virtual Reality? There seems to be a flavor of longing here which I associate with the desire to converse with aliens or dolphins or the never-born.

On some level, I think we can now see the potential for technology, long about the business of making the metaphorical literal, of reversing the process and re-infecting ordinary reality with luminous magic.

Or maybe this is just another expression of what may be the third oldest human urge, the desire to have visions. Maybe we want to get high.

Read the story