SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 31 JULY 2005


Really?



Virtual: adj in effect, though not in fact; not such in fact but capable of being considered as such for some purposes

THERE is a moment upon waking from a good sleep when the mind can get confused. Elements of a dream can be vivid enough to short circuit the senses. If it happens on a Monday morning and the dream was good, the second or two of confusion can be all too brief.

Memory is also capable of playing tricks with reality, as a trip to any of the Tribunals of Enquiry will reveal. And of course there is 'on mature reflection', a condition which seems to be predominantly the preserve of politicians.

Lying, of course, is another dalliance with reality. For a lie to stand any chance of success, the liar must truly believe in the story. Good poker players will testify to the skill required to 'read' their opponents. Naturally, experienced opponents have learned how to mask their true intentions or 'tells'.

The human mind is the motherlode of virtual reality, a term I loathe. It began in earnest in the 1960s with experiments with drugs (LSD etc) and got a boost during the 1970s in the computer science labs of universitys with more money than sense.

Come the dotcom deluge in the late 1990s, virtual reality became... er... virtually unstoppable. The stock exchanges were besieged by companies who could send the smell of roses down a copper telephone wire; could allow a person to walk through a house which hadn't been built yet or allow two people separated by oceans to physically touch one another.

The only aspect to this nonsense which in any way approached reality is that the ideas came from the human imagination, the ultimate originator of virtual reality. And it didn't start, as modernists like to think, in this so-called technological age. From the earliest cave paintings in human settlements to characters like Harry Potter, the chain of imagining remains, thankfully, unbroken.

The internet, especially the web, is the newest canvas to receive the doodles of the imagination. For many, that aspect is unsettling, because there is no central reference point. No focus for what's real and what's not. That makes the web seem untrustworthy, especially compared to traditional media.

Television has been one of the great cultural canvases to receive the paint of reality. It should come as no surprise that the manoeuvres of Coronation Street's Mike Baldwin or the meanderings of EastEnder's Little Mo are real. Real enough to enable an empire of glossy magazines to jump off the shelves.

Before television, radio wasn't found wanting in blurring the line between real and unreal. I like to think that Orson Welles really did know the outcome of broadcasting the play War of the Worlds. Like it's newer filmic counterpart, it sent people fleeing in all directions for respite.

Drugs in all their shapes and forms, and I most definitely include alcohol here, have been as constant as the North Star in filtering reality. Go into a packed pub tonight any time after 10.30pm, with nothing but sobriety holding you up and listen. I've been listening intently to the jungle drums of the web for over seven years now and I've yet to come across anything that can compete with the virtual reality available in pubs. Or on television.

Modernists like to think that technology has the ability to magic up worlds with no top or bottom and no reflection in the mirror. It just isn't so and don't take my word for it.

As the space shuttle Discovery successfully went into orbit around the earth last Tuesday, the head of Nasa was animated before the media: "I want you to think about what it takes to get millions of different parts from thousands of vendors across the country to work together to produce what you saw here today and to realise how chancy it is, how difficult it is, at what a primitive state of technology it still is".

That's keeping it real.