2. HAPTIC DIMENSIONS
Navigation through immersive environments is of course a serious problem in the world, an enjoyable problem in amusement parks, and a highly rhetoricized one in virtual worlds. Already, in an amusement park, we are often on the verge of fiction making. By the time we get to virtual reality, we find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown metafiction.
Metafictions have been described as fictions that examine the creation of systems, especially themselves and other fictions, with particular attention to the ways in which these systems transform and filter reality. There is an assumption in this sort of fiction making that we are locked in a world we have created, a fictional world shaped by narrative and subjective forms developed to generate meaning and stabilize our perceptions. Metafictions don't operate on aesthetic assumptions of verisimilitude, but exult in their own ficticiousness. They assume that there are no true descriptions in fiction, only constructions, which may not have any relation to the world.
Navigation in virtual worlds tends to disrupt the ordinary balance that exists between our exterior senses and our interpretive subjectivity. It is no accident that virtual reality has been compared with hallucinogens. LSD, alcohol, fatigue, and lucid dreaming have all provided us with many examples of this disruption, all tending to reveal what I would call the haptic dimensions of thought: a sudden intuition of the material nature of thought, of how thought is received from the environment, and at the same time transforms the environment. Acid trips, for example, are famous for their mode changes, sudden and powerful associations, and constant commentary on themselves, a unified metafictional experience that often leaves the user with the powerful impression that thought is literally another and different physical sense.
Of course, the same effect is common to exhaustion in immersive environments. After the Matterhorn spoke through speakers, I made the very long walk back to my hotel across the famous vast parking lot, past the gate and down a long street with a new sidewalk that switched from one side of the street to the other every block. Four hours off the plane, with miniature golf to one side, the Charismatic Convention Center to the other, and naked power pylons above, I was waiting for the next epiphany, as I could barely tell the difference between Disneyland and California. I received my epiphany in the appearance of a small rectangular concrete cover embedded in, and the same color as, the sidewalk. On the molded top there was engraved the word "telephone," which in the tunnel of my exhaustion made me think too clearly about the power lines invisible under the overlit night street, about my telephone at home, barely lit and unseen by my wife, who was certainly asleep in another room; about the last phone I used to call her, a pay phone back at Disneyland â€” in general, about both the limits of my knowledge, and the connectedness of words, my thoughts, and the world, and how, in making those connections, my thoughts had acted like a strange sense, seeing things so far away, or impossible to see.
I believe this is related to something the mathematician Poincare said when describing his theory of conventionalism, the main purpose of which was to assert that the space described by the convention of Euclid's theorems did not rule out other spaces with their own self-consistent sets of rules. In certain descriptions of space, he said, there could also be haptic dimensions where every muscle was a dimension.
This thought fascinated people at the turn of the century, and was related by them to the notion that the fourth dimension was an alternate spatial dimension, at right angles to everything we know. In many ways, these enthusiasms were parts of an attempt to deal with subjectivity as a dimension and as a sense â€” an n-dimensional sense, since with so many possible descriptions, there was no point in stopping the count. Nowadays, with human-computer interface technology, we have come to a literalization of the idea of haptic dimensions. Now, the world can be mapped to muscles, so that a small hand gesture inside a dataglove can be used to navigate, or even to increase the amount of space available in a virtual world.
Speaking about the human-computer interface in his book Virtual Reality, Howard Rheingold says,
â€œWe build models of the world inside our head, using the data from sense organs and the information processing capacity of our brain. We habitually think of the world we see as out there, but what we are really seeing is a mental model, a perceptual simulation that only exists in the brain.That simulation capability is where human minds and digital computers share a potential for synergy.â€
I find it fascinating that Rheingold is not just a great popularizer of virtual reality. He is also a popularizer of lucid dreaming technologies, which allow a dreamer literally paralyzed by sleep to communicate information from a parallel, artificial, and autonomous world out to sleep researchers, using a Morse code of eye wiggles. I take it as a clue that our equivalent of the turn-of-the-century fascination with haptic and higher dimensions can nowadays be found in the theme of potentially autonomous alternate worlds which exist in machines as virtual reality and artificial life, or in our world, as Jurassic Park, and which share among themselves the qualities of metafiction.