X-Message-Number: 5288
Date: Tue, 28 Nov 1995 23:50:47 -0500
From: "Keith F. Lynch" <>
Subject: Virtual reality

Several people on Cryonet have recently criticized "virtual reality"
for the crime of not being real.  This seems to be a popular and
stylish pursuit in general these days.  John Barlow, in an article
in _Harpers_ about the net, boasts of "real-world" activities that
he has participated in, such as cattle drives.  Clifford Stoll recently
wrote a whole book denouncing the net, and suggesting moonlit walks
instead.  It's almost as if these two people who are famous for their
actions on the net were afraid that they would fade away into a cloud
of virtuality if they didn't let lots of people know about their "real
world" activities.  It's almost like a teenaged male who is terrified
of being thought effeminite, and who thus goes out of his way to do
lots of things traditionally regarded as masculine.

What is reality?  What is fantasy?  Which events are real, and which
are not?  Is this conversation a real conversation, or a simulated one?
What about if we were conversing via the USPS, or via telephone?  Or
what if one or more of us were replaced by a computer simulation of
ourselves?  Which of these are real conversations, and which are

Is a trip by car or plane a real trip, or is it a simulation of a real
trip?  What about on a bike?  What about on a stationary exercise bike
while watching a video of a trip?  What about driving a car by remote
control while you stay at home?

Do computers do real arithmetic, or only simulated arithmetic?  Is
"synthetic division" real?  What about math with "imaginary" numbers?
What about computer programs that are run in "virtual memory" rather
than in real physical memory?  Or programs that are run on a virtual

What music is real?  Sounds from human lungs and mouths?  From
instruments?  From electronically amplified instruments?  From
analog phonograph records?  From CDs?  Composed by computer?  Was
Beethoven's Ninth symphony real music, if the composer was completely
deaf when he wrote it?

Was _Terminator II_ a real movie, or a simulated movie?  Large parts
of it were computer generated.

Is playing chess real?  Does it matter whether a real chessboard is
used, or one on a computer screen?  Is playing football real?  Is
watching football real?  Does it matter whether it's watched in person
or on TV?

I spend much of my life on the net.  Am I living in the real world, or
in "cyberspace"?  What if spent *all* my time on the net?  What if it
turned out that the universe that we know were entirely a simulation,
and we were brains in a vat?  What if it turned out that the universe
that we know were entirely a simulation, and we were parts of it, with
no phsyical existence outside the simulation?

If most of my money exists only as computerized bank records, is it
real?  What if it was mostly green pieces of paper backed solely by the
full faith and credit of the US government?  What if it was mostly gold?

Which diseases are real diseases?  Measles?  Obesity?  Alcoholism?
Homosexuality?  Hypochondria?  Factitious disorder by proxy?  An illness
faked by a reporter in order to do an expose on a treatment facility?

Which kinds of work are real?  The physiocrats said that only farming,
fishing, and hunting were real.  Marxists said that manual labor was
real, but that management, investing, and office work were parasitic.
Libertarians say that all of these are real, but that being a welfare
queen, or the Queen of Great Britain, is not.  People who have been
in combat often say that nothing other than combat seems as real.

Which of these are real, and which are virtual?

Would all educated people answer these questions the same way?  Would
their answers tend to change with time, as technology develops, and as
people become accustomed to interacting with the world and with each
other in new and sometimes more abstract ways?

My opinion is that the real world and cyberspace are the same place and
always were.  That the motion of electrons in silicon is just as real
as the motion of cars on a highway.  That the only sense in which it
makes sense to ask if something is real is to ask what really happens,
and whether it was what was desired.

If the purpose of a trip is to physically move your body to a distant
location, then a bike trip and a car trip are both real trips, but a
stationary exercise bike trip is not.  If the purpose of a trip is to
get exercise, then a bike trip and a stationary exercise bike trip are
both real, but a car trip is not.

If the purpose of a flight is to learn how to fly, or to test the
dynamics of a plane, then a simulator might fit the bill.  But not if
one wishes to physically get somewhere, or to test how realistic the
dynamics programmed into the simulator are.

Most people work and play in a highly abstract environment.  Few people
get much of their information from direct observation.

I spend much of my time reading and writing messages on the net, reading
books and magazines, listening to music, programming and debugging
computers, assisting other computer users, training people in the use
of various programs, solving math problems, and talking to people on the
phone.  All of these could be done entirely in "cyberspace," and I can't
see that I would be any worse off for it, or that I would be unable to
return to the "real world" at any time.

I've done more than my share of direct observation and experiment.  I've
personally measured the speed of sound, the speed of light, the size of
the earth, and the size of the solar system.  I've measured my latitude
at various locations from Cuba to Iceland.  I've tasted several oceans
and lakes.  I've designed and built my own ham radio rig from scratch,
and used it to communicate with people using similar rigs thousands of
miles away.

Physical bodies need physical exercise.  I get more than most people, as
I bike to work and back 11 miles each way (I've never had a car).  Will
a simulated exercise suffice?  That depends.  A stationary exercise bike
will do nicely.  A video game of one will not.  Of course if one is
a "brain in a vat," or exists entirely as software, one won't have a
physical body to need exercise.

We are able to communicate pretty well like this, even though I've
never met most of you.  There is much I don't know about the individuals
on this list.  Would I really know all that much more if we were to meet
in person?

In summary, I deny there is any meaningful distinction between "the real
world" and "cyberspace," any more that there is between natural and
artifical chemicals.  The patterns and motions of electrons in a chip,
and of magnetic domains on a disk, are just as real as the motion of
papers on a desk, soldiers in battle, or goods and services in an

As for the risk of having one's body or CPU cluster in the real world,
yes it's a risk, no matter what you do.  However, there's no place else
it can be, because there's no place else.  How can it best be defended?
Fighter pilots seem to think that highly abstract video-game-like
heads-up displays are more useful than simply peering out the window.

As for immortality and virtual reality being incompatible, I think
the exact opposite is true.  The universe is likely to be extremely
different in the far future.  So different that life as we know
it would be impossible, and the senses we have now would perceive
either total blackness, extreme cold, and complete silence, or else
unimaginably great blue-white light, extreme heat, and enormous noise.
But Dyson and Tipler have argued that our continued existance in these
conditions should be possible for a time without end, given that we
periodically re-engineer ourselves and our perceptions.

I do not regard hallucinations, drug trips, or religious fantasies as
being "virtual reality".  At least not in the sense I'm using the term.
Keith Lynch, 

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