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On the Net: What Is Reality by James Patrick Kelly


Once upon a time, figuring out what was real was easy. Reality was the chair you were sitting on, the floor under your feet, the air that filled your lungs. If you dropped the Science Fiction Encyclopedia <> on your toe (1993 edition = 6lbs.), it would hurt, and if you were hit by a meteor . . . well, the only critters who had extra lives in the days before Pac-Man <> were cats. I have a vague memory that, during the drug-addled sixties, The Firesign Theater’s <> deranged comedy LP album “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,” featured a confused and possibly tripping character who cried out in mock anguish “What is reality?” Part of the joke was that the question was absurd. We knew, or at least, we thought we did.
Funny, how things have changed. My guess is that it was television that first began to nibble at the edges of reality. For example, was watching a baseball game on TV less real than watching it from the center field bleachers? Turns out that you saw much more of the game on the tube, and once they invented replays, plain vanilla reality was a sorry substitute for enhanced, couch-based sports viewing. And of course, for people of my generation who did not serve in the military, the nightly news was the closest we came to the “reality” of the war in Vietnam. But it was the digital revolution that truly altered the state of reality. Speaking of drugs, it was none other than Timothy Leary <> who famously declared “The PC is the LSD of the 1990s.” Toward the end of his life he revisited his classic admonition of “turn on, tune in, and drop out” and suggested that seekers of the cyberdelic experience “turn on, boot up, and jack in.” And indeed, many tech pioneers like Steve Jobs, Stewart Brand, and John Perry Barlow <> took his advice, turning from acid to the internet and helping to switch the digital age on.
Of course, we in science fiction had a little something to do with the ongoing improvements to reality. One of the first stories to anticipate the new digital reality was Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe” <>, published in Astounding in 1946. And while there were others, it was certainly William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer <> that introduced the modern notion of cyberspace, which has come to be almost synonymous with the internet. This is despite the many differences between the 1984 novel and the 2012 iteration of the WWW. For those who have not yet read cyberpunk’s founding text, here’s an article from Macworld <>, written on the occasion of Neuromancer’s twenty-fifth birthday, which details some of what Bill got right and what he got wrong. Bottom line: he was truly prescient—or perhaps, as some assert, core features of the net—and with it, reality—were reverse-engineered from his science fiction novel. Might William Gibson be to the internet as Arthur C. Clarke is to space? Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow wrote <>, “In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. You can see what your neighbors are saying (or recently said), but not what either they or their physical surroundings look like. Town meetings are continuous and discussions rage on everything from sexual kinks to depreciation schedules . . . Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to one another. Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Newt. It extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace.”



But when I assert that cyberspace is almost synonymous with the internet, I am flirting with a dangerous imprecision. Is email part of cyberspace? Texting? Skype <>? For that matter, when you pick up your smartphone and call your cousin in St. Louis, are you entering cyberspace? And if you are, what about if you call her on your landline? And are these electronic conversations you might have with her using email, Skype with video, or that old fashioned telephone handset more or less “real” than what you say to one another when you visit her in St. Louis?
Is there a philosophy major in the house? Just what is reality?
As it turns out, reality comes in a variety of flavors these days. There is real life <>, or “meatspace” as the cyberpunks liked to call it. There is cyberspace, or the world of the internet. Then there is Artificial Reality <>. Wait, isn’t that the same as Virtual Reality <>or virtuality? In common parlance it is, but there is a useful distinction to be made. And what is this Augmented Reality <> we keep hearing is just around the corner?
Some fast and dirty definitions for the purposes of our discussion. Feel free to come up with your own.
Let’s decide that when we say artificial reality, a term first used by computer artist Myron W. Krueger <> to describe his interactive immersive environments, we mean a created environment that is so persuasive that the user can’t distinguish it from reality. This is essentially a science fiction notion at the moment, since there is no technology on the horizon that is likely to fool users as thoroughly as the Wachowski’s Matrix <> convinced Neo and the other hapless citizens of the twenty-second century that they were living unhappily ever after in 1999. Some also call this level of digital verisimilitude simulated reality.
Virtual reality, then, is a simulation that can seem very real (or not), but in which the user is always aware that she is in a simulation. The term was popularized by VR pioneer Jaron Lanier <>. (By the way, his 2010 book You Are Not A Gadget <>, which skews to a cautionary view of current net culture, is nonetheless essential reading for the aspiring digerati.) VR, used in this sense, has a long and distinguished literary history. See, for example, the virtual reality entry <>in the lighter-than-air-digital version of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia. It mentions E.M. Forster’s <> cells equipped with “cinematophotes” in “The Machine Stops” <>(1909) and Aldous Huxley’s <>“feelies” in Brave New World <> (1932) and Arthur C. Clarke’s <> “sagas” in The City and the Stars (1956) and Philip K. Dick’s <> Can-D and Chew-Z (Drugs! Surprise!) in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Orson Scott Card’s <> combat simulations in Ender’s Game (story version 1977, novel 1985). And this list is by no means complete.
Virtuality is a science fictional idea that is being quickly overtaken by current events. The technology to create immersive simulations is some forty years old now, perhaps dating from the debut of the arcade video game Pong <> in 1972. As crude as it was, Pong helped create the video game industry and was a precursor to the console and computer game industry that last year did some fifty-six billion dollars in business. According to The Economist <>: “The gaming industry is more than twice the size of the recorded-music industry, nearly a quarter more than the magazine business and about three-fifths the size of the film industry.” That’s a lot of reality, virtual or not. I would argue—at least for the duration of this column and the next—that cyberspace is a special case of virtual reality.
Augmented reality is an information based technology that aims to enhance our senses in real time. When I say senses, I mean sight mostly—there is some aural AR but no smell, taste or touch enhancements that I know of. In 1997 Ronald Azuma offered an early look at developments in AR in his A Survey of Augmented Reality <> that anticipates some of the gizmos that are available today off the shelf. For example, a staple of the geek press is an article like “The 10 Coolest Augmented Reality Apps” <> that lists such smart-device apps as Layar <>, which calls itself a “reality browser.” It can recognize stuff in the real world and display information about that stuff on the screen on your phone. Car Finder <> will remember where you parked your car and lead you back to it using your phone’s onboard GPS. Google Sky Map <> is one of many wonderful astronomy apps that use your device’s compass, GPS, and clock to tell you exactly what you’re looking at when you point it at the heavens. And there’s more AR on its way, so that the amazing tech we’ve seen in movies like Blade Runner <>, and the Terminator <>franchise, and in Vernor Vinge’s Hugo-award-winning novel Rainbow’s End <> may be just around the corner. Want a heads-up display like the one you saw in Iron Man <>? Check out your local Wal-Mart next Christmas!


Now that we have some provisional definitions, what are we going to do with them? It occurs to me that it’s worth thinking about the future of our relationships with the artificial and the real. For a long time, the default view has been to consider them opposites. The artificial is, after all, what is not real. But as our technologies mature and grow ever more astonishing in their capabilities, some believe it may be more productive to think of them as existing on a continuum.
And then there is Nick Bostrom <>, who has proposed the provocative idea that the universe we perceive all around us may well be a Matrix-like simulation, given certain not-all-that-unlikely assumptions. What is reality? Maybe there is no such thing!
More on the simulation controversy in the next installment. Until then, keep it real!

Copyright © 2012 James Patrick Kelly

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"On the Net: What Is Reality" by James Patrick Kelly Copyright © 2012 with permission of the author.

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