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Digital Media: Critical Perspectives (MC71075A) Justin Pickard

How does the condition of virtuality, as Hayles sees it,

configure the relationship between information and materiality?

'The data's selection criteria were set and continuously refined by a natural neural
network cultured from the cortical cells of a long-deceased cat, genetically predisposed
and behaviourally conditioned to recognise images of death and pain. The only human
intervention required, when the images reached Beijing, was to select those most
appropriate to upload to other parasitic programs (…) which generated the phantom
presence in near-Earth orbit of a so-called virtual satellite, whose principal output was the
Execution Channel.' (MacLeod, 2007: 191)

'[R]odents seem uncannily out of place in the sterile abstractions of computing.' (Harpold
and Philip, 2000: §7)

Mouse in Virtual Reality

Video footage: a mouse perched atop a styrofoam sphere, its head restrained by a harness. Above

the rodent, a hemispherical mirror diffracts the light of a projector forward, onto a curved wall.

Reconstituted, the projected image is that of a three-dimensional corridor, its surfaces and vertices

picked out in stripes of blue and white. Reacting to the VE, the mouse scrambles forward, moving the

trackball. As the projected scene adjusts to the mouse's movements, the camera shakes slightly, drawing

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the viewer's attention to a bundle of illuminated wires at the shot's edge. (Princeton University, 2009)

Part of an experiment by Princeton biologists, the purpose of the apparatus is to keep the rodent

relatively still, while recording the neural activity associated with environmental navigation; something

which had proved impossible with a free-moving mouse. By substituting the physical environment with a

virtual analogue, the scientists could guarantee the mouse's movements would not interrupt their

attempts at 'in vivo whole-cell recordings' (Harvey et al., 2009). Initially, this appears as an inversion of

'immersive' virtual reality, in which various configurations of wearable computing (heads-up displays,

datagloves) would somehow project the user into a different space: some kind of self-contained, self-

sustaining virtual realm.

Even if the precise mechanics are obscured, as a viewer of the video clip, it is possible to

appreciate the Princeton assemblage as something approaching a totality. It seems plausible for the

simulated corridor to be brought to the subject, which remains resolutely embodied in the heart of the

apparatus. From here, it's easy to cast aspersions on the hopelessly utopian predictions of cyber-

immersion; the product of a flawed division of 'information and the body, spirit and matter' (Shields,

2003: 79), which – faced with the peculiar technological/animal feedback of something like the

Princeton assemblage – struggles to find the place where the virtual ends, and reality resumes.

In a conceptual vacuum left by the crumbling Cartesian binaries of mind/matter, Hayles (2001:

69) proposes a re-evaluation of virtuality as a condition of being, in which 'material objects are

interpenetrated by information patterns', or – at the very least – perceived as being such. At a cursory

reading, it is easier to identity these interpenetrations in the mechanics of the Princeton assemblage

than, say, the celebratory rhetoric of Nintendo's ill-fated experiment in consumer VR, as described by

Boyer (2009: 29):

'Early press releases describe the system as “immersing players into their own private
universe”, going as far as labelling it “the first three-dimensional, virtual immersion, 32-
bit video game system”. While many of these radical claims were likely an in-your-face

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attempt to woo older gamers, this focus on the immersive properties of the system is also
part of the larger association made between the Virtual Boy and virtual reality in order to
push technical prowess to mature gamers.'

Here, the structural similarities between the Virtual Boy and the mouse-corridor apparatus have been all

but obscured by cultural and discursive expectations. The transcendental framing of Nintendo's

promotional material diverts attention from the material configurations of the console; with 'the

perceived primacy of information over materiality obscur[ing] the importance of the very infrastructures

that make information valuable' (Hayles, 2001: 72). Approaching from the other direction, the Princeton

assemblage's foregrounding of a five-inch long, non-human subject destabilises many of our core

assumptions about the virtual – introducing novel modes of scale and subjectivity, which monopolise our

attention - masking the (many) continuities with earlier manifestations of 'immersive' VR.

With the mouse as a kernel at the heart of a much larger virtual system, the temptation would be

to approach the Princeton assemblage as 'housing', rather than machine. Here, we can begin to sense an

interesting between two distinct approaches to the apparatus of virtual reality. Embedded within a far

larger system, the mouse – as we have already seen – is the subject of an engineered architecture of

immersion. Nintendo's VR apparatus rejects the sedentary and the infrastructural for an approach which

foregrounds the primacy of the individual. Mimicking the form of personal electronic gadgetry and

clothing, the Virtual Boy is a portable, wearable interface.

As a mode of being, Hayles' conception of virtuality entails a fundamental refocusing of attention

on the material objects which co-constitute the virtual. As she argues, information 'must always be

instantiated in a medium, whether that medium is (…) the computer-generated topological maps used by

the Human Genome Project, or the cathode ray tube that images the body disappearing into a golden

haze when the Star Trek transporter locks onto it' (Hayles, 2001: 71) The abstraction of information

from a material base can only ever be a rhetorical act. So while immersive virtual technologies promised

users the experience of their 'subjectivity (…) flowing into the space of the screen' (Hayles 2001: 92), the

reality was far less impressive.

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Boyer (2009: 30) comments on Nintendo's neglect of the subject's body in their design of the

Virtual Boy; questioning the efficacy of their decision to mimic the form of virtual reality's electronic

prosthesis, but not its ability to achieve what Hayles (2001: 91) would have described as a 'reconfiguring

[of] perceived body boundaries.' Playing games on the Virtual Boy, the console user – in a peculiar

parallel with the scientifically-mediated existence of the Princeton mouse – would have to keep their

head entirely still, 'eliminating those expected body movements (…) when the user becomes engrossed in

the experience, such as leaning into curves during a racing game' (Boyer, 2009: 30).

Both the Princeton assemblage and Nintendo's Virtual Boy represent technologies of immersion

– the former pursues it as a means of replicating scientific data that would otherwise be unobtainable,

while the latter appears to regard it as a desirable end in its own right.

Gibson (1984: 51) defined cyberspace as a 'consensual hallucination (…) a graphic representation

of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system.' Reading the interpenetrations of

Haylesian virtuality as broadly contiguous with the original notions of cyberspace, we have to ask: is the

mouse capable of consent? For virtuality to 'work', there must be a deliberate suspension of disbelief on

the part of the subject. In order to participate, they must be consciousness of the artificiality of that in

which they are participating. If these conditions are not fulfilled, the relationship between subject and

environment cannot be considered 'virtual', and may as well be that of an engagement with top-level

reality. This applies as much to humans as it does to rodents. Consider the the eponymous simulated

world of The Matrix (1999): for the individual human subjects embedded within the simulation, their life

is real - and to suggest otherwise would be laughable. Without any grasp of an outside context, they

would be totally incapable of parsing their day-to-day experiences as a product of virtual reality.

So it may be for the mouse – less an autonomous, self-determining subject than an embodied

symbol of scientific endeavour, which 'stands alongside the ubiquitous double helix as [an] icon (...) of

the laboratory in modern Western culture' (Birke, 2003: 211). The point of the Princeton mouse is that

the act of navigating the virtual corridor triggers the same neurological reaction as that of a physical

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environment. If this is the assemblage's totality of meaning, then the actual mouse-as-animal can only be

deprotagonised, stripped of agency, and recast as an purely instrumental 'part of the equipment of

science (…) [moving] into the realm of data' (Birke, 2003: 217).

For Lister et. al. (2009: 115), the allure of virtual reality is rooted in a cultural desire for the ability

to pass 'through the surface of an image or picture [and] to enter the very space (…) depicted on the

surface.' Built on a conception of human subjectivity that emerged in a specific cultural and historical

context (namely, the European Enlightenment), this is hardly something we would be able to extend to

the laboratory rodent – constrained equally by the harness and its animal reactions to the visual stimuli

of the image.

The delineation between human desire and animal response may, however, be less clear-cut than

initially assumed. In a recent study of long-tailed macaques (Steckenfinger & Ghanazfar, 2009), the

monkeys' reactions to near-lifelike forms replicated the model of a comparable human aversion. Hailed

as the manifestation of a phenomenon first defined by Japanese roboticist Mori (1970) as the 'uncanny

valley' – an interruption in the otherwise linear relationship between lifelike appearance and familiarity

– this study found that, given a choice, the monkeys preferred 'to look at unrealistic synthetic [macaque]

faces and real faces more than (…) realistic synthetic faces.' Even lower-order primates, it seems, have a

relatively well-developed ability to distinguish between different levels of visual fidelity when it comes

down to identifying things that look like them. Regardless of whether or not this research could be

applied to a mouse's perception of its 'virtual' environment, a door has been opened, complicating future

attempts to separate human culture from the supposedly instinctive reactions of mice and primates.

***

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At this point, I'm rapidly running out of (a) time, and (b) mental coherence. So a brief summary of the

kind of things that would otherwise have followed:

If the mouse is incapable of distinguishing between actual and virtual in its experience of the Princeton

experiment's simulated corridor, the 'virtuality' of the experience is displaced, to the subject of the

biologists' prodding and probing, i.e. the mouse's neurology, where the corridor has some kind of

peculiar, gestalt existence as a virtual entity. It's still founded on a (biological/neurological) material

base, as the point of the experiment is that this is physically measurable - so there's no real need to fall

back into the gravitational pull of the Cartesian dichotomies demolished by Hayles. Maybe include

something about the renaissance concepts of memory gardens/memory palaces as a curiously spatial

mnemonic.

Then segue into the conclusion, returning to Hayles' definition of virtuality, and breaking down the

two examples in terms of material objects (screen, projector, trackball, headset, control pad) and

information patterns (Nintendo games/virtual corridor/rodent qualia). Although everything conspires

to foreground the differences between the two examples, they are in fact very similar – the Virtual Boy

is the Princeton assemblage with the sense of scale shifted down, toward the horizon of the body.

Finally, we snap back to the MacLeod quote from the beginning. Science fiction as a literature of

virtuality. There's something quite sinister/uncanny about the initial video clip, with the preferred

subtitle: “Mouse in Virtual Reality”. Permeable membranes, entanglement, interaction. Fears of

mutation, of emergence. Intelligent media from another route altogether.

For Hayles (2001: 92), while the precise form of this final synthesis of material objects and

information patterns remains unfixed, 'it seems clear that the virtual subject will in some sense be a

cyborg.'

***

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Bibliography

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207-224.

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Gibson, W., 1984. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.

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The Matrix, 1999. Film. Directed by Larry & Andy Wachowski. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.