Human civilization has always been a virtual reality. At the onset of culture, which was propagated through the proto-media of cave painting, the talking drum, music, fetish art making, oral tradition and the like, Homo sapiens began a march into cultural virtual realities, a march that would span the entirety of the human enterprise. We don’t often think of cultures as virtual realities, but there is no more apt descriptor for our widely diverse sociological organizations and interpretations than the metaphor of the “virtual reality.” Indeed, the virtual reality metaphor encompasses the complete human project.
Virtual Reality researchers, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, write in their book Infinite Reality; “[Cave art] is likely the first animation technology”, where it provided an early means of what they refer to as “virtual travel”. You are in the cave, but the media in that cave, the dynamic-drawn, fire-illuminated art, represents the plains and animals outside—a completely different environment, one facing entirely the opposite direction, beyond the mouth of the cave. When surrounded by cave art, alive with movement from flickering torches, you are at once inside the cave itself whilst the media experience surrounding you encourages you to indulge in fantasy, and to mentally simulate an entirely different environment. Blascovich and Bailenson suggest that in terms of the evolution of media technology, this was the very first immersive VR. Both the room and helmet-sized VRs used in the present day are but a sophistication of this original form of media VR tech.
Today, philosophers and critics have pointed out that businesses such as McDonald’s and Starbucks are like virtual realities in and of themselves. They have a specific and immersive decorum as well as sanctioned behaviors, symbols, and even philosophies. When you enter Starbucks, you enter Starbucks World. In contemporary jargon, these are called hyperrealities—they are microcosms with their own purposes and messages. Disneyland and Times Square are the epitome of consumerist hyperrealities in the United States. These hyperrealities are cloned (copied and pasted) and hold a global footprint in an ever-homogenized worldwide monoculture. They are a touchstone of the global capitalist project; many stores in many locations that are nearly exactly the same. (Similarly, even restaurants that aren’t franchise mega-chains offer differing atmospheres; competing little worlds to wine and dine in.) Where did the hyperrealities that typify contemporary life get their start? What happened between the cave paintings, and these franchises that nearly everyone on the planet today knows intimately well? I’d like to suggest they got their start with the codification of certain places of worship and the belief systems that joined them.
A simple illustration of the origin of our more complex cultural virtual realities is found in the temple or the church, which acted as the centerpiece of many cultures as they began their voyage into modernity. When we strip the church of the concepts and objects about it, what are we left with? Unoccupied, we are left with a mere building. Yet as we add the corresponding accouterments into and around this building, its virtual reality generating effects amplify and multiply. A church has its altar, its sacred texts, costumes, rituals, sermons, perspectives, symbols, architecture, and so on. All of them are meaningful. The religion is built from this assemblage. Outside, the church is just a building. Inside, the church is a virtual reality—the nodal point of a given religion and a given people. They all work together to reinforce a very specific perception of the world.
Indeed, no one ever actually ‘enters a church’. One in fact stumbles headlong into the idea of a church—a hyperreal onslaught that the very constitution of the church is purposefully designed to generate. Entering a church is really entering a church-shaped thought. The church building was an early virtual reality headset. From within the church building one looks outward from it and magically the world becomes that religion. The primordial incarnation of this building-sized headset was none other than the very same image-laden, torch-lit caves of our pre-architectural ancestors.
We see this virtual reality-ness in all the objects around and inside a given church or temple, but one very blatant example can be seen in the Christian handiwork of stained glass art. We have here a nigh on literal representation of key features of contemporary virtual reality technology: filtering and projection. The stained glass is a projective filter that works in both directions simultaneously: light coming into the building is transformed to bring the cultural program of meaningful images into the interiors of the sanctuary where they are contemplated and dogmatized; and back out of the building where the observers inside look outward to a terra firma that is now obfuscated or filtered by the media-messages embedded in the stained glass. The stained glass itself is an evolution of the cave painting. Stained glass would go on to evolve into the pixel. Indeed, stained glass was really a stop between the cave painting and the pixel.
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