This article was originally published in Kill Screen Issue 8: Virtual Reality.
At first there was the world, and that was all. Then someone drew a picture, and the image—a porthole into a plane just beyond ours—was born.
But the realer our virtual worlds get, the less real our native one seems. This inkling of ontological uncertainty was there from the beginning. Shakespeare’s famous declaration that “all the world’s a stage,” published in 1623, immortalized an artistic mistrust of reality that dates back at least to Petronius in the first century. Even longer ago, in the allegory of the cave, Plato imagined the real as light and shadow dancing on a blank wall. And while William Gibson is credited with popularizing the notion of cyberspace in the ’80s, René Descartes was 300 years ahead of him.
a sense of virtual disembodiment took root
Still, there is a vast order of difference between media you look at and media you enter. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was conceivable that our world was simulated, less so that we would create the false world ourselves and willingly step inside. The pictures thrown by a magic lantern could barely predict the spaces generated by computers. It was during Victorian times, when analog precursors to modern technology and media consumption habits can be found, that our images began to truly immerse us, implanting the embryo of our notion of virtual spaces as second lives rather than diversions. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi called the camera obscura, an early optical projection device that led to the camera, a “locked treasure box” that engendered inaccessible wonders. In the 1800s, the treasure box started to come unlocked.
Spanning most of the 19th century, the Victorian era saw mechanical advances that changed how we related to the world. Widespread railways connected geography like an analog Internet, drawing far-flung places together. This physical expansion was paired with a new virtual breadth of virtual experiences, as the 1800s saw the inventions of the kinetoscope (which showed the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures through its peephole), the handheld camera (following 50 years of photographic experimentation), the phonograph, and telegraph. Electric streetlights replaced gas lamps in a London that sat on a hidden, interconnected sub-world of new sewage pipes. Even before cinema, stereoscopes—basically an archaic version of your 3DS screen—were popular in many Victorian homes. In this context of dwarfing scale and mechanized entertainment, a sense of virtual disembodiment took root, evidenced by a fad for séances. It was when we started living outside of normal space and time.
The diminishment of the impossible led to the invention of science fiction. In an interview with the Paris Review, William Gibson argues that we, like the Victorians, are in a constant state of “technoshock” without knowing it. “The Victorians were the first people to experience that,” he says, “and I think it made them crazy in new ways…Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be.” Dickens’ panorama of hyperlinked tales marked the emergence of our modern, networked, and compartmentalized consciousness.
the element of virtual touch was a distant horizon
But it’s not just that the Victorians started dreaming of time machines. They also began to renegotiate the human relationship to the image, allowing it to mingle with reality. Even as Alice stepped through the looking glass in 1865, giving us our most enduring metaphor for entering virtual worlds, the looking glass was starting to look back. In As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, historian Michael Saler discusses how the “New Romance” writers of the late 19th century, such as H. Rider Haggard, used new printing technologies to augment their stories with paratexts, such as faux-documentary photos, to lend credibility to their imagined worlds. This was an early stage in the decay of the boundary between reality and fiction necessary for VR.
The expansiveness of virtual worlds breeds isolation—we can’t find each other in all that vastness. In her book Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism, Alison Byerly shows how photography came to serve in lieu of travel, even as travel became easier than ever before. But if Victorians drenched their vision and hearing in reproductions, the element of virtual touch was a distant horizon, and it remains one today. We now have sound and sight covered, and there are fringy but plausible experiments happening with virtual tastes and smells. But haptic devices, the keystone on which the other senses might be woven into a flawlessly immersive Holodeck, are still mostly limited to distancing mediations like wands.
In Steven Millhauser’s story “The Wizard of West Orange”, an inventor in 1889 builds a glove made of “vulcanized rubber, and covered with a skein of wires emerging from small brass caps.” Its silky inner side is lined with small, blunt silver pins. Connected to a motorized rotor and a copper-oxide battery, the pins undulate in order to create simple tactile sensations, such as the pressure of a handshake. Soon, the Wizard upgrades his “haptograph” to a suit of armor in order to deceive the entire body, and his experiments hurtle beyond prosaic simulations like putting on a hat or holding a ball, into realms of sensation that are more abstract, transcendent, or even impossible.
Millhauser, a contemporary author, is writing in a world where prototypes of the kind of pressure-sensitive interface he describes primitively exist. “Is he not isolating each of the five senses?” his narrator wonders about the Wizard, and sense-by-sense isolation has long been our approach to virtual reality: 3D glasses for the eyes, stereo speakers for the ears, rumble controllers for the hands. The ultimate dream, for them all to close seamlessly around us, draws nearer every year. Millhauser’s projection of a haptic device into Victorian times is more than a steampunk fantasy. It closes a loop on a new phase of human consciousness, in the era when we first ventured into the liminal world—a place neither here nor there, where we now live.