Breaking traditional boundaries of interaction

XVI.5 September + October 2009
Page: 44
Digital Citation

FEATUREIn search of models and visions for the web age

Virgílio Almeida

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It has been said that the power of literature lies in its ability to give a voice to what the social or individual unconscious has not expressed. As computer science evolves beyond its boundaries—influencing and being influenced by other disciplines—new models and abstractions are required to expand the frontiers of computing research. Literature can work indirectly as a spring to propel new visions or provide models for problems in computer science. Jorge Luis Borges's stories provide numerous examples that have inspired many mathematicians and computer scientists [1]. A number of Borges's works—"The Library of Babel," "Funes the Memorious," and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"—render rich metaphors to different phenomena in the Web, such as unlimited libraries, infinite memory, and virtual worlds [2]. In the current social-technical landscape, literature can be used to shed some light on the relationship of humans with technology.

Signs of the imaginary world created by the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares in his classic novel The Invention of Morel abound in the Web age [3]. In Morel, published originally in 1940, Bioy Casares—friend and collaborator of Borges's—brings a love story between the narrator, a fugitive stranded on a desert island, and Faustine, a beautiful woman with gypsy lineaments. The fugitive observes a number of people who are talking and acting just as in ordinary life, which in the end turns out to be the result of some sort of projection by an optical, electro-mechanical apparatus invented by a scientist named Morel. The three-dimensional projections contain many sensorial modalities. "I am speaking of images extracted from mirrors, with the sounds, tactile sensations, flavors, odors, temperatures, all synchronized perfectly," observed Morel of his invention. More than the mere understanding of new technologies, the way of understanding characteristics of the Web age is through observation of human nature: to feel the impact of the silent consideration of key concepts such as time, space, and memory.

We happen to live in an age where signs of Bioy Casares's novel are becoming increasingly real. Indiscriminate copies of everything—books, software, diaries, songs, videos, and movies—flood the Web and become accessible to anyone from north to south, west to east. Religions, political movements, and popular organizations spread their ideas around the world in the blink of an eye. In seconds, video and pictures of wars, social conflicts, the daily trivia, torrid romances, vanities, and crimes circulate on the Web, revealing virtues and vices of the globalized humankind. People watch hundreds of millions of videos a day on YouTube and upload hundreds of thousands of videos to the Web daily, in competition with traditional television. In terms of readership figures, some blogs rival the most influential newspapers of the world. Virtual worlds are arising from artificial environments that visually imitate complex physical spaces, where people can interact with each other and with virtual objects. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft is being played by more than 11.5 million subscribers worldwide, and Second Life residents total more than 16.5 million. The impact of virtual world technology is becoming palpable.

Despite all these signs, this new world still looks like something from the distant future. This is perhaps due to a slow realization by society on how technological advances are restructuring reality—an intricate reality whose signs defy our ability to decipher it and call for new visions of the world. Literary works and their narrative devices create a rich arena for speculative ideas necessary for the understanding of new realities. The fascination with virtual reality and computer games was shown in "The Matrix," where robots rule the planet and keep humans plugged into a virtual world. However, the work of Bioy Casares predates the Wachovski brothers' story by half a century.

More than the mere understanding of new technologies, the way of understanding characteristics of the Web age is through observation of human nature: to feel the impact of the silent consideration of key concepts such as time, space, and memory.

Love stories reflect deep human values and could be viewed as a rich context for exploring the intricacies of an era in which technology gradually replaces tasks that were the privilege of man and nature. The Invention of Morel describes the romance of two lovers that coexist spatially in two different temporal dimensions. Bioy Casares's theme has become ever more relevant to a modern society bound to images and videos that are becoming a dominant form of content on the Web. The search for eternal love weaves an unexpected story, intertwined by ingredients essentially human—jealousy, uncertainty, fear, hope, and solitude—and having a virtual world as scenery. It is a story told with irony, marked with metaphysical questions about life, death, and eternity. And it pushes the reader to speculate on the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Bioy Casares relies upon a virtual world, in which all the characters, except the narrator, are copies of human beings and objects of nature.

"These walls—like Faustine, Morel, the fish of the aquarium, one of the suns, one of the moons, the book by Belidor—are projections of the machines."

The quest for immortality and eternal love led Morel to create a virtual reality, with ideas that float today as real possibilities backed by scientific and technological developments.

"With my machine a person or animal or a thing is like the station that broadcasts the concert you hear on the radio. If you turn the dial for the olfactory waves, you will smell the jasmine perfume on Madeleine's throat, without seeing her."

And the project of Morel has evolved along this line.

"But if you turn all the dials at once, Madeleine will be reproduced completely and she will appear exactly as she is; you must not forget I am speaking of images extracted from mirrors.... An observer will not realize they are images."

As the technology evolves, computing and networking technologies will be able to provide enough computational power to create virtual worlds realistic enough to be mistaken for the real thing, like 'Matrix"-style simulated realities. In the story, the narrator becomes confused with the copies and makes the following comment: "I do not know which flies are real and which ones are artificial."

In order to support the growing integration of physical systems and computing, novel visions will be a key factor in understanding the new environments. The cyber-physical systems are bound to create pervasive systems that will profoundly shift the way humans interact with things, such as robots truly interacting with people.

To keep the lovers together, Morel conceived his plan.

"We shall live in this photograph forever. Imagine a stage on which our life during these seven days is acted out, completed in every detail. We are the actors. All our actions have been recorded."

A published scientific project proposed what was called "digital immortality" [4]. The central point is the real possibility of storing all the information a person has seen, read, heard, or talked about during his or her lifetime. This would pave the way to a partial immortality, where a person would be reduced to a mass of information and preserved through the storage of digital information. Thus the "information side" of a person is eternal and can even be copied indefinitely. In the novel, the narrator—the only human being alive on the island—realizes that his interaction with Faustine occurred in a virtual world and observed:

"To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares, to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of ghost)."

In his plot, Bioy Casares touches upon the still obscure side of man's relationship with machines and images. Tracking someone's movements can be done easily in the Web age, with vast implications for privacy and personal freedom. Our daily actions and interactions with technology can be cheaply recorded, stored, and analyzed without our knowledge. With his novel, Bioy Casares brought to light concerns on privacy and technology. "My abuse consists of having photographed you without permission. Of course, it is not like an ordinary photograph, this is my latest invention. We shall live in this photograph forever," said Morel to his friends.

Machinery and images perpetuate the characters, but not the love. The narrator observes that Morel's plan is hopeless:

"The images are not alive." Love aspires to more than cold virtual images; the warmth of human interactions is not part of virtual reality. In the world of the images that the narrator sees, there is no interactivity; it is a one-way relationship. And the narrator dreams of richer forms of interaction:

"...I can imagine the touch moment when I arrive at Faustine's house, her interest in what I shall tell her, the bond that will be established between us."

The quest for eternity with his love makes the narrator desperately try to enter the virtual world:

"...Because I know that, since I have entered that world, Faustine's image cannot be eliminated without mine disappearing too.... I arranged the records, the machine will project the new week eternally."

Bioy Casares brings to light subtle questions associated with the concepts of copy and image that are fundamental to the digital world. As the narrator walks through the hall and sees a ghost copy of the book by Belidor, he thinks: "...I took out the book. I compared the two: they are not copies of the same book, but the same copy twice." Bioy Casares further develops the idea of different kinds of copies, ranging from pure images to intelligent copies with programs.

"And someday there will be a more complete machine. One's thoughts or feelings during life—or while the machine is recording—will be like an alphabet with which the image will continue to comprehend all experience (as we can form all the worlds in our language with the letters of the alphabet)."

The narrator still issues a warning: "But even the image will not be alive; objects that are essentially new will not exist for it." The narrator also realizes the participation in the virtual world is not enough for him: "I can still see my image moving about with Faustine. I have almost forgotten that it was added later; anyone would surely believe we were in love and completely dependent of each other."

Sentiments and human relationships are strongly marked by memory and time. The eternity of perfect copies of humans is still something mysterious that we haven't yet grasped. Bioy Casares anticipated details and dilemmas of a new era governed by technology, where machines and humans move toward a symbiotic union The consequences of this approach are still uncertain; a mystery for which the author left some clues. At the end, the narrator in love, now an image too, makes a last request: "To the person who reads this diary and then invents a machine that can assemble disjoined presences, I make this request: Find Faustine and me, let me enter the heaven of her consciousness."

While the moral and emotional implications of Bioy Casares's story apply immediately to virtual reality, it is worth pointing out that social networking sites raise the same concerns about an emotional reality detached from the full dimensionality of human interaction.

back to top  References

1. Bloch, W. The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel. Oxford University Press, 2008.

2. Borges, J.L. Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

3. Bioy Casares, A. The Invention of Morel. Translated by Ruth L.C. Simms. New York Review Books Classics: New York, 2003.

4. Bell, G. and J. Gray. "Digital Immortality." Communications of the ACM 44, 3 (2001): 28–31.

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Virgílio Almeida is a professor of computer science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. He has held visiting-professor positions at Boston University and Polytechnic University of Catalunya, Barcelona, as well as visiting appointments at Xerox PARC, Hewlett-Packard Research Laboratory, and Polytechnic Institute of NYU. His research interests include models to analyze the behavior of large-scale distributed systems. Almeida is a recipient of a Fulbright Research Scholar Award and is a full member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. He is also an International Fellow of the Santa Fe Institute for 2008/2009 and a member of the editorial board of Internet Computing and First Monday. Almeida is the author of more than 100 technical papers and co-author (with Danny Menasce) of four books, including Performance by Design and Capacity Planning for Web Services: Metrics, Models, and Methods, published by Prentice Hall and translated into three languages.

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