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  • Mona Lisa's Smile

    This is Chapter 21 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Virtual reality has its precedents. Pygmalion, the artist of Greek myth, sculpted the image of a young woman in ivory. Stricken by her beauty, he prayed to Aphrodite for a bride in her likeness. The goddess granted his wish by bringing the statue to life.

    "Without the underlying promise of this myth," wrote the eminent art critic, E. H. Gombrich, and without "the secret hopes and fears that accompany the act of creation, there might be no art as we know it." Gombrich goes on to quote the contemporary English artist, Lucien Freud:

    A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation, but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realizes that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life. /1/

    The creative urge runs strong. Alone among earth's creatures, we contribute creatively even to the shaping of our own lives. "It is our nature to work upon our nature." Therefore we should not be wholly surprised by the yearning to create new worlds -- even worlds unconstrained by the laws of our own genesis. And I think it is fair to say that in the current efforts to sustain virtual realities, our creative faculties have in some sense achieved their furthest and most impressive reach.

    One wonders, though: does our preoccupation with virtual reality also correspond to some sort of alienation from the world? Here a historical perspective is desirable. Indisputably, our history has entailed an increasing "distance" between man and thing. Since the time of the ancients' vivid participation in a world alive with spirits, we have won our independence -- our clear separation as subjects -- from a world of no-longer-ensouled objects. As C. G. Jung puts it, the spirits have fled into the interior of the human individual, where they now conjure themselves only as the fading and scientifically disreputable images of our subjectivity -- or rumble incoherently in the deep disturbances of our psyches. In our latter- day, academically nourished wish to eradicate the ghost from the machine, we would play the executioner in the final act of the world's dying. First the ghost in the world, and now the ghost in ourselves.

    Could it be that this death of the world is what engenders our passion for virtual realities? Do we seek again the spirits that the ancients once found so easily within stream and meadow, tree and mountain? Behind the success of every new Stephen King movie, every advance in special effects, is there a secret hope and fear that the effects