Volume 8, Number 2 (July 2011)
The Reality Blur
A Review of Sherry Turkle et. al., (2009). Simulation and its Discontents. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Julian Jason Haladyn
(The University of Western Ontario, London, Canada)
As the cover of Simulation and its Discontents makes readily apparent, this is a hybrid book. The volume is presented neither as a collection of essays – unlike the three previous books by Sherry Turkle in the MIT “Initiative on Technology and Self” series – nor is it a single authored volume with supplementary essays added to support the main text. Instead, the first half of the book is a major text by Turkle, much more than an introduction, with the remainder consisting of four ‘additional essays’ by William J. Clancey, Stefan Helmreich, Yanni A. Loukissas and Natasha Myers. This organization presents an interesting structural dynamic that significantly affected my reading of it. Although Turkle’s contribution is the most significant the book as a whole benefits greatly from the more focused case study based texts that comprise the second half. My overall approach to Simulation and its Discontents will reflect this inherent hybridity, which I believe is the most compelling aspect of the book.
From the outset two things should be kept in mind. First, this book was published in 2009 and has been available for a number of years. Second, it has already been reviewed several times in numerous journals – such as, to name three, Metapsychology Online Reviews, the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation and Educational Technology & Society. Rather than simply repeating what has already been said, this review will focus (as much as possible) on what I believe has been overlooked in previous reviews of this book, namely the relationship between simulation and what Turkle near the end of her text refers to as reality blur.
“Across fields, scientists, engineers, and designers describe the gains that simulation has offered,” she tells us, but “they also describe the anxiety of reality blur, that ‘breaking point’ where the observer loses a sense of mooring, bereft of real world referents and precedents” (75-76). This anxiety emerges out of the hybrid nature of simulation, in which the distinction between simulated and real experience is irrevocably blurred – a topic that has been developed extensively in the writings of Jean Baudrillard, whom Turkle reference in two footnotes. It is not simply a matter of the relative believability of the simulation or how close simulated experiences are to ‘real’ experiences. Instead, reality blur is the point at which a simulation is mistakenly believed to be real, resulting in a fundamental doubt of one’s sense of reality. In fact, throughout the book the concept of doubt is used as an important counterpoint to simulation, since it is by doubting that we keep ourselves from experiencing reality blur. Immersed in simulation, Turkle notes, “it can be hard to remember all that lies beyond it, or even acknowledge that everything is not captured in it” (7).
The power of simulation is its ability to function as a viable substitute for reality, with the important distinction that, unlike the real, the simulated is under our control. As is made apparent throughout this book, much of what is accomplished within simulated environments could not be accomplished in reality – a claim that all four of the additional essays demonstrate in different ways – especially with the precision and creative license possible through virtual engagements. But here we come to the major theme of this entire volume, what Turkle calls the tension of doing and doubting. On the one hand, what is accomplished by doing simulation is extraordinary, making possible numerous cultural and scientific breakthroughs; on the other hand, it is by doubting these simulations that we are able to maintain the distinction between what is real and what is simulated. Turkle acknowledges this difficulty in relation to experimentation, which ideally “turns to nature ready to be surprised. But if experiments are done ‘in simulation,’ then by definition, nature is presumed to be ‘known in advance,’ for nature would need to be embodied in the program” (40). It is doubt that keeps us in check, preventing us from being subsumed into the world of the simulation, which then becomes a referent and precedent for the ‘real’ world. But the question remains, are the gains of simulation open to those who keep their sense of reality or must we experience reality blur in order to truly experience simulation?
This, I believe, is what Turkle is asking when she posits the question: “What does simulation want?” (6). If there is one query driving her investigations into Technology and Self this may be it, or at least may point to the larger issues behind her desire to explore this terrain. As I see it, this question aims at answering the problem of reality blur, which is not only left unresolved at the end of this book but remains a looming problem for all relations between people and technologies. The main content of Turkle’s text begins by examining the 1983 Project Athena, which “brought personal computing to an MIT education,” the effects and process of which are traced into the next millennium (10). Amongst her descriptions and commentaries on this process are numerous testimonials by students, educators and practitioners attesting to the fundamental shift in how people relate to computer simulations, which began as an alternative to traditional practices but quickly became the only acceptable means by which to accomplish a given task. In the opening of her chapter New Ways of Knowing/New Ways of Forgetting, Turkle states: “Twenty years ago, designers and scientists talked about simulation as though they faced a choice about using them. These days there is no pretense of choice” (71). What started out as a tool that, to choose an example from the book, helped architects model buildings with greater ease and versatility than drawings or physical models soon took over the practice, so that CAD/CAM programs have increasingly defined what it means to be an architect. The problem, as one testimonial from a ‘young architect’ points out, is the loss of the “frame of reference” that occurs when a model feels “more compelling than any real building” (51). I can confidently say that all of us have experienced a moment similar to this one, in which the experience of simulated reality overwhelms our own sense of the real, since this is the basis for most of our contemporary entertainment. How enjoyable is a movie that fails to pull you into its world? And can you not say the same about all simulations? The problems of ‘choice’ and ‘frame of reference’ ironically are not those of the simulation, but, more appropriately, must be recognized as our problems with reality itself. Stated simply, I believe the discontents Turkle addresses in this book speak more about our difficulties with the real than of the simulated.
Returning to Turkle’s question (“What does simulation want?”), it is important to recognize that it is being asked not to invite an answer but instead to, in a sense, question the question. Her immediate response is to claim simply that “simulations want, even demand, immersion” (6). Such an answer, however, fails to answer the most compelling problem raised by the question: why do we want to know what simulation wants? I appreciate the history of her question, which she acknowledges is derived from the famous question posed by the architect Louis I. Kahn: “What does a brick want?” But, it is the differences between the two questions that I find more telling. Where Kahn anthropomorphizes a brick, in a sense allowing the basic physical building blocks of a structure to speak to the desires embodied into the environments we build, Turkle attributes such desires to the conceptual construct of simulation, which represents a disembodied space that speaks to what we want rather then what is in the world. In regards to simulation, are we not confusing the issue by projecting our wants onto or into the simulated worlds we create? Here again we are confronted with the hybrid nature of simulation, in which we seek immersion into worlds that are purposefully or necessarily bereft of real world referents, making reality blur simultaneously the gain and loss that simulations offer.
All four of the additional essays discuss the gain/loss of simulation in relation to predominantly practical matters, in which the simulated experience is typically one that is beyond the realistic abilities of the body and its senses. In Clancey’s “Becoming the Rover,” we are not dealing with a location or environment that humans are (presently) capable of physically inhabiting, making the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) the only means of exploring the red planet; immersion in this simulation of Mars is therefore a desire and even demand of the people involved in the technology, since it is reality blur that makes their (perceived) presence in a distant environment believable and therefore workable. “In fantasy, the rover becomes the body of each scientist who works with it,” Clancey tells us, “Their sense of connection to the device is visceral” (115). I would like to stress the final part of this quote, since such a profound connection to a device is only possible if the reality of the simulation is accepted without doubt, becoming an acceptable and convincing extension of one’s own body. What is at stake in simulations such as MER, or any of the other examples covered in this book, is our sense of the limitations of reality and, more importantly, our limitations in perceiving the real.
It is significant that nowhere in this book does Turkle directly define or explain what she means by simulation – an obvious criticism, which has been noted by previous reviewers. My interest in this omission again relates to her question, (“What does simulation want?”), since this question precludes the possibility of defining simulation before we can determine what it wants – or, more appropriately, what we desire in and through simulation. Unlike Baudrillard, for whom simulation stands apart from and even opposes reality by moving towards the hyperreal, I believe that Turkle is attempting through her work on Technology and Self to locate simulation within reality itself (even if it is at times outside our experience of the real). This, again, relates to the hybridity that I see represented in Simulation and its Discontents, in which we are presented with both a critical reading of simulation as a pertinent concept within modern culture and a practical document locating the practice of simulation in a number of specific professions and experiences. This, in my opinion, is Turkle’s attempt to define simulation by looking at its conceptual and practical existence for a clue as to the desires that drive the need to simulate out of reality. Can we then in conclusion reverse the spirit of Turkle’s question and instead ask: what does reality want?