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Understanding Silicon Synapse: Philosophy of Virtual Reality

In the world of digital media, the ability to craft virtual worlds is becoming more and more interesting for content creators, video game developers and artists. Companies like Oculus VR are spearheading innovation within this part of the media market, developing more advanced forms of reality altering headsets, speakers and interactive games. For many people who are unacquainted with VR, the thought of the totally absorbed Pokémon Go player springs to mind, or a Star Trek esque simulation. However, VR technology is currently being used in new and experimental ways through art and design. Can Virtual Reality provide fruitful insights into the field of philosophy? 

To answer this question, I spoke with Alan James, an artist by trade and creator of a new psycho-acoustic installation that combines VR immersion with a stimulating philosophical exploration into technology’s place in relation to nature, consciousness and transhumanism. James’ collaborative installation titled ‘Silicon Synapse’ places the spectator on a simulated journey into the depths of the artistically rendered, personified conscious mind of ‘technology.’ We can bear witness to a series of dialogues between ‘technology’ and ‘nature,’ whereby questions of sustainability, their future relationship and the possible damage are raised. Through the usage of Oculus Rift VR headsets, James and his team have created an engulfing dream-like experience that attempts to push the boundaries of the medium, and show that VR has a permanent place in the creation of modern art. Within the halls and rooms of the Carnegie Library in Swords, James has crafted sensory artwork that offer both visual and audio stimuli that attempt to transport you a realm unreachable in ordinary life, the consciousness of another.

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Photo credit: Alan James

‘Silicon Synapse’ covers a wide range of contemporary issues, including the climate crisis, transhumanist possibilities and the future cognitive self. James is attempting to present consciousness, a highly subjective experience, in a unique way that blends current advancements in media technology with artistic expression. Within the installation, constructing ‘technology’ and ‘nature’ as two parts of a dysfunctional relationship comments on the possibility of a transhumanist future, of which James believes to have a place in the future human self. Transhumanism is a continually expanding loosely associated movement of people and theorists who believe that humans can transcend our physical bodies to differing degrees. For example, bodily modification and augmentation can alter us physically, while some grant validity to the idea of “uploading” consciousness onto non-biological computers. For James, technological advancement may be integral in fighting the affects of climate change, and can effectively work with nature for the betterment of our lives on Earth rather than being completely incompatible. While transhumanist capabilities may appear to be small in scale or a form of novelty at the moment, they could prove to be important in the future of human augmentation and raise potentially difficult questions of how we define ourselves as human. Alan James and his team invested time and effort into creating a visual and audio representation of how consciousness can be perceived as an outside spectator gaining a glimpse into the mind of someone outside of ourselves. This is achieved partly through the usage of 17 different speakers that can surround the headset wearer, creating a soundscape that triggers all of our sensual capabilities. This medium allows the installation to integrate different forms of experience to an all-encompassing blend of mediums. In representing consciousness, the team had to create something visually and sonically resonant, that reflected common aspects of the lived experience of our inner lives. Through this representation, we can relate and marvel at true complexity of consciousness that we can navigate as the spectator walks through the installation. 

In the future, we can come to expect a greater influence of VR on the creation of art and media entertainment. While it may be in its early stages, we can already see VR working its way into the training of pilots, soldiers, athletes and the police. All of these professions are quite hands-on and physical but new technology has come to accommodate changes in the external world. The fields of 3D printing and machine learning also provide untapped problems and possible benefits for the future, that extend into nearly every field of study. Information of the installation can be found at www.siliconsynapse.net 

 

Aaron Collier – Philosophy Columnist 

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