Archive for March, 2008

Plato’s virtual reality

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

Yesterday Esko Kilpi said to me that it’s very hard, next to impossible to understand the possibilities of a certain reality unless you are part of it yourself. This applies to social technologies. If you have never used something like a blog, a wiki or Facebook, you could never completely understand its possibilities just by reading about it and observing it from aside. Typical way for an outsider is to rationalize it with pros and cons, but that never reveals the true essence or truly helps you to “get it”. Therefore, most of my work goes into explaining people what possibilities social technologies may provide, but I often struggle with people who just don’t get it and probably never will, unless they try it themselves.

I haven’t really got into Second Life or World of Warcraft myself other than having a quick tour, but I’ve had my own share of 2D/3D virtual worlds when I was younger (BBS door games, MUDs, online shooters etc.). Such experiences help me to recognize certain aspects of salience. Then again when I see incredible videos like this about Second Life I feel like an outsider. How can I be an expert on something that I’ve never really experienced to its fullest? When people ask my opinion about Second Life, I just have to rise my hands and be honest, that I can say a lot of things that I’ve heard or read, but I can never guarantee that what I say has any worth.

This reminds me of Plato’s story about Allegory of the Cave, that predicts virtual realities like Second Life, or even my own virtual realities like my blurred understanding of Second Life’s reality.

Warning: video ID not specified!

In Book VII of The Republic, Plato’s story starts by picturing a cave, where men are being chained by the leg and also by the neck since their birth, so that all they have experienced before is what they can see right in front of them. Behind them is a light of a fire burning. Between the prisoners and the fire are puppeteers who move around objects from the world outside the cave. The shadow of those objects lands on the walls right in front of them. The voices coming from their back would be associated with the shadows, because they’ve never had the ability to turn their heads. The group doesn’t know anything about the outside world, therefore the reality they experience is nothing but the shadows on the wall.

This also reminds me of the project by Dr. Sugata Mitra called Hole in the Wall. He would setup a computer in a wall outside their premises in New Delhi, where kids would be grooming around. The kids (who have never experienced a computer or the Internet before) would quickly learn to use the computer on their own. Most of the children could not read English and invented their own names for objects on the screen. The hourglass is an alien term in India, so the kids came up with damru, that is god Shiva’s drum featuring a similar shape. The arrow pointer on the screen became sui. In Hindi it is a needle. The kids were able to create their own shadow of the reality created by computer engineers, but it was no less real for them. What they experienced was a Plato’s virtual reality.

Similar to David Kolb’s experiential learning, Plato believed that you can only learn through experience. In times like this it’s worth tinkering with what reality means in virtual learning.