Metasurfing Dreamspace

The sequence of the dream is unclear and complex, but a few basic elements emerged. Primary was the sensation — and for part of the dream, the metaphor — of exploring an infinitely varied, yet somehow contained, space. Specific to this feeling, I think, was the contrast between exploration and trespass. Though I entered buildings and encountered other beings, at no time did I feel that I was violating a space in a way that had moral consequences. This was a liberating feeling, but remains a disturbing fact. For I was not simply observing; I was acting upon the environments in which I traveled.My actions, when noticed, provoked reactions in the entities I dealt with, yet the space itself I treated as a simulation, an unfolding of infinite possibility with no “reality” beyond my experience of it.

It strikes me in writing these words that this dilemma is a critical one in the evolution of cyberspace (and in most idealist models of reality). That is, as our simulations of reality — or at least of realistic systems — evolves, as the boundary between “waking” and computer-mediated reality becomes ever more complex, the “ethics of cyberspace” will become more and more of a pressing concern. To the extent that a system presents itself as real, should we not act as if the consequences of our behavior were real? At what point is the fact of simulation an ethical issue, if the experience itself is indistinguishable from “real life”? Is the degree to which the system, in turn, can affect *us* an issue? If we can die as a result of activity within a simulated system, is that system effectively real? What about changes that are less radical? Our opinions can change as a result of communications occurring within an artificial space — are those opinions somehow less valid for being artificially mediated? Even if we ARE affected by the system, and yet can change it by our actions, does this feedback loop tell us anything about the space itself? How real does something have to be to demand our compassion?

After this introduction, the details of the dream seem irrelevant. At one point, I was being shown around a dingy tenement by a man whom I knew. He led me to an upstairs bathroom, where the switched-on light revealed traces of a bloody murder. Tiny spots of blood adorned the shower and window curtains, and though most of the evidence had been cleaned up (by the murderer, or the police?) the sense of morbidity was thick. Yet my guide presented this room as if it were a curiosity, the unearthing of a cluster of significant signs amidst a mostly bland variation of forms (the endless buildings and alleys of this realm). It was as if he were guiding me through his more interesting finds in a universe that was completely new, yet so realistic as to capture even a sense of mundanity. The Video Game: Much of the dream involved the playing of an elaborate multi-player video game, located in a dirty gray room with concrete walls and high ceilings hung with fluorescent bulbs. The room was drab and square, but the game was a complete world of its own. Different people I know were present at times, some playing, some watching.

The game was not virtual reality in the typical sense. The interface was not immersive. In fact, it was half video game, half pinball. The action occurred on a large square screen, but the controls alternated between a joystick with trigger and a set of buttons and a trackball — according to where in the game one “was”. In the beginning, the players started from some point high above a sprawling city. By using the joystick, the character could be made to fly through to air, the trigger firing a burst of energy as a weapon. The city was divided into amorphous colored regions, each of which, it was understood, contained its own adventure and objective, its own fragment of the game’s mystery. As one flew overhead, some sections appeared as cute fairy villages, cartoony and colorful, while others resolved into sooty industrial wastelands, populated, I think by dark, gaunt elves, not exactly evil, but twisted, surly, and polluted. Though all areas shared the same fractal degree of detail, each had its own texture, and its own message to be discovered by exploration and adventure. The darker regions seemed to hold more fascination for me. There, conflict produced meaning which seemed rich and alive compared to the diluted idealizations in the more garish regions. Although all required exploring to understand the overall plan, I chose to start with the darker regions.

I recall flying down over one such area. The sky was overcast, and we were above a weed-choked field in which several school buses lay rusting. Some abandoned buildings were nearby. Approaching, I noticed two of the buses were burnt shells, completely black. They stood conspicuously alone in the field, drawing attention to themselves by their destruction and isolation. I had a premonition about these buses. [In D & D and computer adventure games, areas of significance are unnaturally highlighted. If you can go West, then an exit in that direction will be noted. Similarly, a conspicuous item or structure almost always has some importance; it is noted in order to draw your attention to it. Reality consists of too many sensations to process meaningfully, let alone simulate. In simulating a reality, the bandwidth is usually much lower than even the mind’s processing power, so the work of filtration is mostly done for you.] So as I flew high above these two blackened buses, it seemed that they held some ominous significance. There was no sign of life, other than the tangled grasses that blew in the cold wind. Yet I had a suspicion that there were others nearby, and that they would harm me if I landed in the area. The burnt buses, I guessed, were ambushes, hives of defensive dark elves who wanted to defend their territory. Rather than give them the benefit of the doubt, I blasted them with lasers from the air, sight unseen. The risk was eliminated, but so was the possibility of knowing for sure whether the buses had been inhabited, and if so, by whom. Had I made the right decision?

Eventually, I landed, ending up at some sort of lawn party. Only my form seemed to be that of a pinball — or some approximation of a small metallic sphere. Whether it was a body or a vehicle, I never knew, but on the ground it was subject to the complicated control of the trackball and buttons. Not only was the act of movement totally different, but special powers were revealed which had not been obvious before. In addition to the known power of flight and energy beams, I seemed able to manipulate objects at a distance. Telekinesis. Much of its usage was for purely mischievous reasons, but the implications were tantalizing.

When I awoke, it was as if from a journey that hadn’t at all reached a coherent end. Indeed, it seemed as though I left a region which I had barely begun to explore. Douglas Rushkoff’s CYBERIA comes to mind — a region as real as it is imaginary, a consensual hallucination. The dream tied together at least three levels of experiencing this realm. In one sense, I accessed it through dream — the whole environment was part of a larger reality separate from, but related to, my normal waking experience. Within that environment was the video game–cyberspace–a universe in itself, a metaphor for the experience of reality on any level, perhaps. There was also the atmosphere I recall from playing role-playing adventure games as a kid. Again, one explored realistic, but simulated realities, into which significance had been artificially constructed. And as in Rushkoff’s depiction, this reality could behave discontinuously. Not only could I fly “magically” around, but one scene would segue into the next, without any apparent transversal of space. This “teleportation”, however, was not quite discrete. I wasn’t suddenly standing, blinking, in a radically new environment. Rather, a transition occurred, but it was fuzzy, hard to recall — chaotic boundary transitions? I can’t speculate yet.

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