The methodology for this website fuses two strands of work:
The first is the crafting of the argument for “The New Virtuality” (TNV) as articulated through 4 essays across the “top row” of the icons on the landing page. TNV’s argument is primarily distilled from Jenna Ng’s book, The Post-Screen Through Virtual Reality, Holograms and Light Projections: Where Screen Boundaries Lie (Amsterdam University Press, 2021). The book examines various images shown through Virtual Reality (VR) headsets and light projections to argue that contemporary screen media diminish, even eliminate, the visibility of boundaries surrounding the image. The result is the image that is indistinguishable from the viewer’s surroundings. Ng argues for this phenomenon as the post-screen, interrogating renewed contestations of reality against illusion as shifts in understanding the human condition and vital connections to current states of distorted truth values, corrupted terms of information, and internalizations of difference.
We crystallized the book’s arguments into the first two theoretical pillars for “The New Virtuality”: (i) the notion of “Disappearing Boundaries” between image and actuality as shown through myriad examples from eighteenth-century panoramas to 3D cinema to film marketing; and (ii) the argument of “Disappearing Difference” which analyses the implications of such indistinguishability.
Leveraging those premises, we extended its argument for “The New Virtuality” via a further essay, “Virtual Humans,” as continued thinking of this visual phenomenon. We then concluded in “The Unreal” with observations of the virtual in contemporary images, and consider what that virtuality might mean in how we understand and apprehend our world.
The second strand is the concoction and interweaving of creative elements into the theoretical argument. In particular, we leverage the associative tissue of hypertext and connected spaces of the website to combine the creative with the discursive. Hence, the textual half of each webpage is shadowed by an illustrative half. Across the whole project, the academic is similarly set against a twin of the creative: essays against fiction; text against image. As, really, is the whole idea of The New Virtuality, after all: the virtual against the actual, the actual merging with the virtual.
We developed these creative elements in two different ways. The first is the strategic weaving of “scenes” or snapshots through the academic text. Some snapshots are textual, describing scenes from both fictive and biographical memories. But most snapshots are visual or audiovisual, taking the form of images, photographs and video clips which accompany the text in vertical divisions of each webpage to either directly illustrate the idea or more implicitly convey its ethos. Images are also gathered into a gallery to present a slideshow of the examples and any ideas of “The New Virtuality.” The video essay articulates the argument as an audiovisual film, breathing a different life into the argument with animation and voiceover narration.
The second approach we adopted for the creative elements in this online project is to knit an untitled fiction narrative through the website. Told in a 3-part structure across:
(i) scattered fictive fragments;
(ii) the interactive piece; and
(iii) the epilogue,
the story first relates moments spent by an elderly male protagonist in virtual reality with a mysterious companion, H. H who turns out to be an automated geriatric carer who is also able to facilitate an all-encompassing virtual reality for enfeebled seniors. This storytelling appears as flashes of fictive “scenes” which punctuate the four essays via “red spiral” icons that work as hyperlink portals. Living out prolonged last days in the giddy heights of science-fiction geriatric care with and by H, the protagonist lives through moments of various emotions from happiness to tantrums to nostalgia. But, most of all, they are moments of intense, evocative, and poetic memory, mired in an unreal of virtual being against the actuality of his imminent biological death.
The protagonist’s wife Liz, though, died (or lived) differently. The second stage of the story picks it up via the interactive piece as a different vein and in a different voice. Having visited her mother in the same geriatric virtual reality care, the protagonist’s wife decides against the technological medical miracles of prolonged mortality. She would die as she would die, so to speak. In the face of a science-fiction story ubiquitous with, well, science, hers is the last grasping of what can be deemed “nature” against culture, or, rather, technology. Or, of choosing the reality she wants to be in, and choosing difference.
Finally, in the third part of the story as “Epilogue”, the protagonist finally “speaks” to round up all the fiction elements and provide a clearer voice to elucidate the argument of The New Virtuality.
Together, these elements of creative fiction act as popping light-bulbs – bursts of illumination via fictional narrative to colour the argument, arouse curiosity, build anticipation, as well as connect poetics and pathos to the academic argument. They diffuse – even subvert – the dryness and exactitude of academic discourse. This part of the methodology is also key to the website’s mission as para-academic work: to be a visual, spatial and imaginative writing of ideas freed from the tonal and discursive strictures of textual and academic convention.
Our aim in combining these creative elements with the academic text is to build an alternative method for conveying argument: to not only articulate the ideas (alongside their evidence and scholarship), but also set to them a colour – a mood; an ethos; a sentiment; to provide a space for imagination in which the ideas may take on a different life from their textual expression and lend personal resonance for the reader. In particular, the use of fiction builds yet another space for the argument, leveraging characters, plot and settings to strengthen and enliven the ideas for both creator and reader.
In this creative/academic approach, we were very much inspired by the partnership of Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan in their “scientific fiction” of AI 2041: Ten Visions For Our Future. In their book, Lee, a technologist with careers at Google, Microsoft and other companies, collaborated with Chen, science fiction writer of works such as Waste Tide, to present their ideas of the future of AI. It is a successful partnership of non-fiction argument with science-fiction stories, where understanding of the former is deepened while the stories entertain and resonate.
Our own methodology here of intertwining fiction/creative media and academic argument runs on similar lines: to deepen the scholarly argument by expanding it with media, visuality, animation, fictive imagination, story and characters.
In this way, the methodology of this project is also about re-devising what academic scholarship can be and look like – to be para-academic not in terms of conducting this discourse as or in the margins, but as a genuinely accomodational space for a wider and frankly more accessible communication of ideas across multi-valences of academic scholarship. On this website, we have demonstrated some of these valences as fiction; interactive media; audiovisual media; and creative work. We hope there will be many more to come.