Escapism and Virtual Reality


The use of computers in society provides obvious benefits and some drawbacks.
\'Virtual Reality\', a new method of interacting with any computer, is presented
and its advantages and disadvantages are considered. The human aspect of
computing and computers as a form of escapism are developed, with especial
reference to possible future technological developments. The consequences of a
weakening of the sense of reality based upon the physical world are also
considered. Finally, some ways to reduce the unpleasant aspects of this
potential dislocation are examined. A glossary of computing terms is also

Computers as Machines

The progression of the machine into all aspects of human life has continued
unabated since the medieval watchmakers of Europe and the Renaissance study of
science that followed Clocks . Whilst this change has been exceedingly rapid
from a historical perspective, it can nevertheless be divided into distinct
periods, though rather arbitrarily, by some criteria such as how people
travelled or how information was transferred over long distances. However these
periods are defined, their lengths have become increasingly shorter, with each
new technological breakthrough now taking less than ten years to become accepted
(recent examples include facsimile machines, video recorders and microwave

One of the most recent, and hence most rapidly absorbed periods, has been that
of the computer. The Age of Computing began with Charles Babbage in the late
19th century Babbage , grew in the calculating machines between the wars
EarlyIBM , continued during the cryptanalysis efforts of World War II
Turing,Bletchley and finally blossomed in the late 1970\'s with mass market
applications in the developed countries (e.g. JapanSord ). Computers have
gone through several \'generations\' of development in the last fifty years and
their rate of change fits neatly to exponential curves Graphs , suggesting that
the length of each generation will become shorter and shorter, decreasing until
some unforeseen limit is reached. This pattern agrees with the more general
decrease of length between other technological periods.

The great strength of computers whether viewed as complex machines, or more
abstractly as merely another type of tool, lies in their enormous flexibility.
This flexibility is designed into a computer from the moment of its conception
and accounts for much of the remarkable complexity that is inherent in each
design. For this very reason, the uses of computers are now too many to ever
consider listing exhaustively and so only a representative selection are
considered below.

Computers are now used to control any other machine that is subject to a varying
environment, (e.g. washing machines, electric drills and car engines).
Artificial environments such as hotels, offices and homes are maintained in pre-
determined states of comfort by computers in the thermostats and lighting
circuits. Within a high street shop or major business, every financial or
stockkeeping transaction will be recorded and acknowledged using some form of

The small number of applications suggested above are so common to our
experiences in developed countries that we rarely consider the element which
permits them to function as a computer. The word \'microprocessor\' is used to
refer to a \'stand-alone\' computer that operates within these sorts of
applications. Microprocessors are chips at the heart of every computer, but
without the ability to modify the way they are configured, only a tiny
proportion of their flexibility is actually used. The word \'computer\' is now
defined as machines with a microprocessor, a keyboard and a visual display unit
(VDU), which permit modification by the user of the way that the microprocessor
is used.

Computers in this sense are used to handle more complex information than that
with which microprocessors deal, for example, text, pictures and large amounts
of information in databases. They are almost as widespread as the
microprocessors described above, having displaced the typewriter as the standard
writing tool in many offices and supplanted company books as the most reliably
current form of accountancy information. In both these examples, a computer
permits a larger amount of information to be stored and modified in a less time-
consuming fashion than any other method used previously.

Another less often considered application is that of communication. Telephone
networks are today controlled almost entirely by computers, unseen by the
customer, but actively involved in every telephone call phones . The linking of
computers themselves by telephone and other networks has led people to
communicate with each other by using the computer to both write the text (a
word-processor) and to send it to its destination. This is known as electronic
mail, or \'email\'.

The all pervasive nature of the computer and its obvious benefits have not
prevented a growing number of people who are vociferously concerned