Virtual reality, cybernetics and teledildonics in computer mediated communication.

(Or…. Will it possible to express our thoughts, feelings, emotions and desires through an electronic communication system?)
By Roy Hornsby

Herbert Marshall McLuhan the Canadian-born intellectual is considered to have been an expert on the electronic media’s effect on individuals and society. McLuhan recognised an innate complexity with regard to the way in which people communicate when he held that verbal communication takes place inadequately and is seldom understood properly, whereas people communicate effectively in a nonverbal manner because they share cultural objects and behaviours, such as drinking or smoking. McLuhan argued that we live under the delusion that communication is a common occurrence when actually it is rare in human affairs and that we naïvely complain when we perceive a lack of it. Therefore, McLuhan continued, when we become aware that communication is not taking place we feel terrible and yet point to point correspondence between what is said, done, thought and felt between people is the most uncommon of things. Most people have the idea that communication is the corresponding of what is said and what is understood when in fact communication is making. McLuhan explains that the person who sees or hears is engaged in making a reply to a condition that is mainly his own illusion. We improvise our responses with great skill in order that we may be able to carry on our relations with our fellows (Stearn, 1967).

McLuhan was a prophet of the then new media of computers and interactivity and as such he made statements that were far in advance of their time. He commented that the electronic culture of the global village confronts us with circumstances in which whole societies inter-communicate by a sort of ‘macroscopic gesticulation’ which in fact is not speech at all in the ordinary way (McLuhan & Fiore, 1968). The purpose of this paper is to examine how we communicate through the technology that encompasses virtual communities, their origins, methodologies and futures. This investigation is based on emerging technologies with particular regard to virtual reality.

“Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold, 1993, p. 5).

Millions of people from every corner of this planet participate regularly in computer-mediated social groups known as virtual communities. Each participant is the audience, performer and scriptwriter in an ongoing improvisation. A full-scale subculture has grown at the other end of people’s phone jacks or cables. According to Rheingold the virtual village of a few hundred people that he came upon in 1985, a virtual community known as the ‘Well’ had grown to eight thousand by 1993. Contrary, it seems, to McLuhan’s argument that people are extremely poor communicators, the Well’s denizens use words on screens to exchange pleasantries, argue, engage in intellectual discourse, share emotional support and so on. The participants in virtual communities leave their bodies behind and do just about everything that people can do in real life (Rheingold, 1993).

Computer linked cultures it seems, are attractive to the point of addiction. Millions have been drawn into participating in them and they have been described as being an ecosystem of subcultures. Some people spend eighty hours or more a week living a life that does not exist outside of a computer as they pretend that they are somebody else (Rheingold, 1993). Alucquere Rosanne Stone portrays how she spends more time interrelating with her computer than she does with her friends despite the fact that she has been reminded that her screen is merely a ‘passage point’ to the people who she studies through it. This realization however, does not alter her sense of facing a vague but conspicuous sentience squatting on her desk one bit (Stone, 1991).

Not all the participants in ‘computer-mediated communications’ (CMC) are isolationist however. ‘Wellites’ who are able gather together on a regular basis for face to face parties, attend Well weddings, births and funerals, and have reduced the words ‘in real life’ to the initials ‘IRL’ because it pops up so often in discussions. Rheingold describes when, for the first time he walked into a room full of people IRL who were a part of the Well community as one of the oddest sensations of his life[1]. Here were people that he had come to know intimately but there was not a recognizable face in the house. Although he is enthusiastic about what he terms the ‘liberating’ potential of CMC Rheingold is aware that there are pitfalls when technology and human relationships are mixed (Rheingold, 1993).

The nature of human communication is moderated increasingly by technology and that transformation is accelerating constantly with time. Early electronic virtual communities began with the invention of the telegraph and were extended with radio broadcasts such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’. Although radio was one-way communication it did become an apparatus for the production of community and it became possible for millions of people to be ‘present’ with Roosevelt in his living room. A new and complex way of experiencing the connection between the physical being and the ‘I’ that inhabits it was developing. The space was enabled by a technology; the technology was a device that mediated between a physical presence and realities that were impossible to measure. In other words, the technology became the interface that mediates between the human bodies and an associated ‘I’ (Stone, 1991).

Bulletin Boards and text based on-line conferences flourished during the 1970’s and the personal computer became a tool for social transformation as it refigured social interaction. On-line conversations were perceived as social acts and the computer terminal as a window into a social space. Many experiments in this form of social interaction came and went over more than a decade but arguably it was the publication of William Gibson’s book Neuromancer that defined the new community. Gibson’s visualization provided the technologically cultured and the socially disaffected with an imaginal public sphere and a refigured discursive community that grounded the possibility for a new type of social interaction (Stone, 1991). The three-dimensional cyberspace that was inhabited by Gibson’s characters does not yet exist but the race to create the software and the hardware that can provide the most lifelike interaction possible for CMC is characterized by intense attentiveness to depth of information and simulation alike. Each phase of the race is determined by whether or not it has taken another step toward the realization of the ‘ideal’ face to face conversational situation (Jones, 1995). The most likely reason for this is that we need to feel that the communication we engage in on-line is authentic and we identify with face to face because it is more closely aligned to what we regard as ‘normal’ conversation.

The dialogue in Plato’s Phaedrus (1973, pp. 95-9) ends with Socrates delivering an early protest and condemnation against the ‘modern’ technology of writing as a means of communicating knowledge. Socrates comments that the written word can do no more than remind the reader of what he already knows and that it maintains a solemn silence if asked a question. Plato cannot have had any idea of the interactive capabilities of current technologies, but the point that he has Socrates make about employing the art of the dialectic could still be a relevant motivating force in the race toward Gibsonesque virtual reality. It could be argued that there is an innate desire within us that the exchange of electronic information be analogous with the face to face dialectic so that we may better arrive at a coherent synthesis.

A definition of virtual reality (VR) could be that it is a system enabling one or more users to move about and respond in a computer simulated environment. VR systems can be interacted with by using special equipment such as goggles and data gloves allowing users to sense and control virtual objects in a manner similar to real life. VR had its beginnings with the flight simulators built by the aircraft industries and was influenced by 3D cinema and stereoscopic and wide screen film techniques used by Hollywood filmmakers. Artificial intelligence research during the 1950’s and 60’s formed the scientific platform for VR as it exists today, particularly the area of human-computer interfaces. A Ph.D. thesis presented by Ivan Sutherland demonstrated that display screens could provide a window into the mathematical world of the computer[2]. The head mounted display that Sutherland developed became a cornerstone of VR technology. VR products began to appear in settings that ranged from virtual theme parks to operating theatres largely due to products developed by Jaron Lanier whose programming language enabled the use of the first data glove[3]. (Weiss, n.d.).

At the time of writing, VR has become a term that covers a wide range of subjects. Through the internet it is now possible to engage in virtual walkthroughs of real estate, virtual tours of cities, commercial developments and golf courses to name but a few. Travel agents use virtual panoramas to tantalize the prospective traveler and virtual beer festivals are also available for the virtually thirsty. Chat rooms and multi user domains (MUD’s) have progressed from text only environments to 3D worlds and object-oriented multi user domains (MOO’s) where participants can build, buy and trade real estate, engage in virtual shopping, go to work, own a pet or engage in a relationship. Many worlds have a code of conduct that prohibits the displaying of material containing nudity, pornography, or sexual material of a lewd, lecherous or obscene nature but a variety of cybersex web sites proliferate.

According to Baym (1998) given a little time people involved in CMC remove the anonymity and create on-line identities. Users switch genders, appearances, sexual orientation and generally invent countless alternative versions of the self. Reid (1991, pp. 164-83) comments that Internet relay chat (IRC) “users are able to express and experiment with aspects of their personality that social inhibition would generally encourage them to suppress”. Users form virtual friendships, some of which go beyond the platonic. Romances are common and virtual lovers transform the virtual podium into an environment designed to communicate and sustain their feelings for one another. However, even in 3D worlds the virtual can only be consummated currently when enacted as co-written interactive erotica (Reid, 1991). Not a totally satisfying experience one would imagine. So what does the future hold with regard to identity and feelings in a virtual milieu?

Cohen (1985, p. 12) comments that “boundary encapsulates the identity of community” and Stone (1991, p. 102) reports that Paul Rabinow questions what type of being might live in a world in which technology has become nature, where the boundaries between the subject and the environment have collapsed? Stone has studied two groups whom she considers instantiate a productive aspect of this disintegration of boundaries. The first group is phone sex workers and the second are the engineers and scientists working on making humans visible in VR systems. The similarity, according to Stone, is that both groups are involved in representing the human body through limited communication channels. The engineers need to model a cognition and a community, and as communities are inhabited by bodies, they need to model them as well. The engineers are presuming a definition of bodies and sociality and codifying them to define cyberspace systems. Both groups are constructing symbolic objects of desire. The sex workers draw on cultural code to construct their scenario while bodies in cyberspace are constituted by descriptive codes that embody expectations of appearance (Stone, 1991).

Stone (1991) wonders whether the VR engineers are engaged in an exercise that may overturn and dislocate the position that the body holds as an object in power relationships. She poses an important question about whether the future inhabitants of cyberspace will catch the engineers’ societal imperative to construct desire in gendered binary terms or will they find the possibilities of relationships that are not constrained by dominance and submission more appealing? Once desire no longer grounds itself in physicality how will the cyberspaceians engage with the virtual body and in turn with each other?

In a recent interview, Jaron Lanier described his recent experimentation with the tele-immersion initiative[4]. Lanier says that tele-immersion is simply creating the illusion that people in distant cities are in the same room as each other. To achieve this it was necessary to greatly improve the state of the art in virtual reality. This involved a considerable amount of mathematical modeling out of which has emerged new software that is being further developed. A series of techniques has allowed interpretation of neural systems, converting them to algorithms that can be fine-tuned to work with available computer power. Using this technology a conventional PC with a conventional web-cam can be pointed at your face and find points on the face that can be used to control an avatar in great detail. All of your facial expressions can be conveyed instantaneously with an entity that looks exactly as you do. According to Lanier this is the first software that he is aware of that deals with objects rather than with computer bits conforming to some code. It’s a visual recognizer that sees the person as features. It understands what eyes are and it recognizes the nose and doesn’t interpret the image as a bit map. The avatar itself does not require much bandwidth as the researchers have developed a way of breaking down the data that is fed to the user’s computer. Lanier (2001, p. 4) says,

“In a freestanding way, this new software has an ability, that I would say is somewhat profound, to interpret the world on its own. It can understand the visual world without a person identifying things in it”.

Lanier comments that he feels this software will force a cultural battle over how people interact with computers (Leyden, 2001). It can only be imagined what impact the development of this software will have on CMC and VR and it remains to be seen whether or not future inhabitants of cyberspace will care to be represented as an object that links directly to their real life persona. Could it be that the attraction of being represented by an avatar is in the anonymity created by the binary code? Perhaps the codification is the catalyst that helps create an environment where users feel safe enough to reveal their darkest secrets and their inner-most fantasies.

In the not too distant future it may be possible that the software being developed by Lanier and his associates could be combined with a system of teledildonics to create the ultimate in cybersexual experience. Teledildonics is described as being sex in a computer simulated virtual reality, especially computer-mediated sexual interaction between the VR presences of two humans. The early teledildonic systems are predicted to involve the use of items such as automatic penis stimulators which, after being strapped to your pelvis, will connect to your computer and be able to be controlled remotely by another user somewhere in cyberspace. Reportedly, equivalent devices for the use of females are also being developed[5]. When fully functional teledildonic devices become available it is envisioned that they could be in the form of a snug body stocking equipped with an array of intelligent sensor-effectors. A mesh of tiny tactile detectors that receive and transmit a realistic tactile presence will vibrate at varying degrees of hardness. You will run your cheek over virtual satin or gently squeeze a soft and pliable item and feel it stiffen under your touch. You can plug the complete telepresence system into your network and find one or a thousand partners in various cyberspaces. Your partner/s can move and the representations are able to touch each other, you can touch some part of your partner’s body and trigger a reaction in an array of effectors on the other side of the Earth. If you become unhappy with the way in which the encounter is going you can simply disengage (Rheingold, 1991). It is beyond the scope of this paper to comment on the ethical and moral implications of teledildonics and indeed on any other form of cybersex. It may well be however that sex will be the driving force in the advances to most areas of VR. Mike Saenz who created the Virtual Valerie and MacPlaymate playmates said;

“I think lust motivates technology. The first personal robots, let’s face it, are not going to be bought to bring people drinks” [6].

In Gibson’s writings his antiheroes often have a physical connection with their computers by means of cranial implants. The connection allows them to access the world’s data through VR and to totally immerse themselves in cyberspace (Jordan, 1999). According to Jordan (1999, p. 22) Gibson’s possibilities are still distant. However, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University, Dr. Kevin Warwick, is helping to push back the frontiers of machine-human relationships[7]. In August 1998 Professor Warwick underwent an operation to surgically implant a silicon chip transponder into his forearm. This experiment allowed a computer to monitor Dr. Warwick as he moved through halls and offices of the University. Using a unique identifying signal emitted by the implanted chip, he could operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger. This chip implant technology has the capability to impact on our lives in ways that have been previously thought possible in only sci-fi movies. The implant could carry information about a person, from credit card details to his blood type and medical records etc., with the data being updated where necessary. In an interview with Wired, Professor Warwick revealed that he found himself emotionally attached to the computer after only a couple of days of the implant being inserted into his body[8]. He went so far as to say that he felt like he was one half of a pair of Siamese twins. During November 2001 Professor Warwick intends to have second implant operation. This time, the transponder will be connected directly to nerve fibres within his arm and if the experiments are successful his wife, Irena, will have a transponder implanted also. The experiments will then consist of trying to send movement and emotion signals from one person to the other, possibly via the internet. The possibility exists for Irena to know when her husband is feeling happy, depressed, angry, or sexually aroused[9]. In his interview with Wired, Professor Warwick commented that he feels he will experience a stronger sense of connectedness with the second implant because emotions will be brought into the equation. He says that his own values on what it means to be human may be influenced by desires which draw him closer to the implant. He continues;

“Morals and ethics are an outgrowth of the way in which humans interact with each other. Cultures may have diverse ethics, but, regardless, individual liberties and human life are always valued over and above machines. What happens when humans merge with machines? Maybe the machines will then become more important to us than another human life. Those who have become cyborgs will be one step ahead of humans. And just as humans have always valued themselves above other forms of life, it’s likely that cyborgs will look down on humans who have yet to ‘evolve’ “[10].

It seems likely that advances in virtual reality systems will be influenced strongly by the technologies and experimentation associated with cybernetic implantation.

With a combination of Lanier’s recognition software, teledildonics and transponder implantation it will, in theory, be possible that we can make love with another person somewhere else in the world as ourselves, if we wish, and experience feelings and emotions simultaneously with each other. To conclude, we must speculate that in the future because we may be tapped directly into each other’s neural networks, but at a distance and without the need for either commitment or restraint, it is highly possible that the virtual will become more authentic than the real.

[1] Described on p. 2 of Rheingold, H. 1993, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Addison-Wesley Publishing, USA. back

[2] Ivan Sutherland was one of the earliest pioneers in computer graphics. He is also credited with the development of the first head-mounted display, today an integral part of many virtual reality systems. Overview available on-line at: [2001, Oct. 13] back

[3] He coined the term virtual reality and pioneered the development and marketing of many of the first virtual reality components. Information available on-line at: [2001, Oct.13] back

[4] The interview was conducted on August 10th, 2001 by Peter Leyden from Global Business Network. Available online at: [2001, Oct. 13] back

[5] Information available on-line at: [2001, Oct. 14] back

[6] Quoted in Mondo 2000, 1992, p. 275. back

[7] Information available on-line at: [2001, Oct. 14] back

[8] The interview is available on-line at: [2001, Oct. 14] back

[9] Dr. Warwick’s home page is available at: [2001, Oct.14] back

[10] Ibid, [2001, Oct. 14]. back


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