Image informatics in the Virtual University


Paula Roberts (Australia)


This paper extends the image informatics ethics debate from issues of truth to considerations of the virtual university and the ethical dilemmas posed by the management and visual presentation of information in hyperreality.

Issues of truth which dominated ethical considerations in image informatics since computer technology made possible a seamless alteration of the photograph and its representation of reality (Roberts & Webber 1999), have moved more recently to concerns regarding the computer synthesis of images, which could allow, theoretically at least, a presidential candidate to be generated, credentialed, and elected without ever being publicly seen (Cooper 1998). Previously, photographs had represented historical truth as an expression of ‘a past that cannot be retrieved’ (Barthes 2000). However, synthesized images, such as the morphed image of the multicultural young woman on a 1993 Time cover, have overtaken the photograph. But, as Haraway (1997) points out, the Time ‘woman’, created from a mix of racial computerized images as a means of representing centuries of racial synthesis, is not ‘real’ visual information, and, as such, cannot convey ‘all the bloody history caught by the ugly word miscegenation’.

Robins (1996) argues that the ‘hyperreality’ of the digital image, with its increasing autonomy as a new source of information, threatens conventional reality. Similarly, Dreyfus (2001a) warns that supporters of virtual education systems boast that school experience will be electronically simulated, and, as early as primary school, ‘kindergartners will use mouse pads to finger paint’, and older students ‘will do virtual chemistry experiments with animated beakers and electronic Bunsen burners’, thus sacrificing the reality of tactile experience to the limitations of the hyperreal.

Borgmann (2000) is concerned also with the desensitizing of knowledge in virtual reality which despite its promise of more tantalizing shape and colour, variety and availability, than anything in the actual world, cannot equate with realistic, lived experience, for ‘no one has been carried from a virtual race course or ski hill with burns or fractures’. Likewise, Penny (1995) argues that virtual reality acts as an insulator from reality, in being ‘as real as a picture of a toothache.’

Simulation technologies, however, have proved their usefulness, for example, virtual environments have provided therapeutic benefits in helping people with fears such as acrophobia by ‘walking’ them through computer-generated representations (Strickland et al., 1997). And simulations are used in controlling, at a distance, operations at hazardous sites such as space and deep-sea exploration, and nuclear and other toxic environments. However, the publicly televised military application of simulation technology in the Gulf War, (and more recently in Afghanistan) has demonstrated also the ethical dangers of the derealization effect of virtual reality, which has made it appear these wars were being conducted in an imaginary space where fighters were engaged in a computer game, rather than destructive combat (Robins 1996).

The ethical dangers in simulations lie in the threat they pose to understanding the difference between reality and hyperreality, between ‘true’ and ‘false’, and between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ (Baudrillard 1983), and in providing a temptation to live in a world of simulated images and simulated commitment, which might lead to a simulated life which inhibits ethical action (Dreyfus 2001b).

Feminists also raise ethical concerns that virtual reality creates a gendered, disembodied space, which not only denies the body, but represses it (Hayles 1993). However, concern for the body does emerge in virtual environments with the construction (in the anonymity and acceptance which exists in cyber communities) of lives more expansive than those lived in reality Turkle (1995). But the self constructed in virtual reality differs from the real self in its absence of voice, for virtual reality is mute and substitutes sight for sound, and subordinates language to visual perception (Bolter 1996). And online, disembodied relationships more often than not leave participants feeling isolated and depressed (Kraut et al., 1998). A lack of human warmth in virtual interactions might explain the large number of daily electronic visitors to the website known as JenniCAM. This web-site, with its combination of virtual reality and the digital camera, records the daily life happenings of a young woman, in representations which confuse the ideological dichotomies of body/machine, private/public and reality/virtual reality (Jimroglou 2001), and might suggest a model for an electronic, social context of information.

In conclusion, the paper questions whether the nonlinear dynamics of virtual reality represent a shift to new philosophical and epistemological models of information management and presentation. An interesting conjecture is whether the virtual university will incorporate these new models and also provide not only authentic representations of information but on-line contexts which acknowledge the ‘social life of information’, that is, that information is embedded in social relationships and institutions, and that knowledge management must focus on the social and ethical dimension, as much as on technology (Fukuama, in Brown & Duguid, 2000), in ways which are at the foundation of the traditional university.


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