New worlds, new civilisation? The promise, the legacy and the consequences of ‘Immersive Media’.



The topic of the research is immersive mediated environments. These can be defined as types of media which engage with more than one sense simultaneously, but also have an interactive component, where the user has control over some aspects of the experience.


I intend to frame this investigation using the concept of total media. The Hollywood film

Strange Days (1995) is premised on this concept. It tells the story of Lenny Nero, an ex-vice cop, who now deals in a technology that can capture data straight from the cerebral cortex. As Lenny explains, "This is not like TV. This is life. It's a piece of somebody's life, recorded on a kind of tape player, and plugged directly into the brain (dhalgren, www).


Strange Days can be said to represent the ultimate goal of mediated communication: a totally immersive mediated experience - literally akin to experiencing someone else’s being. The paradox of total media is when the mediation is total, the sense of mediation would, to all intents and purposes, disappear.


The concept of total media is science fiction, but viewing today's media from this vantage point, allows me to posit a negative definition of media technologies as compensations for lived experience. The grammar of a given medium is adapted to approximate certain felt aspects of experience, for example in film, there are reaction shots as well as action shots, because, by showing how other react to a given spectacle, filmmakers have established a convention, whereby filmic meaning can be anchored in the film itself. This kind of adaptation actually constitutes the defining aspect of a particular medium, but serves purely to overcome its limitations.



Osmose (1995) is an example of an immersive mediated environment. I ‘experienced’ it in 1996 as part of the Serious Games exhibit at the London Barbican, see Beryl (1996). The power of that experience is what motivates me to explore this area. The dozen 'worlds' that constitute Osmose were based on metaphorical aspects of nature. One navigated using breath and balance like a scuba diver: taking a breath in led one to rise, taking a breath out led one to fall.



Osmose suggests an alternative approach to immersive media than the usual hard polygon, 'masculine' look of the technology.


For its creator, Canadian artist Char Davies, traditional computer interfaces merely replicate an approach to ‘mastering’ the world around us. Davies says she feels a “great need to subvert these conventions”  (Davies 3, www)


Whatever Happened to Virtual Reality?

In the 1990s, virtual reality (VR) was touted as a revolution. So what went wrong? Well, several things. VR helmets were too heavy, computers were too slow, the only thing consistently real about VR were headaches and motion sickness (Nasa www).


However VR still exists in computer gaming environments, and these will serve as the focus of my research, since they are virtual environments in which a significant percentage of especially young people spend time. Computer games are an example of the ordinariness of immersive media environments. Their ubiquity underscores the fact that virtual words are already a part of many people’s everyday experiences, even if the discourses which constitute our current cultural understanding of immersive media often sound more exotic, like science fiction.



In the past, media studies research in the area of computer games has concentrated on two areas. Advocating or attacking the controversial notion that computer games promote aggressive behaviour, and more theoretically based discussions centring around the discursive effects of new technology. The latter approach often employs a Foucaultian/Althussarian concept of the subject formed by digital discourses. See Poster (1995), Stone (1998), Kinder (1991).



The question I am interested in exploring is how immersive mediated environments might influence notions of personal identity, with the concomitant notions of agency, embodiment and transformation.



From my preliminary research into the topic, what appears to be lacking in present cultural approaches is as follows


i/ Technophobia

The question of anxiety about technology (technophobia) is embedded in most media-cultural studies of new-media. It can be argued that technophobia has existed in culture since its earliest beginnings (the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods for example). But the bottom line is that we have has several millennia of technological anxieties and we (the human race) are still here. Therefore technophobia should be treated with suspicion. I want to examine it as part of my terms of reference, by outlining the long established historical tradition of anxieties against newness in order to seat this worry in an historical context.



ii/ Focussing, not on the apparatus, but on the experience of immersive media

It seems that investigations into new technology often fall into a trap of focussing on the apparatus, and therefore they tend to date rather rapidly. For example in 1991, Marsha Kinder speculated upon the hitherto unknown cultural impacts of CDI (Kinder 1991, 4). This kind of approach implies that the experience of technology is always a novel one, whereas technology can be seen as an attempt to present an approximation of an existing experiences. Novelty can be seen as occurring as an unexpected consequence of these efforts, or even a serendipitous outcome of their failure.


iii/ Technological determinism and social shaping are both naēve realism

I want to proceed with a clear conception of the influence of technology on culture, that rejects both technological determinism and social determinism as theoretically inadequate to the task. This is because both approaches postulate a mimetic conception of the technology problem, which involves intention and agency and therefore ignores non-volitional aspects of our adaptation to immersive mediated environments.


I propose rather to frame this study in a conception of technology opening up a performance space which creates the conditions for new experience. Kant claimed that in judgements, there were only two possible relations of a subject to its predicate. The first is analytical, where the predicate belongs to the subject, and the second is synthetic, where the predicate lies totally outside of the subject. Only synthetic judgements add new material to our conception of the subject (Kant: 1993, 35). In this sense we can view traditional cultures are being analytic and modern cultures as being synthetic, because technology itself can be seen as this new additive material .


Kant offers no mechanism of how the existence of technology creates new ideas. So for an explanation of this I turn to Zizek's perfomative notion of ideology. According to Zizek, the ideological form emerges out of the performance of certain actions, which in turn inspires the creation of discourse (Zizek 1989, 19).  This can be expressed as:


1/ The performance of the actions

2/ Creates a space for abstract thinking (ideology)

3/ Creates the form of abstract thought


The hacker ethic

A possible example of this process is the emergence of the hacker ethic, as described by Levy (1984). In the 1950s and 60s an elite and highly gifted generation of MIT students saw the computer as a kind of pedagogue, one that demanded absolute logical precision, and occasionally revealed deep mathematical truths as the results of programming errors. The hackers modified their behaviour to accommodate the caprices of the machine, and this spilled out into their social interactions as well, thus a discipline emerged in the hackers that valued perfect systems as the highest mode of being.



My starting point will be a review of secondary research. I will critically examine Don Ihde’s (1991) work on the philosophy of technology, especially his notion of ‘body three’. I’m also interested in exploring notions of embodiment, from its traditional aesthetic connotations, for instance Margolis (1980), to its digital applications. And finally notions of identity in cyberspace.


I intend to conduct some in-depth primary research on young adults in their twenties, those who are interested in playing video games and those that are not. The purpose of this initial survey will be to discover the most pertinent research questions. I will then interview certain respondents to explore these questions in more detail. Finally I intend to take a ethnomethodological approach and spend a certain amount of time with a group of gamers, in order to try to understand the appeal of games (I am not a gamer myself therefore this will be a journey of discovery).



My initial time will be formulating the theoretical framework and exploring the research landscape. Then I will work out my own a theoretical approach, including articulating the propositions and questions I intend to explore. Finally I will test this theory in the context of primary research.





Images from Osmose are from Char Davies’s website: URL =


Davies, Char 2, (Fall 1995), VR through Osmosis, by Mark J. Jones published in CyberStage, Vol. 2 (1). pp. 24-28


Davies, Char 3, (2002), 'Reverie, Osmose and EphémŹre', Gigliotti, C. interview, Paradoxa, Vol. 9 (Eco)Logical, 2002, pp. 64-73, Stranded/13.html, URL =


Graham. Beryl (1996), Serious Games, (booklet accompanying an exhibition of new media at the Barbican, London), London: Barbican Art Gallery


Heidegger. Martin (2000), Being and Time, John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (trans), London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


Ihde. Don (1991), The Philosophy of Technology, Bloomington U.S.: Indiana Publishing


Ihde. Don (1979), Technology and Praxis, Bloomington U.S.: Indiana Publishing


Kant, Immanuel (1993), Critique of Pure Reason, J. M. D. Meiklejohn (trans.) London: Everyman


Kinder, Marsha (1991), Playing with Power, Berkely CA, University of California Press


Levy, Steven, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution,  London: Penguin, 1984


Margolis, Joseph (1980), Art and Philosophy, Atlantic Highlands, U.S.: Harvester Press,


Poster, Mark (1995), The Second Media Age, Cambridge, MA: Polity Press


Sefton-Green, Julian (1998), Digital Diversions, London: UCL Press


Stone, AllucquŹre Rosanne (1998), The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Cambridge (Massachusetts): MIT Paperbacks


Strange Days (1995) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Lightstorm Entertainment [us]


Zizek, Slavoj (1989), The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso