Becoming Virtual

By Emily Gold / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007
What is virtual reality and why should we care? These questions were among those discussed by two dozen speakers from academia, politics, computer science, the news media, and the military, all of whom visited campus in November for a three-day symposium sponsored by the Watson Institute for International Studies. The conference, which, in a nod to the millennium, was titled Virtual Y2K, focused on the ways in which high technology has transformed the conduct of global affairs, whether economic, diplomatic, or military.

The democratizing influence of the Internet has been widely discussed by high-tech visionaries before, but Ira Magaziner '69, a former special assistant to President Clinton, emphasized it again. The Internet has become subversive to dictators, he explained, because totalitarianism depends upon controlling information and anyone with a modem and a phone line can tap into a seemingly endless informational flow and exchange.

Some of the more haunting moments in the conference focused on virtual reality's effect on modern warfare and even on our perception of life and death. Most Americans got their first real look at this side of virtual reality during the Gulf War of 1991, when, thanks to satellite technology, CNN broadcast live reports from Baghdad and trained cameras on U.S. military briefings in Kuwait that featured a pilot's-eye view of smart bombs hitting their ghostly targets far below.

Michael Macedonia, chief scientist and technical director at the U.S. Army Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command, remembered the moment during the Gulf War when he realized that, in his words, "the world had just collapsed on itself." He watched as General Norman Schwarzkopf, using two telephones in Tampa, Florida, spoke simultaneously to General Colin Powell - who was himself on the phone with President Bush - and a U.S. Navy captain asking whether to blow up an Iraqi ship violating a blockade. "Essentially war had become virtual," Macedonia recalled, "and because of it, they decided not to blow away the ship. They could collapse time and space [to] make their decision."

Michael Ignatieff, who reported on the war in Kosovo for the New Yorker, described that war as "virtual" in the broadest sense, referring to it as "hollowed out" and "emptied of meaning." By refraining from sending in ground troops, the United States, he said, made few actual commitments and took few real risks. Given the virtual world of e-mail, fax machines, televisions, and cell phones, Westerners could conduct a simultaneous international debate on the morality of the Kosovo bombardment, turning it into "a spectator sport rather than a test of our destiny." What's more, Ignatieff added, without United Nations or U.S. Senate approval of the effort, the Western attack on Kosovo was waged with a kind of virtual consent, and in the end even the war's "victory" was virtual: it resulted in no actual change of regime in Belgrade.

Can this kind of virtual reality be a morally deadening force? A reminder of what high-tech war machines cannot convey came from retired U.S. Army Major General William Nash. "When you look at the television," he said, "and you see that picture of that laser bomb or that rocket going down the air shaft of a building, it is magnificent. It's just like your video game. But when that 2000 bomb goes down that shaft and goes into that bunker and explodes, human product dies, with all the agony of the Middle Ages, with the same reality as the machetes in Rwanda. It is not virtual. It is real."

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January / February 2000