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nettime: The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds - Lev Manovich 2/2

Jakobson writes about verbal communication between two 
people who, in order to check whether the channel works, address each 
other: "Do you hear me?," "Do you understand me?" But in Web 
communication there is no human addresser, only a machine. So as the 
user keeps checking whether the information is coming, he actually 
addresses the machine itself. Or rather, the machine addresses the user. 
The machine reveals itself, it reminds the user of its existence -- not 
only because the user is forced to wait but also because he is forced to 
witness how the message is being constructed over time. A page fills in 
part by part, top to bottom; text comes before images; images arrive in 
low resolution and are gradually refined. Finally, everything comes 
together in a smooth sleek image -- the image which will be destroyed 
with the next click.   
        Will this temporal dynamic ever be eliminated? Will spatialized 
Net become a perfect Utopian city rather than remaining a gigantic 
construction site? 
        An examination of already existing 3D virtual worlds points 
toward a negative answer to this question. Consider the technique 
called "distancing" or "level of detail," which for years has been used in 
VR simulations and is now being adapted to 3D games and VRML 
scenes. The idea is to render the models more crudely when the user is 
moving through virtual space; when the user stops, detail gradually 
fills in. Another variation of the same technique involves creating a 
number of models of the same object, each with progressively less 
detail. When the virtual camera is close to an object, a highly detailed 
model is used; if the object is far away, a lesser detailed version is 
substituted to save unnecessary computation.  
        A virtual world which incorporates these techniques has a fluid 
ontology that is affected by the actions of the user. As the user navigates 
through space the objects switch back and forth between pale blueprints 
and fully fleshed out illusions. The immobility of a subject guarantees a 
complete illusion; the slightest movement destroys it.      
        Navigating a Quicktime VR movie is characterized by a similar 
dynamic. In contrast to the nineteenth century panorama that it closely 
emulates, Quicktime VR continuously deconstructs its own illusion. 
The moment you begin to pan through the scene, the image becomes 
jagged. And, if you try to zoom into the image, all you get are oversized 
pixels. The representational machine keeps hiding and revealing 
        Compare this dynamic to traditional cinema or realist theater 
which aims at all costs to maintain the continuity of the illusion for the 
duration of the performance. In contrast to such totalizing realism, 
digital aesthetics have a surprising affinity to twentieth century leftist 
avant-garde aesthetics. Bertold Brecht's strategy to reveal the conditions 
of an illusion's production, echoed by countless other leftist artists, 
became embedded in hardware and software themselves. Similarly, 
Walter Benjamin's concept of "perception in the state of distraction" [29] 
found a perfect realization. The periodic reappearance of the machinery, 
the continuous presence of the communication channel in the message 
prevent the subject from falling into the dream world of illusion for 
very long, making him alternate between concentration and 
        While virtual machinery itself already acts as an avant-garde 
director, the designers of interactive media (games, CD-ROM titles, 
interactive cinema, and interactive television programs) often 
consciously attempt to structure the subject's temporal experience as a 
series of periodic shifts. The subject is forced to oscillate between the 
roles of viewer and user, shifting between perceiving and acting, 
between following the story and actively participating in it. During one 
segment the computer screen presents the viewer with an engaging 
cinematic narrative. Suddenly the image freezes, menus and icons 
appear and the viewer is forced to act: make choices; click; push buttons. 
(Moscow media theorist Anataly Prokhorov describes this process as the 
shift of the screen shifts from being transparent to being opaque -- from 
a window into a fictional 3D universe to a solid surface, full of menus, 
controls, text and icons. [30] Three-dimensional space becomes surface; a 
photograph becomes a diagram; a character becomes an icon.)
        Can Brecht and Hollywood be married? Is it possible to create a 
new temporal aesthetic based on such cyclical shifts? So far, I can think 
of only one successful example -- a military simulator, the only mature 
form of interactive media. It perfectly blends perception and action, 
cinematic realism and computer menus. The screen presents the subject 
with an illusionistic virtual world while periodically demanding quick 
actions: shooting at the enemy; changing the direction of a vehicle; and 
so on. In this art form, the roles of a viewer and a actant are blended 
perfectly -- but there is a price to pay. The narrative is organized around 
a single and clearly defined goal: staying alive.             
4. Riegl, Panofsky, and Computer Graphics: Regression in Virtual 

The last aesthetic principle of virtual worlds that I will address can be 
summarized as follows: virtual spaces are not true spaces but collections 
of separate objects. Or: there is no space in cyberspace. 
        To explore this thesis further we can borrow the categories 
developed by art historians early in this century. The founders of 
modern art history (Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wlfflin, and Erwin 
Panofsky) defined their field as the history of the representation of 
space. Working within the paradigms of cyclic cultural development 
and racial topology, they related the representation of space in art to the 
spirit of entire epochs, civilizations, and races. In his 1901 "Die 
cultural development as the oscillation between two extreme poles, two 
ways to understand space, which he called "haptic" and "optic." Haptic 
perception isolates the object in the field as a discrete entity, while optic 
perception unifies objects in a spatial continuum. Riegl's contemporary, 
Heinrich Wlfflin, similarly proposed that the temperament of a period 
or a nation expresses itself in a particular mode of seeing and 
representing space. Wlfflin's "Principles of Art History" (1913) plotted 
the differences between Renaissance and Baroque on five dimensions: 
linear -- painterly; plane -- recession; closed form -- open form; 
multiplicity -- unity; and clearness -- unclearness. Finally, another 
founder of modern art history, Erwin Panofsky, contrasted the 
"aggregate" space of the Greeks with the "systematic" space of the Italian 
Renaissance in a famous essay "Perspective as a Symbolic Form" (1924-
1925). Panofsky established a parallel between the history of spatial 
representation and the evolution of abstract thought. The former 
moves from the space of individual objects in antiquity to the 
representation of space as continuous and systematic in modernity; in 
Panofsky's neologisms, from "aggregate" space to "systematic" space. 
Correspondingly, the evolution of abstract thought progresses from 
ancient philosophy's view of the physical universe as discontinuous to 
the post-Renaissance understanding of space as infinite, ontologically 
primal in relation to bodies, homogeneous, and isotropic -- in short, as 
        We don't have to believe in grand evolutionary schemes but we 
can retain the categories themselves. What kind of space is a virtual 
space? At  first glance, 3D computer graphics, the main technology of 
creating virtual spaces, exemplify Panofsky's concept of Renaissance 
"systematic" space which exists prior to the objects. Indeed, the 
Cartesian coordinate system is hardwired into computer graphics 
software and often into the hardware itself. [31] When a designer launches 
a modeling program, he is typically presented with an empty space 
defined by a perspectival grid, the space that will be gradually filled by 
the objects he will create. If the built-in message of a music synthesizer 
is a sine wave, the built-in world of computer graphics is an empty 
Renaissance space, the coordinate system itself.   
        Yet computer generated worlds are actually much more "haptic" 
and "aggregate" when "optic" and "systematic." The most commonly 
used 3D computer graphics technique to create 3D worlds is polygonal 
modeling. The virtual world created using this techique is a vacuum 
filled with separate objects defined by rigid boundaries. A perspective 
projection creates the illusion that these objects belong together but in 
fact they have no connection to each other. What is missing is space in 
the sense of space-environment or space-medium: the environment 
between objects; an atmosphere which unites everything together; the 
effects of objects on each other.     
        Another basic technique used in creating virtual worlds -- 
compositing (superimposing, keying)-- also leads to an "aggregate" 
space. It involves superimposing animated characters, still images, 
Quicktime movies, and other graphical elements over a separate 
background. A typical scenario may involve an avatar animated in real 
time in response to the user's commands. The avatar is superimposed 
over a picture of a room. An avatar is controlled by the user; a picture of 
a room is provided by a virtual world operator. Because the elements 
come from different sources and are put together in real time, the result 
is a series of 2D planes rather than a real 3D environment. 
        In summary, although computer generated virtual worlds are 
usually rendered in linear perspective, they are really collections of 
separate objects, unrelated to each other. In view of this, commonly 
expressed arguments that 3D computer graphics send us back to 
Renaissance perspectivalism and therefore, from the viewpoint of 
twentieth century abstraction, should be considered regressive, turn out 
to be ungrounded. If we are to apply the evolutionary paradigm of 
Panofsky to the history of virtual computer space, it has not even 
achieved its Renaissance yet. It is still on the level of Ancient Greece 
which could not conceive of space as a totality.  
        And, if the World Wide Web and VRML 1.0 are any indications, 
we are not moving any closer toward systematic space; instead, we are 
embracing "aggregate" space as a new norm, both metaphorically and 
literally. The "space" of the Web in principle can't be thought of as a 
coherent totality: it is a collection of numerous files, hyperlinked but 
without any overall "perspective" to unite them. The same holds for 
actual 3D spaces on the Internet. A VRML file which describes a 3D 
scene is a list of separate objects which may exist anywhere on the 
Internet, each created by a different person or a different program. The 
objects have no connection to each other. And, since any user can add 
or delete objects, no one may even know the complete structure of the 
        The Web has already been compared to the American Wild West. 
The spatialized Web as envisioned by VRML (itself a product of 
California) even more closely reflects the treatment of space in 
American culture: the lack of attention to space which is not 
functionally used. The territories that exist between privately owned 
houses and businesses are left to decay. The VRML universe simply 
does not contain space as such -- only objects which belong to different 
        And what is an object in a virtual world? Something which can 
be acted upon: clicked; moved; opened -- in short, used. It is tempting to 
interpret this as regression to the world view of an infant. A child does 
not think of the universe as existing separately from himself -- it 
appears as a collection of unrelated objects with which he can enter in 
contact: touch; suck on; grab. Similarly, the user of a virtual world tries 
to click on whatever is in front of him; if the objects do not respond, he 
is disappointed. In the virtual universe, Descartes' maxim can be 
rewritten as follows: "I can be clicked on, therefore I exist."       

5. The Whole Picture   

I have discussed different aesthetic features of 3D virtual worlds. But 
what would a future full-blown virtual world feel like? What would be 
its overall gestalt?  
        One example of a highly detailed virtual world, complete with 
landscapes and human beings, is provided by Disney's 1995 "Toy Story," 
the first completely computer-animated feature length film. 
Frighteningly sterile, this is the world in which the toys and the 
humans look absolutely alike, the later appearing as macabre 
        If you want to experience cyberspace of the future today, visit the 
place where "Toy Story" was made -- Los Angeles. The city offers a 
precise model for the virtual world. There is no center, no hint of any 
kind of centralized organization, no traces of the hierarchy essential to 
traditional cities. One drives to particular locations defined strictly by 
their street addresses rather than by spatial landmarks. A trendy 
restaurant or club can be found in the middle of nowhere, among the 
miles of completely unremarkable buildings. The whole city feels like a 
set of particular points suspended in a vacuum, similar to a bookmark 
file of Web pages. You are immediately charged on arrival to any 
worthwhile location, again like on the Web (mandatory valet parking). 
There you discover the trendy inhabitants (actors, singers, models, 
producers) who look like some new race, a result of successful 
mutation: unbelievably beautiful skin and faces; fixed smiles; and 
bodies whose perfect shapes surely can't be the result of human 
evolution. They probably come from the Viewpoint catalog of 3D 
models. These are not people but avatars: beautifully rendered with no 
polygons spared; shaped to the latest fashion; their faces switching 
between a limited number of expressions. Given the potential 
importance of any communicative contact, subtlety is not tolerated: 
avatars are designed to release stimuli the moment you notice them, 
before you have time to click to the next scene.   
        The best place to experience the whole gestalt is in one of the 
outdoor cafes on Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood. The avatars sip 
cappuccino amidst the illusion of 3D space. The space is clearly the 
result of a quick compositing job: billboards and airbrushed cafe interior 
in the foreground against a detailed matte painting of Los Angeles with 
the perspective exaggerated by haze. The avatars strike poses, waiting for 
their agents (yes, just like in cyberspace) to bring valuable information. 
Older customers look even more computer generated, their faces 
bearing traces of extensive face-lifts. You can enjoy the scene while 
feeding the parking meter every twenty minute.
A virtual world is waiting for you; all we need is your credit card number.     

1. Some of the ideas in this essay were presented by me at ISEA '95, Montreal, 
September 1995.
2. William Gibson, NEUROMANCER (New York: Ace Books, 1984).
3. Michael Benedict, ed., CYBERSPACE: FIRST STEPS (Cambridge, Mass.: The 
MIT Press, 1991).
4. Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer, "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's 
Habitat," in CYBERSPACE: FIRST STEPS, ed. Michael Benedict (Cambridge, 
Mass.: The MIT Press, 1991), 273-302.
5. Howard Rheingold, VIRTUAL REALITY (New York: Simon & Schuster, 
1991), 360-361.
6. See  Tony Reveaux, "Virtual Reality Gets Real," NEW MEDIA (January 
1993): 39. 
7. Virtual World Entertainment, Inc., Press Release, SIGGRAPH '95, Los 
Angeles,  August 7-1, 1995. 
8. Gavin Bell, Anthony Parisi and Mark Pesce, "The Virtual Reality Modeling 
Language. Version 1.0 Specfication," May 26, 1995. A WWW document.
9. Mark Pesce, Peter Kennard and Anthony Parisi, "Cyberspace." A WWW 
10. Bell, Parisi and Pesce. 
11. http://www.worlds.net/info/aboutus.html
12. Richard Karpinski, "Chat Comes to the Web," INTERACTIVE AGE (July 3, 
1995): 6.
13. http://www.ubique.com
14. In September of 1995, Ubique was purchased by America Online -- a 
significant development since America Online is already the most graphically 
oriented among the commercial networks based in the U.S.
15. http://www.worlds.net/alphaworld/
16. For instance, Silicon Graphics developed a 3D file system which was 
showcased in the movie "Jurassic Park." The interface of Sony's MagicLink 
personal communicator is a picture of a room while Apple's E-World greets 
its users with a drawing of a city.
17. Barbara Robertson, "Those Amasing Flying Machines," COMPUTER 
GRAPHICS WORLD (May 1992): 69.
18. Ibid.
19. Neal Stephenson, SNOW CRASH (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 43.
20. Ibid., 37.
21. http://www.viewpoint.com
22. E.H. Gombrich, ART AND ILLUSION (Princeton: Princeton University 
Press, 1960); Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," in IMAGE, MUSIC, 
TEXT, ed. Stephen Heath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).
23. Barthes, 142.
ELECTRONIC ART (in Russian) (Kazan, 1995), 19.
25. For a more detailed analysis of realism in 3D computer graphics, see Lev 
Manovich, "Assembling Reality: Myths of Computer Graphics," 
AFTERIMAGE 20, no. 2 (September 1992): 12-14.
26. http://www.ubique.com/places/gallery.html
27. http://www.virtpark.com/factinfo.html
28. See Roman Jakobson, "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics," in 
STYLE IN LANGAUGE, ed. Thomas Sebeok (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT 
Press, 1960). 
29. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical 
Reproduction," in ILLUMINATIONS, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: 
Schochen Books, 1969).
30. Private communication, September 1995, St. Petersburg.
31. See Lev Manovich, "Mapping Space: Perspective, Radar and Computer 
Graphics," in SIGGRAPH '93 VISUAL PROCEEDINGS, ed. Simon Penny 
(New York: ACM, 1993).

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