PHIL -- Culture vs. Language, Species

Andrew C. Esh (
Tue, 28 Mar 1995 11:40:45 -0600 (CST)

I'd like to respond indirectly to a couple of things I am seeing
discussed here. I'd rather do it in general than to reply to specific
messages, since the messages are getting too long to pull in the whole
context, and replying out of context may confuse.

First of all, I think there is a misunderstanding among us about the use
of VR to get around the language barrier. Some of us are saying that it
will work well, since we don't have to use words, other are saying that
the meanings will still not get across, because of the differences in
culture. I tend to be one of the former.

I am having trouble with this culture thing. I understand that someone may
not know what a house, or a car is. I also understand that I will probably
not recognize the foreign culture's replacements for the things I find
familiar. The part I have trouble with is the question: "Isn't a car still
going to be a car, no matter what the cultural background of the
observer?" I mean, if I'm walking down a virtual beach with a frisbee in
my hand, and I meet an Aboriginal, is he going to expect to see a
boomerang in my hand? Maybe it's important that he sees a frisbee, so
that he knows he has to ask me what it is, and I can then show him.

I think some of our confusion is coming from the desktop paradigm for the
user interface of modern computers. Yes, a trash can image doesn't impart
the same meaning to everyone who sees it. Worse yet, a Shredder (OS/2), or
a Recycle Bin (Windows 95). I think the other side is wondering why a
trash can can't just be a trash can. In other words, we (the realists) are
not trying to use it as a symbol, or as an icon which really means
something else. It is what it is, and if someone from another culture want
to use it for an oven, or a toilet, fine. The point is that it exists
virtually as it does in reality, and can be used to demonstrate how one
culture makes use of it. The beauty of VR is that we can instantly jump
back and forth from space to space in order to demonstrate the parallels.

For me, the use of VR to cross cultural barriers is going to rely on the
producers of some spaces to be as true to reality as possible. The
understanding between European cultures took a great leap forward (as far
as I am concerned) during the Rennaisance, when artists finally started
using mathematical methods to produce paintings and drawing which closely
resembled perspective. Until then such drawings must have been rather
difficult to understand without a lot of explanation, which of course is
impossible without a common spoken language.

Of course we can get into things like Salvadore Dali, and some of the modern
fantasy films like Lawnmower Man. Fantasy is what makes the creative side
of us dream of the things which are later brought into being. It fires
the imagination to accomplish new and interesting things. It serves as a
contrasting reality to the stark sharpness of reality.

What we need is both, as one makes the other more understandable, due to
the contrasts.

The other thing I'd like to respond to (shortly this time) is the
reference to taste and odor, and their relative usefulness in
communications. The thread even went so far as to suggest that we should
not rely on vision so much, since other species (dolphins, dogs) may
respond better to smell, or combinations of sensory stimulation.

We're not really suggesting we wire up Fido to try to ask him why he
keeps crapping on the carpet are we? I realize my previous suggestion that
we "provide the support, and let the concerned parties add the actual
capability" would not work here, but, how is the discussion of VR as it
relates to other species going to help use here? Are we going to use it to
initiate communications with those Space Aliens that visit us in their
UFOs all the time?

I think that part of the discussion is getting too far afield. If that
becomes too widely known, we will become labeled as a bunch of crackpots.
We would get lumped in with the folks who wear the tinfoil hats to keep
the Martians from reading their minds. I'd rather leave "VR for the other
species" to the backroom, and let some Marine Biologist make a big splash
(excuse the pun) with a news story about a Dolphin who is teaching us his
language through VR. Then we will have something to talk about. For now,
let's just focus on building a system that humans can use. You want a
dog, build a virtual one.

(Great, now I'm sitting here imagining how I might teach my Laborador
Retriever how to chase virtual frisbees. I am thinking he will feel
cheated when he bites, and finds nothing in his mouth. Then he'll hate me
for the rest of his life, and I'll have to spend thousands of dollars on
a dog psychiatrist just to get him to stop peeing on my computer.)

Andrew C. Esh       
Computer Network Technology (finger for PGP key)
6500 Wedgwood Road            612.550.8000 (main)
Maple Grove MN 55311          612.550.8229 (direct)
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