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|Much of what passes for analysis of how computers and telecommunications
technologies impact society are uninspired restatements of previous opinions
or horribly superficial, hype-infested blather about how we'll be uploading
our personalities and forming a global cyberconsciousness Real Soon Now.
What sets Ralph Schroeder's Possible Worlds apart from the mundane
entries in this field is his detailed analysis of virtual reality technology
per se and his consideration of economic and other factors not normally
included in the overall picture.
Schroeder, a lecturer in sociology at the University of London, sets two goals for his book: "to provide a sociological account of the emergence and the implications of virtual reality systems" and "to relate this case study to more general theoretical issues in the sociological study of technology." After the mandatory but thankfully brief discussion of why neither the extreme "society drives technology" or "technology drives society" viewpoints is appropriate for his study, he sets the book's technical substructure by tracing VR's evolution in terms of its three technological components: display, processing, and input devices. The three areas have advanced at similar rates, though he notes that other authors disagree on which of the areas will be the most crucial in the future.
Once the technical groundwork is done, Schroeder takes an in-depth look at how VR relates to consumer electronics, traditional computer and arcade gaming, and education. Since VR has just recently emerged from the lab there are few examples in either domain, but the author does an excellent job of gleaning what he can from the limited experiences available. Two aspects of Schroeder's approach in this section struck me as particularly praiseworthy: his emphasis on the economic aspect of VR and his on-point analysis of how the VR research and traditional computer science communities differ. Whereas most early computer developments came from military research, in some cases VR laboratories have rejected research contracts or partnerships because the effort involved cooperating with the military. At present, the only widely known military VR systems are networked battle simulators like the tank-based SIMNET.
Schroeder's conclusions aren't all that shattering: he believes that VR and society interact on a variety of levels; as a result, both purely macro- and micro-level approaches are insufficient to explain the social and technological implications of VR. He also says, quite correctly, that it's too early to tell much about what VR's impacts will be. What sets his analysis apart from Howard Rheingold's Virtual Reality and similar works is the depth of his argumentation, the detail of his supporting evidence, and his unwillingness to buy into the hype-driven forecasts of some VR prognosticators.
This book should be high on the reading list of anyone charged with analyzing VR or other cutting-edge industries, whether in an academic or business setting. Schroeder's conclusions are extremely conservative and unsuited (in their current form) to make business decisions; even so, his analytical methodology and ability to identify connections among technical and non-technical aspects of the issue make Possible Worlds a very worthwhile book.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.