To be simultaneously inside and outside a given space and experience both viewpoints at the same time is, according to Virilio, to live reality stereophonically. He illustrates this experience with a dramatic example: during a plane-crash, a pilot sees on a monitor an image of his plunge, as a live broadcast from a reporter standing on the ground below.
Thanks to the ability to transmit events live with the speed of our electronic equipment, experiencing stereophonic reality, albeit in a less dramatic form, has become commonplace and may not even be noticed.
Driving cars equipped with the latest technology is no longer an experience in which direct perception dominates exclusively. The use of new instruments such as satellite navigation, voice guidance and, in the near future, radar, makes the experience a mixture of the direct and the virtual. This tendency is even further developed in aeroplane cockpits, where virtual reality provides more information than direct perception and has become crucial to the operation of the aircraft.
In this digital age, we perceive our environment not only through our unassisted senses, but more and more through instruments that provide us with additional information. We can thus experience our environment from ten, from a hundred viewpoints simultaneously. Being reduced to the single viewpoint of direct perception may now even be felt to be constraining.
Think of a football match or a car race. We are so used to following sports on TV, with its multitude of cameras and angles, with slowed action replays of the most dramatic moments, that the live participation at such an event will often disappoint the inexperienced spectator. Peter Eisenman has remarked that almost all modern large stadiums offer the public the possibility to experience the event not only directly but also virtually, by preference on a very large screen.
The spectator is consequently at the same time inside and outside the frame, observed and observer. He participates in a directed process which is not meant to lead to an independent and reflected judgement, as may be the goal of an artistic production, but which is geared to guide the public towards the conclusions that the event organisers, hardly neutral, wish to promote.
Are we all becoming like “Superman”, a naive being of enormous powers, nearly overcome by a reality which he cannot correctly decipher? What’s to be done? Should we simply berate consumer society and denounce its dangers? Perhaps, but this point of view ignores the fact that the mirror-game of reality and virtuality is not only a trick of neo-capitalist society; it is also the culmination of an epistemologically fruitful schizophrenia, allowing a better understanding of our environment.
The process can be given direction by using its proper terminology. Let us look at two examples. We can work with space as a simultaneously real and virtual object, with the aim of exploring the coexistence of information and experience. This possibility has been chosen by Asymptote to render the flux of the New York Stock Exchange. Diller and Scofidio have chosen another path, playing on the contrasts between the real and the virtual in the eye of the critical beholder. In their buildings, the separation between participant and spectator, empirical and conceptual space is deliberately blurred.
We conclude that in modern society, the concept of space as a simple reality, in which some playful architects and apocalyptic critics pretend to believe, wilfully ignores the importance that the virtual dimension has always had in western culture and which has enormously grown with the emergence of modern technology. Our contact with reality is becoming increasingly stereophonic. We must therefore look at the relationship between the body and the environment from a new angle, where perceptions and ideas, bound in a critical interaction, overlap more and more.