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Simulation and Embodied Experience

November 4, 2009

My partner, Beth, and I recently made a trip to Anacortes, WA to visit her brother, Jeff, a naval pilot who is stationed at Whidbey Island.  I finished reading Neuromancer on the drive up and began reading Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman on the return trip.  While driving around Anacortes (a small city located on Fidalgo Island, about 60 miles north of Seattle, and homeport to the San Juan Islands), we had a short conversation about simulation.

As a military pilot, Jeff has been trained primarily through simulation.  He told us that the reasoning behind this practice is both economical and informational: economical in that it is much more cost-effective to run simulations than to schedule actual flights and informational in that variables are easier to control.  In the simulator, certain situations and complications to those situations can be manipulated and/or programmed to occur, thereby arguably providing more effective and well-rounded training.  An example of this manipulation is that an instructor could program aircraft malfunctions into the simulated flight – malfunctions that might never occur in an RL flight – in order to better prepare the student pilot for such complications during combat.  I don’t know that the Navy would argue simulation as a one-to-one stand-in for RL in-flight training, but knowing how heavily it’s relied on is certainly interesting.

This makes me wonder, though, having read and thought about Hayles a little more…  How is the pilot’s embodied experience of flight different in the simulator versus when actually flying his plane?  Can the simulator possibly account for his individualized experience of either an actual training flight or a wartime operation?  And what about the pilot’s reliance on the corporeality of others, as he takes off and lands on an aircraft carrier?

Complicating this even further are training simulators designed specifically to prepare trainees for certain embodied experiences.  What I’m thinking of here are simulators that recreate how zero gravity or G-force, to name a couple, feel.  Are they simulations if they produce a measureable physical effect akin to an RL encounter with zero gravity or G-force?  Is a secondary purpose of these kinds of simulation to train students how to still think while the sensations they’re feeling are so corporeally different from when their feet are planted firmly on the ground? How does this speak to Hayles’ argument that consciousness cannot be isolated from embodiment?


2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2009 4:11 pm

    Your reflection on this conversation in the context of Hayles’ and wider ideas of simulation ties into a point I plan to make on Monday: in the contemporary period that we’re studying, many experiences of the natural / physical environment (first) happen through simulations, through media. Ursula Heise once raised the question in a talk of how many people today know, learn about, and experience the wilderness environments not through actually visiting them or trekking through them but through “entering” those environments via the Internet, video documentaries on Discovery, or other mediated formats. This question makes me ask a follow-on one: can we / should we expand our definition of both nature and embodiment to include these kinds of experiences as well?

  2. Mary Ganster permalink
    November 5, 2009 6:46 am

    Your follow-up question is really quite provocative and one I think we’ve danced around in class, particularly in our discussion of _Neuromancer_. I don’t know how I feel about these questions. To be honest, thinking about them makes me a little anxious, probably because I don’t want to feel like I’m relenting to technology. Just like the tangible book and the physical library are things I value, I don’t want to abandon what may be an outworn romantic notion of nature and wilderness, to hearken back to William Cronon. But I also have an impulse to immediately reply, “Yes, we can expand these definitions, and why shouldn’t we?” Is viewing Disneynature’s recent film _earth_ an experience with nature? I think so. Significantly, it’s an experience that many or most viewers will never have the opportunity or means to recreate in their real lives. Just because we might enter (or access?) environments differently does not mean we’re not encountering nature. So maybe this becomes more of an ethical issue. Where do we draw the line between nature and artifice and why do we draw it there? How can we redefine or reconceptualize nature to incorporate technologies that allow us to enter natural environments in a corporeally different way without erasing nature as we’ve traditionally defined and experienced it?

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