On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency

N.B: This blog post is the first of three posts in a series that comments upon a metaphysical stand towards VR technology. The entries are based upon an essay that was written for a doctoral course on the philosophy and ethics of the social sciences. The posts following these as the second and third, are “Heidegger’s Virtual Reality” and “The Mind as Medium“.


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Technology, in all its facets, has increasingly changed our way of life. It changes how we approach life and tasks in that we distribute agency and commands to artifacts and computers. Coffee is made with a button, transport is performed by sitting. Our toil with the world is outsourced to technology, and so we are indebted to our dishwashers and robo-vacuums. What this essay will discuss, however, is whether it matters that technology in many ways is the mediator of our reality. The question is, broadly, if we lose something when we ourselves avoid getting our hands dirty by touching the unpractical reality ourselves. Can it be that technology is responsible for distancing ourselves from a more authentic way of living? Or more concretely – would that matter, and if so, why?

Technology (the Brunton Boring Machine)

We now communicate with each other, and the world, through interfaces. For technology to be relevant for us, it naturally has to embrace and cooperate with the world. Therefore, when using technology, we are not separated from the content of the world: the technology is simply representing the world to us through different mediums. To “present” originally comes from the latin word “praesent”, meaning “being at hand”, and to re-present, then, is to present something as “being-at-hand”, where it perhaps did not naturally originate. To represent something, we need a medium; we need matter by which to re-create an ideal form or pattern, and so the data which express this pattern is presented through a medium of either e.g. text or images. We here see the concrete meaning of “medium”, which literally means “in the middle”; an appropriate term for the re-presenting technology, which is standing between ourselves and the world.

Technology is within the world, and as such a part of it, and so it can not represent the whole world without compressing it and leaving out details. Therefore, when representing the world, with each medium, there follows an abstraction. In the way the information is simplified and represented through abstractions, different mediums vary in their degree of transparency, or in other words, their conformity with the real world. Throughout this essay, we will keep this separation of abstraction and transparency, and we will define transparency within this essay as the degree to which the abstraction corresponds with reality; the more it corresponds, the more transparent the abstraction is. A photograph is far more transparent than a drawing, for instance, but both are abstract representations of the reality they represent. Examples of abstractions can be, as mentioned, when the complex coffee brewing process is reduced to, and represented by, a button with an icon; a minimalistic silhouette of a steaming cup of Joe. Similarly, in our communications, our emotions are also reductionally abstracted to emoticons, and we see our personal identity and self as abstracted and reduced to social media profiles, for easy export over the Web.


Physical vs. Virtual

Hiroshi Ishii criticizes the abstracting tendencies within Information Technology (IT) in his paper “Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, Bits and Atoms” from 1997. Critically discussing the abstraction of information in to the standard Graphical User Interfaces, Ishii proposes a new vision for the research field of Human Computer Interaction. By introducing the concept of “Tangible Interaction”, Ishii were to take back the physical, and in that, acknowledging our human history of some million years dealing of dealing with physical objects and artifacts. This, then, would provide us with a more “authentic” or “traditional” way of interacting with IT. According to his vision, bits and atoms would then live side by side in a glorious harmony. In this, we also see that Ishii’s motivation is touching on the question which our essay will discuss: there is a sort of gap between space and cyberspace. Where Ishii postulates his problem as that there is a gap between the virtual and the real, we shall rather investigate whether it can be that cyberspace is the gap between ourselves and the actual.

We will use the example by Ishii to illustrate our point a bit further. Ishii wanted to bridge the virtual and the physical, so that we could interact with computers in the same way that we interact with physical artifacts by employing tangible interaction. Rather ironically, however, the most realistic way of realizing Ishii’s vision of coupling bits with atoms, may be through the medium of VR. When immersed in a virtual environment through a head-mounted display, the whole world is made of bits: they work as the atoms comprising the world. In VR, our reality is mediated by a medium that can theoretically contain an abstract representation of the world in digital form, all the while the abstraction is presented to us in the same way that traditional reality is, avoiding the immediate feeling of the medium as separating. In this case, what we traditionally view as physical, then, is represented by bits, and the atoms are brought into the virtual, instead of the virtual being brought into the physical.

Ishii’s vision confronts the unnatural abstraction of information in that we view IT through various interfaces. VR escapes this degree of abstraction, and what separates VR as a mediator of our world from other digital representations such as social media, is exactly in its own relation between abstraction and transparency; it is at its point on the abstraction-transparency continuum that VR is unique. Placed on the utter end of the abstraction-transparency continuum, VR has the capability to be extremely transparent in its abstract simulation of the world. Often we turn to and equip the technology of VR because of its transparency: we do not feel that we interact with an abstraction of the world, but with a genuine representation of it. This does not mean that we are out of the abstraction altogether, however; a virtual world most certainly is a reduction in its representation – the interesting thing about VR thus is that it is an abstraction that presents itself as transparent, and at the same time is the first truly immersive, encompassing technology which hides you from the real world. We leave the world in absence, and are in return given an illusion of presence in an abstraction that claims its rightful transparency. To use the word “illusion” in this case, is not an overstatement: by facilitating for stereoscopic (three-dimensional) vision into the virtual reality, the brain is tricked to perceive the environment as an environment of depth, which combined with a 360° degree presentation of the environment, often leads to a feeling of presence to it. It’s illusory tendencies are caused by the fact that we see the virtual as we normally see the physical.

Problem

We have now articulated the problem issued by the unique technological medium of Virtual Reality. Abstracting in disguise, the medium is unique in its the relation of its approach to abstraction and transparency. In and out of itself, however, this does not mean anything. It is not as if we loose our access to oxygen in VR: the detachment is not physical, it is only our minds that are immersed and feel present. The question this essay will discuss is not whether it is the case that technology distances us from the world, as this technology per definition does; but whether this matters. Does it matter if sexual urges are satisfied through “VR Porn” in a 360° stereoscopic (3D) video, filmed from a first-person view? Does it matter that elderly with dementia are given VR experiences, because this is cheaper than arranging a visit outdoors? Put short: does it matter that our worldly needs are simulated rather than actualized? Does the concrete reality have a value in itself, or is its mirroring mediums capable of transferring the essentials? Does authenticity; whether what we adhere to is true, real, or genuine, matter?

To tackle this question, this essay will not feature empirical studies on the wellbeing of humans with virtual sexpartners, nor will we perform studies on the use of VR in nursing homes. We will discuss the concept of authenticity philosophically, and implicitly close in upon commenting on a metaphysic of technology in general, and VR in particular. To this purpose, we will discuss VR in terms of the philosophical tradition of inquiry called “Existentialism”, a field of philosophy that is especially concerned with the notion of authenticity or authentic living. In the coming section, we will define existentialism and present how it can help us to shed light on the human concern of authenticity in relation to technology. When we have defined the term, we will move on to present the two works of philosophy that we will use to comment on our problem, namely Heidegger’s essay: “The Question Concerning Technology”, and his book “Being and Time”.

Existentialism

In Existentialism, the human is viewed as the starting point of philosophical reasoning in general. Therefore, it also takes the human experience and concern for authentic living seriously. For instance, in discussing the concept of Being, Heidegger is quick to identify the process of inquiry into Being, as first and foremost a human activity, as humans are the only beings for whom Being is an issue. Of this reason, the human problem of suffering also comes quickly as an object of inspection, including the receding (or preceding) sense of absurdity. We are now approaching the concept of existential angst, which is terribly related to the sense of responsibility over ones own life. In respect to this, Søren Kierkegaard, often called the Father of Existentialism, spoke of anxiety (Angst), as “the dizziness of freedom”: and the concern for authenticity is also the concern over choices. The concern for authenticity, and in some cases as individuality, naturally only matter in the degree to which humans are free to affect their position towards it. It is in this case that Jean-Paul Sartre speak of “radical freedom”, like Kierkegaard he also emphasizes the responsibility of each individual for the choices that he or she makes. Existentialism may be useful to examine our relationship to technology, because of its genuine and felt concern for authenticity. In the sense that the field of inquiry is humanly oriented, existential philosophy at times comes close to the practical, as what it discusses at its core, is each person’s concern at its core. In this sense, to be an existentialist can necessarily not be just an outward doing: the problem it discusses has to be understood personally and experientally, because it is only where it exists. Because of existentialism’s genuine concern for authenticity, it may be able to shed light on how we should relate to technologies such as VR, and how this may impact our relationship between self and world, and this potential relationship’s corresponding state of authenticity or inauthenticity.


Want to read more? This essay is continued in “Heidegger’s Virtual Reality“.

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