A Virtual Masquerade

In 18th century Paris, for the Friday evening thrill, you could attend a Masquerade—a social event where guests wore masks to conceal their identity. The masquerades were socially perceived as liberating and stimulating, as you could leave your original identity behind—that old toil you have been dragging along for years and years! At a masquerade, you could enjoy the freedom of being anyone and mingle with anyone else, free to assume any identity you would.

It is towards such parties my mind wanders when I am socializing with strangers in Virtual Reality. Each clothed in an avatar, perhaps even of their own construction—often roleplaying bizarre personas—the experience is stimulating and sometimes… too much. In this piece, we will discuss some of the Philosophy behind Social VR.

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Cutout from The Naked Masquerade by Nancy Farmer.

The Social Web

The benefit that VR provides as a social medium, is its wholesome and rich expression. It is a medium with great possibilities of avoiding perceivable abstraction of the presented information. Essentially, this means that VR has the capability to mimic real life in ways other mediums can not; VR presents its information in the format of reality. Given this, it makes sense why the largest social network chose to buy the largest VR company in 2016. Not only was this seen as a proof of VR reaching maturity—it also speaks of the social ambitions for the medium. Eventually, VR may give way to solutions for social and affective communication that, in many ways, is the complete opposite of the way social networks work today (with textual profiles, smileys, emoticons, and other abstractions of emotions.) VR has the possibility of transferring, instead of classifying, all of our body language—and current work on recognition of facial expressions while in VR is really impressive.

In this entry, however, we will be discussing the current reality of social VR. We will start with the mad hatter in our VR universe; VRChat.

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Masquerades were popular parties in the 18th century. Illustration: ‘The World in Masquerade’, 1720, The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Virtual Masquerade

The ability to hide your identity, and simultaneously convene in a wholesome way, has many benefits. Thinking of this theme, I am first reminded of how Journalist Yusuf Omar used Snapchat AR filters to allow rape survivors in India to tell their stories anonymously. With the use of VR also, there are numerous of beautiful stories that illustrates the potential of this kind of anymous, yet wholesome, expression. For instance, YouTube channel Syrmor exclusively performs interviews through VR—where you can watch people telling personal stories through VRChat. Watch, for instance, how this kid opens up about getting bullied, or this video where a guy talks about getting taken away from his mom. The stories are beautiful and you feel an intimate connection to those who tell them. Another fantastic example of the expressiveness that follows VR communication which I always show in my lectures, is this video where a guy is suffering a seizure, and the group discusses how they can help him. This would not have played out the same way if conveyed through another medium.

The way I see it, the contrast of the absurd avatars and environment—combined with the deep, personal stories—create a remarkable fusion of meaning that challenges how we normally experience these emotions. The beautiful comes through the unexpected, which alters the experience.

It should be noted, however, that this is not necessarily a typical VRChat experience. This video is more illustrative of the chaos that these worlds also lay the grounds for.

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Vishnu is said to have ten “avatars”, the most known being Rama and Krishna.

Avatars as an Existential Problem

Now, what may Philosophy bring to the analysis of Social VR?  Discussions on the current, or future, nature of social relations through VR has some philosophical implications. In our entry on Hinduism and Virtual Reality, we discussed the etymology of the word “Avatar” from the Sanskrit “Avatāra,” meaning “to descend,” and thus referring to the Gods visiting mortals. Avatars in the context of social VR, is a necessity as we need a body to clothe and express our selves. People have always been especially fond of their characters in MMORPGs, which only goes to tell the potential future importance of ownership in worlds where we actually inhabit them. With the magical powers of Virtual Embodiment as well as the combination of the strong self-expression and self-identification that these avatars can facilitate for, the role of these kinds of representations can end up being very important and meaningful for our lives.

The Philosophy of Social VR

Now, a philosophical theme that is possible to consider in relation to this is how the question of who you want to be in VR—how you want to represent yourself—is essentially an existential question. In VR, we are given the freedom to express ourselves without any pre-given limitations. In this way, through the medium of VR, we may one day be able to express our selves as we want, in fundamental terms.

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Illustration of Terence McKenna, a thinker with unique perspectives on the potential of VR communication.

In trying to imagine how we may communicate in the social worlds of the future, we will quote a section from a previous entry at Matrise called A Psychedelic Virtual Reality where we discuss an idea by Terence McKenna, that details how VR may be used to convey visual languages:

In referencing Lanier’s interesting embodiment experiences, where he turned himself into a lobster, McKenna imagines how humans can choose to be like octopi — in how octopi communicate ‘telepathically’ by wearing their inner life on their outer manifestation, so dissolving the boundaries between people. He writes:

“in the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand, [the octopus] does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.”

In other words, McKenna envisions how VR can allow us to quite literally wear our hearts on our sleeves, and approach a unity between appearance and being. McKenna calls this “visible languages”, and imagines how these may make it possible to “overcome the subject/object dualism as well as the self/other dualism”. 

The question we are left with in considering this, then, is: Who do you really want to be? Or at least, how do you really want to be perceived?

And based on this, how will the social VR worlds of the future look like?


For the interested reader, Matrise has written entries that are similar in theme to this entry. Although not explicitly discussing the Philosophy of Social VR, these entries deal with how themes around how we identify and represent our selves in virtual worlds:

In The Existential Problem of VR, we discuss philosophically the themes that this entry has raised in a deeper manner.

In The Experience Machine, we discussed how Nozick’s thought experiment of the potential Experience Machine, a thought experiment aimed to test Hedonism, is related to VR.

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves. This may be regarded as a partial answer to the thought experiment that this entry has discussed: what would we like to do presented the opportunity?

Similarly, In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech. The religious-philosophical system similarly concerns the dilemma of omnipotence: what would you do if you were God?

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The Existential Problem of VR

Søren Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialism, famously described anxiety, or angst, as the dizziness of freedom. Hardly a cheerful fellow—though his brilliant, satirical wit often forces one to smile—Kierkegaard clearly was no stranger to this “dizziness” he so often spoke of:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it. You will regret both.

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Søren Kierkegaard by Michael Newton.

Oh dear. Despite the gloom, however, these small drops of the Danish philosopher serve to illustrate his role as a great inspiration for the existential movement within Philosophy. Existentialism is existential in the sense that it is not concerned with the thinking cogito as the starting point of human reasoning. Rather, existential philosophy could be said to be more wholesome in that it is concerned with its taking seriously the human condition of alienation—our tendency towards existential dread. The critique that existentialism holds against traditional philosophy is that it has been too locked up in cognitive schemes, thoughts and abstractions, and in so doing distanced itself from the lived experience of being human, with all that this entails, not adhering to the givens of existence.

Existentialism vs Nihilism & Pessimism

Just to be clear, however, existentialism is not the same thing as advocating a kind of nihilism or a philosophical pessimism, as warned by the existentialist Friedrich Nietzche and held by Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, the latter holding that to bear children into this world is like bringing wood to a burning fire. No, in addition to the gloomy writings of Kierkegaard expressing the problem to be dealt with, he is also concerned with a solution, however hopeless. Though holding that life does not come with a manual, existentialists are nevertheless concerned with authenticity, or meaning—just understood and found in a different way. Even Albert Camus, whose famous essay on The Myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is condemned to roll a stone up a mountain only to watch it roll down again ad infinitum holds that, though this is absurd in the literal sense, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This always reminds me of a Zen story;

When Mu-chou was asked, “We dress and eat every day, and how do we escape from having to put on clothes and eat food?” Mu-chou answered, “We dress; we eat.”

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Jean-Paul Sartre, another existential thinker. Painting by Patrick Rork

So. The giveaway point of this brief introduction is that existentialism starts from existence. It it is not concerned with any philosophical beliefs or notions prior to this point, in other words, humans and their essential role are not pre-given. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, which further has been descriptive of the existential movement as a whole: existence precedes essence; we exist before we define ourselves, and moreover, this decision is one that necessarily must be taken alone, without hiding behind any authority in order to outsource our freedom.

It is exactly this—how we define our selves—which will be the topic of this entry: how technologies, and especially the technology of VR, may play a part in the shaping of our identity. We will discuss the relation between Existentialism and VR in howVR may pose an existential problem to us as individuals and together as a society,

The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality

So what may Existentialism say about VR? The existentialists highlight the freedom of the individual subject in altering, or at any rate defining, his or her interpretation of reality, or even ‘rendering’ or ‘creation’ of it. But how may it be that VR can be connected to this? To make our point, we will look to the phenomenological technology criticism movement that followed Heidegger’s exposition of technology.

In his book series Technics and Time, Bernhard Stiegler argues that technology show us who we are. Stiegler discusses technologies as a way of human externalisation in which we are realising our selves outside of ourselves. Moreover, for Stiegler, this also works the other way around: having externalised our self through technology, we also internalise it yet again, adopting it as parts of our identity. Effectively, therefore, VR can be said to be an expression of our selves in fundamental terms—and this expression we later use as imagery for our selves. 

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Bernhard Stiegler.

Now, what does this mean to us? The point which we wish to argue here, is that in being presented with a medium that is, conceptually at any rate, infinite in terms of what it can do, and further who we can become within it, we are faced with an existential problem.

The existential problem that we are faced with, and will be faced with ever more so when the technologies get more sophisticated, can be framed as follows: Now that we can do anything; what will we do? If we consider the point of Stiegler, that technology show us who we are, when we now have the technology to create anything in terms of our experience, VR is essentially asking us who we are, or at any rate, who we want to become. We are being given the question of who we want to become through what we want to do, by the technology allowing this freedom.

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Jaron Lanier, depicted in this painting by Darwin Price, has been a giant influence to VR technology. Not just in terms of his contributions to the commercialisation of the technology, but also experimentation and philosophy.

Conclusion: Existentialism and VR

In this piece, we discussed VR and Existentialism, in how VR asks us an existential question. Naturally, to answer this question is as a thought experiment an individual concern. But in terms of our shared reality, it will be a collective future in how it is conducted and externalised. Jaron Lanier in his book The Dawn of the New Everythin,  similarly to Stiegler wrote how VR more than any other technology, will show us who we are. The technology of VR is asking us to choose, not in an either/or situation—not a question of yes and no—but asking us to define everything by will.

The question for us is who we want to be and further what worlds we would like to dwell in; an even more radical freedom than our current situation of free choice given the circumstances. With future technology perhaps, or today through enacting it as a thought experiment, entertaining the notion may be an interesting way to ponder on who we are through what we want to do.


For the interested reader, Matrise has written entries that are similar in theme to this entry, that of VR and Existentialism. For instance:

In The Experience Machine, we discussed how Nozick’s thought experiment of the potential Experience Machine, a thought experiment aimed to test Hedonism, is related to VR.

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves. This may be regarded as a partial answer to the thought experiment that this entry has discussed: what would we like to do presented the opportunity?

Similarly, In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech. The religious-philosophical system similarly concerns the dilemma of omnipotence: what would you do if you were God?

Hinduism and Virtual Reality

In this piece, we discuss the relationship between Hinduism and Virtual Reality. The cosmology of the religion category “Hinduism”; the broad metaphysic of the East, is a very interesting one. Radically different from that of the West, it is a refreshing albeit heavy shower of new ideas. The best pitch to the worldview at large, I find is best put by “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts, who put it something like this:

Imagine you are God. Or rather — imagine you could be anything you wanted. Your will is the law of the universe. What would you do if this was the state of affairs? Well, obviously, you would throw a few parties. Really stretch it out, go crazy and mess things up for the laughs of it. The universe is your experience machine; so you do whatever you like.

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Digital illustration of Alan Watts by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

So you continue to throw these crazy parties and daring adventures for a couple hundred, or million, of years. Simply testing the limits, doing everything in your mind that can give you pleasure or kick. After a while, however, you find that you have gone out of things to do in «God mode». At least, you want something radically different. A surprise.

So you try and plan to surprise yourself. But as an omnipotent being, this is kind of hard. The curse of being all-knowing and omnipotent is, of course, despite the supreme bliss, that it’s hard to get a true kick out of it anymore. You lack the element of surprise. Surprise, as reaction, needs duality, but you are One. Just as we can’t tickle ourselves, we can’t sneak up on yourself and say «Boo!». There is another option, however; the option of deliberate illusion as to your self. You can create the illusion of splitting — and create a seeming duality within the oneness that constitutes your being.

Through abstraction, you can form the opposite of the distinct quality of your being. From the absolute one, you can conceive of the relative two — by contrast of your endless revealing as God, you conceive of a finite concealment as Man. By hiding your true nature from yourself, its revealing would, in turn, be magnificent; you enter down low to later enjoy your own highness. Though with the potential of the gruesomeness that may result from this fall, you know in the decision, that you will always wake up again to eternal bliss. The ecstasy is inevitable.

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Now — at first, you may only dare to go into the depths of time and space for a few hours. The experience is intense: the contrast of transitioning from mortality to godhood was quite ecstatic. Now — your courage grows stronger the more experienced you are, and your adventures go on to wilder and wilder dreams. You go on more and more adventures where you forget who you are, until you find yourself — right here and right now — as a human being reading blogs online.

Thus, according to Hindu cosmology each of us lives in illusion as to what is the core reality of our selves. Life can be seen as a play, and we are still playing — Brahman, the actor that plays all the parts, totally immersed and engaged in them so it forgets its real self, and instead is amusing itself in its ignorance. Reality, then, is a game of hide and seek, where you are both the hider and the seeker, playing for eternity.

The Parallels between Hinduism & VR

So how is Hinduism related to Virtual Reality? The parallels between this ancient creation myth and our dream of ultimate virtual reality may be almost too obvious: it is that of deliberate illusion. Naturally, human beings are not like to gods, but VR as a powerful illusion comes with the power to create and control worlds, to instantiate our thoughts, and actualize our designs. In our recent entry, «From Thought to Reality», we commented and discussed this technological tendency in humans in depth, in how technology in general, but VR in particular, represents «the dream of being able to define reality, to create a representation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago.» Essentially, VR is a product of the creative element in humans, for good and for worse. The dream of absolute control over matter, but also, the dream of a creative medium without limitations.

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The word Avatar, frequently used in VR contexts, has its origin in the Sanskrit word «Avatāra», which means «to descend». It usually refers to when the Hindu gods to take an earthly incarnation.

So, while the Hindu myth had its aim to go from control to chaos and adventure: our dream with VR may be to go from chaos to control. We do not go from One to Dual, and although we may not yet be able to use it to get from Dual to One — it is worthwhile to consider its potential for art and change of our selves.

As Jaron Lanier put it in his book “The Dawn of the New Everything”, VR will, more than any other medium, show us who we are. It will quite simply be interesting to encounter our will and desires as expressed through the worlds we create. We have already begun this investigation and below we mention and interrelate what we have discussed here at Matrise in regards to VR’s potential for art and change of our selves.

Virtual Reality and the Self

The potential of VR for art, expression, and deep impression has been the topic in many of our entries:

In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.

Last but not least, however, in our last few entries, we have looked to VR as a possible way to escape our enframing, classifying control over nature, as discussed in our three-series entry on Heidegger’s technology critique:

In Existentialist Design, we accommodate Heidegger and Kierkegaard’s concerns and try to imagine, perhaps once again, how we may surprise our selves. The danger of surrounding ourselves in our designs, and classifying the world and its materials as means to our ends, is perhaps that we may not meet anything new — our as put by Heidegger, that it may be denied to Man to enter into a more original revealing.

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VR in floatation tanks is one idea meant to exemplify the idea of “Existentialist Design”, designing for a controlled accident in which the outcome is not known. Illustration by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

In the position paper the entry depicts, we imagine the use of VR in sensory deprivation tanks. The design is meant to be a facilitator for a controlled accident in which the medium itself is explored, and one’s self through the medium — where the overarching purpose is the exploration itself. This line of thinking is inspired by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and its aim can be illustrated in how Kierkegaard discusses life not as a ‘problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ The hope is that the technology may be seen as a lens through which reality can be presented free from an otherwise culturally enframing narrative. The aim is, therefore, to design technology as a catalysator for a more original revealing of truth.

So then, perhaps the Hindu myth isn’t the worst parallel after all. Hinduism and Virtual Reality have striking parallels in conceptual terms, and the Sanskrit word «Maya», may mean illusion, but equally as much Art. And it is Art which may prove the saving power according to Heidegger, as it opens us up to new interpretations — and do not fix us and the world in a prison of our making. Perhaps in the tank, we can once again sneak up on ourselves and say: “Boo”!

From Thought to Reality

This particular entry discusses a perspective that can be had towards Virtual Reality technology, and in so describes a certain way of understanding or relating to it. The aim is to provide, if not a theory, at least a perspective that resonates with the experience of creating and experiencing a virtual world. The perspective tries to approach an understanding of what gives the virtual its magical qualities — and how this comes to be.

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The Hobgoblin, a powerful wizard that travels through realms on his black panther. Illustration by Tove Jansson.

The Experience of Virtual Reality

VR has the capability of enchanting us. It has the power to introduce us to virtual worlds — and represent our designs in ‘the format of reality’. The content appears non-mediated, something Metzinger relates to the «phenomenal transparency» of the mind — we see «through the medium» —  and so only the content of the representation is available for introspective access. As with our mind, the underlying processes are hidden to us, and to experience VR is to experience the content it presents, not what lies beneath it.

There is a certain kind of experience that is exclusive to VR.  Finding oneself in a virtual world — orienting, navigating and interacting with it — produces an experience of a certain distinct character.  There is something intriguing, stimulating and marvelously weird in experiencing virtual realities. The experiential quality is affected by the sheer virtuality, or unreality, of it — and this, in turn, may make the illusion unexpected and beautiful. The experience has a certain quality to it: the disassociation between its unreality on the one hand and feeling of reality on the other. We know that VR is a synthesized, not-naturally-occurring experience, and further that we react to these stimuli as if they were real. Due to its unique character of offering convincing illusions, and our unique quality of, on the one hand seeing through them, and on the other being totally helpless in responding to it as if it weren’t real — we get the weird, thrilling experience of VR. The clear illusion; the transparent veil — a weaving of smoke: beautiful, but not substantial.

How did this oxymoron of technology — VR — come to be? What does it represent in us as humans? And last but not least, how should we view, relate to, and approach the emerging virtual worlds that the technology will enable for us?

Origins of Virtual Reality

A central aspect we have to address as part of this investigation is the origins of VR. Why did it arise, and what does it mean to us? This will ultimately affect the way we relate to and understand the medium. To do this, we can look into what desire of ours that the technology has fulfilled. Although we have previously discussed the History of VR this does not really account for the underlying motivations or dreams, but rather their outward results in terms of the resulting technology. Thus, when we instead want to discuss the origins of the idea of VR, we are attempting to approach technology “in its essence” — through its origin. For some readers, this may not be unfamiliar, as we have discussed this somewhat lengthy and theoretically in our three-series entry on Heidegger and VR. Here we will limit his technology criticism to a brief summary of two sentences:  Heidegger’s definition of technology as “not in itself something technological” means that the origins of the technology we use, and what it is and means to us in its essence, leans more towards an underlying ideal and thought than what it does towards different physical artifacts. Technology is, essentially, a way of viewing the world.

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Fingolfin, Elf and High King of the Noldor, in a duel against Morgoth Bauglir, fallen Melkor of the Valar. Fingolfin and Morgoth can each represent different ways of embracing technology (read below)

Virtual Reality as Thought

If we shall try to understand the earliest origin of VR, it is appropriate to consider VR as an idea. Essentially a thought, or even a dream. The dream of being able to define reality, creating a re-presentation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago. VR is a product of the creative element in humans, for good and for worse. The dream of absolute control over matter, but also, the dream of a creative medium without limitations.

Similarly to how Heidegger imagined art as the potential savior of the way technology enframes the world and ourselves, J.R.R Tolkien’s distinction of magic in the universe of The Lord of The Rings can serve as a metaphor. The Elves use their magic only for artistic purposes and are consciously aware of the difference between reality and deception — the enemy, however, uses it to deceive and control. Heidegger’s point of technology is similar — technology (techne) may separate us from a more original revealing of truth by enframing the world in a certain narrative or story, while art (poiesis) may open up reality towards new interpretations. In Tolkien’s magic for purposes of domination, there is a will that is opposed to nature and thus will have to veil nature in its bringing-forth of its ‘truth’ or end. Similarly, Heidegger’s technology, as a way of revealing-concealing, will, to achieve its success, have to enframe nature and man with it — it reduces us to mere means to ends, not ends in ourselves. Tolkien’s elves use their magic in harmony with the real world; and similarly, Heidegger’s more preferred technologies let nature be as it is, instead of enframing it as a means to an end.

How are we to think of VR according to these technology criticisms? Whether we view the potentiality of the virtual as the dream of absolute control or domination (as Morgoth would have), or rather its potential for creative revealing and enhancement of the world (Fingolfin) — we can view VR as a Technology according to Heidegger, or as Magic according to Tolkien. Readers who are interested in what or how a Heidegger or Tolkien-inspired VR-application could be can go on to read the authors position paper in one of our latest blog entries. There we discuss the concept of an existentialist design — a “controlled accident” —which does not seek to dominate the user experience, but rather open the world up to new interpretations.

Virtuality as Reality

The exploration of VR as thought, or essentially as an idea, have taken us thus far. This idea or thought of VR is, however, now more actualized than ever — and what was once primarily an idea, is now more than ever a reality that we can relate to. We are able to step in, and immerse ourselves, in worlds after our own design. We can actualize, externalize, and instantiate our designs.

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Memory Palaces are systems of thought that utilizes visual and spatial cues to aid memorization.

An example of this that can illuminate the perspective of VR as thought, is the Virtual Reality Memory Palace. This ancient mnemonic (it is mentioned by Cicero in De Oratore as early as 55 BC) is based on thought: we are to close our eyes and visualize what we want to recall in the memory palace.

The memory palace is then, as the origins of VR, an idea or thought. It is internal and subjective. VR, however, allows the externalization of thought. In the same way that the idea of VR is now actualized, it allows the externalization of other ideas. We can use technology to immerse ourselves in the instantiated ideas of our mind. Is then akin to the works of Morgoth Bauglir, or Fingolfin son of Fëanor? This will depend on which thoughts are actualized: it depends on which levels of our inner being we want to realize as our outer world.

Conclusion

This entry has discussed a perspective on VR that compares it to the magic: through VR, we can define our external reality based on our inner thought. VR can be perceived as the materializer of form; the instantiator of the abstract. We described Heidegger’s explicit technology criticism and paralleled it to Tolkien’s implicit one. We also linked this to the authors position paper on a Heidegger-inspired VR technology.

For those interested, Matrise has partnered with YouTube channel Disrupt, who made a beautiful video featuring this blog piece, it can be watched here:

This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests, and if you want further reading, these previous entries are related:

1: Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality

2: Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality

3: On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency

4: Heidegger’s Virtual Reality

5: The Mind as Medium

Existentialist Design

The term “Philosophy” can refer to a method or approach to investigate how we should relate to and understand ourselves and the world. Moreover, how we understand ourselves and the world is dependent on technology — especially in the case of mediums that present and abstract information to us. We have previously at Matrise discussed the philosophy of technology as a subfield of Philosophy. In this entry, however, we will discuss how philosophy can, concretely and directly, inform information technologies — especially within the field of Human-Computer Interaction.

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Martin Heidegger by Barry Bruner.

That how we understand ourselves and the world is dependent on technology is being recognized this year at the CHI 2019 conference in May on Human Factors in Computing Systems — the premier international conference on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). In December last year, there was issued a call for position papers to a workshop called “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: exploring the intersection of Philosophy and HCI“, led by experienced researchers with experience in philosophically informed design or research. In the call they write:

“Philosophy has provided a vital perspective for HCI on how we navigate, experience, understand and judge the world around us and its artifacts. Lately, HCI scholars have also sought to use philosophy’s program of answering what it means to live a “good” life to investigate the ethical and moral implications of the technologies we design. As philosophy in its many forms continues to open up new influences and our relations with technology broaden, we believe it is timely to have a meta-discussion about what links philosophy and HCI. As we understand it, philosophy’s strength lies in its diversity, depth, and interpretive flexibility.”

I’m attending CHI as I am an author of a paper there and was naturally interested in submitting a position paper. In the position paper,  I present a view of design inspired by philosophical thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, where the aim of the design is a controlled accident in which we do not want to dominate the user experience, but rather open up for new experiences that can be interpreted by the user.

The rest of the entry is best explained by the position paper itself, with its abstract, introduction, body and conclusion. The paper can also be download and read at ResearchGate.

Title: A Controlled Accident: Imagining VR as a Catalysator for Self-exploration

Abstract
In this position paper, I discuss an existentialist design approach towards Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). The aim of the existentialist designer is to not dominate the user experience, but rather to design for a controlled accident in which the medium itself is explored, and one’s self through the medium, where the overarching purpose is the exploration itself. This line of thinking is inspired by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and its aim can be illustrated in how Kierkegaard discusses life not as a ‘problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ The hope is that such an approach towards technology escapes the somewhat limited view of technology as simply a tool to get from A to B, and that technology may be seen as a lens through which reality can be presented free from an otherwise culturally enframing narrative. The aim is, therefore, to design technology as a catalysator for a more original revealing of truth. The paper illustrates this with an example of the employment of Virtual Reality (VR) technology in sensory deprivation tanks.


Introduction
According to Martin Heidegger’s technology criticism, the essence of technology is not itself something technological. Put way too short, technology is rather a way that we understand the world, or in Heidegger’s words, ‘a way of revealing’ (Heidegger, 1977). What we reveal in this technological framework, that is, what we deem as true, is not necessarily the truth, but only ‘correct’ relative to the framework itself. Thus, the common correct definition of technology – that technology is a human activity and a means to an end – although correct relative to the technological narrative, is not necessarily true. For Heidegger, these two definitions must not only be combined, as in that it is a human activity to think of means to ends, we must also recursively look on how this activity impacts the way we look at the statement itself.

It is the mindset of thinking in terms of means and ends, of interpreting and enframing things within this technological framework, which is the essence of technology according to Heidegger. When Heidegger speaks of ‘revealing’, he means what is presented as true and brought forth into that way of revealing. In the case of the technological framework, what is revealed is within the narratology of ‘man versus nature’, which is a fundamental view that reveals the world as such. For Heidegger, the danger is that man himself cannot escape his enframing, and that it ‘may be denied for him to enter into a more original revealing’. Heidegger’s brief comment towards a solution to this problem – although he explicitly states that modifying technology can never be the answer – is a different kind of technology, or techne, poiesis; the Greek word for both art and technology. Here he refers to art, as art is not fixed in terms of interpretation or the straight rules of means to ends, and A’s to B’s, and may, therefore, bring a more original revealing – or at least another narrative that provides another revealing.

Martin Heidegger contributed to the existential and phenomenological tradition of Philosophy in the mid-1900s. Although he never lived to see Information Technology, his philosophy on technology is not necessarily concerned with the details of different technologies, but rather what technology is in its essence. In this way, his works may still influence the design of artifacts in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) in the 2020s. But how can existential philosophy benefit the research of the relationship between humans and machines? How can such a critical view of technology in its essence benefit the design of technology?

Existentiaalism in HCI
Arguably, methods and approaches appropriate for creating usable, enjoyable, and practically useful products and services, cannot be assumed to be also appropriate for addressing the issue of how technology is related to the most fundamental aspects of human existence” (Kaptelinin, 2018).

Kaptelinin (2018) presents a broad overview of previous existential approaches to the field of HCI. The paper is further contributive and practical in that it approaches a framework compatible with where HCI is today. Kaptelinin (2018) writes that previous attempts at employing existentialism in HCI research has not been very popular, and argues this is because it is ‘too distant from traditional HCI problems and concerns, and too abstract to provide concrete support for analysis and design’ (p. 1). This is a danger for any approach inspired by an underlying ideal and something which this position paper also is subject to. For instance, Kaptelinin (2018) discusses Karlstrøm’s (2006) paper as criticizing the ‘problem-solving attitude of HCI’. As this paper will present a similar approach, it should, therefore, immediately comment on how problem-solving itself can be undesirable.

We may, therefore, begin by restating the points of Heidegger and Kierkegaard: the problem-solving can itself be a problem. In relating to the givens of existence, the solution is not necessarily to define them as problems and find strategies to eliminate them. An approach can, however, be to explore them and see them for what they are, and thus enter into a more authentic relationship with them. Problem-solving as an attitude may provide the illusion that a fix is possible by pushing through. Thus, existentialism may claim that it is not the givens of existence that is the problem, but rather how we relate to them, either as problems or something else. The standpoint, therefore, is that problem-solving may be the real problem, as it enframes the world as something that can be solved. This is correct relative to its own framework, but in cases of how we relate to the givens of existence, this need not necessarily be true. This is further coherent with the way Kaptelinin (2018) discuss existential psychotherapy: there is not one solution to it, and that may mean that we require technology that is far more open, adaptive and exploring. It may be that in these situations technology need not provide a solution, but perhaps even on the contrary be an important tool to reinstate the problem for a more clear inspection, and by means of this lay grounds for establishing a different relationship towards it.

The aim of such a technology will rather be to open up the world for new possible interpretations, than aiming for one specific function. The question that would be explored by interaction with such technologies is whether technology can help us break a certain narrative, or put in Heideggerian terms, whether technology provides us a more original revealing. In the next section, an example of a technology that can be used this way is presented.

Presence and Immersion
In VR, presence is often defined as the degree to which the subject feels present in the virtual world. What is interesting to note, is that this naturally has to be viewed relatively to the degree that the subject feels present in the physical world as we usually receive information from both our physical and our virtual environments. There can thus be two separated approaches to designing for presence in virtual reality environments: one is to provide the sensory stimulus of the virtual environment, and the other is to block sensory stimulus from the physical environment. Both approaches work towards the same goal of immersion – the encapsulation of the user in the Virtual environment (VE).

Obviously, the principle of adding and removing sensory experience go hand in hand; by equipping a Head-Mounted Display you are blocking the physical impressions and replacing them with virtual impressions, all the while shielding for incoming light from the surroundings. Blocking light, however, is not the only way to deprive the senses of information from the physical environment. The inclusiveness of the immersion can also be achieved by sensory deprivation through floatation tanks.

Screenshot 2018 07 18 at 10.52.43 - Existentialist Design
Alone With Your Thoughts”, Illustration by Cole Ott

Floating in Virtual Reality
Floatation chambers, or sensory deprivation tanks, are pools of water with copious amounts of Epsom salt. The tanks are sealed for any incoming light and sound, and the air- and water temperature is equal to that of your body. When you lie down, you will feel how the salt makes you float even though the pool is very shallow. As you lie there, you notice how the ripples you created when lying down start to slowly subside as you sink down into weightlessness. After a while, because of the air- and water temperatures are the same as that of your body, you can no longer pinpoint where the water ends and the air around you begins. In fact, it gets hard to distinguish anything from anything else, including your body from the air and water. There is really nothing that is easy to grasp as isolated, save perhaps your breath. And as the minutes go, with total physical relaxation and lack of much sensory impression at all, things may start to change.

The most significant, explicit change one may notice in the tank is that after a while your bodily self-consciousness is not what it used to be. Your mental model of where your body is in relation to the world around you starts to become blurred. Normally reinforced by tactile stimuli of air and water (of varying temperatures), and visual and auditive stimuli from the environment, your body model is now lacking information on which to create it. Your sense of spaciousness has also changed – that is the feeling of your position as defined relatively to say, the walls, mountains, and the sky have disappeared. You now really experience nothing around you, but neither any edges to this lack of information about your surroundings. You may get the feeling of floating in empty space, but where are you in all of this? What, in this stream of conscious experience is matter and what is mind?

Example Experiment
To exemplify the ideas discussed in this paper, I imagine the following experiment. A user employs a VR HMD that is connected to biometric sensors, e.g. EEG, GSR, heart rate, breathing, etc. A connected computer visualizes the feedback through abstract imagery in a 3D visualization. The direct effect is that an abstraction of the user’s state is projected externally, but the application does not do a hard classification to moods in the form of emoticons. Rather, the user can meditate and explore the visualization as the floating continues and can establish a way of exploring the technology through relating to both the medium and through it themselves. It would further be interesting to use eye-tracking technology as a way of navigation in the vast, abstract visualizations. If one traveled towards where one saw, one could even be interactive while lying still in the floatation tank. This could also possibly have curious effects on which parts (perhaps the eyes), we identify with our selves — perhaps the placement of our self could be altered by changing the agency for transportation. My interest in such a prototype or such a future experiment would be to which extent it could open us up to the direct here-and-now experience, and attempt to have experiences beyond the traditional subject-object hierarchy. It is existential in the sense that it seeks to delete the traditional narrative. 

Do you think Virtual Reality can benefit from Existentialism, or other philosophical perspectives?

Literature list