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.

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?

Existentialism 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.

Existentialism in HCI
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.

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 âĂŤ 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. 

Literature list

The Mind as Medium

N.B: This post is the third and final post 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 two previous post that precedes this one, are linked here:  1) “On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency“, and  2) “Heidegger’s Virtual Reality


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Now that we have arrived at the final post of the series, it is time to revisit our initial problem of Virtual Reality and Authenticity. Initially, we introduced our problem as the abstracting tendencies of Information Technology, and the unique position of VR technology in this case, as it abstracts all the while displaying a high degree of transparency and coherency with the real world – while simultaneously hiding the real world as much as possible. We wanted to ask whether this was indeed a real problem, and if the technology could in effect distance ourselves from the reality of the world, and thus distance ourself from truth, or an authentic living.

An old illustration of a Stereoscope, the illusive technology responsible for 3D effects in our modern VR Head-Mounted Displays. The first stereoscope was created in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone.

Discussion

After reviewing Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, we noticed several questions that we could use in our existential approach to our technology critique. Following the lines of Heidegger, we could say that we could have a free relationship towards VR when we know what it is. We can for instance ask whether we can see any “Enframing” tendencies of VR technologies.

In Being and Time, Heidegger’s concern for authenticity is a concern for individuality: a concern for Dasein’s possible impossibility of leading its own life: the death of authenticity. In the they-self, no individual is thoroughly relating to its Being, and so the truths and the “goings-on” that is defined “culturally” in the they-self, are in a sense accepted blindly and left unexplored: they are abstractions as they are not defined relatively to each Dasein; they are not experiential, not resolutely made up. Effectively, we are not in control when we have given ourselves up to let the they-self decide the possibilities of what we can project upon.

“The Fairies Flew Away”, by Charles Henry Bennett.

Similarly, In Heidegger’s Questioning Concerning Technology, we introduced the term of Enframing. Enframing is dangerous because we create things that enframe us, we instantiate our enframing orientation in technology. If we do not relate to technology as exactly this which it is in its essence, Enframing, we do not relate to it as it is, and so it may hinder us to perceive the world as it is. Both by relating to the agenda set by the they-self, or the framework set by ourselves indirectly through our enframing technology, we do not relate to the world and our active projection upon it: we do not resolutely enact our nature of actualizing the possibilities that can lead us to our authentic self.

So how is this relevant for the technology of VR? Should we interpret it as that we are not in control over our possibilities, if they are presented to us through VR, rather than in real life? Can , in this respect, VR be seen as an instantiation of the they-self, as it similarly provides abstractions, terms and conventions? If we remember to follow Heidegger deeper than the image of the problem, we may see that it is not VR that we should be afraid of. VR, like other modern technology, carries the mark of its author: and similarly we can see the creation of VR as the ultimate dream of Man. We spoke earlier of the characters of challenging-forth as inspired by the view of modern physics as an exact science: we wanted to view the world as chopped up in parts and materials that we could understand, enframe, and use as means to ends. If the dream accompanying this Newtonian metaphysic ever was lost with the rise of quantum physics, VR can certainly become the free space where man’s illusive control over the world could be rekindled: finally we have a world, not of atoms, but of bits, that we can know totally through an actual access to its source code.

We can have a free relationship towards VR, when we understand what the essence of VR is. To what is the essence of VR, we will not answer “enframing”, but rather abstraction, and more specifically, abstraction in the mode of transparency. The tendencies of abstraction, was, as with Heidegger’s technology, perhaps not inherently something technological, but something human: only technology made it obvious and explicit enough for us to see clearly. VR may perhaps be an interesting way for us to look at the real problem figuratively; the technology stands in between (medium) you and your senses, in the same way that our mental terms and classifications obscure the otherwise non-reducable reality.

To create VR is a human activity, and in VR we find much of ourselves: similarly to technology in general, we see that VR is a means to an end, and that it is an instantiation of this purpose. Sometimes, this purpose is “re-presenting” an abstraction of reality, and so it is not the genuine authentic reality itself that we see. We can therefore say that it is a human activity to create representations as means to an end, and even further, we can say that it is human to abstract, it is human to deal in images, it is human to connote terms and concepts, similarly to “putting things to boxes” in the enframing attitude of mind. With VR, these boxes are presented to us as reality, or at least in the format of reality, and the result is a realm of abstraction, a realm of representation, that blocks naturally-occurring presentation. Similarly to how Heidegger’s technology illustrated our enframing tendencies, VR may show us our desire to create our own bubbles of reality to inhibit, our own terming and associations and concepts of the self. In this respect, the essence of VR may not even be anything new. In this sense, we have created “mental virtual realities” for a long time, and the technological, the “material” expression of this does not provide anything new.

Conclusion

If we can understand the essence of VR as abstraction in the mode of transparency, and, similarly to Heidegger’s technological essence, believe that this essence is inherited from our own tendencies of mind, we will view it as such that it is human to create transparent abstractions. Through our terms, conventions, and definitions, we abstract, and through relating to these abstractions, we perceive them as real. Our thoughts and defined concepts, and the conventions we adhere to, work as our transparent user interface’s which we use to navigate the world. Our initial fear was that IT, examplified in its extreme case of VR, would act as a wall between us and the world; inhibiting a true, authentic relationship towards it. This is, however, not fundamentally something that we find in especially in a certain technology – instead, we find that when we look at this technology we are instead looking at ourselves. The mediums and interfaces that classifies and simplifies is inspired by our minds that classify and simplify. Technology is not the separation between us and the world, at least not any less than the enframing and abstracting orientation of our minds to the world are: the one mirror the other. We have thus reached a new question to replace the first, one step further on the hermeunetical spiral, and that is whether our own abstracting tendencies of mind keep us from authenticity.

Literature list

Heidegger’s Virtual Reality

N.B: This post is the second out of three, 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 first post,  preceding this one, is “On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency“, while the third and subsequent to this post, is “The Mind as Medium“.


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In the previous post, we argued why existentialism was fit to explore our problem of VR authenticity. Although the post quoted several existential philosophers, we will further only go in depth into the work by Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976). Heidegger was deeply concerned with authenticity, and also discussed the role of technology in our relation to the world. Although he never lived to see the true emergence of IT, Heidegger’s 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”, discusses the essence of technology in general, and our relationship towards it.

Martin Heidegger, Portrait, Oil on Canvas.

Questioning concerning Technology

In his essay, Heidegger does not just analyse technology itself – as part of this, he writes about how the technology implicitly alters the metaphysics of our world; how technology may change ourselves and our relation to the world. In the essay, which title is “The Question Concerning Technology”, Heidegger discuss the essence of technology as it appears in our relationship towards it. The reason for his questioning concerning technology, is that he believes we can have a free relationship towards technology when we know what it is, that is, its essence. Throughout his essay, Heidegger draws a distinction between traditional technology, which is ‘bringing-forth’, and modern technology on the other hand, in which the technology is ‘challenging-forth’ in a more brutal and hacky way. It is this latter technology that Heidegger is critical towards and wishes to discuss, more “traditional” technology, such as for instance a bridge, is not an example of a technology that is challenging-forth. Heidegger for instance writes of windmills, that, though they draw energy from the wind, do not extract the energy for storage as we do with coal: the wind can still “do it’s thing”, being as-it-is, unlike coal, which for us no longer exist as-it-is; its only given meaning is being a means to our end. Through rigorous analysis, that is where Heidegger ends up: through such challenging-forth technology, our relationship towards nature is changed, as nature is interpreted only as a means towards our end, the world is no longer interpreted as it is, as it manifests.

To fully understand how Heidegger comes to this point, however, we must back up a bit. We will start “in media res” with a quote by Heidegger that is relatively concluding as to the main point of the essay, and then further navigate backwards to introduce the terms necessary to understand what he means.

Heidegger writes:

The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.


We see then, that Heidegger’s main concern is that man may be separated from truth, a more “primal truth”, or a more “original revealing” of such. He does not say bluntly that technology threatens man with this possibility, but rather speaks of “the rule of enframing”, which will be an important term for us to understand Heidegger’s proper meaning. Throughout his essay, Heidegger builds his philosophical argument with his self-composed terms from the ground up before getting to the point, and so to understand “the rule of enframing”, we must therefore go back to thoroughly define Heidegger’s concepts of bringing-forth and challenging-forth. Both bringing-forth and challenging-forth are modes of revealing, although they differ in how and what they reveal. Heidegger’s “bringing-forth”comes from the Greek “poiesis”, which means to bring something out from concealment to unconcealment. Heidegger speaks of this revealing rather poetically, and asks the readers to imagine what is being brought forth as already “being on its way” to existence, from unconcealment to concealment; and so we can say that poeisis brings that which was not present into presence. This “revealing” or “unveiling” that happens with poeisis, Heidegger describes by the Greek word “aletheia”, literally meaning “revealing”, but which also is the Greek word for “truth”. In this way, according to Heidegger, technology can reveal truth through poeisis, although, as Heidegger points out, this is exactly what modern technology fails to do in its challenging-forth.

Rotary Boilers, by Broux, P, from Les merveilles de l’industrie, vol. 2.

Bringing-forth vs. Challenging-forth

According to Heidegger, we find the difference between bringing-forth and challenging-forth in that challenging-forth treats “modern physics as an exact science”. This can be interpreted as such: modern science was on its arrival a dream come true for the human impulses to classify and understand the world: now we could understand the workings of the world according to our own scheme, and therefore also “own” them in the sense that they were perceived to be within our control. On the discovery of the atom, for instance, we finally had a graven image of the source code of reality, and we were closing in on a framework of the whole world (this was, of course, before quantum physics shattered our image of reality as something that could easily be pinned down). It is this “attitude”, according to Heidegger, which separates bringing-forth from challenging-forth: the implicit metaphysic we accepted along with the principles of Newtonian physics, that the world could be viewed as a clockwork of cause and effect, where the world is made up of manipulable materials that could serve as means to our ends.

Heidegger notes, however, that challenging-forth also reveals, but that it does not reveal truth in the same way that bringing-forth does. The point is to be found in that “the essence of [modern] technology, is not something technological”. By this, Heidegger means that technology bear a resemblance to its Maker; there is something in the essence of technology that it has inherited by us. Early in the essay, Heidegger notes that technology can be thought of both as a “means to an end”, and a “human activity”. We can therefore also say that it is a human activity to think in the context of means to ends, and it is this which technology represents to us, as in a mirror: our attitude towards the world, where everything is viewed and classified in terms of potential means to an end. Through the vision based on modern physics as an exact science, human beings view the natural world as materials for their endavours. It is a human tendency to look at the world and ask: “what is it good for?”; in the words of Albert Camus, “the world evades us when it becomes itself again”; we do not really relate to the world, but to our interpretation of it, which is an interpretation of utility or means to ends. Technology is in this respect mirroring ourselves as an expression and example of how we interpret things in light of our narrative, where things in the world fit in the degree to which they can be means to our ends. This is what Heidegger considers when he writes that the essence of technology is not anything technological, rather, its essence lies in how we approach and orient ourselves towards technology, and through technology, to the world.

With this, we are approaching the point of Heidegger’s criticism of technology: if we only interpret the world as potential means to an end of ours, we don’t really see the world as it is, or as it reveals itself. Heidegger uses the example of technology to pinpoint that it is the human aspect of technology that is dangerous about it: because we as humans are used to interpreting the world to concepts, terms and classifications, these now stand in the way as a medium or interface between us and the world. This is Heidegger’s definition of the essence of modern technology, and it is this that we shall mean by the term Enframing that we set out to define. Enframing comes from the German “Gestell”, and has associations to that of order, system or framework. It should be noted, however, that Heidegger uses it as an active verb, and so instead we talk of “ordering”, or “gathering together”, or an “enframing” of the world. Enframing is in this case a mode of human existence, it is how we navigate and present the world to ourselves, relative to ourselves.

Illustrator: León Benett. From Jules Verne’s “Les cinq cents millions de La Bégum”

We set out to answer what the challenging-forth reveals, as both bringing-forth and challenging-forth are modes of revealing. It is by its enframing that challenging-forth reveals, and the enframing categorizes human and machine alike, and what it reveals, it reveals as standing-reserve. The concept of standing-reserve is the utmost point of criticism for Heidegger, and is what will be discussed in the next section.

 

The Danger


Heidegger’s critique then, is that the attitude of enframing is dangerous. Technology as examined here, have worked to reveal this dangerous tendency in humans. The humans themselves are not safe from their orientation of enframing: the enframing of the world also include the enframing of human beings, and humans are also in this system reduced to “human resources”; the degree to which they are beneficiary resources in this system of their own creation. Enframing is the consequence of what happens when this attitude of ours is enforced and instantiated through technology; “standing-reserve” is a role that the world and its inhabitants has been given in its enframing.

This category or classification of “standing reserve” is illustratively speaking exactly of this: technology, with its essence, does not, and can not, view anything in the world “as it is”, it is only judging in terms of utility and means to ends; it is seen not as good, but good for. This is being in the standing-reserve: an airplane has no meaning or value out of itself – it is purpose incarnate, and its value is therefore only in relation to human beings and a certain activity, and so it’s role is otherwise as standing reserve. For Heidegger, however, it does not end there, as humanity is also caught up in this system of technology: the system of the world is increasingly becoming a system in which technology is heavily incorporated. Within sociology, this kind of society with non-human agents as equal affectors, has seen new theories reflecting these relationships, for instance in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. The theory describes one system, where technology and humans are both treated as actors in the society. Similarly, according to Heidegger, humans are equally likely to be put into standing reserve to fit this system as any other: he describes the forester as put in standing- reserve by the paper industry: his role and worth is defined there only in so much as he produces for them; when he does not, his being is one of standing-reserve, not as-he-is.

The Solution

At this part of the point, we should revisit Heidegger’s initial point of inquiry: that we inquire into technology in order to establish a free relationship to it. Heidegger is not just concerned with the existence of the technology, he is also definitely concerned with our orientation towards it, our standpoint towards it, and so our relationship with it. We initially set out to establish a free relationship towards technology, and now we see that it in fact is our relationship with the world, and the technology’s relationship to the world as well as to humans and other agents that is the issue at hand. This is a critical point, because it also means that this is not a problem that can be solved even in the extreme case choosing to discontinue technology as a whole; the essence we want to avoid comes from us. On this, Heidegger writes:


We shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.


We are limited then, in that we can not change technology in its essence. Heidegger does not want to create “better” technology: he wants to see technology for what it is, to prepare a relationship to it – and it is here that we find Heidegger’s curious path of “technological determinism”; a view that can be defined as the lack of control by humans over technology, that the development of technology is somewhat deterministic, instead of perhaps more commonly viewed as an expression of our needs through tools that we create (i.e. social constructivism). Therefore Heidegger does not want to change technology, but change our relationship towards it. The approach is almost stoic in its basic philosophy: it is only concerned with one’s own relationship to the situation, the situation itself is at any rate given. And again, the orientation which we normally have to both normal technology and to the natural world, is one of enframing. It is not just in technology, it is a human mode of being and connecting to the natural world in itself: enframing is the human tendency of categorizing the world, into objects, events, or other terms or conventions. We “frame” things in the sense that we “box” them, and this Heidegger considers to be a human activity in general, not a technological one in particular.

Heidegger does not offer a plan for humanity to solve this, but rather encourages us to stray from the enframing attitude of mind, to the more poetic: in poeisis, we can see the world as it reveals itself, not just as raw materials to be used by us. By adopting the vision of the artist, we can take part in the world instead of analysing and categorising it from the outside, indirectly alienating us from the world. Although not very specific in the approach, Heidegger is still clear on the role of action towards the problem, as he writes that “humanity is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth”.

Literature list


Want to read more? This essay is continued and finalized in “The Mind as Medium“. In the final entry we revisit VR and Heidegger’s relevance for VR technologies. The entry that you just read was a continuation of the entry On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency.

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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, and was presented in a panel at Global Fusion 2018 at the University of Virginia. 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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