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.

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.”

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 how VR may pose an existential problem to us as individuals and together as a society.

The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality

The existentialists thus 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. 

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.

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

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.

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?

 

 

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

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 robot-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 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 into 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 was 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 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, whilst 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. Its 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 lose 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 the 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 are 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 sex partners, 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 an 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 one’s 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 speaks 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 experientially 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“.

Literature list

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