Montag, 1. August 2011

Meaning and Absurdity of Virtual Worlds

Translated from german into english by Coin Hammerer.

The World is not enough
I have been wondering about the meaning of virtual worlds for a long time, why they have become so important to some, and why they are discredited by others. I also wonder why many people distinguish so strictly between "RL" and "SL".

We all know what the usual arguments of those who oppose these worlds are. They can be roughly summarised as follows:

- Second Life is for Second People. Meaning: Those with no success in "first life" look for it in a second life. Or: Those whose Real Life does not offer them fulfilment look for it in the second. Or: Those who are isolated, lonely, and disregarded in first life, try to compensate this in their Second Life. Or to pinpoint it: Those who are losers in first life, see a second chance in a Second Life.

- Virtual worlds are addictive. And addiction of any sort is bad and harmful. It leads to social isolation, depression, and eventually to complete degeneration.

- Virtual worlds are unreal and entirely pointless, a complete waste of time. People who spend time in them are all psychotic or simply stupid.

Real arguments are rare. Normally one encounters exactly these trivialising polemics, which do not originate from research and reflexion, but rather from parroting the predominant opinions of mainstream media, or simply the arrogant attitude to rate one's own pastimes (gardening, handicrafts, collecting stamps) higher than those of others - as more "real" and "more important".

Let us put these arguments aside for now, because most "residents" of virtual worlds could only laugh about them. A VR-opposer has never managed to argue a VR-resident out of their world. This does not work, because most of the opposers' arguments betray ignorance and arrogance. However, a statement like the following would be easily accepted anytime: "Virtual worlds are just not my cup of tea, they're not my thing. But good for you if you are happy in them." Unfortunately such statements are rare.

The most common argument, which is presented in about 80% of cases - often even by the residents of those worlds themselves - is: "Virtual worlds are not real."

I would like to go into more detail about this objection, because there seems to be a fundamental mis comprehension of what is "real".

According to Kant only few things are "real". He calls these "a priori truths". They are a small number of parameters of the real which are assumed as given. This assumption is made in a philosophical sense, because even for these a priori truths there is no conclusive evidence. Kant even bases any experiences of reality in the results of mental processes. Basic concepts like "space" and "time" are an essential part of that. [Translator's note: In established translations of Kant's works the term "Parameter des Wirklichen" may have been translated differently.]

In his ingenious essay which ends with the famous conclusion "Cogito ergo sum - I think, therefore I am", Descartes manages to proove only one thing: his own existence. Everything else remains unproven.

If a "normal" person is confronted with such ideas and concepts common and substantial in philosophy, they will often not be able or willing to follow them. They seem simply absurd to them, "aloof", and completely detached from their daily experiences. The attempt to acquaint the average Joe, who has never had any experience with epistemology, with the concept of the real, seems similar to the attempt to talk with a tomcat about Einstein. The tom is not interested. The tom only wants to know where his food bowl is, everything else is irrelevant - and that is quite alright. It really is irrelevant.

Where would we be if a tomcat began doubting the reality of his world? And what would it look like if a tom were to delve into a virtual world and hunt virtual mice? The reduction of our observation to this one cute mental image exemplifies how detached virtual worlds really are.

So is the tomcat right? And therefore all the average Janes and Joes who think the same way? Well, let us stay with this tomcat for now, to whom we are going to try to explain the other components of the alleged "real" world. Alleged, because to the tom, many things that seem to belong to our reality look utterly absurd.

Mr. Tom Cat
Let us say we take our tom with us on vacation. To France, or Switzerland, or Italy - anywhere. We put him in a basket on the backseat of our car and cross the border. Having arrived in France, we let him out, give him something to eat and explain to him that he is now in France. What is the cat going to answer?

"In France? What the hell is that supposed to be? I can see the same trees, the same birds that I'd like to eat, you are still there, and the waiter talks gibberish. But what does that have to do with France? I'm still in the exact same world that I came from, I don't see any difference. The difference only exists in your head, my dear can opener. For you something like France exists, for me it is completely irreal. Where's my bowl, please?"

There is little we can use to counter that. It is indeed problematic to attempt to explain the concept of a nation to a real being, because this nation exists entirely in the form of contracts and constructs in our minds. Nowhere else. France is something we call "hyperreality" - a reality which was generated mentally and is based on a priori truths, without which it would not even exist mentally. Of course the same holds true for any other nation...

However, it continues. We now pull out our wallet to pay - in France - for the feed for our tomcat. But this is now completely incomprehensible for the cat.

"Why are you handing that man a piece of plastic and somehow that pays for my food? He even gave you the plastic piece back ... what just happened? Where's my food coming from?"

We try to explain to him that with the help of this plastic piece, which we call "credit card", a few numbers in our bank account have been changed, which give us now the right to receive the feed and call it our property.

The cat now taps his forehead, shakes his head and declares us insane. And he is right. Because if he were hungry, and if we, the can openers, were not there, he would just slink into the woods and hunt for the next mouse. Because that mouse is real. And also for his feed, at one point a mouse was caught, respectively another life was killed, and made cat feed. This tomcat's feed is the end product of a long process that once began with the killing of an animal. That was real. Everything that followed was a mix of reality and hyperreality, because every following procedure just moved Ones and Zeros in accounts that do not exist. At least not in the way in which feed animals exist.

Conclusively, so-called reality is truly nothing but a richly blended co-existence of a priori reality, a posteriori reality, and hyper reality, of truth and virtuality, of given facts and concepts. On a daily basis and in an astoundingly natural manner, the average Jane or Joe carries out actions which we can safely describe as completely irreal.

Thus the main argument against virtual worlds - that they are "not real" -ought to be defeated. Virtual worlds are at least as real as zeros and ones on a bank account. No more or less.

Now that we have proven the reality of virtual worlds, or at least their equality in terms of hyperreal events, what does this change in terms of consideration and classification of these worlds? Everything.

A person who would like to live a really real life, who wants to reject any form of "irreality", that is "hyperreality" or "virtuality", in order to be able to call themselves and their life "real", is unfortunately going to have to emigrate to a place without any technology or virtual construct. They could go to the Amish People, or join a jungle tribe in Brazil, or just retire to a mountain hut in Alaska. However, should they dare to even write a postcard from there, they will have ventured back into the world of virtuality with this and contradicted themselves. There is no escaping the virtual world of humankind, unless one were to abandon everything that makes life comfortable. And not even that kind of life is any more real in Kant's sense...

Those eccentrics exist, we call them "down-sizers" and patronise them. We leave them be and consider them lovable oddballs. These down-sizers even exist in virtual worlds such as Second Life. They build themselves sanctuaries from which any and all technogical advancements are banned. This is called Roleplaying. [Translator's note: There does not seem to be a well-established English equivalent for the German term "Aussteiger" that expresses the same neutral to positive attitude towards the people described as such. However, in this context it should be clear what is meant by "down-sizer".]

We should get used to the knowledge that virtual worlds are a part of our world, and that making a distinction between RL and SL is absurd. Let us rather understand virtual worlds as additional "space" for certain things which we can only do there.

We have always had specific "rooms" for specific activities. Apart from the toilet - which serves really only one purpose, is indeed a room that we retreat to for only one specific reason, and which we would certainly never accuse of causing "addiction" - there are other spaces that we frequent for specific purposes. For example a church. In a church, no one is ever going to cook food, watch TV, sleep, or reproduce (except for a few perverts, who would be thrown out immediately). A church serves a specific purpose, it is a space which is frequented to experience this exact space. Of course we can pray, meditate, contemplate, or attend mass in any other place - but the church is just the kind of virtual space that accommodates and supports certain activities. That is why we prefer to use this space for exactly these things. Another example is the hobby room of a do-it-yourself craftsperson. They prefer to use this room to do handicrafts. Of course they could also do this in the living room, but their spouse would probably have something to say to that. They could do it in church, but then they would be accused of blasphemy. They could do it in many different places, but the hobby room is just the kind of
room that they have equipped for this purpose.

Now it has become just a little bit more difficult to argument with "those who fail in first life try to be successful in the second." For in first life I just cannot do certain things, they simply do not work because the necessary
conditions are lacking.

I cannot do the following things in "first life":

- I cannot stream music for my friends, comment on it at the same time, and also receive my friends' comments at the same time. Of course I could start an internet radio, but an internet radio with an incorporated "chat room" is also nothing but a virtual world, just a little more reduced.

Of course I could just throw a party, but this could only be attended by friends who live close by. If I live in Hamburg, it would be difficult for a friend from Munich or even Singapore to come to my party. How do I even find a friend from Singapore if I do not happen to go there on business trips? Hm, right. In a virtual world for instance.

- I cannot open a gallery to show people from all over the world my artwork. Sure, Bill Gates could do that, he has enough money. But Average Joe does not. His only opportunity to realise this dream is a virtual world. Of course I do not need a vast, intricate online world for that, a website would suffice, but a gallery on a website is just as virtual as a 3D space inside an online world.

It would be pointless and go beyond the scope of this essay to list all the things that are possible in virtual worlds, and impossible in so-called "first life". I will content myself to use these two examples as showcase arguments.

However, my essay does not only deal with the meaning and purpose of virtual worlds, but also with their absurdity. Therefore I will not neglect to point out several things which virtual worlds CANNOT provide.

- Virtual worlds cannot substitute essential features that we assume as real a priori, such as reproduction. Real sex is only possible in the a priori world.All virtual forms of sexuality are only mind games, which may also lead to strong arousal, but they only have consequences if they are taken out of their virtual environment, that is, turned into "Real Life".

- Virtual worlds cannot change a person's personality. They can have an altering influence, through experiences in the virtual world they can lead to a process that results in a changed personality, but they cannot change the definition of a person just because they assume a different shape in the virtual world (opposite sex, animal, elf).

But let us contemplate "Real Life" a bit more, which is generally pompously declared to "always come first". Why does it come first?

Let us have a closer look at "first life". What happens there?

For a long time humankind has only had this one Real Life. In ancient times when we still all had to live like the Amish, because there were no TV, no mobile phones, and no cars, we had to make do with what nature had to offer and with the few things we could craft from it. But even then "virtual worlds" were created very quickly for those who could afford them. Even the ancient Greeks took refuge in philosophy to escape the banality of everyday life. Theatre, art, every form of culture is detached from a priori reality, because it has nothing to do with the immediate existence of things. In order to facilitate this escapism, sophisticated exploitation, that is slaveholder societies, were needed.

The orgies in ancient Rome, yes even the synods in the Middle Ages, where clergymen discussed the most incredible, most virtual issues (such as how many angels could dance on the point of a needle) prove that humankind was rather quick to leave the path of the mundane. The so-called first life only requires one thing of us: that we survive, feed, clothe, and reproduce - all the essential things that ensure our existence. All the other things that we do are virtual in one way or another: TV? There is nothing more irreal! Books? 90% of all books deal with nonexistent characters and events that have never taken place. Certainly there are a lot of things in "first life" that are really fun to do and are very real. Deap sea fishing for example. Or Gliding. Or Formula1 racing. Now that is certainly something everyone can do. Surely everyone can afford that.

Let us face it: the "first life" of many people seems hardly desirable. Most people are busy ensuring their survival everyday. They sit in offices, work for other people, look at the time and are glad when they get out of there. I see little joy in this "first life" that most people lead whom I know. Most of them spend the rest of their time in front of their (entirely irreal) TV, anyway. Of course there are people who spend their time on really exciting activities, but even those may sometimes feel like flying over a landscape in a virtual world. And if they do that, why is that suddenly second rate?


Virtual worlds have become an important component of our everyday lives. Those who disregard virtual worlds ignore that they already spend much of their lives in virtual worlds, be they theatre, cinema, TV, or literature. The new virtual spaces that have been created for certain activities that can only be done there, are simply an extension of our means for expression and communication. This and nothing else is the point of virtual worlds.

This is why in the near future we will not be able to do without them anymore, whether the "real citizens" of this world like it or not.



For those who are interested in Kant's a priori notion, this may be a good intro: (German)

And for an intro to Descartes:

Of course a short glance at Wikipedia is no substitute for an in-depth study of Kant's or Descartes' works, and also these do not provide ultimate wisdom. There are new models of epistemology that, in part, strongly contradict those of these typical philosophers.

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen