20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Technology

The Win of the Sign Over the Signed: Philosophy for a Society in this Day and Age of Virtual Reality

Jörg Wurzer

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: Virtual reality is more than only high tech. We encounter this phenomenon in everyday media worlds and economy. The sign dominates the signed. Philosophy can describe this phenomenon by means of a different ontological analysis following Poppers theory of the three worlds and can prepare new ontological categories for knowledge of acting.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

After twenty minutes the test person seems to be absent absent. With a cyberhelmet on his head he looks around the virtual room. Whereever he looks, he faces a computer landscape from every perspective. The hand in the cyberspace glove gropes for its way like in a vacuum space. But it touches the things which cross the way. The test person is located in the middle of a virtual world. In the room, where the computer is located, other people wait for the test.

If the topic is virtual reality, scenes like described above are associated: High tech cyberspace on fast parallel comuters - if possible with a complete datasuit that allows to immerse almost completely into artificial worlds -, hovering through space, digital labyrinths and yet not built houses. But this examples only describes the tip of the iceberg. Under the watersurface of the extraordinary there is a wide ranging phenomenon of virtual realities: The economy with its big companies, transfers capital and networks dissolves to virtual entities. People get lost in entertainment in virtual landscapes and make friends via chatting. Scientists investigate phenomena of nature by reconstructed simulation and practicians design the future by a CAD program. People order pizza by internet, they flirt, make business, take journeys, join further education or talk with a coach.

There is a virtualisation of the whole being. The classical differenciation between appearance and reality becomes blured. The simulation, in which people can walk around, is not fictive. It is not pure imagination, but something realized. It is reality although it is virtual. Economy makes it clear: Money and Capital are virtual entities. They determine our everyday life and they often decide about prosperity and poverty. The autonomy of virtual reality is even growing while gathering momentum. A computer simulation for example generates itself without external influence. That could be compared with numerous experiments with cellular machines (Herber P. Franke, Das P-Prinzip. Naturgesetzt im rechnenden Raum, Frankfurt am Main 1995). But also media worlds have their own dynamic. Tv world news and ezines do not only report, but create own realities. Recently, an editor applied for a job in a magazine offering his special service "reality design".

First of all philosophy has the task to analyse exactly the phenomenon of virtual reality: What kind of reality do exist? How are virtual and empirical realities connected? How do virtual realities change our way of thinking and our world in that we live? A differenciated ontology is necessary, which knows more than the three classical modalities possibility, reality and necessarity. The following essay outlines conceivable answers.

1 Virtual reality and everyday life

"In every case there is a virtual camera in our head and our whole life has become a video dimension", writes the french philosopher Jean Baudrillard about the modern human being (Jean Baudrillard, Die Illusion und die Virtualität, Bern 1994). Reality is something which is mediated via media. Reality is that, what has been tecnically understood, edited and published. An event becomes an event, when it is cought by a camera. As well our yearly vacation event is realized time shifted in front of tv at home, showing the video pictures. The world in that we live appears through a small window . For most people world events and the imagination of political reality is a puzzle of information, photographs and video pictures. Only a few know the places where important decisions of politics and economy are made. The accidental puzzle as a result of bored zapping through tv channels determines what is considered as important. That what takes place where we live is converted to a bare adress for a society sitting in a protected car driving between home and workplace.

The point of view of the camera has become a feeling of being alive - so Baudrillard. The own life and the people we meet are under the sheme of tv dramaturgy. Fictive stories and artificial situations are a model for own behaviour and for the own way of life. The inscenated changes with the authentical.

The world wide network implies great chances: The enlightenment of events and connections in the whole world. But it also demands a media competence and high ranking criteria. If information and available knowledge is increasing, it becomes more and more difficult to focus on interdependation and to rate information. The result could be an indifferent hissing through information: infotainment, advertising, public relations, event marketing and reporting flow together to a colourfull unity. The things which are classified as real, have to align with the esthetic and dramatic rules of the media.

The "others" often meet us via media in the virtual world of world wide computer network internet as a homepage, as a message in an email or as a textline of a chat or multi user. The sign signs the signed. More and more, the others are accessible only by signs. But: Which person is it? Wo is meant? There is free choice of identity for the "other". He or she can easily program herself and even get more than one identity. If the "I" constitutes itself by the "you", the own identity is also concerned. In the virtual space the "I" can live its phantasy and creates itself new: "You are what you type." By getting more than one identity the "I" can also declare itself as the "you".

But the positive evolution should also be considered. Virtual realities give the chance to test new roles, to come into contact with people without telling everything. But where the "I" does no longer need the "you" where it can strike against, form and prove itself, the "I" looses profile and conciousness.

2 Virtual reality and economy

The momentum and the influence of virtual reality becomes clearer in economy. It is increasingly leaving the empirical reality. Behind the production of costly and detailed products are big companies having no large fixed staffand only one single lokation. In the sense of the main competence management, there are more and more virtual companies working as networks of small companies, ingeneer bureaus. service provider and freelancer who work on changing projects. Eventually, a company exists only with a name and a team coordinating different activities.

Virtuality is not a new phenomenon of economy. Having been a material placeholder, today, money remains as a column of numbers on a glimmering monitor at stock exchanges, banks and accounting departments. Not only the materiality of money has dissolved itself long ago, but also the reference to the empirical world. Stock market and capital transfers react to speculations und small chenges theirselves. The ditch between the increase of this virtual quantitiy and empirical reality is growing. The measurement of the gross national product (GNP) compared with the index of sustainable economic wellfare (ISEW) illustrates this feature. At the early and main phase of industrialization both quantities had been moving paralell. Later this situation had changed and in the middle of the 70th these quantities has been moved in different direction in the industrial countries: When the GNP is encreasing, the ISEW is falling (Herman Daly, John B. Cobb, The Environment and a Susteinable Future, Boston 1989). Symbolic worlds have taken over the leadership over the empirical reality. That is dangerous, althoug the symbolic worlds are so important for a differenciated society.

3 Virtual reality and science

Today experiments can be reconstructed by computer simulations. Processes of nature are simulated and can be prodicted. Because of this fact theories find an illustrated translation to virtual realities. They are even proved by these simulations. Aso for the mediation of theories virtual worlds offer a more simple access to the contents. They give the impression of meeting the nature in a pure form without disturbing blurations and difficult conditions of measurement. Comparable to everyday mediaworlds which move an event into reality a simulation should sharpen the look for the actual and essential. the picture becomes the model, for example as in the case of architecture. The house that is already completed in cyberspace, is the paradigm for the house in the empirical reality that still has to be built. The sing dominates the signed.

The interconnection and also the ditch beetween both virtual and empiric world make us think about a new way of being. Which kind of being can we recognize? Which ontological state have the virtual worlds? This problem will be explained by Karl Poppers theory of the three worlds (Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge. An evolutionary Approach, Oxford 1972):

World 1 represents the empirical world with all the physical "objects": houses, trees, people, electromagnetic waves and molecules. World 2 describes for Popper the area of subjective reality: thoughts, emotions, feelings and convictions. They exist in the head of a human being. But for scientific theories Popper determines world 3. The reason is, that they do not only exist in the head of single person, but they are objectively fixed through writing or other signs. Because of this fact they are accessible for many people and can be discussed. The scientific discussion receives an objective reference for fixed theories which can be falsifierd or confirmed by aimed empiric tests.

To which world refer virtual realities? In the scientific context it is clearly world 3. For example, theories of natural processes find in a simulation of a physical process a multimedial translation. This reference can make clear the difference to the classical media by having a look on the possible relation between world 1, world 2 and world 3. No question: A sunny weather (world 1) can effect optimistic emotions (world 2). World 2 also can have an impact on world 3. This is even the presuppostition for the genesis of world 3: The scientist thinks about an experiment (world 2) and finally formulates some hypothesises (world 3). The opposite way is also possible. Theories of world 3 stimulate a scientist to create new thoughts (world 2) who therefore generates some experiments (world 1). But world 3 can never influence world 1 directly and vice versa. To achive this, the mediation of world 2 is necessary.

Virtual computerworlds change that fact. For example a computer engineer programes a virtual reality application that shows the producion of some machines. A theory of the function of these machines finds the way to world 3. Sensores (world 1) deliver data of the current state of the mashines. When the program is running, there is a direct connection of world 1 and world 3. If the programe receives data by the sensores, which in theory (virtual representation of the mashine) would cause a mistake of the production (for example unstable transfer of energy) the real mashine would be stopped by a steering system. As a consequence, world 3 effects directly world 1. Poppers original linear relation of world 1, 2 and 3 becomes a cycle.

In order to understand the virtualization of being, it is important to pay attention to this cycle. Not all the relations of virtual realites are as simple as described. Some virtual realities can be caused by other virtual realities but they can reeffect the empirical reality. Economic quanities which orininally define the real situation (world 1) can be influenced by simulations and predictive software (world 3) causing investores and shareholders to decide about buying and selling (world 2). These decisions can strengthen or weaken a company with the result of a changing staff (world 1).

4 Virtual reality an philosophy

It is sensible to suppose a satsfaction of realities (world A, world B, world C, world D, ...). Not all realities of simulations and multimedial representations in the range of virtual organisations up to media worlds are on the same ontological level. They can be seen interlocking and build upon others. There has to be sharpen the point of view towards the relation in wich they stand to Poppers theory of the three worlds. By what are they influenced and which worlds do they influence?

In the context of physical quantities we know the grading of stability of constants, parameters and variables. If constants are changing, parameters and variables are also changing. But if only parameters change, constants remain unchanged but variables change. Something similar can be understood in an ontological point of view. Instead of a rigid pattern of empirical and virtual reality we should talk about different levels of stability of a reality. An analysis of interfaces is decisive. Even for realizing empirical reality a human being has only alimited section for his conviction and his possibilities for acting. The question must be: Where does world A interact with world B, with world C, ...? How are they connected?

An ontological analysis avoids an overhasted conclusion from virtual reality to epirical reality if the first one is realized as the essential and real because it is all to obvious. In the described case of science or architecture the reality could stand for an unsharp and bad picture of the virtual. That would be a platonism in a modern way of thinking. As for the antique philosopher Platon the ideas symbolized the real and not changeable, in this day and age of virtual reality it is the clean cyberspace. There we meet platonic triangles and tables emerged from preceise mathmatical descriptions. They can be copied, printed, scanned and rebuild by the demiurge.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage