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Thoughts on the Nature of the Virtual

Ubiquity, Volume 2008 Issue July | BY Charalambos Tsekeris 

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This article seeks to formulate some brief sociological and philosophical thoughts on the radically problematic nature and character of the virtual. These ultimately aim to critically challenge and reinvent the complex interrelations of contemporary virtuality to the real and the political. In such a context, new media studies acquire a normative impetus.


In the age of the "hypersphere" (Regis Debray), the unbridled digitalization of knowledge (including scientific knowledge) has rapidly signified a higher universal cyber-order. In specific, cyberspace, or the ever-expanding, chaotic "space of communication opened up by a world-wide interconnection of computers and informational memories" (Levy 1997: 107), increasingly constitutes a global social event.

Actually, nothing is more social than the hyper- or the cyber-world itself (an evolving ateleological, deterritorialized and complex Deleuzian world, without ends, centres, and Gods). It creatively welcomes alterity (or non-identity) and generously gives a voice to almost everything. Everyone is potentially able to efficiently communicate and socialize with everyone (who's not physically present)! And this epochal non-linear process comprehensively allows humanity (as a whole) to reflexively communicate with itself!

The on-going integration of many computers into a word-wide electronic network enables human minds and communities to fruitfully interconnect to each other in and through a self-expressive anonymous "thinking collective" or a "collective intelligence" (Pierre Levy), which is unified in its vast diversity and made possible through the fluid hypersphere. This ultimately coincides with humanity's radical potential to consciously re-discover and realize itself (without essences or transcendences): "History is the adventure of consciousness" (Levy 2000: 46).

In this respect, cyberspace can be imaginatively compared with some kind of a collective brain, an emergent "social megapsyche" or the "hypercortex of Anthropia, the daughter of Gaia" (Levy 1998: 65, 114). Moreover, the aforementioned fruitful interconnection of minds and communities has eventually resulted in a dynamic circular-dialectical relationship between the external and the internal, the visible and the hidden, the outside and the inside, the objective and the subjective, the collective and the individual, the textual and the corporeal, the global and the local1. These Cartesian opposites have now become so thoroughly integrated that one can only analytically distinguish between them (though clear-cut analytical definitions are still very difficult).

In fact, they form a "seamless web" (Bruno Latour) where, according to the well-established sociological principle of performative reality-construction (see, for example, Law & Urry 2004), the making of what we know in-here (on-line) goes hand in hand with the making of what there is out-there (off-line).

Accordingly, the (hyper-)technological, the socio-cultural and the individual demiurgically co-produce each other and synergistically co-evolve, in a highly unpredictable way. In this common sociotechnical universe, where order and unity mutually come from "chaotic noise" (Heinz von Foerster), the future cannot be fully predicted anymore; it just becomes a mere possibility. Nothing is written in advance2.

In particular, no prediction can be decisively made if we do not seriously take into account an indispensable "predictability horizon" - that is, the "short time period during which above-chance prediction can occur in a chaotic system … Hence, the question of prediction shifts from 'controlling accurate values' to 'controlling the error propagation of inaccurate values'" (Katerelos & Koulouris 2004: 34).

Social agents often perform collective behaviours with unintended, unforeseen and unanticipated macro-social structural outcomes and side-effects (taking systems dramatically away from equilibrium): "Systems can reach 'tipping points', when what seem like long-term stabilities unpredictably flip over into their apparent opposite … This provides a rich and critical agenda for a complexity take on global dis/order" (Urry 2005: 251). Such "outcomes and side-effects" have been right at the forefront of various debates by both sociologists (e.g., Weber, Giddens, Beck, Lash) and economists (e.g., Hayek, Menger, Smith). A panoptical mimetic re-presentation of the a-centric and disorderly (but not anarchic) social totality is forever impossible and so is steering (see Luhmann 1990).

We thus move beyond the Enlightenment need for grand intellectual heroes, or compassionate social engineers (designing unflawed systems), and the utopian/narcissistic modernist dreams (delusions) of unlimited theoretical wisdom and epistemological perfection - without however devaluing science or eschewing issues of value, justice, politics and accountability.

Complexity, performativity, self-reference, the "observer" (seen as changing that which is observed), randomness, non-linearity and unpredictability (leading to entropic chaos and generating surprises) in "post-modern" web science have radically transformed our "received" homogeneous, purist and orderly view of (techno)scientific knowledge, as being the magic self-immunizing tool for deterministic control over nature and society, into a second-order reflection on factuality and the ephemeral (contingent) limits of predictability/controllability and objectification.

Of course, it follows that the virtual is not autonomous anymore. As Professor Jeff Malpas has recently argued, "the non-autonomy of the virtual means that the virtual is causally and contentually interconnected with the everyday … The non-autonomy of the virtual allows us to grasp both the constructed or 'fictional' character of the virtual as well as the reality of the virtual" (Malpas 2008).

In the same line, Manuel Castells imaginatively refers to the virtual as the fundamental "material basis on which we live our existence, construct our system of representation, practice our work, link up with other people, retrieve information, form our opinions, act in politics, and nurture our dreams" (2001: 203).

Against the technophobic rejection of the internet (e.g. Virilio) and the Baudrillardian simulation theory3 which is "strongly pessimistic and anti-realist (though practical simulation is both future-oriented and empiricist) … virtuality theory is equally strongly optimistic (although practical virtual reality is open to criticisms of nostalgic reconstruction of Enlightenment ideals)" (Cubitt 2007). Thus, the "contingent", "relational" and "rhizomatic" virtual world is no less real (or less promising) than "real life" (off-line world). Virtual reality is exactly as real as life off line, even if it is not always actualized.

Contrary to the widespread post-structuralist myth of a virtual life completely free from the physical constraints of biological bodies and materiality, as well as any form of cyberutopian voluntarism "which argues that dematerialization allows participants to liberate themselves from normative fixity ... we should look to the normative orders that operate in cyberspace in order to explain the kinds of materiality that are in fact produced there" (Slater 2002: 228).

The virtual cannot merely be seen as either "mirroring" (realistic determinism) or "eliminating" (visualistic determinism) the physical and the corpo-real. This calls for a middle situation whereby "a text-based virtual world might be an extension of the corporeal, as well as the physical a refiguration or perhaps rather an incarnation of the textual" (Sunden 2003: 109).

But where is the so-called "normative dimension" (Andrew Sayer) around here? Perhaps, it is located within systematic democratic attempts to actively reject the internet as celebrating the universal advance of neo-liberalism, the dissolution of the social bond (through forms of digital inequality and injustice) and the commodification of knowledge and the contents of consciousness.

Instead of merely reproducing the silent oppressive logic of capitalism, new media technologies (especially, web 2.0) should strategically foster emerging on-line social network models and radical electronic citizenship practices, as alternative forms of political engagement and action (potentially available to oppositional, oppressed, or excluded social groups and communities).

Social web is thus an important means of consciousness-raising and empowerment (globalization from below), which optimistically signifies the critical use of technology (digital media of communication and other cultural forms) to enact small (everyday) revolutions in the here-and-now, to increase the sense of community, and to serve the vital need for global peace, equality, and justice (Tsekeris 2007).

It also signifies resistance to the capitalist waves of transforming the surfer into a commodity, into a passive informational being or, more generally, into something other than human. In the last instance, as Arun Kumar Tripathi perceptively suggests, we ought to "develop a new mode of action to deal with technological development", as well as to "make a plea for a NEW ETHICS, which can be defined as "Technological Ethics" and to develop a suitable "technikethik" with "Umgangswissen"" (Tripathi 2005).

What we additionally need here is a critical discursive form of "online pedagogy" (Andrew Feenberg), which would be able to empirically demonstrate internet's humanist dimension (over against contemporary nihilistic expressions of "post-humanism") and emancipatory orientation. The global cyberworld demands a comprehensive humanist political project in order to substantially "help people tolerate each other" (Dominique Wolton). Technological progress cannot enhance human and social communication unless we courageously set into motion the subversive dynamic of an everyday practice-oriented Virtualpolitik (Losh 2005).

Notes

1 According to the "five rules of virtuality" formulated by Steve Woolgar (2002: 14-20):
The uptake and use of the technologies depend crucially on local social context.
The fears and risks associated with new technologies are unevenly socially distributed.
Virtual technologies supplement rather than substitute for real activities.
The more virtual the more real.
The more global the more local.

2 In the 20th century, the static view of truth had been actively replaced by a dynamic, multi-dimensional and changing truth bounded by perspective, time and space. To a large extent, this was due to the reflexive sensitization of modern science, from Biology to the Human Sciences, which gradually begun to self-consciously and self-critically look at itself and discover its own limits and weaknesses, especially since the first formulations of early 20th century Physics (e.g. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, Heisenberg's Theory of Uncertainty and Prigogine's Theory of the Dissipative Structures).

3 For the French philosopher and media theorist Jean Baudrillard, society has gradually become "a self-replicating Code, a homeostatic system". According to the simulacrum's four historical phases (Cubitt 2007):
(a) "it is the reflection of a profound reality"
(b) "it masks and denatures a profound reality"
(c) "it masks the absence of a profound reality"
(d) "it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum"

References

Castells, M. (2001) The Internet Galaxy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cubitt, Sean. "Simulation and Virtuality." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 13 June 2008 http://www.sociologyencyclopedia.com/subscriber/tocnode?id=...
Katerelos, I. & A. Koulouris (2004) "Is prediction possible? Chaotic behaviour of Multiple Equilibria Regulation Model in cellular automata topology" Complexity 10(1): 23-36.
Law, J. & Urry, J. (2004) "Enacting the social" Economy and Society 33(3): 390-410.
Levy, P. (1997) Cyberculture. Rapport au conseil de l'Europe. Paris: Odile Jacob.
Levy, P. (1998) Qu'est-ce que le virtuel?. Paris: La Découverte.
Levy, P. (2000) World Philosophie. Le marche, le cyberespace, la conscience. Paris: Odile Jacob.
Losh, E. (2005) "Virtualpolitik: Obstacles to Building Virtual Communities in Traditional Institutions of Knowledge" Center for Studies in Higher Education. Paper CSHE-9-05. http://repositories.cdlib.org/cshe/CSHE-9-05
Luhmann, N. (1990) Essays on Self-Reference. New York: Columbia University Press.
Malpas, J. (2008) "The Non-Autonomy of the Virtual" Ubiquity 9(19).
Slater, D. (2002) "Making Things Real" Theory, Culture & Society 19(5/6): 227-245.
Sunden, J. (2003) Material Virtualities: Approaching Online Textual Embodiment. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Tripathi, A. K. (2005) "Reflections on Challenges to the Goal of Invisible Computing" Ubiquity 6(17).
Tsekeris, Charalambos. "Technopolitics." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 13 June 2008 http://www.sociologyencyclopedia.com/subscriber/tocnode?...
Urry, J. (2005) "The Complexities of the Global" Theory, Culture & Society 22(5): 235-254.
Woolgar, S. (ed.) (2002) Virtual society? Technology, cyberbole, reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Author's Bio

Dr. Charalambos Tsekeris is currently lecturing at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Department of Psychology, Athens, Greece. He graduated from Brunel University (Department of Human Sciences, 2000) and earned his doctoral degree in Sociology and Epistemology from Athens Panteion University (Department of Sociology, 2006). He is a member of the Greek Sociological Association, co-editor of the peer-reviewed Intellectum Interdisciplinary Journal, and an active researcher on the complex relationships between technoscience, cyberculture and democratic politics.

Source: Ubiquity Volume 9, Issue 28 (July 15 - 21, 2008)

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