Thoughts on the Nature of the Virtual

Tsekeris, C. ACM, 2012.
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  9/11/12 12:48 AMThoughts on the Nature of the VirtualPage 1 of 5 | Articles THOUGHTS ON THE NATURE OF THE VIRTUAL July 2008  | BY CHARALAMBOS TSEKERIS To view the full citation in the ACM Digital Library please click here This article seeks to formulate some brief sociological and philosophicalthoughts on the radically problematic nature and character of the virtual.These ultimately aim to critically challenge and reinvent the complexinterrelations of contemporary virtuality to the real and the political. In such acontext, new media studies acquire a normative impetus.In the age of the hypersphere (Regis Debray), the unbridled digitalization ofknowledge (including scientific knowledge) has rapidly signified a higheruniversal cyber-order. In specific, cyberspace, or the ever-expanding, chaotic space of communication opened up by a world-wide interconnection ofcomputers and informational memories (Levy 1997: 107), increasinglyconstitutes a global social event.Actually, nothing is more social than the hyper- or the cyber-world itself (anevolving ateleological, deterritorialized and complex Deleuzian world, withoutends, centres, and Gods). It creatively welcomes alterity (or non-identity) andgenerously gives a voice to almost everything. Everyone is potentially able toefficiently communicate and socialize with everyone (who's not physicallypresent)! And this epochal non-linear process comprehensively allowshumanity (as a whole) to reflexively communicate with itself!The on-going integration of many computers into a word-wide electronicnetwork enables human minds and communities to fruitfully interconnect toeach other in and through a self-expressive anonymous thinking collective ora collective intelligence (Pierre Levy), which is unified in its vast diversity andmade possible through the fluid hypersphere. This ultimately coincides withhumanity's radical potential to consciously re-discover and realize itself(without essences or transcendences): History is the adventure ofconsciousness (Levy 2000: 46).In this respect, cyberspace can be imaginatively compared with some kind ofa collective brain, an emergent social megapsyche or the hypercortex ofAnthropia, the daughter of Gaia (Levy 1998: 65, 114). Moreover, theaforementioned fruitful interconnection of minds and communities haseventually resulted in a dynamic circular-dialectical   relationship between theexternal and the internal, the visible and the hidden, the outside and theinside, the objective and the subjective, the collective and the individual, thetextual and the corporeal, the global and the local1. These Cartesianopposites have now become so thoroughly integrated that one can onlyanalytically distinguish between them (though clear-cut analytical definitionsare still very difficult).In fact, they form a seamless web (Bruno Latour) where, according to thewell-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).  9/11/12 12:48 AMThoughts on the Nature of the VirtualPage 2 of 5 Accordingly, the (hyper-)technological, the socio-cultural and the individualdemiurgically co-produce each other and synergistically co-evolve, in a highlyunpredictable way. In this common sociotechnical universe, where order andunity mutually come from chaotic noise (Heinz von Foerster), the futurecannot be fully predicted anymore; it just becomes a mere possibility. Nothingis written in advance2.In particular, no prediction can be decisively made if we do not seriously takeinto account an indispensable predictability horizon - that is, the short timeperiod 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 & Koulouris2004: 34).Social agents often perform collective behaviours with unintended, unforeseenand unanticipated macro-social structural outcomes and side-effects ( taking systems dramatically away from equilibrium  ): Systems can reach 'tippingpoints', when what seem like long-term stabilities unpredictably flip over intotheir apparent opposite !  This provides a rich and critical agenda for acomplexity take on global dis/order (Urry 2005: 251). Such outcomes andside-effects have been right at the forefront of various debates by bothsociologists (e.g., Weber, Giddens, Beck, Lash) and economists (e.g., Hayek,Menger, Smith). A panoptical mimetic re-presentation of the a-centric anddisorderly (but not anarchic) social totality is forever impossible and so issteering (see Luhmann 1990).We thus move beyond the Enlightenment need for grand intellectual heroes,or compassionate social engineers (designing unflawed systems), and theutopian/narcissistic modernist dreams (delusions) of unlimited theoreticalwisdom and epistemological perfection - without however devaluing scienceor 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 webscience have radically transformed our received homogeneous, purist andorderly 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 ofpredictability/controllability and objectification.Of course, it follows that the virtual is not autonomous anymore. As ProfessorJeff Malpas has recently argued, the non-autonomy of the virtual means thatthe 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 (Malpas2008).In the same line, Manuel Castells imaginatively refers to the virtual as thefundamental material basis on which we live our existence, construct oursystem of representation, practice our work, link up with other people, retrieveinformation, form our opinions, act in politics, and nurture our dreams (2001:203).Against the technophobic rejection of the internet (e.g. Virilio) and theBaudrillardian simulation theory3 which is strongly pessimistic and anti-realist(though practical simulation is both future-oriented and empiricist) !  virtualitytheory is equally strongly optimistic (although practical virtual reality is open tocriticisms 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  9/11/12 12:48 AMThoughts on the Nature of the VirtualPage 3 of 5 real as life off line, even if it is not always actualized.Contrary to the widespread post-structuralist myth of a virtual life completelyfree from the physical constraints of biological bodies and materiality, as wellas any form of cyberutopian voluntarism    which argues that dematerializationallows participants to liberate themselves from normative fixity ... we shouldlook to the normative orders that operate in cyberspace in order to explain thekinds 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. Thiscalls 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 perhapsrather an incarnation   of the textual (Sunden 2003: 109).But where is the so-called normative dimension (Andrew Sayer) aroundhere? Perhaps, it is located within systematic democratic attempts to activelyreject the internet as celebrating the universal advance of neo-liberalism, thedissolution 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, newmedia technologies (especially, web 2.0) should strategically foster emergingon-line social network models and radical electronic citizenship practices, asalternative forms of political engagement and action (potentially available tooppositional, oppressed, or excluded social groups and communities).Social web is thus an important means of consciousness-raising andempowerment ( globalization from below  ), which optimistically signifies thecritical use of technology (digital media of communication and other culturalforms) to enact small (everyday) revolutions in the here-and-now, to increasethe 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 surferinto a commodity, into a passive informational being or, more generally, intosomething other than human. In the last instance, as Arun Kumar Tripathiperceptively suggests, we ought to develop a new mode of action to deal withtechnological 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 onlinepedagogy (Andrew Feenberg), which would be able to empiricallydemonstrate internet's humanist dimension (over against contemporarynihilistic expressions of post-humanism ) and emancipatory orientation. Theglobal cyberworld demands a comprehensive humanist political project inorder to substantially help people tolerate each other (Dominique Wolton).Technological progress cannot enhance human and social communicationunless we courageously set into motion the subversive dynamic of aneveryday 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 socialcontext.The fears and risks associated with new technologies are unevenly sociallydistributed.Virtual technologies supplement rather than substitute for real activities.  9/11/12 12:48 AMThoughts on the Nature of the VirtualPage 4 of 5 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 adynamic, multi-dimensional and changing truth bounded by perspective, timeand space. To a large extent, this was due to the reflexive sensitization ofmodern science, from Biology to the Human Sciences, which gradually begunto self-consciously and self-critically look at itself and discover its own limitsand weaknesses, especially since the first formulations of early 20th centuryPhysics (e.g. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, Heisenberg's Theory ofUncertainty and Prigogine's Theory of the Dissipative Structures).3 For the French philosopher and media theorist Jean Baudrillard, society hasgradually become a self-replicating Code, a homeostatic system . Accordingto 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 Katerelos, I. & A. Koulouris (2004) Is prediction possible? Chaotic behaviourof 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: OdileJacob.Levy, P. (1998) Qu'est-ce que le virtuel?  . Paris: La D ! couverte.Levy, P. (2000) World Philosophie. Le marche, le cyberespace, la conscience  .Paris: Odile Jacob.Losh, E. (2005) Virtualpolitik: Obstacles to Building Virtual Communities inTraditional Institutions of Knowledge Center for Studies in Higher Education  .Paper CSHE-9-05. Luhmann, N. (1990) Essays on Self-Reference  . New York: ColumbiaUniversity 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 InvisibleComputing Ubiquity   6(17).Tsekeris, Charalambos. Technopolitics. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology  . Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. BlackwellReference Online. 13 June 2008 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 BioDr. Charalambos Tsekeris is currently lecturing at Panteion University of
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