Notes for Michael Heim The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality

FOREWORD [Myron E. Krueger]

(xii) Major technological breakthroughs loom on the horizon, such as the advent of virtual reality, the totally immersive computer simulation.
(xii) Virtual reality (VR) was born in this cybernetic dimension. From its embryonic stage, VR has been under constant social observation and discussion.

Trying to philosophically anticipate future ontological shift for digital to surrogate virtual reality; this effort has been supplanted by less ambitious humanities scholarship.

Book chapters organized to mirror progression from digital to virtual reality; regrettably, much of the book is recycling previous material, perhaps also a nod to the progression of digital reality.

(xiii) The ontological shift through digital symbols became in VR a full-fledged, aggressive, surrogate reality.
(xiii) The holistic background or world is the basic reality underlying our knowledge and awareness. Ontology, the study of being, is the effort to develop a peripheral vision by which we perceive and articulate the hidden background of beings, the world or context in which they become real and meaningful. The chapters of this book mirror the progression from digital to virtual reality.

(xviii) I had the good fortune early on to make the acquaintance of several pioneers in the VR (virtual reality) field. Their work in telepresence, teleoperators, and virtual reality fed my speculations.

(5) Digital writing is nearly frictionless. You formulate thoughts directly on screen. You don't have to consider whether you are writing the beginning, middle, or end of your text. (..) The flow of ideas flashes directly on screen.
(8) Language technology belongs to us more essentially than any tool. When a technology touches our language, it touches us where we live. The chief inventors of word processing were aware of this. These visionaries were not marketing a commercial product but seeking a revolution in the way we think.
(10) Infomania erodes our capacity for significance. With a mind-set fixed on information, our attention span shortens. We collect fragments. We become mentally poorer in overall meaning. We get into the habit of clinging to knowledge bits and lose our feel for the wisdom behind knowledge. In the information age, some people even believe that literacy or culture is a matter of having the right facts at our fingertips.
(10) We suffer from a logic of total management in which everything must be at our disposal.

(15) Boolean logic functions as a metaphor for the computer age, since it shows how we typically interrogate the world of information.
(16-17) Aristotle's symbols organized what was already given in direct statements. With Boolean logic, on the contrary, direct statements have value only as instances of the relationships among abstract symbols.
(17) When system precedes relevance, the way becomes clear for the primacy of information.
(19) From the outset, then, Boolean logic assumes that as a rule, we stand at a remove from direct statements about particular things in which we existing beings are actually, personally involved.
(21) As a medium, the computer relieves us of the exertion needed to pour our thoughts into an algebraic mold.
(22) The scanning mode infiltrates all our other modes of knowing. The byte, the breezy bit, and the verbal/visual hit take the place of heavier substance.
(25) Processing texts through a Boolean search enhances the power of conscious, rational control. Such rationality is not the contemplative, meditative meander along a line of thinking, that the search through books can be.

(30) hypertext is a dynamic referencing system in which all texts are interrelated.
(30) Hypertext fosters a literacy that is prompted by jumps of intuition and association.
(32) The term [hypertext] appeared in the speculations of Ted Nelson.
(32) I define hypertext as nonsequential writing with free user movement. It has nothing to do with computers logically; it has to do with computers pragmatically.
(36) Computer hardware is important only because it helps us realize a more flexible literacy.
(36) That initial germ for the birth of computers started with the rationalist philosophers of the seventeenth century who were passionate in their efforts to design a world language.
(37) Leibniz imagined a world federation based on common linguistic symbols.
(39) If the jump gains dominance over logical steps, hypertext literacy may epitomize the postmodern mentality.
(40) Our task is to hold onto the anchor of our own experience to find meaning in the sea of information.


Recycling ideas from Electric Writing.

(42) Writing traditionally meant composing ideas in your head, the habit of mentally formulating an ideational sequence.
(43) Peter Ramus was an obscure logician who lived from 1515 to 1572. As Walter Ong has shown, Ramus provides a key to understanding the way that print shaped modern culture.
(44) Ramus advocated knowledge outlines. The printing press could reproduce any number of pages displaying graphic trees that present summaries of a body of knowledge. (..) That is, the printed Ramist text is a visual encyclopedia of cultural literacy in which topics and their parts appear in a nutshell.
(44) Walter Ong correctly characterized modern philosophy--exemplified in the work of Rene Descartes--as binary, visualist, and monological.
(46) All assume--sometimes anachronistically--that outlines present the inner logical structure of thought.
(49-50) The outliner becomes a miniature database, which is the fundamental way in which symbols exist in the information age.
(51) The postmodern version of the idea differs in quality because of the sheer quantity of information available.
(51) The ultimate outliner would be a fully automatic program for text production. (..) But research continues and at least suggests differences between traditional and electronic outlining. One structures knowledge for ordered recall, and the other simulates the dynamism of a thought process.
(51) The link or nodal jump replaces the logical step as the most characteristic thought movement.
(53) Rather than order the implicative or subordinate relationship between statements, this software allows the user's attention to glide freely over nodes of linked thoughts.


There are also notes for this article that appeared in another journal. It also appears in Philosophy of Technology.

Heidegger and Computers
The Computer as Opponent
(59) The tendency to interpret reality as essentially lucid or representable goes back to Plato, according to Heidegger's early reading of Plato. Dreyfus sees in the computer, according to artificial intelligence researchers, the apotheosis of metaphysics.
(60) (Much recent AI research is turning away from the priority of formal algorithms and instead is looking to "fuzzy logic.")
(61) technology enters the inmost recesses of human existence, transforming the way we know and think and will.
(62) Could we, twenty-five years later, translate what Heidegger meant by using the English term computer instead of language machine?
The Computer as Component
(62) The "language machine" was Heidegger's groping term for the incipient phenomenon of word processing.
(64) The information environment allows gestures to work in ways that leave behind the industrial machine with its cumbersome but efficient mediation of human energy and attention. The electronic element shifts the quality of action to another level.
(65) At our fingertips is the calculating machine dreamed of by Pascal and Leibniz, the fathers of modern metaphysics, but now this calculator operates on our language as we spontaneously produce it.
McLuhan and Computers

(75) Instead of removing people from their work, our technology connects us to our work, putting us directly into our activities.
(76) Occasionally a buzzword strikes a deeper resonance: the word buzzes, we push on it, and suddenly a magic door swings open to who we are and where we stand in history. Such buzzwords are keywords. (..) Keywords cut across our whole cultural world, and interface is a keyword.
(77) An interface occurs where two or more information sources come face-to-face.
(78) Interface denotes a contact point where software links the human user to computer processors.
(78) In the information age, a mystic glow surrounds the term cyberspace.
(80) The basic world we incarnate gradually is lost in our attention to the cognitive and imagined worlds. To offset the loss, we need to preserve what remains of the wisdom of Far Eastern philosophy, particularly Taoism with its profound system of internal body awareness.


Erotic ontology of cyberspace imbricates embodiment.

Our Marriage to Technology
(85) Our fascination with computers is more erotic than sensuous, more spiritual than utilitarian.
The Romance of Neuromancer
(88) Only a short philosophical step separates this Platonic notion of knowledge from the matrix of cyberspace entities.
(89) The computer clothes the details of empirical experience so that they seem to share the ideality of the stable knowledge of the Forms.
The Inner Structure of Cyberspace
Leibniz's Electric Language
(92) Leibniz was the first to conceive of an "electric language," a set of symbols engineered for manipulation at the speed of thought.
Monads Do Have Terminals
Paradoxes in the Cultural Terrain of Cyberspace
(103) When we speak of a global village, we should keep in mind that every village makes villains, and when civilization reaches a certain degree of density, the barbaric tribes return, from within.
(104) The electronic world, unlike the traditional book industry, does not protect its readers or travelers by following rules that set up certain expectations.
The Underlying Fault

Underlying fault of simulacral virtual realities is inability for uncontrolled, unsupervised activities; thus interest in Grand Theft Auto because of putative ability to go off the script.

(105) Computerized reality synthesizes everything through calculation, and nothing exists in the synthetic world that is not literally numbered and counted.
(106) While matrix users feel geographical and intellectual distances melt away, the price they pay is their ability to initiate uncontrolled and unsupervised activity.
(107) If I am right about the erotic basis of cyberspace, then the surrogate body undoes its genesis, contradicts its nature. The ideal of the simultaneous all-at-once-ness of computerized information access undermines any world that is worth knowing.


Answer philosophical question what is virtual reality with concepts: simulation, interaction, artificiality, immersion, telepresence.

(110) To answer what VR is, we need concepts, not samples or dictionary phrases or negative definitions.
Full-Body Immersion
Networked Communications

(118) If for two thousand years Western culture has puzzled over the meaning of reality, we cannot expect ourselves in two minutes, or even two decades, to arrive at the meaning of virtual reality.
(118) Behind the development of every major technology lies a vision.
(119) The visionary ideas fueling Tsiolkovsky and the early Russian explorers came from N. F. Federov.
(120) we must conquer nature in order to resurrect our ancestors, the ultimate act of altruism.
(122) The essence of the American space program, its heart and soul, comes from "Star Trek."
Where in VR is a counterpart to the space program's esoteric essence?
Remote Presence
Augmented Reality

From Naive Realism to Irrealism
Realism and Irrealism: Both Unrealistic
The Vocabulary of Virtuality

(132) The virtual in virtual reality goes back to a linguistic distinction formulated in medieval Europe [Duns Scotus].
(133) A virtual world needs to be not-quite-real or it will lessen the pull on imagination.
The Virtues of Cyberspace
(134) This inner map we make for ourselves, plus the layout of the software, is cyberspace.
Virtual Realities Without Ontological Security
The Three Hooks on the Reality Anchor

mortality/natality, temporality, fragility.

Can the ultimate VR experience really broach the philosophical sublime if regulated by consumer capitalism?

(137) Actual cyberspace should do more: it should evoke the imagination, not repeat the world.
(137) The ultimate VR is a philosophical experience, probably an experience of the sublime or awesome.


Acknowledging self criticality of VR points to special reflexive version of social construction of technology approach.

(142) The West Coast wants VR to serve as a machine-driven LSD that brings about a revolution in consciousness; the East Coast wants a new tool for supporting current projects and solving given problems.
(143) VR is the first technology to be born socially self-critical.




Heim, Michael (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heim, Michael. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.