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Chapter 45 ~ “Heidegger and McLuhan and The Essence of Virtual Reality” by Michael H. Heim September 21, 2009

Posted by Shon in 5369, Carter, Philosophy of Technology, TCR, Technology.
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Chapter 45 ~ “Heidegger and McLuhan and The Essence of Virtual Reality” by Michael H. Heim (1997)

5 Heidegger and McLuhan: the Computer as Component

Heidegger and Computers
In the initial section of this work, Heim talks about Heidegger’s thoughts on technology and how technology and the looming development of computers could adversely affect and challenge “the legacy of human thought” as well as how we will come to process information — or if we even will.

Heim ends this section with the question, “Just what were the specific dangers of computers,” at which he states his initial “philosophical answer to this question was what I call the computer as opponent. In this approach, the computer appears as a rival intelligence that challenges the human being to a contest” (540).

The Computer as Opponent
Heim brings up Hubert Dreyfus, who argues “that we must delineate carefully what computers can and cannot do, lest we become unrealistic about computers and fall into a misunderstanding of the kind of beings we ourselves are” (540). Dreyfus also argued about information processing and the belief by some that human thought could be replicated because “human thinking operates in formal patterns” that could be easily replicated in computers.

Using Heidegger’s critique of technology to computers, Dreyfus seemed to see a combative stance between computers and humans, which caused him to see “the computer too narrowly as an artificial device” (541), and this notion moves us away from the real concern, which is not computers versus humans but we computers and humans can collaborate.

A part of me wonders if this “battle” they suggest between humans and computers is really a battle. Can you call something a battle if one opponent appears not to be fighting, but in fact creating an existence in which what they created (computers, other technologies) do all the work so that man can have more leisure?

By looking at how we work WITH computers, computers can now be seen as components instead of opponents. This relationship with computers also makes us ask an important question: how do computers, which have infiltrated every facet of our existence, shape our realities?

Going back to Heidegger, Heim concludes this section by examining that it’s not technology (or computers) that have the ability to overrun humans, but that humans by “being-with” technology (and computers) integrate technology, computers into our lives in a way that they affect the way we think, know, and will.

Heim also brings forth Heidegger’s notion of “the language machine” and equates it to the computer.

The Computer as Component
Heim discusses Heidegger’s criticism of the typewriter and its ability to remove “the word” from man’s hand. Heim disagrees with Heidegger’s assessment, stating how the computer (of which Heidegger was not around to see) actually brings the “hand” back into the interplay with words.

But he does state that Heidegger was right on the mark in regards to his fear “that electronic digital text might absorb his own work” (543).

Really love the quote “The word processor is the calculator of the humanist, giving its users the power to manipulate written language in new ways” (543). I recall hearing math teachers groan over the use of calculator. “Even for the most simplest of calculations,” they would say, “students are running to calculators for the answer,” moving the responsibility of thinking from the human to the technology. Are we not doing the same with computers? Sometimes, I think yes.

Toward the conclusion of this section, Heim asked, “What did he [Heidegger] mean when he said the language machine would ‘take language into its management and master the essence of the human being’?” (543). For me, I think again this is not about technology/computers taking over us so much as it’s about what “knowledge” humans place on computers and how this knowledge allows computers to do more and for humans to do less.

Because Heidegger never states clearly whether he’s optimistic or pessimistic about his thoughts, Heim likens him to Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan and Computers
First, we learn of a few similarities between Heidegger and McLuhan:
1- Each man believed their reflections on technology were more important than their personal value judgments on technology.
2- Each man saw intimate connections between information technology and the way the mind works.
3- Each man was fascinated by the role technology played in shaping and defining reality.
4- Each man “considered the most awesome power of technology to reside in its newly achieved intimacy with language” (544).

McLuhan seems to agree with Heidegger “that language technology belongs to us more essentially than does any other tool” (544) because once something touches our language, it touches us completely.

Here, Heim moves from McLuhan to Walter Ong and examines two major shifts in knowledge storage – oral-to-literate and chirographic-to-print – both of which he states coincides with Heidegger’s history of being.

There is a trade off to typifying and standardizing things, however. For everything we bring into us as a gain releases a loss from us, too. And in a technological world, where everything is at our fingertips, we can receive a loss that’s more devastating than any loss we could have: the loss of process of discovery. [I’m not sure if this is Heim’s, Heidegger’s, or McLuhan’s thought; I’m thinking Heidegger’s.]

8 The Essence of VR
The second-half of Heim’s article focuses on virtual reality. In trying to define it, Heim realizes that instead of looking at dictionary definitions and looking at virtual reality for what it is not, it’s better to talk to pioneers of VR and look at the concepts, of which he talks about several: simulation, interaction, interaction, artificiality, immersion, telepresence, full-body immersion, and networked communications, and even discussing these concepts leaves us wondering still, “What is Virtual Reality?”

This moves Heim’s into a discussion on “reality,” in which he talks about how tentative people seem to be to actually discuss reality. Makes me wonder if reality is something we can really define anyway. There are too many examples that show us that some people’s beliefs are their reality, no matter what others think. If reality is something that we can individually create for ourselves, how can we begin to define it?

And Heim, though through looking at the last 2,000 years and how we’ve grappled with this notion, agrees that defining reality isn’t going to happen overnight; therefore, defining virtual reality won’t happen overnight either.

Instead, Heim suggests when we look for the essence of technology, we are thinking about the essence of who we are and tying that to a vision because “behind the development of every major technology lies a vision” (550). And sometimes that vision is vague, but when it’s connected to the essence, it “calls forth the cultural energy needed to propel it forward” (550).

This eventually leads Heim to ask, “Where in VR is a counterpart to the space program’s esoteric essence? What is the essence of VR, its inner spirit, the cultural motor that propels the technology?” (552).

Two lines of thoughts arise: the cyberpunk writings of William Gibson and the Holodeck from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

And then Heim just seems to completely dismiss those looking for a real definition, suggesting that maybe more time spent IN virtual reality will enlighten these questioners.

I like the thoughts of the “Holy Grail” mentioned by Zeltzer and continued by Heim. I think all of this, this pursuit to do bigger, better with technology, this pursuit to understand virtual reality is all a part of some “quest” we have fashioned for ourselves. Can’t help but wonder what we would do if we actually “achieved,” retrieved the Holy Grail. We’ve been propelling at such an accelerated rate for so long, what do we do when we reach the pinnacle of a thing?

He uses Wagner’s “Parsifal” to show how the aspirations of VR (like Wagner wanted his musical dramas to be) are more than just about thrills, but about experience and the insight found within those experiences. It’s about being more than the thing; it’s about the thing becoming a part of the person and affected him/her, changing him/her.

Some advantages that VR can offer seem to be activity/passivity (VR can call forth greater participation with audience), manipulation/receptivity (a move from aggressive, first-person attitudes that traditional VR possessed to a more receptive experience), remote presence (the development of VR in which humans are more than spectators, and “presence includes an openness and sensitivity of the whole body” (554), and augmented reality (VR’s ability to offer a “smoother, more controlled transition from virtual to real and back” (554).