Virtual Reality, Virtual Worlds and Philosophy: join our reading group

What does philosophy tell us about virtual reality and virtual worlds? I’d like to start with some people who do not belong to the typical college overview of classical philosphers, people who started thinking about the augmentation of human intellect and human emotions such as Vannevar Bush (As Ae May Think, 1945), J.C.R. Licklider (Man-Computer Symbiosis, 1960), Douglas Engelbart (Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, 1962), Theodor H. Nelson (Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1970-1974)… all authors and texts which can be found in The New Media Reader (MIT).

book cover of The New Media Reader

What they have in common is the awareness that the world becomes a complex, rapidly evolving and dangerous place. In order to keep up with the challenges we need to augment our intellectual capacities, not only our rational reasoning skills but also our ability for compassion and empathy. Computers in their many forms are a crucial part of that augmentation.

The texts in the New Media Reader are often decades old. They are chosen not only because the authors were able to predict the path of technological change, but also because they show us that those authors had ambitions and visions which have not been realized yet. In other words, they still inspire us to create new things which may be beneficial for the planet. I’m convinced that augmented and virtual reality are offer possibilities in the context of augmenting our faculties – for instance by enabling us to build 3D information structures.

There are many more authors and texts in this hugely inspiring book, among them also more “recognized” philosophers (at least in continental Europe) such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980) and Donna Haraway (A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the late Twentieth Century, 1985).

I participate in a group reading those texts, and trying to develop practices and even tools in this context. The group, Metacaugs, lives primarily on Slack, if you’re interested have a look at our Orientation Guidebook

In the pursuit of meaning

(warning: philosophical nerdiness)
It is funny how one can keep encountering strange, weird words such as ‘ontology’ – which means something like ‘the study of what there is’ – but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that this is just a first approximation. Anyway, I stumbled long ago on this word while studying philosophy. Ontology is part of metaphysics, which is another weird word.

This is how Wikipedia tries to bring it all together:

Ontology (from onto-, from the Greek ὤν, ὄντος “being; that which is”, present participle of the verb εἰμί, eimi “be”, and -λογία, -logia: “science, study, theory”) is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Only many years later I realized ‘ontology’ is also used in information science. Ontologies in that context are structural frameworks for organizing information and are used in artificial intelligence, the Semantic Web, systems engineering, software engineering, biomedical informatics, library science, enterprise bookmarking, and information architecture as a form of knowledge representation about the world or some part of it. The creation of domain ontologies is also fundamental to the definition and use of an enterprise architecture framework. (Wikipedia)

Now I encountered the word ‘ontology’ in the About section of a company site of two co-learners of mine at the Howard Rheingold courses and projects.

Their company is called Ontologique – The Ontology Boutique. This is how their About section starts:

Ontologique is the collaborative brainchild of Joe Raimondo and his co-venturer in the wilds of the semantically aware web, Doug Breitbart. Our firm is dedicated to pursuit of an array of shared passions and convictions about technology in service to enhancement of meaning, understanding, knowledge and improvement of human productivity and the human condition, rather than the other way around.

In this context they do stuff for large companies but also for new or early phase or turnaround ventures that find themselves at the convergence of Web3.0, social media, gaming and game theory.

One might be inclined to consider all this consultant mumble jumble but I’m convinced that, in this case, it is not. Joe and Doug are intensely involved in this pursuit of meaning and clarification of meaning. More of us should be – this was one of the big messages of LeWeb 2012 where people such as cyber anthropologist Amber Case talked about converting big data, real time streams and mobile technology into stuff which actually is meaningful. Going back to my philosophical roots, I’d say that enhancing meaning helps us attaining eudaimonia – the Aristotelian notion which means not so much happiness but rather’human flourishing’.

These last few days I’ve been experimenting with Siri, Google Now and a number of similar services and apps. I’m more and more convinced that the next phase of the mobile revolution will be about meaning. How do we design smartphones, tablets and whatever other wearable devices in such a way that they can function as elegant organisms, rather than as a bunch of disconnected, shallow and addictive applications. How can we organize these services in such a way that they convey something meaningful? That’s the challenge for the designers, dreamers and techno-philosophers of this day and age.

Researching the philosophers of Silicon Valley, using mindmaps in 2D and 3D

What are the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of Silicon Valley? I’m trying to find out, reading and watching thinkers, historians, sci-fi literature, visiting virtual environments.

I’m trying to put some structure in my work using a mindmap, partially based on the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture (by Fred Turner):

In Second Life I’m putting up some media panels with websites or videos illustrating this – it helps me generating new ideas shifting those things around and walking around there, or looking at the panels with other avatars and commenting them.

My mindmap-installation in Second Life

Installation, performances, group about identities in SL about to be launched

Identity is a fascinating subject, in some complicated ways it also determines the attraction and/or rejection people feel for virtual environments. The idea of being mediated by an avatar, who shares many characteristics of your real life persona, but who also is different, confronts people with the fact that their identity is not some homogeneous, simple and unchanging substance which can be easily described.

On Saturday 2 October and continuing through October there will be performances about this subject in Second Life.

The Caerleon Museum of Identity is the latest in the series of collaborative installations by the Caerleon Artists Coalition, a project of the Virtual Art Initiative. The show opens Saturday, 2 October at 12:00 PM (noon) PDT/SLT on the Caerleon Isle sim, with entertainment beginning at 1:00.

The Caerleon group was established by Georg Janick (Dr. Gary Zabel of the University of Massachusetts, Boston) and consists of artists, writers, musicians, and scholars who are using the immersive and interactive digital media to develop new forms of artistic content.

The Creative Identity group in Second Life will continue the discussions beyond the show and invites others to join.

“Georg Janick’s six Theses on the Art of Virtual Worlds are the framework for the series of collaborations on the Caerleon sims. In addition to major builds on each of the six theses, there have been numerous theme collaborations on various topics, including consumerism, imprisonment, surrealism, and masks, as well as limited resource challenges like the one-prim and limited texture shows.

The Caerleon Museum of Identity is an interpretation by the collaborative team of Georg’s fourth thesis: the Ambiguity of Identity. It states in part, “…digital bodies, and the names that uniquely identify them, can be altered, multiplied, discarded, or exchanged at the will of the user. Since bodily presence is open to such radical discontinuity, the identity of the virtual person is protean and ambiguous, including indicators of age, gender, race, and even biological species.”

The project has been in development for over a year. Weekly discussions about the project inevitably centered around the subject of identity and how people in virtual worlds both express themselves and interact with others. This is a subject of tremendous interest to many in SL, and some of the team members have formed the open Creative Identity group to continue talking about issues, especially as they relate to creative work.

In this context have a look at this machinima by BotGirl Questi:

Or this machinima by Ian Pahute: