Monthly Archives: January 2010

Word of mouse

Luciano Floridi finds you only live twice

On May 23 2007, the Maldives became the first country to open an embassy in Second Life (SL), the web-based, virtual world inhabited by more than 6.5 million avatars (computer-generated residents), beating Sweden by a week. A quick look at the daily press shows that the popularity of SL is increasing exponentially. But this is not the main reason why philosophers should pay attention to it. SL is nothing short of the largest and most realistic thought experiment ever attempted, a true mine for philosophical research. Of course, this is not exactly how Linden Lab sees it, but just a few examples can easily drive the point home.

Ontologically, in SL the existential criterion seems to be some degree of “interactability” (x exists only if it can be interacted with) rather than a modal or temporal feature (x exists only if its essence is eternal and immutable) or an epistemic test (x exists only if it can be perceived). Your avatar might be there, but if it does not interact with its environment it counts as less than a ghost. It is an odd but instructive experience to be treated as thin air.

Of course, this prompts further questions about personal identity, the individual and social construction of the self, the emergence of communities with their rules and ethical codes, and so forth. New questions also begin to arise: think of the new digital flavour of “Platonic love”, or of the time when granny will leave to her grandchildren not only her earrings, but also that daring avatar, with spiky blue hair, that she started developing as an undergraduate in the twenties (of this millennium).

Epistemically, in SL one may enjoy a new opportunity to indulge in some old and idle speculations (“Am I an avatar in First Life, who is really being manoeuvred by another puppeteer in Zero Life?”; “do we live in a digital simulation?”) or probe more serious, new issues, for example about epistemic social trust, about ethical software design, or about the value of different theories of truth in a world that is in constant flux and which can easily answer to our wishes (in SL all sorts of things can be animated, not just automatic doors, so “snow is white” may become performative).

Semantically, imagine how interesting it can be to test new ideas about meaning and reference in a context where everybody is dumb, and must almost stenograph to communicate. But hurry up, because people are already “vocalising” SL and learning how to speak. Teleported to new places (known as islands), you may be tempted to experiment with different identities (try being many people at once, or someone with a different gender from the one you have in First Life) or diverse profiles (having a pair of wings is rather normal) or alternative personalities.

In these and many other cases, SL could easily replace Plato’s Ring of Gyges, Descartes’ malicious demon, Nozick’s pleasure machine and other similar thought experiments. But do not misinterpret me. I am not talking about SL as a mere colourful illustration of some philosophical theory. Reducing SL to PowerPoint material would be as pathetic and unimaginative as using the Matrix to illustrate Putnam’s brains in a vat argument, and as interesting as the garnish around the steak. What I am suggesting is that we should engage seriously with the new phenomenon and try to conceptualise it from within. For once, in order to think differently we may need to think inside the box.

Let me close this invitation to do some serious philosophy about SL with two warnings. One is political. We should never forget that someone is shaping our SL by running the system. A serious ethical investigation might be crucial in order to approach phenomena like SL critically. The other is psychological. We are mental animals, who live most of our lives wrapped in a semantic infosphere, even when this may mean just being obsessed with the local darts team. A virtual world that unleashes our imagination and allows us to be who we like and behave as we wish, where every exploration can be safe because utterly reversible, and (second) life is literally what we make it, is very dangerous. For it could certainly be as addictive as the most powerful drug. Watch out for SL-ics Anonymous.

Luciano Floridi holds the Research Chair in Philosophy of Information at the University of Hertfordshire and is president of the International Association for Computing and Philosophy.

Conquering fate

Frank Furedi on the birth of a world “made by man”

Probably the most important contribution of the Enlightenment was its encouragement of historical thinking. Enlightenment thinkers insisted that there are no eternally fixed features of society and that social arrangements were subject to variation and transformation. Such a view of history accorded human beings an important status as its subjects or at least its potential subjects. From Condorcet to Saint-Simon, the Enlightenment regarded history as a process of endless progress and therefore of endless change. The new world ushered in by this leap in the imagination was a world “made by man”.

The idea that human beings possess the ability to change, alter and improve their circumstances encouraged a form of historical thinking that was clearly oriented towards the future. Enlightenment thinkers insisted that progress was possible through the development and application of human reason. Today it is difficult to grasp just what a fundamental rupture this form of thinking represented with the worldview that prevailed in pre-modern times. Whereas medieval scholars looked to the glories of the past, the eyes of the Enlightenment were turned resolutely towards the future. “The golden age”, wrote saint-Simon “which a blind tradition has always placed in the past, lies ahead of us.” By reversing the relationship between the golden age and the present, the Enlightenment invited humanity to apply its creative energies in new and exciting ways. As a consequence, since the 18th century humanity has come to believe in the project of conquering Fate. One important consequence of this process was that humanity was less prepared to accept an externally imposed destiny. People became less disposed to accept disease and death. Fewer men and women were prepared to accept acts of misfortune as the will of God. And more and more of us came to believe that our lives could be altered and improved.

However humanity has always found it difficult to fully embrace the ideals of the Enlightenment. The open-ended vision of the future posited by historical thinking has always disturbed people who are uncomfortable with uncertainty. The idea of people making history is fine in principle but societies have learned that social experiments do not always lead to progress. Consequently historical thinking has always existed in a state of tension with the fear of change. Many supporters of the Enlightenment sought comfort and assurance through conceptualising progress as inevitable rather than as the possible outcome of human-history making. Thinkers who treated progress as a natural working out of history often turned it into a dogma. In this way history became objectified and represented as a transcendental force beyond human intervention. Perversely this fatalistic view of progress as an unproblematic process of human advance belittles the history-making role of people.

In hindsight it is evident that since the beginning of modern times the positive legacy of the Enlightenment was forced to compete with powerful intellectual and political currents which were suspicious of the exercise of human agency. Often a caricatured narrative of progress promoting a model of inevitability led to the representation of people as the objects rather than the subjects of history. Frequently the rhetorical affirmation of Enlightenment values co-existed with attempts to foreclose the possibility of further change. If progress is merely the realisation of a pre-given idea of human development, it is possible to argue that the idea has been achieved. In recent decades this sentiment has been communicated by the fatalistic notion of TINA – There Is No Alternative. Although TINA is associated with 1980s Thatcherism, a similar conclusion has been drawn by commentators and intellectuals across the ideological divide. They all appear to take the view that there is little point in changing society since such attempts are likely either to fail or to lead to a situation which is actually worse than what existed previously.

Today’s cultural imagination has little room for the idea of the history-making potential of humanity. On the contrary there has been a fundamental shift towards a world view where people are almost entirely written out of history. There has never been a time since Middle Ages where the human species have been accorded such an insignificant status in the making of history. A new school of Malthusian History appears to revel in lowering people’s expectations of their abilities. A history constructed around the exercise of human subjectivity has become subordinate to a new anti-humanist environmentalist history. A new form of natural history continually points out that while the Earth has existed for 4-5 billion years, Homo sapiens have only been on the planet for about 160,000 years. The implication drawn through going back billions of years is to underline the insignificance of the role of human beings relative to the power of nature. In this way humans can be recast as just one species amongst millions of others.

Several influential theories –Gaia theory and Chaos theory among them – self-consciously render the human subject marginal. They promote a sense of environmental determinism that assigns human beings a minor and undistinguished role in the general scheme of things. They insist that any attempt by people to gain control over their destiny is likely to be undermined by the forces of nature. Moreover the very attempt to control nature is represented as an act of a destructive species which does not know its place in the natural order of things. Instead of being celebrated as humanity’s attempt to transform nature, history and civilisation have been recast as a story of environmental destruction. From this standpoint the application of reason, knowledge and science are dismissed as problems because they help intensify the destructive capacity of the human species. From this perspective the Enlightenment is perceived as a malevolent force promoting the destruction of the planet.

Today’s disenchantment with historical thinking and the devaluation of human subjectivity is a testimony to society’s ambivalent relation to the legacy of the Enlightenment. Formally people refuse to defer to Fate and spend considerable resources to gain a measure of control over their lives. But at the same time the conviction that this is it – there is no alternative – has a powerful influence over the conduct of public life. Worse still anti-humanist sentiments prey on our imagination encouraging us to regard the future with dread. Re-appropriating the ideals of the Enlightenment can help us regain confidence in our ability to shape our world.

Frank Furedi is Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and the author of Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown (Continuum)