What does a virtual research assistant do

Culture / reflection

Jonathan Harth

The criticism of modern forms of communication in virtual worlds, as presented in 2011 by Sherry Turkle, is turned into its opposite in view of the current crisis of the physical. Turkle's book title "Alone together" does indeed lament the divisions that have found their way into society through modern telecommunications.1 But just as the social distancing was re-framed by the Federal German Chancellor (the solidarity separation), today it is suddenly only possible to maintain social issues in solitude. While a few weeks ago the digital surfer, the twitterer or the computer gamer group were still considered lonely victims of digitization, they suddenly stand for the solidarity spearhead of compassion. The flight into the virtual saves the real, so to speak.

But what freedoms, what potential and what possibilities do so-called virtual realities (VR) actually offer? What makes VR technologies so special? In principle, virtual reality has promised nothing less than the "ultimate display" since the beginning2 to become which is able to integrate all previous media formats. At the same time, the technologies of virtual reality aim at blurring the boundaries between the virtual and the real, both in terms of their structural functional principle and their haptic mode of interaction. Even the current generation of VR makes it possible to approach a mode in the virtual that was developed by Martin Heidegger inBeing And Time was described in detail: the mode of "being-in-the-world". Without presence, without the perception of being in the world, VR would be nothing more than another screen medium from which one could easily distance oneself. The borderless medium of VR prevents exactly this. Especially when using VR it becomes clear that every perception is only momentary, immediate and compact. The perception of presence takes place exclusively in the present tense. Or as Maurice Merleau-Ponty emphasizes: It is difficult to say no to a perception.3

Proximity and presence

The magic of virtual realities lies precisely in this ability: VR enables the user to give the user the feeling of being physically present in the virtual environment: “Presence is defined as the perceptual illusion of non-mediation ... an illusion of non -mediation occurs when a person fails to perceive or acknowledge the existence of a medium in his / her communication environment and responds as he / she would if the medium were not there. "4 But, we can also add: the presence of interpersonal closeness, which is currently being voluntarily prevented in view of the social virus infestation, is also conveyed in the media. Through both communication and perception, we mutually assure each other that we are present. At the same time, attention is rarely paid to the medial form of this feeling of presence (exceptions confirm the rule here, such as observed in therapy, meditation or theoretical reflections). Neurosciences have long taught us that our sensory organization cannot convey “real” reality at all, but only generate useful fictions that are suitable for survival: “The contemporary enthusiasm for man's penetration into artificial virtual worlds overlooks the fact that we have always been in a biologically generated 'phenospace': within a virtual reality generated by mental simulation ”writes Thomas Metzinger.5 From this perspective, the mutual perception of presence has always been a fictional or virtual simulation - a brain-internal simulation of supposed expressions and intentions of others. A gap that can be registered but cannot be bridged between us humans forces us, as is well known, to a makeshift solution communication. But at the same time, every occurrence of communication is an indicator of the mediatization of interpersonal relationships.

And then it doesn't really matter whether the digital utopian places are branded as forms of escapism, celebrated as the degeneration of the West or as innovative practices of the therapeutic setting, or are trivially used as a mere entertainment medium. Like every technical invention, VR also offers various possibilities of use, which in one form or another can lead to misuse and use. The utopian lure of the alternative promised by the technologies of virtual reality also raises this discussion to a new level and the ideas of freedom associated with it no longer seem too surprising.

Doubling of reality

Changing your perspective on yourself or the world - generally a difficult undertaking. But especially in times like these there is the chance to rethink what already exists: Well-established routines, alleged lack of alternatives or even meaningless activities emerge as precisely these. But even without a crisis, society has established formats ready to practice perspectives. With the concept of “doubling of reality” Niklas Luhmann tries (at least for the areas of statistics, art, religion and play) to conceive a distinction between virtual realities and real realities: “For the world, this initially means that the concept of reality unites adopts qualifying sense. Only in this way does reality arise at all, which can be designated, that is to say: can be distinguished from other things. The world then contains something that is not real in this narrower sense, but nevertheless serves as the position of an observer and can in turn be observed. Everything that is is then no longer simply real in that it is as it is, but a special, let us say real, reality is generated by the fact that there is something that differs from it. (...) For an observer, reality only arises when there is something in the world from which it can be distinguished; only in this way can reality be hardened to a certain extent in comparison to a more fluid world of imagination. "6 

While the virtual worlds of ordinary computer games already constitute doubling of reality by differentiating between the fictional reality of the game and the real reality of the non-game, experiences in VR make the mechanisms of the genesis of real reality observable to a certain extent. Virtual reality is what makes "real reality" distinguishable. It shows their limitations and impossibilities and thus draws in a new observer perspective on the world and self, which is available from now on. It should be clear that this enables completely new forms of reflexivity: “VR technology will eventually change not only our general image of humanity but also our understanding of deeply entrenched notions, such as 'conscious experience', 'selfhood', 'authenticity' , or 'realness'. In addition, it will transform the structure of our life-world, bringing about entirely novel forms of everyday social interactions and changing the very relationship we have to our own minds. "7 Such an observation of alternatives and possibilities could prove extremely valuable for a society that is increasingly confronted with contingencies.8 Perhaps this is one of the reasons why video games are so attractive in 21st century society. Because digital games in particular make it possible to play with the distinction between real and virtual possibilities and thus contribute to the ability to deal competently with contingency.

In any case, the voluntary isolation in times of COVID-19 shows us the close connection with the world even more intensely. And that is precisely why it is to be hoped that the hedonistic individualism that has spread in the West since the Enlightenment is pushed back again. A cultural primacy that, in the arrogance of supposed superiority, fades out or even deliberately ignores the worries, needs and problems of others. And it is to be hoped that in its place comes a living knowledge of the relational rationality of the world and of the self.9 Until this relationship is readjusted - if at all - it makes sense to practice it at least in the playful virtual world. A sphere that keeps reality in suspension and always oscillates between intimate closeness and mediating distance. As in the parable about the 18th camel, virtuality is an abstract possibility and a real force at the same time. Although it has no material representation, the virtual is already available in real life.

Degrees of freedom and gains in reality

With all this criticism, which is partly true, it must be emphasized that technology has never been able to determine its use and it should also have become clear that the use of VR does not involve a loss of reality, as is traditionally called the 'downfall of Abendlands' is sung about, but quite the opposite: with a gain in reality! Because it should not be forgotten that the use of VR is not necessarily aimed at simulating ordinary reality in a lossless copy. The true potential of VR only unfolds when it is used as a new foundation for fantasy and desire, for art and culture and thus for the production and reflection of alternative possibilities. The astonishment about the possibilities of VR is then nothing less than the entertaining sabotage of ordinary presence and at the same time it is the astonishment about the richness of the world and about oneself. The special thing about virtual reality lies primarily in its difference to ordinary reality.

In this sense, the digital worlds of the virtual are not an antagonism to ordinary reality, but rather function as a homologous alternative. Virtual reality makes real reality distinguishable. It shows their limitations and impossibilities and thus draws in a new observer perspective on the world and reality, which is available from now on. Acting and experiencing in virtual worlds is therefore not associated with a loss of reality, as one might initially assume, but rather with oneReality gain. VR opens up new possibilities for observation and more (reflective) degrees of freedom for society. And it is precisely these degrees of freedom that appear even more valuable in the current era of self-imposed deprivation of liberty.

  1. Sherry Turkle:Alone together. Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, New York, 2011. [↩]
  2. Ivan E. Sutherland, The Ultimate Display.Proceedings of IFIP Congress, 1965: 506-508. [↩]
  3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty:Phenomenology of perception, Berlin: de Gryuter, 2008. [↩]
  4. Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton, Theresa, At the heart of it all: The concept of Presence.Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3(2), 1997: 9 [↩]
  5. Thomas Metzinger:Subject and self-model. Paderborn: Mentis, 1999: 243. [↩]
  6. Niklas Luhmann:The religion of society. Frankfurt / Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2002: 59 [↩]
  7. Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger: Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR Technology.Frontiers in Robotics and AI, 3 (3), 2016: 18th DOI. [↩]
  8. Elena Esposito: Aesthetics and Play. Forms of contingency in plural reality. In: Manuela Pietraß and Rüdiger Funiok (eds.):People and media. Philosophical and social science perspectives,Wiesbaden 2010: 159-177. [↩]
  9. See Robert Seyfert:Relationships. Elements of a relational sociology. Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2019; Tingyang Zhao:Everything under the sky. Past and future of the world order. Berlin: Suhrkamp, ​​2020; Werner Vogd and Jonathan Harth: Relational Phenomenology: Individual Experience and Social Meaning in Buddhist Meditation.Journal of Consciousness Studies, 26(7-8) 2019: 238-267. [↩]

This entry was published on by kure under Corona, Reality, Virtual Reality.