What happens when the virtual feels more real than the actual?

“From the early days of manned space travel comes a story that exemplifies what is most fascinating about the human encounter with modern technology. Orbiting the earth aboard Friendship 7 in February 1962, astronaut John Glenn noticed something odd. His view of the planet was virtually unique in human experience; only Soviet pilots Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov had preceded him in orbital flight. Yet as he watched the continents and oceans moving beneath him, Glenn began to feel that he had seen it all before. Months of simulated space shots in sophisticated training machines and centifuges had affected his ability to respond. In the words of chronicler Tom Wolfe, “The world demanded awe, because this was a voyage through the stars. But he couldn’t feel it. The backdrop of the event, the stage, the environment, the true orbit … was not the vast reaches ofthe universe. It was the simulators. Who could possibly understand this?” Synthetic conditions generated in the training center had begun to seem more “real” than the actual experience.

– Langdon Winner

In his exploration of how technology has traditionally been neglected in philosophy, Winner makes the argument that the conventional distinction between making and using “disregards the many ways in which technologies provide structure for human activity” (p 6). He argues that the patterns that shape the making are of interest to users. Technology is not merely a tool to be used but how the technology is structured acts as a powerful force that shapes the meaning of the activity undertaken.

The way technologies mediate our everyday lives and thereby change the meaning of how we live – our perceptions, habits, relationships and politics – is surely even more readily apparent to us in the years since Winner wrote “we so willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence.” (Winner 2014, p 10).

The adaptation of human life to technology is given the name “forms of life” by Winner, borrowing the term from Wittgenstein (Winner 2014, p 11). Who we are as humans change with the advent of technologies:

“In an important sense we become the beings who work on assembly lines, who talk on telephones, who do our figuring on pocket calculators, who eat processed foods, who clean our homes with powerful chemicals. Of course, working, talking, figuring, eating, cleaning, and such things have been parts of human activity for a very long time. But technological innovations can radically alter these common patterns and on occasion generate entirely new ones, often with surprising results” (p 12, my emphasis).

The origins of this conception of technology-use as “forms of life” can be traced at least as far back as Marx:

“The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the means of subsistence they actually find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are” (p 14).

Whilst Marx saw his material humanism preceding a liberation of people into a wide array of activities (i.e. technology would eventually free us from the cycle of necessity of provision), Wittgenstein merely wished us to be attentive to how our cultural practices and language was shaped by our technical practices. The historicism of Marx and his followers – their belief in progress – is hard to dispute given its ever-shifting horizon. But Wittgenstein’s call to be attentive about our technology use seems to me to be profoundly necessary.

In bringing Wittgenstein’s attentiveness to bare on how technology shapes our being, Winner asks us:

“As we “make things work,” what kind of world are we making?” (p 17)

Even if the liberation promised by material humanism is not an inevitable end of history, the lack of reflection about our world-making should be a matter of concern.

Bibliography

Winner, L. (2014) ‘Technologies as Forms of Life’, in Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp. 48–60

One thought on “What happens when the virtual feels more real than the actual?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s