Michael Heim’s Metaphysics of Virtual Reality

Review of Michael Heim., The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality Oxford University Press, New York 1993, ISBN 0 19 508178 1, English text, 175 pp., $21

Michael Heim, author of Electric Language, A Philosophical Study in Word Processing (1987), is now known as the `philosopher of cyberspace’. He has organised various conferences about virtual reality and helped hundreds of top decision-makers to grasp the implications of the new technology (cover text). His most recent book contains ten essays from the euphoric early years of the progression from digital to virtual reality (1989-1992). Heim is no techno-guru like Leary, and certainly no cyberpunk. A freelance professor and translator of Heidegger, he has one foot in the seemingly lost world of the Dichter und Denker and the other in the laboratories of the future, West Coast style. Heim is happy to leave the hype and criticism to others. His texts radiate a familiar solidity and caution, giving them almost an Oxford-European tone were it not for the fact that most European intellectuals haven’t the slightest idea what kind of technological world they’re living in and consciously refuse to find out. Heim probably belongs to an enlightened, technocratic class, the secret aristocrats of high tech. It is difficult to say whether this rare species will soon be extinct or attain stable employment as advisor to the power elite of the 21st century.

The position of philosopher to the cyber court is still uncertain. The philosopher-technician must offer something that the sales manager, market research analyst and futurologist cannot. And that is the conceptual precision needed to expand the conceptual basis of technology, not hot air or unintelligible muttering on the fringe. We are talking about a profound shift in the layers of human life and thought. The philosopher must offer elements for the metaphysical foundation of technology, so that it can (re-)locate its roots in human Dasein. The philosopher has a panoramic overview and can show how this digital symbolic world brings both gains and losses. He makes reservations and suggestions how we might preserve the better aspects of pre-digital reality in order to balance the technology that is changing our given reality.

Heim is careful in choosing his sources and formulations. He manoeuvres between explanatory scientific journalism and classical-philosophical exposi. He never abandons himself to the experiment of writing; restraint characterises his argumentation throughout. His reserved attitude never degenerates into skepticism. The essayistic attempt is never allowed to get out of hand, even if he does freely write about all sorts of things that his philosophical colleagues have thus far left untouched. Heim, who makes no secret of the fact that he practices Tai Chi and displays his exercises to the public during his lectures, is cautious in drawing on Eastern sources of wisdom. He does not want to be dismissed as the n-th West Coast New-Age peddler of eternal truths, seeing a fusion of occidental rationality and the oriental core in computer technology. I try to incorporate a deliberate balance, a balance of energies learned over the years from Taoist practices. But my purpose is not to fashion a style of this or that but to illuminate certain phenomena, to go more deeply into where we are and where we are headed. The term `Techno-Taoism’, invented by his son, was therefore not used as an advertising text on the cover.

The ontology (study of being) practised by Heim has to do with our understanding of the being of things, not with things as such. The ontological question probes the invisible background. Like Heidegger and McLuhan, Heim holds back his personal value judgments. He indicates an ontological shift, a change in the world under our feet, in the whole context in which our knowledge and awareness are rooted and wonders how much humans can change and still remain human as they enter the cyberspace of computerised realities. In studying revolutionary technological developments, ontologists accept destiny as a-priori. Yet, human beings cannot remain mere spectators on the sidelines, as they, considered holistically, are part of the reality shift. Knowledge in a scientific sense can lag only slightly behind this world transformation because knowledge becomes transformed in the process.

The book opens with a warning about information pollution. If languages have states of health, sick or well, then ours is manic. `Infomania’ is a phenomenon that media-ecologists typically get upset about. Data is not a galaxy, rather, it is the eighth plague. Infomania retards rather than accelerates wisdom. To them, information is no neo-natural environment we move about in, it’s an avalanche bearing down on us. Writers grow prolix. with manuscripts bloated to twice as normal. The prose is profuse, garbled, torturously disorganized. Pages are becoming more difficult to read. Reams of paper pour out unedited streams of consciousness. To Heim, the genuinely existing text surplus is no sign of wealth, but a danger to `mental capacity’. Feel productive; push more paper, Push a button; fell a tree. But he proposes no diet, like the distinction between primary and secondary texts made by George Steiner in Real Presences. The computer is a machine that cannot be turned off, just like auditory space. Surrounded by the `intellectual swamp’, you’ll have to blaze a trail with fine-tuned fingertips straight through this junk-mail. But, according to Heim, we are biologically finite in what we can attend to meaningfully. No mention is made of how we can amplify `our capacity for significance’. Only ponder, reflect, contemplate.

After a clear explanation of the Boolean logic used by contemporary search-systems, Heim treats on the problem of acquisition of knowledge. If we find more by searching in databanks than by reading and leafing though printed matter, how do we formulate the lemmas? The credo: the type of questions we ask shape the possible answers we get, may be known to all. But it acquires a new seriousness when dealing with machine logic. The modern point of view begins with the system, not with the concrete content. It operates in a domain of pure formality and abstract detachment. Lemmas that guide scanning through areas of knowledge are best acquired through meditation, according to Heim. The musing mind operates on a plane more sensitive and more complex than that of consciously controlled thought. Heim opposes a plea for the `graces of intuition’ of the book browser to the Boolean scan, the former being one who welcomes surprise, serendipity, new terrain, fresh connections where the angle of thought suddenly shifts. We mustn’t put away the old medium of the book. Pay a visit some time to the museum of alphabetic life called a book library, with its unsystematic, unfiltered collections and their authors who often speak to us in ways that shock and disturb, in ways that calm and deepen. There are books these days for drifting off into dream and they’re eminently suitable as toys. Searching through books was always more romance than busyness, more rumination than information. An extra free gift for the Gutenberg Galaxy.

The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality contains an informative essay about hypertext, in which we start with the 16th century Ramus as founder of the knowledge outline and arrive in a series of critiques of outline software programs like Think Tank, PC-Outline and the so-called Personal Information Managers. Also included is the article `The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace’ that appeared earlier in Cyberspace, First Steps (edited by Michael Benedikt). Heim also relates the meta-observations of Heidegger and McLuhan about the computer to Hubert Dreyfus’ explicatory criticism and Walter Ong’s optimism. He also participates in the issue of definition of virtual reality and follows a rather pop line of reasoning, aided by lemmas from Star Trek and the Holy Grail, to arrive at Wagner’s Parsifal as a touching prototype of VR.

Without control of ourselves, our use of other things is blind. This quote of John Dewey, chosen by Heim as motto for his book, can be called programmatic. According to Heim, when implanting technology in the body, an inner spiritual control desk must be installed. He does not further define the danger zone we enter when lacking a balanced body and mind. This fear of information overload evidences a late 20th century mania for not letting one’s self be guided by extremes. A preventive, therapeutic effect is attributed to a responsible dosage of social phenomena. Technology, like the body (or philosophy) must not be allowed to run wild. This is Heim’s lesson to his readers. After the wild years of fascination with the last frontier, it’s now time to search for a home for the mind and heart. Cyberspace colonists are given to understand that they must behave with discipline (and healthily) in the future. At home, by the 3D hearth fire, they can listen to words of solace.

translation: jim boekbinder