Schwabe reflexe Bd. 75
Paperback 23.00 CHF
Reviewed by: Gregor Bös (KU Leuven)
At a mere 100 pages, Jörg Noller’s little booklet traverses an impressive range of topics. Beginning with a philosophical conceptualization of virtual reality and its metaphysical status, it ends on digital ethics, aesthetics, and the digitization of education. This scope demands that some of these themes appear as philosophical appetizers, rather than main dishes. The order of that menu appears reversed, as the heaviest (and best) courses are served first. Here, Noller introduces his concept of virtual reality and demarcates it from the cognate notions of simulation, representation, illusion, and fiction. This part of the book should be digestible and useful to many readers. Some other features of the book might be matters of taste, especially the sometimes liberal use of technical vocabulary and the wide-ranging philosophical references and allusions. As a book aimed at a general audience, the metaphysical argument is informal and discussions of digital technology are set aside, although with philosophical reasoning for doing so. The goal is apparently to avoid a discussion of the details of transient technologies, and to focus on independent conceptual questions. This seems like a good idea, but it sometimes leads to a dearth of examples. At times, it can be surprisingly difficult to say whether Noller is talking about the present or a future state of technology. This is of course not helped by the rapid development in Large Language Models that led to new services like ChatGPT. Before my concluding comment, I now summarize the book in more detail.
Noller begins by introducing the concept of digitality (Digitalität): it is the layer of reality which only emerges on the basis of the cultural-technological process of digitization. Building on McLuhan, he argues that we have become not only blind to the medium of digital communication, but also this new layer of reality that this technology sustains (9). Here we encounter the first key metaphor: digitality emerges from the technological layers of digitalization like the phenomenon of life emerges from physico-chemical processes (22). Like the phenomenon of life cannot be described exhaustively as a physical phenomenon, objects of digitality have irreducible causal effects. This is an interesting line of thought, and metaphysically minded readers might be interested to see how it could address questions of causal exclusion. But given the intended audience of the book, it here remains as a conceptual proposal, without a technical in-depth treatment.
The other conceptual proposal concerns the process of virtualization. The metaphor here is the development of fiat currency: Whereas bank notes and coins are tied to a physical medium for exchange, the rise of digital banking systems has virtualized money. While it still serves as a universal medium of exchange, this economic role has become functionally independent of the material basis from money developed. Similarly, Noller argues, virtual reality can be considered independently of the technological basis that realizes it, since we are only interested in its functional roles. Surprisingly, there is no reference to debates on functionalism in the philosophy of mind, where parallel arguments (and debates) would be available.
Noller uses this causal independence of virtual reality to distinguish it from fiction, simulation, and illusion. Virtual reality is not a simulation because it does not only serve as a representation of an independent part of reality, and it has causal effects on reality that are not due to its use as a representation (32). The demarcation from fiction is more difficult. Noller refers only to the causal effects that virtual reality can have on analogue reality to draw it, but it would seem that fiction can similarly feed back into the non-fictional world. Committed fans set up conventions, or more drastically, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther inspired self-harming responses to unrequited love. It is not clear that a causal distinction offers all that is necessary here. But Noller’s discussion of computer games suggests how the distinction could be refined. While Noller considers computer games in single player to be fictions or simulations, they constitute a virtual reality when they become interactive and connect multiple players (42). In addition to the causal role of virtual realities, the relevant criterion seems to be also that virtual reality sustains the interaction of multiple agents.
Digitality is the domain of Noller’s investigation, and virtualization is how it achieves a level of independence from the technological infrastructure that realizes it. Noller proceeds to characterize digitality in terms of three categories. Objects of digitality are ubipresent because they can be accessed from anywhere and at any time. Agents in digitality constitute an interobjectivity, in contrast to an intersubjectivity, because artificial intelligences not only occur as tools for human agents, but as integrated into their actions and constitutive of their digital agency. Finally, digitality is transsubjective because it dissolves the distinction between creator and recipient of information.
The subject-object divided understanding of AI is instrumentalist, because it considers AIs to constitute only objects for human subjects. By focusing on augmented intelligence, a cooperative achievement of humans and machines, rather than humans as the users of machines, we lose the distinction between human and machine intelligence. Furthermore, this is supposed to also eradicate the distinction between strong and weak artificial intelligence, but this seems to be based on an idiosyncratic interpretation of that distinction (55). Instead of understanding it in terms of the generalizability of capacities, Noller ties it to a distinction between simulating and realizing human intelligence and then argues that this distinction disappears for interobjectivity.
Noller emphasizes again that we should question the distinction between subjects and objects of actions in digitality. Theorists who rely on that distinction are prone to misunderstand artificial intelligence as a tool for subjects. But since interobjectivity erases the subject-object distinction, it also undermines this conception of artificial intelligence. However, Noller himself goes on to discuss whether artificial neural networks can be ascribed capacities for knowledge and judgement. While they have ‘determinative judgement’, they always act heteronomously (58). But the very discussion of that question seems to require conceiving of artificial intelligences as subjects after all. Noller does not say whether the limitation to heteronomy is due to legal and ethical reasons, or whether it depends on the technological state of the art. While it seems to be proposed as a limitation in principle, its only support comes from a polemic citation of Dreyfus from 1988.
Digitality is transsubjective because it changes the relations between consumers and creators of information. While an encyclopaedia clearly separates the roles of author and reader, the internet blurs this distinction. This of course glosses over the fact that for many people, the internet is structured by giant corporations. These can lock data into proprietary formats or close their APIs on a whim (see Twitter). Even explicitly open projects like Wikipedia are run by a minority. Insofar as digitality is integrated into our lifeworld, does it really appear as an invitation to contribute? This seems to be more than a description of what is the case. But Noller understands his account of digitality as ‘weakly normative’. It does not only aim to describe the digital environment and how it appears, but also to formulate a vision towards which we should work. The subsequent chapter on ethics spells this out a little further.
Noller’s proposal for an ethics of digitality is based on understanding the internet as a virtual action space (Handlungsraum). This is not a space that consists of possible actions, but a space in which they take place: the Internet, YouTube, Twitter (67f.). The ethics of digitality are governed by the ‘virtual imperative’: act such that you enlarge the virtual action space (69). While this sounds like a libertarian principle, Noller seems to have something more restricted in mind. The establishment of a ‘parallel space’ like the dark web, for example, is considered to contradict the virtual imperative (69). The only hint towards a principle for such restrictions is that parallel spaces, such as fake news networks, do not allow for a ‘coherent connection’ to the global internet. But this does not tell the reader where the expansion of the digital action space runs up against principles that limit the freedom of speech, for example, and where mere contradiction of assertion turns into incoherence. Since the virtual imperative is not intended as a libertarian or techno-anarchist answer, it is at least incomplete.
The section on ethics is followed by a brief discussion of aesthetics of digitality. This touches NFTs, generative AI and computer games, but treats these mostly through rhetorical questions. For a section on digital education, Noller has specific expertise through a longstanding experience in running hybrid seminars, starting long before the pandemic. The lessons for digital education offered here, however, remain surprisingly generic. The ‘concrete use’ (92) that hypertextuality offers to philosophy education is that the ‘giving and taking of reasons’ becomes ‘ubiquitous and independent of specific places and times’ (94). But was the giving of reasons not already decoupled from time and place through written language, or at least other means of mass communication? It is not easy to see how this characterization would help philosophy educators to leverage digital technology. On the other hand, there is surprisingly no discussion of more obvious aspects of the digitization of teaching, such as the interplay between synchronous and asynchronous modes of instruction. And for the topic that looms large at the time of (unaided) writing of this review, namely the impact of large language models like GPT4 on essay-based education, Noller’s booklet is already too old.
It follows a brief comment on digital enlightenment, where Noller understands immaturity as the use of the internet as a static repository of information or a medium of consumption (97). As expected, mature users contribute actively to the enlargement of the digital action space. The concluding chapter on anthropology runs at less than 2.5 pages. It argues that instead of seeing new technology as a threat to our sense of reality, it should be seen as another means of expressing our human freedom, but the consequences of this idea are not articulated.
As already mentioned, the book is written in a slightly idiosyncratic style. While the format is aimed at a broad audience and the philosophical arguments are not treated in technical depth, the language contains a fair amount of philosophical jargon. Throughout, there are references to classical works, mostly to Kant, but also to Aristotle, McTaggart, Leibniz, Schiller, and Wittgenstein. But these references are mostly playful, and it is not always clear how seriously some philosophical formulae should be taken—for example, when Noller claims that the internet is the ‘condition of possibility of mediality’ (65). I imagine that one group of readers will be irritated by the language of such claims, and a very different group will be surprised by how little follows them. Kantian vocabulary and aphorisms like ‘data based intuitions without algorithmic concepts are blind, algorithmic concepts without data based intuition are empty’ (48) create anticipations of something important, but then remain aside remarks. The question is whether there is an audience in the middle, who is keen to have the philosophical references, but happy to stay at the general level of discussion.
The booklet bears the subtitle On the philosophy of the digital lifeworld, and sometimes speaks of the priority of a phenomenological description of digitality, in lieu of discussing its technological basis. But the philosophical approach is not placed in a phenomenological context. The concept of lifeworld is not further specified, and phenomenological and postphenomenological debates of the concept and role of technology play no role, which might disappoint some readers of this journal. Lastly, there are two minor irritations that could have been avoided editorially: a quotation from Engelbart lost all punctuation and thereby becomes unreadable (52), and the word ‘interaction’ has a recurring typo (90, 93), which can be mistaken for a neologism.
Noller’s booklet is strongest in the conceptual clarification of digitality and virtualization. Here he argues on the basis of two clear metaphors to establish digitality as a domain of philosophical, and not just technological research. Whether the two metaphors can sustain the philosophical roles that Noller assigns them is worth further investigation. The later parts of the book remain comparatively generic. As it is such a compact book, it might be most useful to whet one’s appetite for new questions and perhaps as an antidote for readers who are used to a very technical approach to its subject matter. The book also offers a good starting point to motivate a philosophical treatment that focuses more on the description of our everyday digital lives than on what sustains them technologically. But there remains room for phenomenologists to carry out such a description, and to do so not in large notes, but ‘in small change’.