Interview with Michael Heim
Michael Heim has been called the 'philosopher of cyberspace'. Translator of Heidegger and author of 'Electric Language, A Philosophical Study in Word Processing', he has organized various American congresses about virtual reality. He is a free-lance professor based in Long Beach, California.
Heim takes no critical post-modern stance and neither is he euphoric about the arrival of new technologies, like many West-Coast hippies. He takes a pragmatic view of technology as a fate that human beings must make the best of. According to Heim, there is no standpoint beyond or above technology.We are imprisoned in cyberspace and it is up to the philosopher to comment on conditions in this Plato's cave. This issue of Mediamatic contains a review of his new book, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. Michael Heim spoke at the first Doors of Perception conference October 30, 1993.
This interview took place afterwards at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, while Heim was waiting for a flight to Washington.
GL: Why did you use the word 'metaphysics' in the title of your book?
MH: I wonder if I should tell you the real reason. In the United States the word metaphysics is not meant in the traditional sense, as it is in Europe, a discipline overshadowed by science. But there is another meaning in the US: there's a whole movement of people who are exploring other traditions, especially Asian religions, that are not scientifically classified. That is often called metaphysics. Some of our popular celebrities use the word metaphysics to describe their interest in astrology and palm reading. People in Los Angeles will think, you might be talking about some non-scientific area. I like the word metaphysics for that reason. I intend to mean it in a strict, traditional, European sense. But I also like the idea that it's not all that serious either. I call it `metaphysics lite', not so heavy, easy to digest.
Do you mean this in the sense that philosophy can no longer be 'the king of the sciences'?
I like what Heidegger said, that science should not be far ahead of philosophy, but rather philosophy should be willing to go ahead of the sciences. But he meant it maybe in a way that would set out everything for the sciences. I use it in a much more pragmatic, light way. Philosophy should be projecting possibilities, as part of a team of scientists, technicians, artists, designers, people who are coming from different areas, to create the future environments. My sense of a philosopher is someone who is not a totalistic theorist, rather someone who is spinning possible worlds, conversations, tracks that can be picked up - and also co-ordinating the discussion, helping to co-ordinate the teams that are creating our virtual worlds and our new technologies. Metaphysics does leap ahead, it puts out a light in the dark future, it does risk difficult questions and is willing to be ridiculous, by being radical, but it does not have the seriousness of a system, a closed book, that is to be followed in a pious way. Rather, metaphysics is also light, it's human, pragmatic, it's willing to project speculation, at the same time not willing to go to war for the speculation.
But why do philosophers speak about metaphysics lately? Will there be a return of this term?
The next century is going to be a rediscovery, an unearthing of traditional metaphysics. It will be taken up as ways in which we can try to articulate these deeper questions that are presented directly by our technologies. Traditional metaphysics was not wrong, it was a stage when neo-positivism rejected metaphysics to clarify, to get anything clean and clear. Now we are facing such things as 'presence'. What is `to be present', somewhere, as a human being? What is to be, in a human being? Presence as the existence of an entity is a crucial question in the building of virtual reality technology. It is not a speculative question, in the bad sense. MIT used the philosophical term 'presence' for the title of its new VR-journal. Certainly Heidegger made Anwesenheit (presentness) crucial to his history of Being (Seinsgeschichte). I think we are going to rediscover this vocabulary in a fresh way. It will not have this absolutist, theological background. But it will still be a thought experiment and exploration that will make the logical positivists shiver. The new media require a new vocabulary that asks questions that have to do with identity.
What could be Gelassenheit (resignation) in this world of choices and options, we are navigating through?
There are some aspects in the work of Heidegger that I'm not comfortable with. Because he was so profound in his genius to see ahead, he was aware of the powerful changes that were going to happen after his life. After all, the personal computer wasn't even developed when he died in 1976. The whole sense of Heidegger's Gelassenheit is maybe more of a retreat from the things we'll have to deal with. But at the same time he was also working with Asian thought. He admitted, he didn't know it directly. We are in a position now, in the Western World, to know the Eastern tradition directly, by practice. The cross-fertilisation of Western culture with Eastern is becoming a practical thing, not just a `Zen of the mind'.
It's becoming a natural practice of things like Yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido, acupuncture, the medical theories of Chi-Gong. These practices are what might be a correlate to Gelassenheit. They are an alternative to the high stress of the mind-brain-visual focus of Western technology. Not like a substitute, but a complement, a counterbalance. I'm trying to deal with how to build this into a design, into the system. The first thing we should realise, is whether it's of any use to have people in a computer firm doing Tai-Chi, as something separate and outside. But if you're going to be practical about this, you'll have to have experience. I can't come with a theoretical axe and say, if it's not internal, throw it out, it's not helping.
It's now the time to practice and we'll have to be patient and nurturing with these developments and not hope to get a theory that's going to, once-and-for-all, answer the questions and then we can implement it. Rather it's going to take time. People have to learn over a period of time, what these disciplines have to offer. Only then they will be ready to design environments and technologies that will have this balancing effect, intrinsically and not be simply aggressive, masculine, Western approaches. Habermas would often say, these activities are merely symbolic. I don't think 'merely' is the thing we should think about and insist upon more. Small practice is a beginning, not only a symbol. It's a doing that leads to results.
Some French and German theories work from the assumption that media are rooted in the logic of the military. One can also find this in the writings of Thomas Pynchon. Why don't you mention the military aspect of the new technologies?
That's true, I don't directly confront that aspect. Certainly that's one stream and it hasn't been explored sufficiently. But the development of virtual reality in the military is not the only source, however. My friend and inspiration in virtual reality is Myron Krueger, who is known as the father of virtual reality. Being originally an artist, he was working as early as the late sixties, at the same time as the military, developing the types of VR on his own. A parallel development, which is very different. The military approach is a head-mounted display (HMD), a very restricting kind of body suit. Krueger's work was obscure and he was ignored, but now becoming very prominent, as people realise the limitations and dangers of the head-mounted display. There are many difficulties with it, even for entertainment purposes. My purpose recently has been to point out these two streams and see the way each will take us in different directions. I don't think, the HMD-technology is by any means restricted to military use. It has very practical applications in building automobiles, aeroplanes, in directing traffic at the airport. There are many other areas where it will be an extremely powerful tool for entering into an electronic world.
By the way, the military origin is not a completely interactive type of virtual reality either. It's a one trick kind of simulation. Virtual reality is a universal simulator, not just a flight simulator. The military contributed a lot in the hard- and software development. This has always been the case, because human beings care about saving their lives when they're fighting. They will work hard to figure ways in which they can get an advantage in a life-or-death situation. Certainly, we have serious ethical problems about use of simulation in the Gulfwar. We sometimes have small wars, invasions, based on experiments, an attempt to try out the technology, by using them on a nation. But my focus has been rather on the technology as it connects with our culture at large. Although I admire for example Paul Virilio's work, at the same time there is a one-sidedness, that some academics and French philosophers can enjoy, because they are not dealing with the pragmatics of the world. They have a tradition of absolute freedom to criticise life as a whole. But I, myself, have to deal with a technically, wired-up world and that is going to be increasingly that way. It's just impossible to condemn technology as a military phenomena.
In your book Metaphysics of Virtual Reality you write, that VR will be the first technology to be born socially self critical. Where do you see the opportunities, to produce self-criticism?
We have computer networks that are making the connections between people, conferences, grassroots groups that meet. These have sprung up, most cities in the United States have virtual reality groups. These are attempts to get the conversations going about the technology, because the information is out there. These virtual communities are concerned about the future and fascinated by the technology. We have no illusions about denouncing the computer world, this is not even an option or possibility. We are dealing with the pragmatic situation of how we can better shape the future of the computerised world. I work on the level of national conferences and I see the impact of the grass roots discussions on the national level. The influence is not formal or explicit, there are no ultimatums or manifestos. But there are words that are put out strongly, that have a ripple effect. The people from the Pentagon and government offices, who are making the investments in the data highways, are being influenced by conversations that are going on in small groups.
The commercialisation is certainly moving apace. But the question of content and style, is all up in the air. We have a whole generation coming up, who are skilled at interactive devices, that is migrating to this world of virtual reality, where they can develop their dreams and fantasy games. The technical people may be left behind if they don't include the imaginative young people. I don't think the entertainment industry is going to be able to impose the old models of the movie industry. I know, people in film theory would like to think that virtual reality will be an extension of film. I think it's radically going to change the way we approach the idea of viewing things in a passive way.
How will it be, to have the works of Martin Heidegger on-line?
There are philosophical texts that are being compiled and made available on CD-ROMs already and they are in the stores. One of my students is publishing Aristotle, Locke and Hume, among Shakespeare and Homer, on CD-ROM. One of the difficulties that plagues something like Heidegger, is that he was very conscious about marginalia and the history of his thought. We might be able to use hypertext to indicate different levels, because right now, the texts of Heidegger are a mess, especially the Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works); there are so many different versions of Being and Time. So Heidegger was continuing the nineteenth century concept of a written text. He was trying to date it, by using his marginalia. It's a very understandable approach, but we are now living in an era where the notion of text is in flux. It might be possible to represent Heidegger's text better on-line, because of the hypertext abilities, to go to different levels, to see alternatives, instead of deciding what is the best edition.
So far, the language of the Net is English. Would you prefer to see a change towards multi-lingual communication?
We do have people working on translation programs. I don't know what level they reached, or can reach. Wouldn't that be a fascinating possibility, to have a World Wide Internet with agents, translational powers, build right in? Instead of making us more homogeneous, the computer connection could allow us to have automatic translation. I know, Heidegger was very bothered by this idea. When he spoke of a Sprachmaschine, he always thought of a translation machine, I think. And when I read this now, after having translated his Hebelessay into English, I always have to think of the `word processor' when I read the word Sprachmaschine. He never would have thought of that, because it was after his time. I think that a lot of our language could pass through a translation machine and be successful.
I take Ernesto Grassi very seriously. He takes Heidegger's idea of Sprache and the originality of language, it's poetic nature, not so much in its völkisches character, its national quality, but rather more in its capacity to generate new metaphors. I like this more than the nationalistic understanding of the untranslatebility of language. Heidegger felt that language had to be imbued with a national, völkisch quality and that's why it was untranslatable. There may be dangers in machine translations, because not being able to catch the metaphors, rather, that language can shape and create by using street language, for example, to refer to something, in a new way that shed a different light on it. I don't think of language having a magic. We mix different languages in English. Heidegger seemed to think that there was a purity in Greek or German that gave it an integrity and an ability to generate new things in a self consistent way, which is an admirable philosophical view, but I don't share that feeling, because I suppose I feel comfortable with English and borrowing foreign languages.
If Europeans think about the United States, they think about poverty, crime, the moral crisis and the panic state in which this society is at the moment. At the same time there are huge investments in virtual technologies. Do you see a relationship between social decay and the rise of cyberspace?
Technology too, magnifies. It has the ability to focus our attention. Think of Somalia, for example. One of the motivations that propelled the United States into the Somalian environment, is the pictures that we broadcast. The technology is calling our attention to things in a new way. It gets us sometimes to act in a way that is not analysed yet as to what we are doing. Frankly, some of the crisis is also generated by magnifying what is there. It's true that we may leave a part of the population behind, as we move into cyberspace. This has been true of human evolution and some of the jolts of evolution that have created revolutions in society. So it is urgent that we realise to articulate, from a grassroots point of view, to get off our couches and become active, as a public, about the technology that's coming. The crises are there, at the same time they are magnified. But what we can do, is to energise our society towards the technology. I don't think there is any way in which we can say, let's take our dollars back and invest it in the society, and hope we don't have to evolve any further technologically.
I don't know what is the logic of this proposal. I don't think that the military is driving it all. I think it's more what Heidegger calls Seinsgeschichte, there is destiny there, somehow, our faith, our Moira. We have to go towards something we love, Augustine would say, be driven from the heart of our civilisation. We have to be aware of the need to expand the base of technology, to bring the technological human being alive, everywhere, as much as possible, so that we become self consciously technical, technological beings and don't leave people behind. So that we don't fall back in national identities, ethnic groups. We need to realise our technological destiny.
Cyberspace is the next frontier, a place that we are moving towards and there is a certain inevitability about it. I don't think there is any way of retreating from it, unless we're going to resign ourselves to a backseat somewhere. We have to face what is happening. The person who upgrades his DOS-system to Windows is already entering into the computerised world. You can't choose whether to upgrade or not, you have to do it, even if you don't like it, because technology is something we're getting more and more involved into. Once you've adapted Windows, you realise why you needed to do it. You then realise the power you get from it and that's a thrill.
In your writing you refer to Leibniz and his model of the monade. Do you agree with this description of the current situation, in which the individual is completely isolated in this capsule, being connected at the same time?
What I'm trying to do when I delineate Leibniz, is to bring out the implicit logic of computerisation. It's 300 years old and we are developing Leibniz. But by now, we're smarter than that. We see the limits of rationalisation. Leibniz' theory of music, for example, is laughable today, to think that music is passing along information that the sensory apparatus doesn't get fast enough. We realise that there is a much greater depth to the human being. By clearly realising what Leibniz was getting at, we have to back off from it. He does represent what we are doing, like the monad as the computer screen, the windowless, connected part. It's a cautionary metaphysics, it's realising what has shaped the technology and once we clearly realise it, we are already outside of that and thinking of the richness of our bodily existence. It's my effort to develop criticism by bringing fully to awareness the limitations of the rationalist model. While I was writing on the monade, I had the speed-pizza driven MIT student in mind, who's working all hours on his computer, not being socially involved. Weizenbaum's critique on this is right. Part of what we do is unearth the past of metaphysics as our present. We can learn from the metaphysics, but learn from its limitations too, as we realize them.
Michel Foucault analysed the relation between power and the body. In your book, there's no reference to the body in the age of the computer, in fact, no power analysis at all. Why did you leave out this aspect?
I had to firmly reject and renounce the use of any theory, that could in anyway be taken to be obscure or obfuscatory. I had to be very careful, to avoid deconstruction theories, because they do not help clarify the issues that can bring together the technical community with the public and thoughtful people. There has been a lot of damage done by theories that propose very complex, psychological based analysis, in terms, nearly opaque to the average person. This does not help the dialogue that is needed, to make technology an issue for our people and to get them engaged, in a thoughtful, philosophical way. I sense too, that the suspicion, that is imbedded in much Marxist theory, fearful of the powers of oppression, even if those theories might be proposed from the safe wall of a fortress, in an academic context, cannot work pragmatically. I need something that's going to help me deal with the specifics of the technology, in order to propose suggestions for the users and developers. Not general fear, not general euphoria, nothing general. I tried to deal with this in Electric Language, to take a look at specific programs, analysing actual practices. We have to accept a new role for thoughtful people, trying to help a conversation, not trying to dominate it or scare people, raise suspicion in their minds or cause a revolution. We have to help one another, become clear, understand where we are. Having a group talk together, that's the ideal.