In a recently published book, Human Virtuality and Digital Life, the philosopher Victor J. Krebs analyzes our understanding of the virtual as a prosthetic extension of our natural capacities, helping us do things better, faster, more efficiently. The virtual is prevalently thought of as an improvement — hence, augmented reality. Even virtual realities and metaverses, commonly thought of as mere copies of the already-existing universe in a non-material horizon, promise a better experience of it: they are (supposedly) more fun, more productive, more real.
However, the idea of the “virtual” was originally linked with potentialities instead. It was not so much about doing things “better,” but making things be what they are supposed to be. The medieval Latin virtualis, Krebs reminds the reader, derives from the original Latin virtus, meaning not necessarily “virtue” (as one might naturally assume) but rather “potency,” a word traditionally used in ancient Greek philosophy to designate the capacity things have to be or do something. A seed, for example, is potentially (virtually) a tree, and a tree is potentially (virtually) a log cabin. But what is a human being potentially?
A classic, ancient, major philosophical question asks why is there something rather than nothing. The noted (and most controversial) existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger famously called it “the fundamental question of metaphysics.” Some later contemporary thinkers maintain virtual reality has made this question even more complicated by inaugurating an in-between space that is not something — yet not strictly “nothing” either. Augmented and virtual realities and metaverses, while not being things, are nevertheless something: they are “out there,” yet also “right here,” even “in here.” They have a kind of presence of their own. How can these intermediate “entities” affect our material lives, our understanding of the “real,” our online and offline behaviors, and our everyday decisions? How do they shape what we potentially (virtually) are?
Whereas most people would not be able (or willing) to spend $650,000 on a virtual mega-yacht, we do buy, consume, interact, and treasure digital objects. We carefully shape our internet profiles, keep (more or less tidy) photo albums on Facebook, “save” online game parties, and do our best to maintain a more or less coherent online persona. When done correctly, we get that sweet virtual (yet oh-so-real) reward we all crave: likes.In a recent interview with Sergio C . Fanjul published in El País, the South Korean-born Swiss-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han compares “likes” to “digital amens“: they are the ultimate “virtual” validation of who we are, what we say, how we look, what we do, who we are with, what we eat, etc. Likes permeate every single aspect of our (online) shared lives. Is that what we human beings potentially are, “likable” beings? It is true that being unpleasant or hateful for the sake of it is pointless. Can we say the same about being “likable”?
Smartphones, Han explains, play a dual role in our quasi-virtual existence: they are both digital workplaces and digital confessionals. As workplaces, smartphones have managed to displace idleness and contemplation. Han notes how contemporary human existence has been entirely absorbed by relentless, non-stop activity, thus making it easily exploitable: virtuality has made the workday virtually infinite, replacing leisure time with more activity. One is always available, as we all know, we keep our smartphones at hand, even (or especially) when we are not working. The leisure time that we would normally spend to recover from work (but also to enrich one’s life with a deeper experience of the world, of ourselves, of others, of nature, of God) has been traded for sheer data consumption. In Fanjul’s interview, Han elaborates on why we need to put a halt to information:
“We need information to be silenced. Otherwise, our brains will explode. Today we perceive the world through information. That’s how we lose the experience of being present. We are increasingly disconnected from the world. We are losing the world. The world is more than information, and the screen is a poor representation of the world. We revolve in a circle around ourselves. The smartphone contributes decisively to this poor perception of the world. A fundamental symptom of depression is the absence of the world.”
But also, being the cult objects of our digitally-driven lives, smartphones work “like a rosary and its beads,” our fingers relentlessly scrolling down or swiping right and left — a pattern “religiously” repeated, as if trading one habit for another, going from (inward) meditation to (outward) voyeurism. The main difference, Han claims, is we don’t use smartphones to ask for graces or forgiveness, but to call for attention instead. Whereas the Rosary is a contemplative, inward-oriented prayer, the kind of narcissistic exhibitionism/voyeurism that abounds on social media runs in an entirely opposite direction. This compulsive need to reach out does not necessarily translate, Han suggests, into a real relationship with others. It is, instead, the symptom of a collective depression.
“When we are depressed,” Han goes on, “we lose our relationship with the world, with the other. We sink into a scattered ego. I think digitalization, and the smartphone, make us depressed […] As a child, I remember holding my mother’s hand at the dentist’s office. Today the mother will not offer the child her hand, but a cellphone. Support does not come from others, but from oneself. That makes us sick. We have to recover the other person.”