Why do we want to Augment our Reality?
Why do we want to ‘augment’ our reality? Can the digital augmentation of physical reality be understood as the most recent point on a broader historical trajectory.
I am constantly thinking about Heidegger’s claim in “The Question Concerning Technology” that “the essence of technology is nothing technological”. Particularly, I am taken by his suggestion that technological activity (what might be understood as a specific AR technology) is evocative of a particular orientation to – or “Enframing” of – the world. A Heideggerian analysis does not necessarily negate analyses of technological instrumentality; rather, it attempts to discern “technology’s essence” by way of “the correct instrumental definition of technology”. This, Heidegger refers to as “seek[ing] the true by way of the correct”. Likewise, I am drawn to analyses that link specific technological instruments to some non-technological factor that develops throughout history, such as Virilio’s fascination with speed. Lately I have been thinking about AR in the context of Heidegger’s “Age of the World Picture”. Aristotle (and the ancients more generally) understood matter as being connected to cosmic processes and having a “desire”. In contrast, moderns experience matter as a lifeless, neutral substance that exists for them to impose their will upon. As a result of this difference in the meaning of the natural world, moderns came to consider themselves “subjects” standing over and against the world. There could be no ‘subject’ without a certain type of ‘world’, or “object”. Thus, Heidegger links the subject to what he calls “the modern world picture”. As “the world is transformed into picture… man [is transformed] into subiectum”. In “Age of the World Picture”, Heidegger claims that Modernity is marked by the humanization of the world:
the more extensively and the more effectually the world stands at man’s disposal as conquered, and the more objectively the object appears, all the more subjectively, i.e., the more importunately, does the subiectum rise up, and all the more impetuously, too, do observation of and teaching about the world change into a doctrine of man, into anthropology.
Might this not suggest something about the contemporary urge to “augment” reality? The term “augment” means “to increase”, “to make stronger” and/or “to be more effective”. Thus, AR overlays and deepens the physical world with digital information. For example, Google claims that its new AR “Google Goggles” will be able to identify a species of tree based on a camera phone photo of one of its leaves. But it is important to recognize that this increase of reality is engineered by and for human beings. The world that emerges through our “Google Goggles”, or AR fitted contact lenses, might be understood as the apotheosis of the modern world picture and the acceleration of the humanization of the world. Rather than a post-modern interrogation of the binary between subject and object or culture and nature, technologies such as AR might be understood as encouraging a modern, subjective, world picture. The world is being made stronger and more effective for us.
The telos of AR seems to have been pre-figured by Virilio in his Open Sky where he warns about automating our perception of the world. What will happen he wonders when, in hopes of expanding and augmenting reality, we create an apparatus that “directly stimulates the retinal rods and cones of our eyes”? It is not for nothing that he begins Open Sky with a curious little epigraph: “One day / the day will come / when the day will not come”. Perhaps Virilio is cryptically suggesting that the sun will continue to rise notwithstanding our perception of it, but once vision is augmented digitally we will see only the geometric outline of a sun, data from NASA about solar flares, a link to Sun Microsystems and a CNN video about soaring afternoon temperatures in Bangkok. The sun will have disappeared beneath the dimension of information. Heidegger and Virilio would likely consider AR as informed by the desire to bring the world, and indeed the notion of reality itself, into the orbit of human will.
The drive to “augment” our world, making it stronger and more effective for us, ought to be considered against the history and philosophy of technology so that it does not appear to be something like a break with the structures that have persisted throughout the centuries. In this light, AR exists alongside myriad factors including the (1) change in world-view (what Alexander Koyre calls “infinitization”) undergone in the West once the world was understood not as a “closed world” bounded by celestial spheres, but one body in an “infinite universe”; (2) undermining of the Aristotelian ‘final’ cause, and the resulting importance of the ‘efficient’ cause; (3) mathematic and geometric representation of the world begun during the Renaissance; (4) mechanistic philosophy of Descartes; (4) contemporary biotechnologies and (5) virtual ‘avatars’ that allow individuals to experience a body and selfhood that is theirs to design and control.
—-Cybject is only a thought experiment—–