A pleasing philosophical coincidence I came across recently.
I’m happily devouring Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life and was at the section on presence and afk, when one of my favourite blogs posted this:
While you were out – Futility Closet
A pleasing little philosophy puzzle: If there’s a sentence that’s guaranteed to be false in any context, surely it’s this:
“I am not here now.”
But this very phrase is played on millions of answering machines and voicemail systems every day, and we all understand it to be true. I, here, and now are indexicals, words whose meanings change with the circumstances of their utterance. Here each seems to make a rather uncertain reference, and the resulting sentence on its face cannot be true, yet we all understand it readily. How?
You don’t need to be lost in Second Life to puzzle over the virtuality of time and place.
2 thoughts on “Anybody there?”
Quoting an old friend of mine, with whom I used to run an Internet business, almost three decades ago: “Cyberspace is where two people meet when they’re talking on the phone”.
Think about it. Where, exactly, is that conversation taking place? Here, at my home? Or over there, at my friend’s home? Or is it “on the wire”? So how exactly can two humans be “on the wire” and have a conversation together? But wait — the wire does only transmit their voices, not their physical existence, their presence. Or does it? Can anyone seriously doubt that the person “on the other side of the wire” is not experimenting my ‘presence’ — even if slightly degraded due to the lack of body language? But — as my church choir director also liked to say — “when singing, always do it with a smile”. Why bother to smile, one might ask, when the church choir (at least in our parish) was out of sight from the congregation below? Well, he said, people can feel the smile through the very subtle changes made on the voice modulations (or whatever the technical term might be); they don’t need to see our smile to know we’re smiling. So we are able to know about something that we cannot see, because we can feel how a voice sounds. Talk about synesthesia! Who’d think that a mere smile could be so immersive, covering almost all senses, triggering satisfying emotions even without the all-powerful vision sense?
The same, of course, also happens during a phone call. Sure, we might be temporarily ‘body-language-impaired’; sure, we have no vision (on a voice call); and obviously, there is no sense of touch, of smell, and so forth. Nevertheless, merely through the medium of a low-quality voice call, we are able to feel completely ‘immersed’ within the experience, and have no doubts that we’re in the ‘presence’ of another fellow human being — even if physically apart for thousands of kilometres, even without any of our five (or six, or seven…) senses except for distorted sound.
In the English language, a ‘call’ used to be when people would physically knock at your door and visit your place. It was surrounded by all sorts of complex protocols and was a substantial part of a gentleperson’s social duties. ‘Phone calls’, in the late 1890s and early 1900s, were “against the social norm” and couldn’t ‘replace’ the physical call, because, well, it wasn’t physical, was it? Nevertheless, over the decades, technology superseded customs and social mores: today, when we hear that ‘someone was on a call’ we immediately assume they were on a phone call — or possibly a videoconferencing call — in any case, they weren’t physically in the same space having a conversation.
Instead, they were on a different kind of space: cyberspace. Or, if you wish, that kind of “space” that we are in when using technology to communicate with others and make our presence felt to others.
It might be argued that such a ‘space’ doesn’t really exist. Or that it is the combination of everything together: it’s not here, not there, not “on the wire”, but all the three. That transcends the concept of the physical universe, but the most interesting thing is that this ‘space’ is not everywhere. That would, indeed, render the whole concept of ‘space’ irrelevant and immaterial; it would be as silly a concept as the old notion of a physical substance pervading all space, formerly known as ether, where physical forces would manifest themselves.
Instead, this cyberspace has specific attributes, and, perhaps most importantly, boundaries. It’s not merely happening over ‘a wire connection’. Rather, it happens only on this specific ‘wire connection’ that, well, connects here with there; there are magical items which create this space for the participants (phones, telephone exchanges, wires, radio signals…), but set it up ‘just for them’ (your phone call is not shared with anyone else but your intended recipient(s)), with a specific duration — it happens ‘instantly’ (at least on Planet Earth; voice calls to the Moon or, worse, Mars, are a different issue), but it doesn’t last ‘forever’: there is a moment in time when the experience begins, one during which the experience is active, and one when the experience ends. So, both from a purely philosophical perspective, but also from a physical one, this ‘cyberspace’ has a certain degree of ‘existence’, merely because it does exhibit some characteristics; it is bound in time, but also in how many participants there are (‘just a few’ as opposed to, say, gravity, which manifests itself universally); it can rely on very specific causes and conditions for happening — namely, you need to have two phones connected through a network that allows electromagnetic transmission of a voice signal between both parties. You cannot ‘enter cyberspace’ if all you have is a rock and your friend a bouquet of flowers. Or a toaster and an ironing board. No, instead, you need specific objects, magic invoked in the right way (‘dial a phone number’, which is your friend’s most secret numerological aspect), or else the medium referred as ‘cyberspace’ by my friend does not ’emerge’: it is a constructed environment, not one that gets spontaneously generated.
That would allow one to speculate about the ‘existence’ of an ‘alternative immersive environment’ (as opposed to what we would call ‘the natural world’) which shares some properties with our ‘natural world’ — namely, the ability to convey presence between participants in that medium — but has wildly different ones, such as the lack of a physical dimension (it does, however, regain the dimension of time) or at least appears to exist independently of the physical distance between participants. While it may only convey limited perception — i.e. reduces senses, such as the ‘audio only’ channels in a phone call, and even those with bad quality — the brain compensates neatly for the lack of stimuli (with some training, of course, although in the case of a phone call that training is minimal; while using Second Life, which provides a much richer medium, is considerably more difficult than picking up a rotary phone and dialling a number on its disc…). Indeed, that’s the only possible way — people having all sorts of sensory deprivation or limitation (such as vision/hearing impairments) can train themselves to adapt the remaining ‘input channels’ to nevertheless convey the same degree of ‘immersion’ and physical presence. Thus, even a blind person can know that someone nearby is smiling, just by listening to their voice — while someone who is hearing impaired can ‘read’ from someone’s body language if they’re yelling aggressively.
We consider all those examples where certain input channels for our perceptions are constrained or even absent as being perfectly valid, when talking about being in the ‘presence’ of another fellow human being, even if such a presence is not established physically, but conveyed by other, alternate means. Nobody in their right mind would consider a phone conversation as being somehow fantasy roleplay, merely ‘pretending’ that those engaged in the phone call are ‘feeling’ each other’s ‘presence’, but in reality they’re just talking to some kind of device, and ‘pretending’ that the squeaky noises coming from the speaker are, in fact, emitted by the person they claim to have “on the other side of the connection”. Instead, we take for granted that “the other person is also here with us”, even if we cannot ‘see’ them at our current physical location. Conversely, the person “on the other end” has the equivalent perception — they know they’re physically ‘there’ and not ‘here’ — which coincides (or at least mirrors) with ours. This is one of the fundamental characteristics of the ‘cyberspace’: all participants can agree that, even though the ‘cyberspace’ might not have a ‘physical existence’, it nevertheless can be used as a medium to convey the commonly held belief that all participants in the cyberspace have, at a minimum, a similar ‘immersive experience’ as if they were all physically present on the same room.
Much more could be said on this specific subject, and I could go on for hours 🙂 but unfortunately I lack the time (or the space!) to digress even further…
Thanks for the opportunity to reflect and meditate upon this most fascinating subject!
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Oh, commenting on myself… a correction. My friend was almost certainly quoting Bruce Sterling, another of the cyberpunk visionaries, who used the following quote:
I found this only today! ChatGPT didn’t get it right, but Wikipedia did 🙂
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