How much does virtual online reality change things?

A friend writes:

You have this vision of liberalism or modernity as the attempt to create a self-sufficient manmade system which becomes a substitute for the given world, I wonder if you have any thoughts about how computers fit into that scheme. For many people the computer becomes a substitute for the real world. It offers an alternative reality in which ordinary people can experience themselves as the creators and controllers of their own cosmos.

It’s an interesting point that deserves thought. Here are some suggestions (additions are welcome):

  • The virtual online world isn’t the self-contained rationalized world modernity aims at. The problem is that the latter can’t exist. Liberal modernity is destructive because it aims at fantasy and not reality, and it destroys things trying to get there. To the extent the VOW exists it takes on the necessary attributes of reality.
  • To be more specific, the VOW is too complicated to predict or train. It does what it wants. Besides extremely complex electronic circuitry it contains natural elements—human beings—that are notoriously unpredictable and uncontrollable. Those natural elements in fact undertake all the initiatives and make all the decisions. It’s been known for a long time that you can’t denature nature: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret (“You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she’ll always come back in anyway”—Horace). Why think you can do it by adding electronics?
  • I wrote a review some time ago of Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control that touches on some of the issues. The review concluded that the fancy theorizing you find today about the “emergent behaviour” of complex systems involving human beings is trying to cover ground already covered by classic discussions of man and society. So—on the whole—why not read the classics instead?
  • A sign that people who actually work with computers have noticed that the world of computers can’t be subjected to liberal modernity is the interest among software and systems designers in writers like Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros, whose work on architecture (and oriental rugs) makes clear the superiority of traditional solutions over modernist hyperrationality.
  • Nonetheless, the VOW is not the real world, even though it has real elements, and computers can become a distraction, drug or addiction. Still, how much does the VOW differ in that regard from other artificial worlds—the world of sports, financial markets, the court of Louis XIV, the Republic of Learning? Those are all artificial worlds with natural elements that serve certain functions but also swallow people up. The Republic of Learning has a better rep than the others, but book learning has always been suspect in America, Plato thought (Letter VII, 344c) that no serious man would ever put his most serious concerns in writing, and the Persians say
    aql-e-madrasa chiz-e-digar ast (“school knowledge is something else”). If all those people agree on something, how can they be wrong?

Conclusion: the VOW is an important development, and it changes things, but I think there’s too much of a tendency to treat it as a complete novelty and it’s probably best understood from the standpoint of the long-pondered question of how complicated systems involving human beings work generally.

4 thoughts on “How much does virtual online reality change things?”

  1. Software and patterns
    As a software guy and as someone who has followed the patterns movement in both architecture and software, I have to say that Mr Kalb might have misunderstood the appeal patterns have in the software engineering community.

    It isn’t that software designers have “noticed that the world of computers can’t be subjected to liberal modernity.” It’s simply that they have recognized that there is a right way to do most tasks. I.e., their interest in patterns is purely technical: given a problem of this or that kind, what techniques, what “architectures” have been used to solve it? The solutions which are deemed most successful, and which software patterns are intended to capture, are those which afford the most flexibility for further development—since problems of fitting new features into existing designs have been a characteristic concern of this field.

    So I think the truth is actually the opposite of what Mr Kalb suggests. Software patterns, as descriptions of maximally-flexible arrangements of code and of the interactions between code modules—and as abstractions from any actual code—are very like liberal patterns for conscious implementation of a maximally-flexible society.

    (I also think it is a misreading of Christopher Alexander to represent him as essentially interested in traditional or vernacular solutions to architectural problems. He does indeed look to tradition for examples of successful solutions, but he values them because they are solutions, not because they are traditional. His entire project has been to discover the principles by which those solutions can be deliberately and reliably produced. He is a rationalist of the Platonic rather than the positivist sort.)

    • I would be surprised if the i
      I would be surprised if the interest of software professionals were anything but technical — what works and causes as few problems as possible. My point is that they’ve noticed that what works isn’t modernist hyperrationality. Also, my impression of CA is indeed that he is interested in extracting general forms of what works more than in specific traditions from which such things can be extracted. I don’t see that I said anything at odds with that. To make something clear in the course of a discussion does not require any particular attitude toward the thing made clear.

      The issue is what sorts of order work, how we come to know that order, and how liberalism answers those questions. Liberalism, in common with modernity generally, is Cartesian and not Platonic. It is concerned with the perspicuous reduction of all aspects of social order to the most simple, abstract and content-free principles possible, like freedom and equality in the sense of the maximum equal ability of each ego to choose and get whatever it wants. It is strikingly not interested in “patterns … of a maximally-flexible society” that it turns out do work even though it’s likely we can’t rationally comprehend exactly why they work. The latter is a characteristically conservative concern that is quite out of place in a system in which abstract freedom and equality are trumps.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Well, yes, the practical-mind
        Well, yes, the practical-minded software engineering community has certainly rejected proof-theoretic approaches like Z. There’s a vast difference between the “computer science” taught by the professors and the software engineering that gets done in the real world!

        But that’s far from saying that they’ve embraced patterns which work even though they can’t rationally comprehend exactly why they work. On the contrary, most of them can explain very clearly how and why an abstract class factory, for example, works as a solution to the problem of writing code to create objects of as-yet-unknown type. (If you’re interested, see the “Gang of Four” book for the details.)

        I don’t agree that classical liberalism is Cartesian. I think it’s better described as Aristotelean, since it traces large parts of its heritage through the Spanish Scholastics. The crucial difference between classical and modern liberalism, I think, is that the former admits the existence of a natural moral law while the latter does not.

        Of course, the existence of a natural moral law accessible to human reason does not guarantee that anyone comprehends it completely or without error. It remains to be discovered. To that extent, classical liberals share the conservative concern with the as-yet-unexplained aspects of functioning society. The difference between them might be that the classical liberal feels driven to understand, whereas the conservative is content to simply accept that some things are inescapably ineffable. The conservative feels called upon to submit to the nature of things, while the classical liberal feels called upon to strive for excellence —to use his God-given Reason to create a better life, which means one in accord with the natural law.

        Finally, let me say that I agree with you, Mr Kalb, in rejecting the hyper-rationalistic or reductionistic tendencies of much modern liberalism and libertarianism. Life is not an axiomatic system! But I don’t think this means we need to swing all the way in the other direction, into irrationalism. (I know you don’t either.) There is more to reason and rationality than the logic of deduction.

  2. On the other hand
    Mr Kalb is quite correct when he says that online communities don’t really pose any problems which haven’t already been addressed by classic discussions of man and society. Most of the stuff that’s been written about the VOW is the kind of rubbish intellectuals write in order to establish themselves as members of the avant-garde.


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