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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R.

Knoester

Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology

Kristiaan Rodrigo Knoester


MA Paper: Filosofie van Wetenschap en Politiek (2007-08)
Dr. Huub Dijstelbloem

Introduction

The notion of technology is usually linked to the progress of thought: it is said to be a product
of reason and the growth of knowledge, while equally contributing to the overall progress of
the human condition, both intellectually and materially. This dual perspective has become so
ingrained in the modern mindset, that the logic of technology now seems inevitable.

If this is the case – a claim whose accuracy we will first need to determine – then the
following political challenge can be deduced: technological trends may possibly hold
individual autonomy hostage by undermining the authority of reason over technological
development. Or, to put it in political terms, perceiving the logic of technology as inevitable
or necessary, and accepting it without properly understanding the changes that it creates, may
undermine the decision-making process of modern democratic nation-states. It would be

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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R. Knoester

tantamount to subjugating action to fate. To the extent that the ‘logic of technology’ – in
whichever form it may manifest itself – is adopted in practice, without a proper engagement at
the theoretical level – whether in terms of its epistemological or ontological significance – the
result may equal the deification of technology itself: it may come to represent a categorical
absolute that will always tower above the categories of human understanding.

This hegemony of technological progress should first be qualified in itself; i.e., as a


discernible social or political process. Doing so entails identifying a public, insofar
technology does not only encroach the private realm of thought but is a collective matter of
concern. I will illustrate this by means of a case study that gives shape to a notion of
technology capable of accommodating the critical framework of this essay; i.e., the question
whether or not the logic of technology can be placed underneath a political framework. This
case study – which deals with the political significance of synthetic worlds and communities –
brings together ontological, epistemological, ethical, and moral issues. It does so in a two-fold
manner. The case study will, on the one hand, formulate a conception of technology as a
medium of thought, and on the other, a medium of socio-economic development and
interaction. The former brings to the fore the relation of reason and thinking to technology,
while the latter brings the relation of the collective itself to technology.

The next step will then be to challenge the notion of technology itself. This will take the form
of two questions: does technology accommodate thought and reason, to the extent that these
are traditionally understood in terms of being intrinsic and necessary to the possibility of
moral autonomy? Or does it instead undermine thought and reason, by allowing the
perpetuation of its logical process (logos) without disclosing the logic of its system, i.e.,
without opening itself to the possibility of reflexivity? Putting these two questions together,
my claim is that the latter will be the case insofar as technology undermines the possibility of
moral autonomy. Furthermore, if moral autonomy is taken for granted in the private sphere,
e.g. for technologically related economic benefits or necessities, the political relevance of a
‘public’ will itself erode, and with it many of the liberal and democratic mechanisms that
depend on the private/public dichotomy. With this in mind, I will try to show that politics
needs technology to shed light on the polis, but immediately thereafter needs the public to
assert its political authority on technology so as not to become ensnared by its own web of
logic. Politics and technology are essentially related.

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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R. Knoester

The Logic of Modernity

Although technology is traditionally considered a product of modernity, this perspective is


flawed on two accounts: 1) the concept of modernity itself requires specification, and 2) it
portrays technology too strongly as a product of historically contingent circumstances.
Despite these inaccuracies, we may yet be able to shed some light on the matter by using this
as our starting point. We may begin by observing that, in the wake of the Scientific
Revolution, the concept of technology emphasizes the control and manipulation of nature by
means of a technical apparatus. With the institutionalisation of the controlled experiment as a
logically structured process, modern science developed a conception of technology strongly
identified by an apparatus (machine) or tool serving some form of practical function, either in
itself or in relation to the experiment. Heidegger speaks of a process of “setting upon that
challenges the energies of nature,”1 revealing energy heretofore concealed, but which can then
be ‘unlocked, transformed, stored, distributed and switched about.’ But just as the machine
(tool), in terms of being a ‘standing-reserve,’ is not autonomous – i.e. it stands-by awaiting
the order to set itself upon nature (reveal that which challenges) – man does not control the
process of unconcealment itself; “at any given time the actual shows itself or withdraws.”
Then again, this process of actuality – the ‘revealing that orders’ – is possible insofar “man
for his part is already challenged to exploit the energies of nature.” Heidegger points out that
man is therefore not a tool of nature, or ‘mere standing-reserve’, for it is man in particular
who is “challenged more originally than are the energies of nature.” It is man who furthers the
progress of technology by taking part in “ordering as a way of revealing.”2

We will get back to Heidegger’s conception of technology as a process of revealing towards


the end of this essay. For the moment it is sufficient to keep in mind how the development of
modern technological tools, and their experimental use, helped sustain the ongoing effort to
reduce the contingent variables of nature complicating man’s quest for self-sufficiency. In
fact, this experimental approach would not have been possible had the space for autonomous
behaviour and thought not first been established. It is therefore important that we keep in
mind how the new natural science of the 17th century was strongly influenced by an earlier

1
Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: HarperCollins
Publishers (1993): 321.
2
Ibid., 324.

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event: the break with classical political philosophy. We will briefly retrace this trajectory
through the thought of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke.

Leo Strauss suggests that these two events share a ‘hidden kinship’ which meet in the political
philosophy of Machiavelli. According to Strauss, Machiavelli’s teaching – which removed the
classical emphasis on virtue as the pursuit of the highest good – inaugurated a view of
humanity that lowered the standards of human action. Machiavelli’s argument instead located
virtue within society; it begins with a conception of morality as a product of society itself,
turning upside down the idea that man is by nature directed towards virtue. The result of this
reversal is that man gains in terms of power and autonomy the control that nature and chance
had previously held against him. In this manner, according to Strauss, Machiavelli
inaugurated modern political philosophy:

[Machiavelli’s] lowering of the standards is meant to lead to a higher probability of


actualisation of that scheme which is constructed in accordance with the lowered standards.
Thus, the dependence on chance is reduced: chance will be conquered. […] Machiavelli is the
first philosopher who attempted to force chance, to control the future by embarking on a
campaign, a campaign of propaganda. […] He was the first of a long series of modern
thinkers who hoped to bring about the establishment of new modes and orders by means of
enlightenment. The enlightenment—lucus a non lucendo—begins with Machiavelli.3

This in turn laid the basis for a new conception of political authority; a radical scheme which
culminates in Hobbes’ Leviathan: the modern state as a symbol of the unity of god, man,
animal, and machine.4 According to Strauss, Hobbes took the problem of justice more
seriously than Machiavelli; he did not accept that it was simply a product of society. Instead,
following the traditional view, he believed in the existence of natural right. And yet, in
agreement with Machiavelli, he too felt that traditional political philosophy had elevated this
principle of justice too highly. His doctrine of a “state of nature” was a means for refuting the
basis of Machiavelli’s theory: selfishness and the desire for glory as the primary element of
society. Instead, he elaborates the fear of death as the founding principle of government and
civil society.

3
Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1988): 41, 46.
4
Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, Trans. George Schwab. London: Greenwood Press (1996): 82.

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In other words, whereas the pivot of Machiavelli’s political teaching was glory, the pivot of
Hobbes’s political teaching is power. Power is infinitely more businesslike than glory. Far
from being the goal of a lofty or demonic longing, it is required by, or the expression of, a
cold objective necessity. Power is morally neutral. […] It emerges through an estrangement
from man’s primary motivation. It has an air of senility… Respectable, pedestrian hedonism,
sobriety without sublimity and subtlety, protected or made possible by “power politics”—this
is the meaning of Hobbes’s correction of Machiavelli. (Strauss, 1988: 48-49)

According to Carl Schmitt, Hobbes’s symbol – the Leviathan – was ultimately intended to
bring about a “natural unity of spiritual and secular power.” In this Hobbes failed, explains
Schmitt, because his symbol was constructed in response to a technical age, and as such relied
on a rationalism that, following the logic of any technology, attempted to subjugate chance by
means of conscious thought. More importantly, “he opened the door for a contrast to emerge
because of religious reservation regarding private belief and thus paved the way for new,
more dangerous kinds and forms of indirect powers.”5 The scientism of Hobbes’s thought,
which culminated in the technology of the modern state– i.e., the sovereignty of decision-
making power – also released indirect powers, i.e., powers that may not require public
legitimacy but which nonetheless could subvert centralized political authority. For this reason,
although Hobbes’s “image did not unequivocally conjure up a definite and clear enemy, it
contributed the insight that indivisible political unity was destroyed from within by the
demolition work of indirect powers.”6

The legitimation of these indirect powers found their expression in the work of Locke, who
changed Hobbes’s desire for self-preservation into a desire for property. With the
establishment of the right of acquisition, the morality of economism becomes secured
politically. Strauss writes that “economism is Machiavellianism come of age”7 for it presents
the best political solution to the social goals of modern political philosophy, but without the
need to justify an original transition governed by anarchy and bloodshed. “With a view to the
resounding success of Locke, as contrasted with the apparent failure of Hobbes, especially in
the Anglo-Saxon world, we can say that Machiavelli’s discovery or invention of the need for
an immoral or amoral substitute for morality, became victorious through Locke’s discovery or
invention that that substitute is acquisitiveness.”8

5
Ibid., 83.
6
Ibid., 85.
7
Strauss, 1988: 49.
8
Ibid.,

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With this development we have laid the basis for understanding techno-economic progress as
a tool of the Enlightenment project of emancipation. We may further construe the significance
of this development by looking at another view of modern technology in its current political
context: Ulrich Beck’s conception of modernity in terms of reflexivity and the production of
risks.

Risk and Reflexivity in Modernity

In Risk Society, Beck explains techno-economic progress as a sub-political institution within


modern society. Based on the historical sketch provided above, we can now see how
“[Machiavelli’s] shift from the formation of character to the trust in institutions” could not
only lead to “the belief in the almost infinite malleability of man,”9 but to the modern faith in
progress, or similarly, ‘the belief in the almost infinite creativity of technology’. Beck himself
writes that “faith in progress is the self-confidence of modernity in its own technology that
has become creativity. The productive forces, along with those who develop and administer
them, science and business, have taken the place of God and the Church.”10

To begin, Beck speaks of (post-)modernity in terms of two modes of organizing social change
that are the result of the globalization of industrial society: on the one hand we have the
establishment and proliferation of political parliamentary democracy, and on the other techno-
economic progress. Beck characterizes the latter as unpolitical and non-democratic11, for it
reduces the scope of democratic oversight while at the same time taking a leading role in
shaping society12. This development – falling between politics and non-politics – he therefore
categorizes as sub-politics13; although it retains political influence, the logic of techno-
economic innovation also evades the principles of parliamentary democracy—“progress
replaces voting.”14

This, however, does not yet entail a crisis of modernity. The modern society that wishes to
retain the principle of parliamentary democracy is not on the verge of succumbing from

9
Ibid., 43.
10
Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Trans. Mark Ritter. London: SAGE (1992): 214.
11
Ibid., 184.
12
Ibid., 14.
13
Ibid., 186.
14
Ibid., 184.

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within due to the effects of sub-political innovations. Beck’s argument is not that modern
society is at risk. Instead, modern society is a risk society. It is precisely the success of
modernization that has brought about the actualisation of the concept of industrial society
which had up to now rested upon a dual contradiction: “the universal principles of modernity
– civil rights, equality, functional differentiation, methods of argumentation and scepticism –
and the exclusive structure of its institutions, in which these principles can only be realized on
a partial, sectoral and selective basis.”15

In other words, the principle of modernity – progress – has empowered the sub-political
systems of scientific, technological and economic modernization. The techno-economic
system, driven by the logic (faith) of technological progress and economic distribution, has as
a result displaced politics from its traditional seat of power and centrality: the government as
sovereign representative of collective power.

Scott Lash and Brian Wynne, in the introduction to Beck’s Risk Society, explain how Beck’s
conception of reflexivity is a product of the postmodern critique of modernity, in particular
the culture of scientism and its ideological adherence to the Enlightenment project. Although
Beck wants to retain the “moral claim to rationality which is equal to that of modern
science.”16 he is critical of the cultural imposition of scientism in the public sphere.
Nevertheless, he believes that modernization itself makes it possible to transcend this level
through its own intrinsic process of structural change. In effect, the continuing process of
individualization in the private sphere produces a change in the relationship between
individuals (social agents) and institutions (social structures) due to the very risks that are
produced by the growing conjunction of industry and science. In other words, on the one hand
we have the process of individualization within the private sphere and sphere of work which
requires social agents to make decisions concerning their identities and interests, while in the
public sphere we see a growing awareness of the distribution of risks, which are in effect
increasingly produced and dealt with at the sub-political level.

But what is being meant hear with ‘risk’? Lash and Wynne define risks as “the probabilities
of physical harm due to given technological or other processes,” with the result that “technical
experts are given pole position to define agendas and impose bounding premises a priori on

15
Ibid., 14.
16
Ibid., 2.

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risks discourses.” It is curious that risk is taken in such a narrow sense; surely an equally
strong component arising from the techno-economic process is financial risk. In effect, the
distribution of risk is an intrinsic element of the global economy, and has resulted in ever
more ingenious financial ‘products’ – such as collaterilized debt obligations (CDO’s),
structured investment vehicles (SIV’s), mortgage-driven securities, and many other financial
instruments of the modern globalized economic system. This has resulted in a much more
integrated web of interests between countries and financial institutions, all competing in order
to maximize their own interests while at the same time being forced to cooperate in order to
insure the required stability of the financial markets. On the other hand, though market
liberalism has decentralized control – thereby distributing risk – it has also made it more
difficult for governments and central banks to act decisively and effectively if necessary.
What is interesting is that the nature of financial risks is essentially [practically]
technological: financial innovation is being driven by increasingly complex financial products
with no immediate market value. Instead, the value that these theoretical ‘products’ –
essentially computer algorithms promising a return on investment – create is speculative,
relying less on actual market values than on faith that the system is stable enough to predict.
Value is therefore a product of shared perception. Hence the constant monitoring of market
psychology, such as the need to maintain investor and consumer ‘confidence,’ governing
public statements from high-ranking institutional representatives. The bottom line, however,
is that these products are essentially virtual – the value that they offer as products is the result
of the diversity of risk that their technical complexity has made possible.

Economic risk distribution and technological risk distribution are therefore quite related,
particularly when one observes that technological innovation has made the integration of
economic information, and as a result more complex financial products, possible at a global
level. Likewise, globalized economic growth has influenced technological innovation through
investments and the sharing of information. The necessity of reflexivity arises from the
distribution of risks and the growing social dependence on actors and institutions whom,
acting at the sub-political level, nevertheless retain knowledge and expertise necessary for the
proper negotiation of modern risks, i.e., risks occasioned by “technological and other
processes.” But what is it about technology, or the economy for that matter, that requires a
“reflexive learning process”? Although Lash and Wynne speculate on ‘private reflexivity’ as
necessarily predating its public manifestation, eventually they recognize that Beck’s work,
which deals with risk and identity as social constructions, does not yet deal with “the sources

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and social dynamics of forms of reflexivity.”17 In order to continue this enquiry, which I
consider essential in determining the essence of the relation between politics and technology,
I move on to the synthetic reality of cyberspace.

The Immanence of Reality

There are three internet-related trends that are applicable to our discussion thus far. These are
Web 2.0,18 social networking websites, and online virtual worlds. We will start with a brief
description of each.

Web 2.0
Although there still seems to be discussions in the application of this term (does it refer to a
certain business model or ethical code?), there do seem to be some general characteristics that
can be used in distinction to what can then be defined as the traditional ‘Web’ or Web 1.0.
Whereas Web 1.0 consists of internet-sites whose content is basically read-only and web-
related services with a limited flow or application of information (basic download/uploading
procedures), Web 2.0 consists of platforms capable of learning from the aggregative
interaction between content and user. It is a locus of data and applications whose interface is
open and dynamic enough to be able to adapt to the heterogenous circumstances surrounding
each interaction, sometimes in real-time. Examples of this are Google (e.g. PageRank,
AdSense, GoogleMaps), BitTorrent, RSS, and Wikipedia. Whether or not such platforms are
meant to serve a particular business model, their success nevertheless depends on the
accumulation of data and the control of information.

Online Social Networks


Although on the surface these seem to be simple websites that offer a virtual space where
people can establish a virtual presence and form virtual communities with other people, what
we in fact have here are platforms offering an immersive social experience based on some of
the principles of Web 2.0. The best examples of these are MySpace and Facebook, and
actually augment the principles of Web 2.0 to the extent that the interface, by building upon
the growing number of users and the information they provide when using the platform, in
17
Ibid., 7.
18
Ofcourse, some are already looking ahead to what will ‘obviously’ come next: Web 3.0. See e.g.: William L. Hosch, ‘Web 3.0: The
Dreamer of the Vine.’ The Brittanica Blog. 6 Jul. 2007 <http://blogs.britannica.com/blog/main/2007/07/web-30-the-dreamer-of-the-vine/> 31
Jan. 2008.

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turn reinforces both the platform itself and the user’s experience. For example, one of the
most distinctive features of Facebook is the “news feed.” This program is an ongoing log of
user activity, accessible to other users that have been included to somebody’s friends list or
are members of a shared network. The dissemination of this [private] information in effect
allows users to keep track of what other people do, whether it be adding new ‘friends’ to their
network, uploading pictures and videos, or using applications with other people. Despite
initial criticisms concerning privacy issues – which forced Facebook to change it’s ‘opt-out’
option of the service to ‘opt-in’ – the “news feed” has still become one of the most popular
features of Facebook. As Ari Melber notes in an article,19 privacy is no longer about
concealing but ‘sharing’ information; it is about control. In other words, online social
networks translate the struggle for information and data control into the realm of identity
formation and privacy. As we will see, the relevance of these issues come together in
synthetic worlds.

Synthetic Worlds
In speaking of synthetic worlds, I am borrowing Edward Castronova’s terminology to
describe online virtual worlds not as ‘spaces’ that are essentially trying to appear ‘real’ from
the outside, i.e. in terms of sensory immersion, but which are already immersive from the
inside by virtue of a shared crafted reality. The focus is less on individual and physical
immersion than on the shared experience itself. The key technological component is therefore
the software enabling a network-user interface capable of sustaining immersion in a synthetic
environment, regardless of how ‘unreal’ the graphic interface may appear. Synthetic,
therefore, means “crafted by humans”, while a “virtual world is crafted by a computer”.20 It is
precisely this aspect that explains, according to Castronova, why precisely games have been
leading the way in the creation of online virtual worlds, instead of traditional research into
Virtual Reality (VR) technology: “A game perspective focuses all thought and research on the
user’s subjectivity and well-being. It insists on immediate usability. It thrives on widened
access and multiple uses. And it generates a willing suspension of disbelief, without which
genuine immersion cannot happen.”21 Online games therefore contain certain aspects that
sustain prolonged immersion in synthetic environments, such as a community of players
immersed and sharing the virtual space of a synthetic world, and software enabling an

19
Ari Melber, ‘About Facebook,’ The Nation. 20 Dec. 2007 <http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080107/melber > 31 Jan. 2008.
20
Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. London: The University of Chicago Press (2005): 294.
21
Ibid., 292.

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immersive user interface (gaming experience). In doing so, online games apparently cater to a
widespread and growing desire.

Although this desire for immersion and play has sustained the development of online games,
synthetic worlds are starting to incorporate other real-world aspects into their environments.
Castronova actually began most of his research on the socio-economic aspects of synthetic
worlds, not only in their relation to the real world financial systems, but as economic systems
in themselves which have evolved their own processes of value creation. He has concluded
that all synthetic worlds contain genuine economies, if by economy we understand the system
of resource allocation that results due to scarcity. In synthetic worlds it is the scarcity of time
that brings about economic activity. Value is created the moment a user chooses how to
allocate his or her time; from deciding which game/world to ‘inhabit’, to the activities
themselves. However, one particular aspect of synthetic economies in online games stands
out: it is the result of pleasure, not necessity. Castronova’s research itself tries to begin an
inquiry on the different elements that make these synthetic economies fun, and how these may
be developed further in order to foster user interest without making it too easy to fulfil one’s
desires; i.e. maintaining economic stability.

Before I continue discussing the techno-economic development of online games with an


example, I think we should keep in mind the following: as we have seen, modern economies
developed out of political necessity. The result has been a vast improvement in the quality of
life for people in general. This in turn has resulted in the growth of a middle class as an
important political factor. Likewise, we can speak of a universal leisure class capable of
developing and following its own personal interests. It is here, in the advent of leisure as
commodity and right – a product of economic activity and liberal thought – that we witness
the creation of a new form of economy; one combining the latest technological innovations.

Casus – Project Entropia

Project Entropia is a virtual world that wants to be more than just a game. It wants to be real.
Actually, it wants to mimic reality: “The Entropia Universe is for real. Real people, real
activities, and a Real Cash Economy in a massive online universe.”22 So far, the main
distinguishing factor that separates Project Entropia from other synthetic environments is the

22
http://www.entropiauniverse.com/index.var

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integration of its economic framework with real-world monetary mediums such as credit-
cards and ATM’s that permit the rapid transferral of money from one environment to the
other. Accepting the potential of this environment, both individuals and businesses are
increasingly seeking to invest real money in order to develop online services that reproduce,
and may replace, services in both the real world (e.g. retail outlets) and internet (such as on-
demand video and gambling). Thus far, the most ambitious project comes from the Cyber
Recreation Development Corp. (CRD) which is financed by the Beijing Municipal People’s
Government.23 This joint project with MindArk PE AB (which runs Project Entropia) aims to
integrate Beijing to Project Entropia by creating a cash-based economy that runs parallel to
both environments. The idea is to develop the economy of Beijing by extending and
integrating it with the synthetic universe of Entropia. CRD would then get its own virtual
planet which it could fashion according to its own specifications, populated and controlled by
citizens of Beijing in much the same way as any internet-based business, only that they are
present, during work, in the synthetic environment. The result of this economic activity,
however, should help develop both the synthetic world in Entropia and the real city in China.

Although at this stage we can already posit questions on the social implications that such a
framework of physical disconnection may produce, it is first worth considering what CRD
actually has in mind. According to Ahong Lee, president of the District Company:

“With the characteristics of experiencing, entertaining, interactive, and competing, cyber


entertainment will become part of the way of future daily life. Cyber entertainment and its
related industries will get into various aspects of life, it changes urban spaces and layout of
humanity. It will develop a new era for economic growth in a city. The digital entertainment of
China has get [sic] into a new stage of development in various aspects.

As a leader of cyber entertainment in China, Beijing Municipal People’s Government has


selected culture and digital entertainment as part of the “the Eleventh Five-Year Plan for
Economic and Social Development in Beijing and established Beijing Cyber Recreation
District (CRD) covering the west side of town to promote cyber recreation industries.”24

In fact, the long-term plan to fully integrate the virtual and the real by means of economic
development requires control of the medium, in this case the platform, that integrates content

23
‘Entropia Universe Enters China to Create the Largest Virtual World Ever.’ Entropia Universe (Press Release). 30 May 2007 <
http://www.marketwire.com/mw/release.do?id=737761&k=Mindark > 31 Jan. 2008.
24
http://crd.gov.cn/en/index.htm (Link no longer available)

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developers and users. What is pivotal in such a strategy is being there first, and encompassing
as much of the content available within a synthetic framework (architecture) that manages to
attract, and harness, the aggregative power of users. This goal has been reiterated in several
public statements by MindArk.25 In a recent presentation in Beijing, MindArk, Paynova
(online payment services provider), and the CRD presented the latest developments of their
plan to transform a 100 square kilometer site into the real-world home of what will become
the metaverse uniting consumers and producers. Estimates between now and 2010 speak of
having 150 million (Chinese) avatars (virtual identities) interacting in various worlds, while
Robert Lai, chief scientist at the CRD, speaks of various virtual universes capable of
supporting billons of avatars. The idea obviously expresses the goal of capitalizing on the sort
of business model that has made web-based brands such as YouTube, FaceBook, and Google
universally recognizable and highly profitable in a very short period of time. When asked
about the commercial impact of this project, Robert Lai said: "We want to be humble, but the
word virtual in English is an interesting one. The virtual is also real. It will change the world
of commerce but for now people don't want to accept this or to believe China can do this in
such a short time."26

Of course, commercial interests require a stable environment and appropriate rules of


conduct. In this sense it is interesting to note that although SecondLife has more subscribed
members than Entropia, it is the latter that fit the CRD’s commercial interests. The rationale
has to do with control: SecondLife is minimal in its control of its environment and actually
welcomes the creative freedom of its members. Entropia on the other hand regulates carefully
what is possible in its universe, both aesthetically and behaviorally. As the business
development director of MindArk, David Simmons, explained: “To me, if you just think of
the real world, when there are no rules there is chaos and anarchy.”27 Obviously, chaos and
anarchy are bad for business.

Of course, in this environment, as in other web 2.0 platforms, consumers can also become
producers, capable of selling their own designs to other consumer/producers. Although this
seems to place everyone on the same level, with distinctions based on the meritocracy of
creativity and self-styled marketing, it is important to note that the logical framework
concentrates power solely in the coding authority – the officers and customer service

25
‘Virtual World Entropia Universe Selects State-of-the-Art CryENGINE 2(R) to Create the Future.’ Entropia Universe (Press Release). 25
Jul. 2007 < http://account.entropiauniverse.com/pe/en/rich/5079.html > 31 Jan. 2008.
26
Haydn Shaughnessy, ‘Virtual reality as China commerce goes online’. Irish Times Ltd. 18 Nov. 2007 <
http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/innovation/2007/1119/1195251428713.html > 31 Jan. 2008.
27
Ibid.,

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representatives of the world. There is no formal structure that legitimates, or even seeks to
promote, governance within these worlds. Castronova points out that there is no trace of
democracy in any synthetic world:

The typical governance model in synthetic worlds consists of isolated moments of oppressive
tyranny embedded in widespread anarchy. Basically, [Hobbes’s] state of nature is never
allowed to occur. There is a tyrant in place from the beginning, but an extraordinarily inactive
one.28

Furthermore, the logic of these synthetic worlds, as in Web 2.0 platforms, is meta-
hierarchical, i.e., driven to encompass as many users and variables of experience as possible,
insofar these do not destabilize the architecture of the system/platform. It is from this
perspective that we should consider the joint-investment of MindArk/PayNova/CRD. The
whole endeavour should be seen as an attempt to establish the virtual/commercial platform of
the future. And even if doesn’t succeed, the meta-hierarchical logic of this technology –
rooted in a techno-economic structure – will eventually produce other attempts. Still, the fact
that the government of China is formally backing CRD’s $30billion investment (which
includes private capital), and that the Swedish Royal Family has spoken in behalf of MindArk
in Beijing earlier this year, illustrates how high the economic value of these synthetic worlds
are perceived to be, and therefore how important they are for national and commercial
interests. Being the first to shape its development is therefore of strategic importance; a lesson
which we see reflected in the unprecedented success of Google today, which is only matched
by the rise and (continuing) dominance of Microsoft before it. MindArk’s announcement last
month29 of its’ intention to be the first virtual world to seek a real-world share listing shows
how eager it is to move quickly and establish its position. The question remains, however,
whether in the context of this essay, this development constitutes a legitimate object of
politics.

The Politics of Technology

As I have previously suggested following the work of Beck, techno-economic development


can be characterized in terms of sub-politics, and that which adds to the displacement of risk.

28
Castronova, 2005: 207.
29
‘MindArk Intends to Go Public.’ MindArk PE. 4 Dec. 2007 < http://www.marketwire.com/mw/release.do?id=799324> 31 Jan. 2008.

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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R. Knoester

But we have yet to understand how this political shift necessitates a socially dynamic form of
reflexivity.

This is because, despite the risk involved in the challenge that these synthetic worlds pose to
traditional conceptions of value, privacy, identity, justice, reality – in fact, all the topics of
interest normally discussed in the political and social sciences – these do not yet reveal
synthetic worlds as a political matter of concern. They are still sub-political. This is the case
even when we recognize that entering most synthetic worlds entails giving up certain civil
rights,30 though these may vary depending on the nature of the synthetic world – e.g. the right
to own property is essential in worlds trying to integrate their economy with real-world
financial institutions.31 Regardless, the political can itself not be defined in terms of the
concepts taken to be the result of modern political philosophy.

Reaching a similar conclusion, Gerard de Vries in an article32 brings up the Aristotelian


distinction between praxis and poiesis as a means of determining the essence of politics; as
that which makes political action good in the classical sense of the word. According to
Aristotle’s own definitions, praxis is defined as “actions that aim at the activities themselves”
and poiesis as “action undertaken with the intention to produce some external end.” De Vries
30
Before entering any world one must agree to the terms of contract established by the owner(s), usually labeled an “End User Licensing
Agreement” (EULA). Castronova provides the following list of civic rights one gives up upon entering these worlds:
• Freedom of speech
• Rights to privacy
• Freedom of association
• Right to self-government
• Right to information
• Right to trial by peers
• Right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure
• Right to own property
• A free press
• Freedom of assembly
(Castronova, 2005: 239.)
31
We should also keep in mind that even Web 2.0 platforms require users to comply to EULA terms beforehand, most of which go unread.
For example, it is doubtful whether most Facebook users realize how little control they have over private information they disseminate or are
able to receive. Consider the following excerpts from Facebook’s Privacy Policy:
"When you use Facebook, you may set up your personal profile, form relationships, send messages, perform searches and queries, form
groups, set up events, add applications, and transmit information through various channels. We collect this information so that we can
provide you the service and offer personalised features. […] When you update information, we usually keep a backup copy of the prior
version for a reasonable period of time to enable reversion to the prior version of that information. […] ... we cannot and do not guarantee
that user content you post on the site will not be viewed by unauthorised persons. We are not responsible for circumvention of any privacy
settings or security measures contained on the site. You understand and acknowledge that, even after removal, copies of user content may
remain viewable in cached and archived pages or if other users have copied or stored your user content. […] Facebook may also collect
information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service
through the operation of the service (eg, photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalised
experience. […] Facebook reserves the right to send you notices about your account even if you opt out of all voluntary email notifications.
[…] By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States ... We may be
required to disclose user information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws.
We do not reveal information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by law enforcement or private litigants meets
applicable legal standards. Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law, to
protect our interests or property, to prevent fraud or other illegal activity perpetrated through the Facebook service or using the Facebook
name, or to prevent imminent bodily harm. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government
agencies." (Taken from Facebook’s Privacy Policy by: Tom Hodgkinson, ‘With Friends Like These…” The Guardian Unlimited, 14 Jan.
2008 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/jan/14/facebook> 31 Jan. 2008.)
32
Gerard de Vries, What is Political in Sub-politics? (Article forthcoming in Social Studies of Science): 16-17.

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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R. Knoester

then leads us to the understanding that for Aristotle, the essence of politics is to localize the
polis within the praxis itself; i.e. in the midst of the political process itself. The object of
politics is therefore not the realization of certain ends, as in modern political philosophy –
which if we recall moved away from the ‘highest good’ as a political object – but with a form
of being that makes no distinction between the means and the end of political action. In other
words, whereas modern political philosophy moved away from a concern with the ‘highest
good’ or the ‘good life’ in order to focus on establishing the best possible political state
according to limitations of human nature, classical philosophy was guided by a concern with
understanding the nature of human action itself through the experience itself:

Within the modern mindset, we are accustomed to distinguish between on the one hand
ideals, plans and desires, and on the other the realization of an ideal, the execution of a plan,
and the fulfillment of desire. For us, a ‘good life’ is an ideal to be realized. For Aristotle,
however, the good life is not an ideal at all. It is, in the first place, a kind of life, namely, the
life of those who act virtuously in the polis. In Politics – and its companion volume the
Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle tries to understand what a good life is. […] He wants to give
people insight into the nature of their lives, an understanding of what is the point of praxis in
the polis: to live a truly human life (Lear, 1988: Ch. 5).33

I do not share De Vries’s confidence that this notion of praxis succeeds in revealing what is
political in subpolitics. I don’t see how, “by arising from a plurality of views, experiences and
interests, a common object [of politics] emerges together with the appropriate technologies
that establish the constitution of an association in which this object can circulate and in which
it may serve as an aim for praxis.”34 The problem is that he takes for granted the ‘public’ or
‘demos’ (he speaks of a “Community of Mini-Kings” [CMK]) as an assembly of political
subjects surrounding the object of politics. His focus on praxis, however, does not explain
what makes these political subjects political35 without making the unwarranted move of
defining politics in terms of modern political conceptions, such as ‘constitution’ and
‘welfare.’

In order to avoid this pitfall, I will turn once again to Heidegger.

33
Ibid., 19-20.
34
Ibid., 39-40.
35
This problematic is illustrated in the case of synthetic worlds, and the non-existence of political communities.

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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R. Knoester

If we recall, Heidegger was explaining modern technology in terms of a process of revealing,


which he also refers to as a ‘coming to presence.’ The Greek word for revealing is alētheia.
Technology, Heidegger explains, is rooted in technē, which refers to both the “activities and
skills of the craftsman” as well as “the arts of the mind and the fine arts.” It is therefore also
poetic; it “belongs to bringing forth, to poiēsis.”36 Heidegger adds what he considers an even
more important observation: until Plato technē had been traditionally linked to epistēmē, both
of which referred to “knowing in the widest sense.” Aristotle, in turn, drew a distinction with
regards to “what and how they reveal.” As such, technē is a mode of alētheuein; it belongs to
the realm of alētheia, truth, “where revealing and unconcealment take place.”37

Heidegger also characterized modern technology as a challenge of the ‘standing-reserve’


[Bestand] – a word meant to represent that which is disposed to become present, but which as
such does not stand-by as an object – though with regards to man this is actually an ordering
of the standing-reserve. Modern technology does therefore not ‘bring-forth’ in the sense of
poiēsis, but is an enframing [Ge-stell], it is a “challenging that gathers man into ordering” the
“self-revealing as standing-reserve.”38 This enframing is itself not technological, eventhough
it is the means by which the actual reveals itself. It is this means, then, that is the essence of
modern technology.

We are still left with the question: what is the essence of that which is revealing itself? With
this mode of questioning, we enter the essence of history, for now it is the actual everywhere,
actuality itself, that becomes standing-reserve. It is the activity which sees “history as
something destined.”39 This is crucial, for as Heidegger adds, it is this “destining of revealing”
where man becomes truly free, but as such also represents the danger. It is that which creates
the space – i.e. enframes – where man is revealed as his own destining, or where he simply
‘obeys’, i.e. accepts fate.

This, finally, reveals the essence of technology. It is both a supreme danger and a saving
power. It is the former when it conceals its own essence, for when man no longer encounters
himself he may be tempted to believe that he is master of himself and nature, and that this
condition is his destiny. But it is the latter insofar in technology lies the enduring and
permanent demand of enframing itself: the challenge that leads to revealing.
36
Heidegger, 1993: 318.
37
Ibid., 319.
38
Ibid., 324.
39
Ibid., 329.

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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R. Knoester

The essential unfolding of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that
all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the
unconcealment of standing-reserve. Human activity can never directly counter this danger.
Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that
all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same
time kindred to it.40

Here, then, lies the political significance of modern technology: because it may lead man to
believe the illusion of his own history as that which has been shaped by his own conscious
activity, it may conceal the nature of his relation with actuality in terms of thought (revealing)
and activity (presence). This crafting of actuality is dangerous, insofar it impedes man from
reflecting on that which remains concealed from him. And yet, all “coming to presence, not
only modern technology, keeps itself everywhere concealed to the last.” This view of
technology is the step missing in Beck’s account of reflexivity and in De Vries’ account of
political praxis: technology helps conceal and reveal the essence of thought (reflexivity) and
man (polis) as both creator and product of the technological age.

40
Ibid., 339.

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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R. Knoester

Conclusion

In revealing the essence of this danger, modern technology challenges man to uncover that
which, in the realm of thought, lies in his capacity. Synthetic worlds may play an important
role to this end.

In terms of risk, synthetic worlds illustrate the ease with which thought may immerse itself in
a technological construct without properly assessing the dangers. Because of this, synthetic
worlds help reveal the very dangers which surround thought in actuality. Virtual reality is the
reality of thought in actuality; i.e., it is surrounded by the very risks it creates in the process of
self-actualization (development). It is the product of the risks produced by technology and
economic activity. Thought, in seeking to escape its limitations, puts the public at risk. The
desire of thought becomes reflexivity.

But not before manifesting itself as economy and technology. In releasing the autonomy of
passion and desire for acquisition (glory and self-preservation), thought leads to economy,
making possible the political praxis of thought in the creation of value. Technology, on the
other hand, is the manifestation of the desire to control nature; i.e., to be creative. It is
therefore the poesis of thought, though it also conceals the nature of its own desire for
knowledge. In both we see the production of risk. The culmination of this process manifests
itself in synthetic worlds.

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Synthetic Worlds and the Revelation of Technology – K.R. Knoester

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