Leading up to Theorizing the Web 2013, we’ll be posting a series of previews of some of the papers we’ll be showcasing at the conference. This is one of those. Stay tuned for more!

Stéphane Vial – “There is no difference between the “real” and the “virtual” : a brief phenomenology of digital revolution”

Panel: IRL in the URL: Digital Dualism of the “Real” & “Virtual”

What is the digital revolution the revolution of ? What is turned upside down and disturbed, reformed and transformed, in the so-called ‘digital revolution’ ? To answer this, digital revolution is approached here from the point of view of a phenomenology of technology which assumes that our being-in-the-world is fundamentally conditioned by technique and always has been. The main hypothesis is that a technical revolution is always ‘ontophanic’, that is to say a shaking of the structures of perception and of the process through which the being (ontos) appears (phaino) to us — and, consequently, a change of the very idea that we have of reality. I rely here on the notion of “Phenomenotechnique” borrowed from French philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard. It leads me to defend a phenomenological constructivism according to which any new technique, in every age, can be considered as an ‘ontophanic matrix’ that shapes our possible experience-in-the-world.

For instance, looking at the sky in the living silence of the mechanisms of wood and water during the Renaissance or looking at the sky in the age of the steam engine and of the metal, it is not the same qualitative experience of the sky than at the time of digital interfaces, where we almost never look up to the sky since we are immersed in our screens (on which the sky can still re-appear as a wallpaper). It means that the quality of our being-in-the world is ‘technology sensitive’. That’s why, in all ages, it is so hard for people to accept new technologies : new technologies always shake us by shaking our phenomenological habits. The phone did it. The computer did it. The Web is doing it. Each time, this shaking is what I call an ‘ontophany shift’. ‘Ontophany’ means a new phenomenological configuration (depending on historical and cultural factors) between techniques and perception.

Then, as all previous ones, Digital Revolution is just a new revolution (i.e. replacement) of our perceptive structures. But such a change is huge. Because it requires us to change the idea we learnt of what is ‘reality’. That’s why, in the 1990’s, French scholars (but most probably not only French ones) used to consider digital technologies as ‘virtual worlds’, in a sense that ‘virtual worlds’ would be different from the ‘real world’ (or the ‘real life’, IRL). Today, we know that this was a metaphysical mistake based on a Platonic illusion that cyberspace would be a ‘separate reality’. As American psychologist Sherry Turkle said very early (1995), “in the culture of simulation, if it works for you, it has all the realiy it needs” because “We have learned to take things at interface value”. Yes, we have learned. We have learned to live within the cyberspace, the Web and the social networks. We have learned new phenomenological habits and we have acquired new perceptive structures. We have learned to live into the ‘digital ontophany’ era. And we are still learning.