Digital Phenomenology

Can we truly inhabit the virtual?

Published June 13, 2023
We first approach the screen as a regular object of experience. But it reveals itself as a tool unlike anything else in the natural world. A screen is a portal into the digital horizon—it is more than a canvas, it’s beyond interactive. Its utility is non-direct, and seemingly limitless.

When looking at the screen, we momentarily lose awareness of ourselves being in our bodies; a thing among things, a subject among subjects. We may drift in and out of awareness of embodiment, but our focus is always intentionally directed. Sometimes, this change in focus happens so quickly that we feel as though it were occurring simultaneously, that we are both here and there. However, when we interact with the screen, our physical self-awareness is only temporarily distracted. The natural world is suspended as we intend our attention towards cyberspace. We are able to forget the facticity of the lived body, and feel as though we’re exploring another dimension.

In this way, the natural world is brought into the virtual. It informs it, just as our bodies enable virtual experience. The mind cannot navigate experience isolated from its body, our bodies bring us into the virtual world. But, when engaged with the screen, the subject is able to forget their body. They are able to abstract their sense of being and inject it into another imaginable realm through the screen, the portal. They are engaging themselves with it, looking directly at the screen, but they are not in it. In this way, digital reality is an extension of ourselves. We remain situationally bound to the potentiality of our own embodiment, but for a moment, we feel as though we can escape it.

To consider an object before us, technological or not, we must return to the "thereness" that precedes it, to its sensible site in the material world and consider how it is situated within our world and alongside our bodies. This tempts the question: is an irreal world phenomenological? The encounter with a virtual world—say, through a computer—may indeed be a phenomenological experience. But is the virtual world a part of our reality? Are we accessing it directly?

The philosophy of phenomenology studies our structures of consciousness as we experience things first-hand. Central to these first-hand experiences are the structures of intentionality, how things are directed towards another, as all experience is of, or about some object or phenomenon. An experience is directed toward an object by its meaning, which is caught up with its material presentation and context.

So, how do we phenomenologically encounter an object that holds a world of irreal possibilities inside of it? Our body makes tangible movement in the world, as it is a part of it. In order to move within the virtual, we inject our bodies onto it, but the intended result of our movement is intangible, existing on the other side of a portal which is outside our material reality. Still, action in the virtual world often requires physical movement. We move our fingers on the mousepad, arrange our faces for the camera, shift our eye’s focus. The meaningful results of this movement occurs outside the physical world, in the digital, while materially occurring as nothing more than shifts in pixels on liquid crystal and glass. There is complex meaning contained between these changes in pixels, and how we believe we’re changing our virtual landscape through our physical movements. The meaning we put into the virtual contains everything that we know to be possible within it, our expectations of it, our emotions toward it. Interaction with this technology and this meaning we infuse it with is what we call “human-computer interaction.”

While virtual presence is not a physical inhabiting, it still provides us with a pre-givenness— an awareness, implicit or explicit, that the world is always-already there, when we reflectively or intuitively turn toward it. The digital is physcal: it is the pixels on the screen, displays and motors. Our framework of human affairs is transported into another realm through a structure of 1s and 0s, extending the scope of our field of intentionality. This brings us into the virtual, which is irreal. But many of our natural, worldly expectations are suspended— for instance, a virtual presence is not spatio-temporal, it is perfectly duplicatable. We must now account for the results of our functions on a totally separate plane. The virtual provides an extended landscape where we may intend our attention, with new results and with new meaning. But this is not an analysis of the virtual self. First, because this has been talked about at length, even prior to the cultural plague of the “terminally online” (see: Joohan Kim’s “Phenomenology of Digital Being” 2001). Second, there is a preliminary element to understanding how we build virtual identities and come to inject ourselves and our intentionality within the virtual world. In order to approach this understanding, we must first unpack the most basic interaction we have with the virtual universe: what goes on in our encounter with the screen.

As the screen functions as a regular object of our experience, we primarily approach it as we would any other tool. But with continued use, the virtual world opens itself up to us. The philosopher Edmund Husserl writes: “Perception makes a present reality appear to us as present and as a reality’ (Collected Works, Volume XI: Phantasy, Image Consciousness, and Memory). As Daniel O’Shiel notes in “The Phenomenology of Virtual Technology,” Husserl’s use of the word “reality” here is translated from the original German “Wirklichkeit,” and may also be translated to “actuality,” which he appears to use interchangeably.

This changes the nature of our question: is the virtual real? The nature of the word would argue no, this is why we call it virtual: that which is almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to its strict definition; or, that which is not physically existing but made by software to appear to do so. However, when we ask if the virtual is actual, this complicates the question even further.

Husserl writes: “With the idea of actuality, we stand in the system of thetically unmodified intentionality, in the intentionality of doxa, of belief. Belief is not something appended to presentations, not a feeling associating itself with them, not a way of being affected, now present, now absent, attending such presentations; on the contrary, it is the unmodified consciousness itself. It is subject to laws of reason; that is, to the essential laws of the intuitive fulfillment of unmodified consciousness, or, correlatively, to the essential laws of the positing of objects as identities of unbroken confirmation that can ‘exist’ in themselves in contrast to the changing (unmodified) consciousness.” (Collected Works, Volume XI)

It might very well be that the illusory mirroring of the virtual world, that which makes us feel that we are in it, is the primary factor that affects our belief that it is indeed actual. The beliefs that we carry are pre-reflective and automatic. When I scroll the mouse pad, the cursor scrolls. When I move my body in the camera, the image reflection moves just the same, not to mention the haptics that are continually being integrated into technological devices to further close this distance between physical body and virtual world.

Given the seemingly limitlessness of the virtual world as we know it, it is hardly as sensibly freeing as we might imagine it to be. We might think it true that to be disembodied is to be free; free from our bodily constraints, free from the boundaries of the natural world, free from the real. However, the virtual realm is only perceptible by our own structures of consciousness. It is, after all, a man-made invention, abiding by our own laws and logic, arriving to us through our own bodies. Still, its transportativeness surpasses the affordance of almost all other tools and instruments. It is a tool that broadens the imagination, a platform to realize new ideas through its use. The actuality of the virtual world helps us feel as though we have more potentiality than our physical conditions allow.

The digital sphere is an extension of ourselves, it is situationally bound to the potentiality of our own embodiment. So, how does it redefine that embodiment? What does this extension mean for us? What happens when our lived experience relies less on physicality, and is projected into the virtual dimension? We become less immersed in the physical world, and more intentionally directed towards the virtual—that which we believe and perceive to be a reality, but is not.

An object that contains possible worlds, such as a computer, triggers all of our potential for change into one object within our landscape (this is partly why phenomenologists have been so preoccupied with paintings). Our focus is drawn into it, along with our intentional directedness. But how do we account for our presence within those worlds? It is still a mental activity, but with a visual component. We have no space in the virtual world—objects have no thickness, all depth is illusory. They remain pixels on the screen, with an illusory trick to create a sense of immersion.

The virtual world is not environmental, we do not physically experience its surroundings when we focus on the screen, but remain in our physical whereabouts. Instead, the virtual world re-creates a semblance of environment, something that we are inclined to become immersed in by our relationship to the natural world in everyday life. The virtual “environment” isn’t tangibly there— I cannot reach out to touch my cursor, to observe it from different angles. But I can mimic an interaction: when I move my finger on the mousepad, the cursor will mirror the movement. This is a disconnected interaction, a simulation that allows us to behave more naturally while in the virtual. The cursor represents “me” in the digital landscape. And this “me” is surrounded by a virtual environment, contained within the potentiality of digital affordances.

It is only the screen itself that's part of our environment, and distracts from it. We keep one foot in the physical realm and one in the virtual. Our minds are intentionally directed elsewhere, while our bodies stay oriented in reality. The potential of television or computers is so attractive that we change the orientation of our home around them. The living room is oriented around the television. My office and my desk are situated in a way that best accommodates my computer—a sanctuary for the portal. Through the virtual, I enact developments and ideas that can transfer out of it and affect my physical reality. There is a transfer of value taking place: an upload and a download. I trade my movement, bodily awareness, and time for virtual potential, which I can extract in parts and put into my corporeal life.

The illusory trick of the virtual is so effective that we change our whole lives around it—we want to escape reality to fully inhabit the virtual, but cannot.

Still, we try.

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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