The Virtual: Rethinking Human Boundaries | Shih-Chian Hung

by Critical Asia

by Shih-Chian Hung, Dec. 2023】

Humanity’s historical development has been driven by the progress of technology ever since Prometheus stole fire from the Olympian gods and initiated civilization. In the year 2023, as generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) emerges, the Internet era has officially entered a new phase. Through technologies such as Big Data, algorithms, image recognition, LLM, and machine learning, every aspect of our existence has been reshaped by GenAI. From daily life to the cognition of self and reality, from AI Translators to its operation in wars, its influence is revolutionary — many people refer to the emergence of GenAI as the “Fourth Revolution” or the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” The broad impact of GenAI demands a transdisciplinary assessment of it. Indeed, it is not merely a technical issue but a challenge to society, economy, culture, ethics, and democratic politics.

If we consider ICTs (information and communication technologies) a new technology, it is closer to the Heideggerian “tool.” For Heidegger, the tool is a structure of a totality, manifesting the relationships and the totality of the world. The tool is usable only when embedded in this totality[1]. The tool, therefore, cannot be separated from humans. One can even say that it is through its affinity with humans and its readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit) that relationships between humans and tools are constituted. From this perspective, digital technology is an other-thing of Being-with (Mitsein). It is a reality rather than virtuality.

We exist through various multi-dimensional relationships. Activities still happen in cyberspace. Relationships are still constituted in cyberspace. The cyberspace is a Being-with. It influences and discloses novel existential spaces and modes of being. Together, we exist and unfold the “reality.” As a result, even though cyberspace is immaterial, it is never virtual. Instead, it paradoxically extends and supplements realities. From this perspective, ICTs are our readiness-to-hand that extends the human reality. When we upgrade our equipment, our involvement in the world changes accordingly. It is therefore necessary to reflect on the relationships between cyberspace and our existence, between humans and the world. New spaces and ways of existence inaugurated by the Internet are also crucial. We have to endlessly ask: What is the world? When we initiate this questioning, several questions follow: What constitutes the world? What is reality? What is existence?

Digital technology is a kind of potentiality. Since it affects every aspect of our lives, technological perspectives cannot fully determine its meanings. [2] We cannot foresee the changes brought about by technology. The point is that we have to re-inquire into our relationships with various forms of technology. It is not an “objective” thing that exists independently of our existence but a relevant object shaping our lives. As a result, reflections on cyberspace should not stop at understanding technologies but how cyberspace reshapes or reconstitutes the world in which we live. Given that the Internet has penetrated or even become our reality, we should no longer cling to the virtuality/reality dichotomy.

As L. Floridi points out, ICTs are changing the ways our self-consciousness works and how we communicate with the world. ICTs are no longer humanity’s “outside” but its “environment.” Cybernetics, algorithms, autopoiesis, and other GenAI-related theories all point out that various communication technologies have created and reshaped our self-cognition and the foundation of reality. In order to understand new concepts such as cyberculture, posthumanity, or new materialism, one has to start with our “environment.” Therefore, we have to “disembody” our assessments of technical objects or humanity. The boundaries between humans and things are no longer fixed. Instead, humans and things are intertwined and mutually determined. The human subject has gradually become the posthuman cyborg. What Braidotti calls “the politics of life itself” also highlights the fact that life is beyond the codification of humans, that life is a process filled with open interactions. The posthuman subject, however, signifies not only the humans but every non-anthropomorphic element, “reconnect[ing] previously segregated species, categories and domains.” [3]

Due to this mutually determined hybridity, the age of the posthuman is exactly what Gilbert Simondon describes: it is not a specific function that constitutes a thing, but multiple functions that coordinate as a system of forces, producing effects that are independent of the producers.[4] In the age of posthumans, humans act as a complex system constituted by multiple forces. The system is simultaneously unpredictable, aleatory, non-present, and intertwined.

If we admit that we live in a digital age, then the Internet is not merely “virtual.” It reconstitutes our social relations or even interpersonal relationships. Our consciousness, cultures, memories, identities, and senses of belonging have also been changed by the Internet. At the same time, it has become the foundation of our lives and social relations. Therefore, one should relate the Internet to the world that it opens up, rethinking and re-analyzing the politico-economic structures, social relations, and interpersonal ethical relations it constitutes. As Hubert L. Dreyfus points out, we should cultivate various modes of coexistence in the digital age. We can make use of its incredible abilities, such as message-storage and message-checking, in order to rediscover certain relationalities and “respond to the shared moods that give life meaning.”[5]

Perhaps we can understand the virtual through disembodiment or dematerialization. The subject is a cross-species becoming, an open product constituted through its reciprocity with others. VR, or the fact that our data are stored in a drive not limited by spatial-temporal conditions, or that humans have been disembodied by the biometric sensor, etc., are examples characteristic of our times.

However, this article argues that if we understand the human body as a “field” or an “environment,” our self-understanding has always been a product intertwined with various material conditions produced by incoherent practices. As a result, humans have always been a “limit-experience” that constantly moves towards alterity through diverse ruptures, instabilities and becoming. Foucault famously claims: “Man is just a recent invention, a figure that lasts no more than two centuries, a simple fold in our knowledge, and it will disappear once our knowledge takes a new form” [l’homme n’est qu’une invention recente, une figure qui n’a pas deux siècles, un simple pli dans notre savoir, et qu’il disparaitra des que celui-ci aura trouve une forme nouvelle].[6] In other words, humans have always immersed in a non-fixed, complex environment. Perhaps we should employ the Deleuzian terminologies of “creation” and “becoming” in order to figure out the problem of the virtual. For Deleuze, virtuality has always been something “potential.” The potentiality is not defined against the actual.[7] Rather, potentiality is a possibility, and it is this possibility that creatively empowers virtuality.[8] Since this sort of creative force does not aim at the realization, virtuality is in fact something different and creative. It is a becoming that moves toward the outside (of reality). Or, as Michel Serres argues, stem cells or any kind of nerve cells are virtual. They do not exist in the factual reality [réalité factuelle], but between the possible and the real, a space where science has never been. In other words, the virtual should be understood as a potentiality between the possible and the real, infinitely intertwined between different (im)materials, situations, and changes within a certain milieu. It is a milieu-generating milieu, hence necessarily something decentralized and de-essentialized.

GenAI has brought about many problems regarding democracy (data-collecting, fake messages, digital surveillance, etc.) and ethics (algorithmic discrimination, autopilot, autonomous weapons, etc.). However, it is perhaps also an opportunity to rethink the category of humanity. The dichotomized distinction between humans and machines or humans and environment no longer stands. Perhaps we can view this posthuman individual as a transcorporeal mode of existence, a body between materiality and immateriality, an infinitely open and evolutionary body . Humans rhizomize with whatever other than humans. Anthropocentrism can no longer stand. Taking non-human categories into account fosters equality between humanity and things and also expands the boundaries of humans. More importantly, “thinking,” the most ancient ability of humans, should not be ignored. Humans have been building relationships between those that do not have a relation. And this is exactly what we should keep doing right now. Thinking should not be given up. Thinking takes us beyond the never-thought-of and helps us draw many lines of flight.

Shih-Chian Hung, Professor, Institute of Philosophy, National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan


[1] Martin Heidegger, Joan Stambaugh (translator), Being and Time, SUNY Press, 1996, pp.63-65.

[2] Richard Sclove, Democracy and Technology, Guilford Press, 1995, p.7.

[3] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, Polity, 2013, p.60.

[4] Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques, Aubier, 1958, p.35.

[5] Hubert L. Dreyfus, On the Internet, Routledge, 2008, p.125.

[6] Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses, Gallimard, 1992, p.15.

[7] Gilles Deleuze, Différence et repetition. Paris, PUF, 1968, p.269.

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Le Bergsonisme. Paris, PUF, 1966, p.100.

You may also like

Leave a Comment