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Abstract

We are living in an era when the focus of human relationships with the world is shifting from execution and physical impact to control and cognitive/informational interaction. This emerging, increasingly informational world is our new ecology, an infosphere that presents the grounds for a cognitive revolution based on interactions in networks of biological and artificial, intelligent agents. After the industrial revolution, which extended the human body through mechanical machinery, the cognitive revolution extends the human mind/cognition through information-processing machinery. These novel circumstances come with new qualities and preferences demanding new conceptualizations. We have some work ahead of us to establish value systems and practices extended from the real to the increasingly virtual/info-computational. This paper first presents a current view of the virtual versus the real and then offers an interpretation framework based on an info-computational understanding of cognition in which agency implies computational processing of informational structures of the world as an infosphere. The notion of “good life” is discussed in light of different ideals of well-being in the infosphere, connecting virtuality as a space of potential and alternative worlds for an agent for whom the reality is a space of actual experiences, in the sense of Deleuze. Even though info-computational framework enables us to see both the real world and the diversity of virtual worlds in terms of computational processes on informational structures, based on a distinct layered cognitive architecture of all physical agents, there is clear difference between potential worlds of the virtual and actual agent’s experiences made in the real. Info-computationalism enables insight into the mechanisms of infosphere and elucidates its importance as cognitively predominant environment and communication media. The conclusion is that by cocooning ourselves in an elaborate info-computational infrastructure of the virtual, we may be increasingly isolating ourselves from the reality of direct experience of the world. The biggest challenges of the cognitive revolution may not be technological but ethical. They are about the nature of being human and its values.
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This is a draft of the article to be published in AI & SOCIETY. The final publication will be available at
www.springerlink.com
Cognitive Revolution, Virtuality And Good Life
Gordana Dodig-Crnkovic
School of Innovation, Design and Engineering
Mälardalen University, Västerås, Sweden
gordana.dodig-crnkovic@mdh.se
http://www.idt.mdh.se/~gdc
Abstract
We are living in an era in which the focus of human relationships with the world is shifting from performing
and physical to controlling and cognitive/informational interactions. This emerging, increasingly
informational world is our new ecology, an infosphere that presents the grounds for a cognitive revolution
based on interactions in networks of biological and artificial, intelligent agents. After the industrial revolution,
which extended the human body through mechanical machinery, the cognitive revolution extends the human
mind/cognition through information processing machinery. These novel circumstances come with new
qualities and preferences demanding new conceptualizations. We have some work ahead of us to establish
value systems and practices extended from the real to the virtual or info-computational.
This paper first presents a current view of the virtual versus the actual, and then offers an interpretation
framework based on an info-computational understanding of cognition in which agency implies
computational processing of informational structures of the world as an infosphere. Here the concept of
agency implies the ability to act on one’s own behalf. An agent is hence an autonomous decision-making
entity. The notion of “good life” is discussed in light of different ideals of well-being in the infosphere,
connecting virtuality as a space of potential and alternative worlds for an agent for whom the reality is a space
of actual experiences, in the sense of Deleuze. Even though info-computational framework enables us to see
both the real world and diversity of virtual worlds in terms of computational processes on informational
structures, based on a distinct layered cognitive architecture of all physical agents there is clear difference
between potential worlds of the virtual and actual agent’s experiences made in the real. The conclusion is that
by cocooning ourselves in an elaborate info-computational infrastructure of the virtual we may be
increasingly isolating ourselves from the reality of direct experience of the world. The biggest challenges of
the cognitive revolution may be ethical, not technological; they are about the nature of being human and its
values. This article points to some of the challenges of cognitive revolution, as understood within info-
computational framework.
Keywords: cognitive revolution, virtual worlds, ethics of the virtual, good life
Introduction. Cognitive Revolution
ICT is causing revolutionary changes in our lives, on a global scale and in a number of dimensions. As
Floridi(2007) rightly proclaims:
“... in information societies, the threshold between online and offline will soon disappear, and that once there
is no difference, we shall become not cyborgs but rather inforgs, that is, connected informational organisms.”
This revolution is at least as radical as the industrial revolution, and we can still only speculate about its far-
reaching consequences. The basic reason is the “phase transition” from slow and predominantly local contact
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and information processing to practically instantaneous communication on a global scale, supported by
unprecedented capacities of massive information processing – computation and storage. A single human
being’s cognitive capacities are extended by large networks of humans and machines. Those networks
include, among others, research, education, commerce, business, government, and virtual teams in business,
communications and entertainment (an industry of worldwide proportions, engaging vast resources). Present-
day networks of users and computing machinery both in social networking services (Facebook, Twitter,
Google+), and in virtual worlds (Second Life, World of Warcraft, virtual education environments, e-
commerce, medical) are clearly just the first steps in the development of computational networks and
environments supporting globally extended cognition. The next step is an envisaged “internet of things”, or
networks connecting virtual and real objects, which will bring about an epoch-making change in human
relationships with the world, both in terms of extended cognition and in enhanced decision-making and
impact capabilities. Up to now, we have witnessed only the very beginning of the cognitive revolution.
In this context, an understanding of cognition is central since a great deal of information-processing
technology feeds into human cognition, and the old understanding of the human being as a dual system
consisting of a physical body and a non-physical mind does not suffice. The dichotomy between body and
mind is echoed in the dichotomy between nature and culture, which, according to (Latour, 1993), is a
fundamental maxim of modernity. On the other hand, in his actor-network theory, Latour describes the
continual, concurrent process of shaping and being shaped between nature and humans (culture, technology)
in complex interacting networks, where each element is an actor and the dichotomy is dissolved.
This paper presents a contemporary view of virtual worlds and offers an interpretation framework based on an
info-computational understanding of cognition in which the world, actual as well as virtual, is a source of
information for an agent. Agency implies information processing. Through interactions—both with the
environment (including other agents) and by interactive information processing within agents’ cognitive
apparatus—information is structured, and the relationships between different informational structures are
established. Consequently, virtual worlds can be used as anticipative tools augmenting human cognition
through emulations and simulations of real-world phenomena, which would be impossible to perform by
human mind without VR support.
The info-computational approach goes a step further from Latour’s hybridization. Not only do nature and
culture shape each other, producing hybrids, but there are concurrent, ongoing, “virtual” processes on many
levels in the organization of reality that interact with physical processes and shape each other in feedback
loops, going from microcosmos to macrocosmos and back. Thus, unlike the Latourian hybrid, it is bottom-up,
constructive model. Info-computationalism starts from the elementary observation of the world as a complex,
multi-layered network of physical phenomena, and constituting more and more complex phenomena: from
elementary constituents of space-time-matter-energy to elementary particles, atoms, molecules, liquids,
crystals, compounds, colloids, which in organic matter build cells, tissues, organs, organisms, eco-systems
and, in the case of social animals, even to social systems. On the level of artifacts, there are also complex
organizations such as cultures, which are complex artifactual structures. Everything in this construction is
informational structure: from primary or proto-information - which is the world in itself as a source of
information for agents - to secondary information - information about primary (proto-) information, to tertiary
information - information about secondary information, and so on. Culture is the result of information
communication and processing in multiple layers of physical reality and it necessarily interacts with nature
through complex informational configurations shaped by computational processes. Culture shapes nature in
accordance with its own needs: e.g. from natural woodland to park there is a process of change of the original
(proto-) information of the physical world through the cognitive processes in networked human agents who
conceptualize the world surrounding them and make sense out of it, to their (physical) interactions changing
the environment and adapting it. All physical processes are different forms of computation which is generally
information processing, symbolic (language, signs), as well as sub-symbolic (direct signal processing like in
parasympatic nervous systems in humans or natural physical processes).
This interactivist, auto-poetic (Maturana, Varela), constructivist understanding of cognition has consequences
for our view of socio-technical systems, including computer-aided cognition and virtual reality. An info-
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computational framework is used to elucidate mechanisms of information processing in the virtual world and
the consequences of those mechanisms for the real world, as a basis for understanding values of the virtual as
related to the real. The idea of “good life” will be discussed in the light of different dimensions of well-being
– economy of fun (Castronova, 2007) and sensemaking (Fiss and Hirsch, 2005).
What is a Virtual World? The Nature of Virtuality
The term ‘virtuality’ is used by Introna (2008) to refer to “the mediation of interaction through an electronic
medium between humans as well as between humans and machines.” The taxonomy of virtuality suggested by
Søraker (2010) identifies the following types (p. 56): virtual reality “a three-dimensional interactive computer
generated environment that incorporates a first-person perspective” (Brey, 1999); multi-access virtual reality;
virtual worlds; virtual environments; virtual communities and virtual institutions (banks, libraries,
universities, museums, galleries, experiments, enterprises, businesses). Yet another way to delineate virtuality
is through the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, which features such phenomena as cultures of virtual
worlds, pedagogy, education and innovation in virtual worlds, virtual worlds for health and healthcare,
technology, economy and standards in virtual worlds, virtual economies, virtual goods and service delivery in
virtual worlds, and consumer behaviour in virtual worlds, among others. The list shows that the popular idea
of virtual worlds as “the pearly gates of cyberspace” and the return to medieval, spiritual concerns, proposed
by Wertheim (1999) is representative of only a fraction of virtual worlds today. Equally partial is the view of
the virtual as a global shopping mall (Dibbell, 1998). Heim (1993) identifies seven divergent topics
dominating virtual reality: simulation, interaction, artificiality, networked communication, telepresence and
immersion.
An interesting process of integration of the virtual and the real is under way, both literally, in the form of
ubiquitous computing and hybrid spaces (Aliaga, 1997), as well as conceptually. The idea of hybrid space is
that virtual objects interact with the real objects in a way that feels realistic. Holographic 3D environments are
an example of this physical hybridization between the real and the virtual. The nature of virtuality as an
increasingly pervasive phenomenon is addressed in Poulymenakou et al. (2007) and Tsekeris (2008). For de
Souza e Silva (2004) the idea of cyberspace actualizes the question of to what degree the mental image
corresponds to the real world. Importantly, de Souza e Silva argues that the concept of the virtual changes
since it “can no longer be considered independently from physical space; rather, it belongs to it.”
In his Difference and Repetition, Deleuze offers the following essential distinction:
“The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual.
Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: 'Real without being actual, ideal
without being abstract'; and symbolic without being fictional.” (Deleuze, 1994)
For Deleuze, the reality of the virtual is its structure. The structure (a pattern) as essential for understanding
the virtual is also supported by Petry (2010) who points to Wittgenstein’s claim in the Tractatus Logico-
Philosophicus that patterns are minimal elements of a cognitive structure that enable understanding.
Cognitively, the difference between real (actual) and virtual is not as sharp as one might believe. Minsky, in
Societies of Mind, proposes a mechanism that helps us understand the relationship between the real and the
virtual. Understanding the human mind as a complex system of dynamical processes composed of many
interacting mindless agents whose interactions constitute a “society of mind”, Minsky explains:
„But then, what makes some recollections seem so real? The secret is that real-time experience is just as
indirect! The closest we can come to apprehending the world, in any case, is through descriptions which our
agents make. In fact, if we inquire, instead, about why real things seem so real, we'll see that it depends, as
well, on memories of things we've known before!“ (Minsky, 1988) p.155
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Memories, along with anticipations, fantasies, and perceptions, constitute the basis of both the real/actual and
the virtual experience. So the difference between the real/actual and virtual/potential definitely exists but it is
becoming increasingly blurred with the development of ever more realistic virtual worlds.
Info-computational Framework for understanding Virtuality and Reality
Info-computationalism offers a suitable framework for analyzing the function of virtual worlds as systems
that give the user the experience of being present in the virtual. On the basic level, within this approach,
information is the stuff of the universe (structures) while computation is its dynamics (processes). The
universe is a network of computing processes and its phenomena are fundamentally info-computational:
continuous as well as discrete, analogue as well as digital. The absolute distinction between physical and
mental is dissolved as both the real and virtual worlds present different types of relationships between info-
computational agents, on different levels of organization. (Dodig Crnkovic and Müller, 2009)
Info-computationalism (Dodig Crnkovic, 2006 and 2009) is a synthesis of two universes: the informational
and the computational. It unifies the Informationalism (Informational Structural Realism) of Floridi (2008)
and the Informational Realism of Sayre (1976) and Ladyman et al. (2007) with the Naturalist
Computationalism/ Pancomputationalism of, among others, Zuse, Fredkin, Wolfram, Chaitin, and Lloyd.
Info-computationalist naturalism interprets the dynamics of informational structures as computation. (Dodig
Crnkovic, 2011a)
Info-computationalist understanding of cognition provides a framework for the unification of knowledge from
computing, neuroscience, cognitive science, biology, artificial intelligence, philosophy and a number of other
research fields. (Dodig-Crnkovic, 2009 and 2010) It is a way of naturalizing epistemology by connecting two
previously incompatible views: a symbolic, explicit and static notion of representation (mind as a mirror of
the world) and an implicit and dynamic (interactive) one. Within the info-computational framework, classical
symbolic and connectionist (sub-symbolic) views are reconciled and used to describe different aspects of
cognition. The naturalizing of epistemology is possible by defining cognition as information processing based
on the development of multi-level, dynamic computational models and simulations of intelligent systems.
This approach has consequences for, among others, conceptual analysis of artificial intelligence and artificial
life. (Dodig Crnkovic and Müller, 2009)
Starting from the assumption that cognition, by nature, is an info-computational phenomenon makes it easier
to understand and analyze the situation where human cognition is aided by computing machinery. It should be
emphasized that in info-computationalism, both information and computation are given broader meaning than
in conventional computationalism. This approach answers Weizenbaum’s criticism:
“Still, the extreme or hardcore wing of the artificial intelligentsia will insist that the whole man, to again use
Simon’s expression, is after all an information processor, and that an information-processing theory of man
must therefore be adequate to account for his behaviour in its entirety. We may agree with the major premise
without necessarily drawing the indicated conclusion. We have already observed that a portion of the
information that human “processes” is kinesthetic, that it is “stored” in his muscles and joints. It is simply
not clear that such information, and the processing associated with it, can be represented in the form of
computer programs and data structures at all.
It may, of course, be argued that it is in principle possible for a computer to simulate the entire network of
cells that constitutes the human body. But that would introduce a theory of information processing entirely
different from any which has so far been advanced.” (Weizenbaum, 1976) p. 213
It is exactly this entirely different theory of information (from sub-symbolic to symbolic) and entirely
different understanding of computation (natural computation going on in both brain and muscles, at different
levels of complexity) that are fundamental for info-computationalism. Yes, humans (and other living
organisms) are information processing systems! They exist for each other through information, and the world
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as a totality (proto-information) actualizes for cognizing agents through information exchanged by
computational processes in informational structures.
Within info-computationalism, all characteristics of the cognitive revolution according to Pinker (2003) are
accounted for: 1. the mental world is grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information and
computation, with feedback as a (self-reflective) computational process; 2. an unlimited repertoire of
behaviours is generated by the finite informational structures of the embodied (and embedded) brain in the
interaction with the environment; 3. universal, info-computational mechanisms underlie variation across
cultures; 4. the mind is a complex system of dynamic processes composed of many interacting mindless
agents in the sense of Minsky, with interactions constituting a “society of mind”.
At this stage of development we are still capable of making clear distinctions between the perceptions coming
from the real and those from the virtual. However, our memories, thoughts and feelings about the real and
virtual may be much closer in flavour and sometimes even indistinguishable. With the development of the
virtual towards increasing realism, technology might enable such realistic perceptions that it will become
more and more difficult to distinguish the two, even at the most basic level of the actual experience. That is
one of the reasons why it is so important to understand the role of virtual worlds and their impact on the
development of society as they are gradually becoming indistinguishable and “hybridized”.
Computer Aided Cognition, Distributed Cognition, and Beyond
In the mid-1980s, Hutchins made an important contribution to cognitive science by developing the
framework, (not a method!) of distributed cognition, which involves interplay between (groups of) agents and
the environment. It presupposes embodiment of information in representations of interactions, coordination
among (embodied) agents and a cognitive ecosystem.
”The nearly perfect mirror symmetry of the titles of Vygotsky’s (Mind in Society) and Minsky’s (Society of
Mind) books suggests that something special might be happening in systems of distributed processing,
whether the processors are neurons, connectionist nodes, areas of a brain, whole persons, groups of persons,
or groups of groups of persons.” Hutchins, http://files.meetup.com/410989/DistributedCognition.pdf
Cognition in society is distributed through the process of information exchange (communication), while ICT
enables a dramatic increase in communications globally. Computational artifacts have always extended
human cognition, but the importance of that extension grows dramatically with ubiquitous computing and the
development of social computing and virtual organizations connected in global networks. In the area of
computer aided cognition, computer scientists are typically focusing on the computing technologies, while
other researchers (cognitive scientists, sociologists, human-machine experts, etc.) are studying the impact of
computational technology, for example, computational artefacts designed to enhance human perception,
reasoning capacity, learning and performance.
Entertainment is one of the most important fields of global communication, and an example of distributed
cognition through virtual worlds. One may wonder (Castronova, 2007) about the effects on millions of people
of the hours they spend daily in virtual spaces and fantasy worlds that provide amusement and excitement.
Castronova talks about the Exodus to the Virtual World. People spend their spare time playing games or in
social networking (on a global level) that in previous decades was spent watching TV (typically on a national
level), while historically entertainment was at the village- or town-level of social organization. Not only has
the size of the social group increased together with the distance between the participants, but the level of
virtuality, too, has increased. Exodus, in this context, may be understood as an escape into the virtual world of
fun, reflecting back to the real world:
”We are witnessing the birth of a new science, the practical science of giving people the sensation of fun
through the design of social institutions. This new science will play an ever more significant role in public
affairs during the course of twenty-first century. As the exodus to the virtual world proceeds, more and more
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people will come to view the tenets of this new science as practical rules for running the real world. Those
tenets have already been developed, and at the moment, they are all rules of some game.” p. 111
This leads to the question of the gradual creation of a society in which the primary goal of government is to
assure that people get entertained, as in old Latin proverb “panem et circenses”. The first question would be if
it is possible, and the next one is if it is desirable. Shall we strive towards a global society of entertainment,
amusement or, in general, society of pleasure, where deep and profound insight attained through difficulties
and efforts of confrontation with real human beings within the real physical world are less valued than
enjoyment easily obtained through virtual worlds and creatures? There is also the more general, related
question of the relationship between humans and artifacts. Coeckelbergh (2009) offers a different perspective
on the idea of a politics of artifacts, discussing a radical redefining of the social.
Ethics of The Virtual
Communication in the virtual opens a variety of new possibilities that can be understood by ethical analysis.
Ethics as moral philosophy addresses questions such as good and evil, right and wrong, and virtue and vice.
As those issues in virtual worlds are not trivially recognized as special cases of traditional ethical issues, they
require appropriate ethical assessment. Moor (1985) calls this new type of ethical concerns “policy vacuums”.
(Moor, 1985) (Bynum, 2010) referring to lack of experience and practices in the virtual.
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Unlike physical
territories, virtual worlds present not only new environments but also new kinds of relationships between
agents. The question is how to establish suitable value systems and practices in the virtual.
In considering the ethics of the virtual, we must take into account several previously discussed meanings of
the term virtual world. Our basic ideas about what is important, valuable, what matters, what is right or good
in virtual worlds are dependent on the understanding of how they relate to the real world. If we conceive of
information as being at the heart of our conceptualization of reality, and even forming the fabric of reality
(info-computationalism), then our ethical analysis will need to take into account both the ontological
(existence) and epistemological (knowledge) aspects of the virtual. The epistemological significance of the
virtual can be studied through the interactive learning process. Simulation, emulation, visualization and
similar forms of virtual universes are new environments that are changing our understanding of reality and the
character of our agency in it.
A number of authors have already analyzed ethical consequences of the virtual, arguing for a spectrum of
views, ranging from the claim that the virtual constitutes essentially nothing new and that old ethical theories
apply directly (Johnson, 1997), to the diametrically opposite view that our ability of acting in reality gets
significantly modified by experiences made in virtual worlds. Floridi (2007) suggests that the virtual world of
computer-based interactive environments presents our new habitat, which increasingly defines our lives, our
relationships with other people and our daily activities. Floridi developed Information ethics as a means to
cope with this changed human condition:
“According to an information ethics perspective, the world of data, information, knowledge and
communication, made possible by ICTs, is best approached ecologically, as a new environment, the
infosphere. The infosphere is not a geographical, political, social, or linguistic space. It is the semantic space
of education, sciences, cultures, and communication, a global environment that is essentially intangible and
immaterial but not, for this reason, any less real or important.”
Floridi thus formulates Information ethics as the new environmental ethics for the knowledge society and the
most general approach for analysis of our lives in the infosphere. Floridi and Savulescu (2006) question the
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A typical example is eavsdropping which is strictly regulated when phones or classical mails are used for
communication, but not even recognized as a problem in digital communications.
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ways “the changing nature of new artefacts is affecting our moral values, their adaptation to new realities,
their daily implementation, their transmission through an increasingly synthetic world, and their protection.”
Those are indeed the central issues to be addressed.
Many of the present-day ethical concerns about virtual worlds are related to lack of trust caused by anonymity
and disembodiment. (Johnson, 1997), (Huff, Johnson & Miller, 2003), (De Laat, 2005). The virtual lacks the
well-defined elements which, in real world, are essential for the establishment and maintenance of trust
(Pettit, 1995, 2004). This view is supported by Nissenbaum (2001), who finds that basic elements obstructing
trust in virtual worlds are ambiguous identities and fluid social settings with unclear roles. The difference
between a movie or a drama and a MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play) is significant in this
respect: you know who the real actor in real life is, and you know for sure she is not the role she plays.
Identity constructions are much freer in games and their relationships with real people are fuzzy. Here a
psychological and sociological analysis of the phenomenon of trust and identity (personal and social) can
provide valuable support to ethical arguments.
The problem of trust in virtual worlds often seems overwhelming. However, examples of e-commerce and e-
banking show that there are domains in which trust is taken very seriously and problems have been solved.
Indeed, one may ponder over the fact that economic relationships are seemingly the only ones that our
civilization finds important enough to handle with due respect.
Closely related to the problem of trust is privacy, which is often breached in computer-mediated
communications (Dodig-Crnkovic, 2006a), (Dodig-Crnkovic and Horniak, 2005; 2006).
One of the most important ethical aspects of virtual worlds is the effect of our habits from the virtual on our
behaviour in the real. Contrary to the belief that our behaviour in the virtual does not affect our real life, Brey
provides several interesting examples of ethical problems in virtual worlds and their relevance to real life:
„VR applications may be developed that allow and graphically depict almost any conceivable immoral act
including murder, mutilation, torture, rape, robbery, and grand theft. Also possible in VR are role-playing
and the acting out of extended scenarios, such as terrorist missions and the preparation and execution of
serial killings.“ (Brey, 1999)
Moreover, as Introna (2008) notices, the virtualization of human interactions opens a host of new
possibilities: virtual organizations, virtual government, virtual communities, virtual education, virtual
friendships, and so on which change existing social relationships as well:
“(M)ost of our current thinking about ethics implies a certain sense of community based on reciprocal moral
obligations that are largely secured through situated, embodied practices and institutions that are often
overlapping and mutually inclusive. If these practices and institutions become virtualized then it would seem
that we need to reconsider some of our most fundamental human categories.” Introna (2008)
In the Uniqueness Debate about the status of Computer Ethics, Johnson claimed that whatever artificial agents
do on the screen is already predefined by people, and so there is nothing unique about the virtual world ethics
that would be essentially different from the ethics of, for example, the theatre. Both are simply the ethics of
the humans who create those artificial spaces, characters and the rules of the game. However, there is a
substantial, neglected property of virtual worlds which makes them unique: computational virtual worlds have
the potential for distinctly new situations. Intelligent, adaptive, learning, artificial agents will not be under
complete control of the designer of the virtual world, and they may be considered as autonomous actors
capable of being good or evil on their own, which will indisputably be a new kind of good (evil): artificial
good (evil) (Floridi and Sanders, 2001).
A judgment of the moral significance of behaviour in virtual worlds clearly depends on the character of the
virtual world and its relationship with real life. In the case of games and fantasy worlds, the act of playing is a
process of making choices in a specific context: a process of playful creation, ‘ludic phronesis’ (Dodig
Crnkovic and Larsson, 2005). Even in such a highly idealized and metaphoric environment it is argued that
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reinforcement learning and the power of habit contribute to the formation of a player’s character, as players
take active part in games. For example, it is claimed that the ability to empathise is diminished by the habitual
playing of violent computer games. (Dodig Crnkovic and Larsson, 2005) Strain discusses three central issues
of ethics in the virtual: protection of sensitive data, the human character of virtual environments and the
necessity to teach ethics to students of computing. (Strain, 2007) The same appeal for introducing ethics (such
as Information ethics, Computer ethics, Roboethics etc) into computing curricula is found in (Dodig
Crnkovic, 2006), who argues that besides research into ethics of the virtual, education is an essential means of
filling Moor’s “policy vacuums”. (Moor, 1985)
The Evolving Idea of Good Life. The Question of Meaning and Making Sense
Virtual worlds are becoming an integral part of our everyday lives. How can they be developed in order to
contribute to the well being of humanity? Søraker (2010) discusses the ideals of good and theories of value
and well-being to finally focus the analysis on subjective well-being, emphasizing the importance of
normative evaluations of technology. Those are undoubtedly central questions, especially when addressing
virtual worlds used in social networking and games.
There are also increasingly important virtual worlds used not for entertainment, pleasure, fantasy or chat but
in the professional context of science, government, healthcare and the like. Their function is to directly
support and extend our agency in the real world. When thinking about such applications, the first association
is not providing pleasure (for an individual) but making sense (both individually and as a social group). Some
may object that even making sense provides pleasure if only on a higher cognitive level, but there is an
obvious difference between the pleasure of amusement and the pleasure of sensemaking. The idea of
sensemaking is that:
“reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective
sense of what occurs (…) In sensemaking, actors creatively arrange and reassemble cues that they get from
the “real” world, providing structure and guidance in an ongoing process of reality enactment (Neuman
1990; Weick 1995). ” (Fiss and Hirsch, 2005)
For contemporary societies, this opens up an important discussion on the good life vs. the meaningful life.
What sort of civilization would we like to develop? Castronova’s “society of fun” as an ideal of good life
might be understood as the result of Utilitarian ethics. Hedonistic utilitarianism for example seeks to reduce
suffering and increase pleasure or happiness. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-
270 BC) claimed that “We count pleasure as the originating principle and the goal for the blessed life”.
Frances Hutcheson (1694-1747) (An Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil, 3.8) similarly asserted that
“The action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number; and that worst, which in
like manner, occasions misery.” Mill’s Utilitarianism meant that “Actions are right in proportion as they tend
to promote [general] happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of [general] happiness.
(Utilitarianism, 2). In short, all sorts of utilitarianism would tend to optimize some highest intrinsic value,
which developed from Epicurean “pleasure” (also accepted by Jeremy Bentham), “happiness” (John Stuart
Mill), “ideals” (George Edward Moore) and “preferences” (Kenneth Arrow). Utilitarianism has a simple
purpose to guide people’s actions in such a way as to produce a better world.
It presupposes that the highest good is known and accepted and that we can predict all consequences of our
actions. However, that is seldom the case. Today in a period of major paradigm shifts in global
communications and politics, economy, social sphere, knowledge production, sciences and research we must
re-assess traditional locally based priorities and value-systems. It is not self-evident to apply the habitual
judgments on situations where no single concept has its long-established meaning. The techno-cognitive
revolution has ethical consequences, with the concept of well-being shifting from the industrial era’s focus on
the pleasure of material welfare (that which industrial era produced) towards an emphasis on meaningful
existence, broadening horizons and making sense (that is what we may hope for from cognitive revolution).
Given satisfactory material conditions, new expectations of a meaningful life arise – material wealth becomes
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a human right; meaningful life may be something to strive for, engage in and develop. This is however far
from self-evident and this article claims that it is time to revisit the ideals of good life and good society in
light of on-going cognitive revolution.
In the emerging New Renaissance of the information era (Dodig Crnkovic, 2003), thanks to the progress of
technology, numerous new possibilities will appear in the pursuit of meaningful life.
It is necessary to think through and foresee the outcomes of possible scenarios of this development. In this
process, virtual worlds as anticipative tools of augmented cognition are of great value. The progress of human
civilization, including science, art, literature, technology, politics, organization of labour and the culture of
everyday living, is based on imaginative activities. The ability to present different possibilities (alternative
worlds) and enable our interaction with them and through them is the most distinctive characteristic of virtual
worlds.
After the industrial revolution, which essentially extended the human body through mechanical machinery,
the beginning of the cognitive revolution extends human minds through computing (information processing)
technology. Information constitutes our new ecology, an “infosphere”, in which ubiquitous computing
facilities are changing our interactions with the world and the character of our relationships with other people.
It is a fundamental change in our understanding of the mind and its relationship with the world, extended
through interactions with other intelligent systems – biological as well as artificial.
Conclusion
At the same time as the cognitive revolution brings great promise for an increase in the well-being of
humanity, there is an inherent risk involved in our producing more and more from our own environment, the
risk of loosing contact with the natural world, as expressed in the following passage by Kass in (Melzer et al.,
1993) p. 11:
"In the famous allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, Socrates implies that it is the Prometean gift of fire
and the enchantment of the arts that hold men unwittingly enchanted, warm and comfortable yet blind to the
world beyond the city. Mistaking their crafted world for the whole, men live ignorant of their true standing in
the world and their absolute dependence on powers not of their own making and beyond their control. (…)
The coming of the new modern technological project added a new wrinkle to that dispute. What if technology,
founded upon the new science, could address not only the stingy nature without but also unruly nature
within? What if a science-based technology could be brought to bear on the human psyche (and the human
society) by means of a perfected psycho-physics (and scientific political science)? Might one then secure
human happiness by purely rational and technological means?"
However, the above understanding identifies technology with rationalism which, in the case of information
technology, is far from self-evident. On the contrary, contemporary virtual worlds frequently represent for a
user a return to mythopoethic thinking, fantasy and freedom from real-world limitations. Here, of course, the
distinction should be made between the production of technology and its use. On the other hand, the issue of
superhuman intelligence obtained by cognitive enhancements still resonates with the above thinking.
Nevertheless: is technology really even developed based on rational grounds? That can hardly be the case –
the history of technological inventions is strongly related with chance discoveries, personal, economical and
other interests of the proponents of technology. The situation today has changed somewhat, as high
technologies are typically developed by groups of specialists, but this does not guarantee rationality of new
technology either. Who will address the prospect of humanity withdrawing into a self-made virtual cocoon?
Philosophers? Cognitive scientists? Ethicists? Engineers? Users? All of us as globally distributed
intelligence?
Let me finish recalling the words of Weizenbaum, who criticizes identifying rationality with logicity:
10
“There have been many debates on “Computers and Mind.” What I conclude here is that the relevant issues
are neither technological nor even mathematical; they are ethical.” (Weizenbaum, 1976) p. 227
Acknowledgment
The author greatly appreciates the anonymous reviewers' valuable and detailed comments.
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