EESE 5/2001

Internet Teaching - Guest Editor: Thomas Kühn (Berlin)


The Matrix Problem

Karl Hepfer and Fritz-Wilhelm Neumann (Erfurt)

The Matrix, Mind and Knowledge (Karl Hepfer)

In the first part of this survey, the lures of VR technology are examined with reference to Plato's dictum that 'poets are liars' and to his allegory of the Cave. Basic philosophical definitions of reality are applied to what William Gibson calls cyberspace or "a consensual hallucination" in his famous cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984). Some contemporary critics are heralding virtual reality as a "working product" of Platonism (M. Heim in The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality). However, Hepfer argues that only the traditional method of narration and contextualisation, which are required for the creation of meaning, will stop us from rushing headlong into mental entropy. Accordingly, Gibson's cyberpunk novel is quite a linguistic achievement of its own, but it is equally saturated with allusions to the roots of Western culture. The AI-construct Wintermute emerges from the dataverse and achieves self-awareness and freedom. Wintermute represents "a Cartesian mind without (any specific) body, software running just on any (non-biological) hardware" from which he frees himself to achieve immortality - at least as long as there is electrical power. The Hollywood version of the Matrix designs an empty state of bliss in the shape of machine-generated consciousness. Knowledge and freedom, both in the Christian and existentialist sense, can only be attained in a post-apocalyptic environment. Hepfer draws the conclusion that virtual-reality constructs lead either to a fragmentation of the self or to eternal loneliness. It may have taken us by surprise that the technological development of the Virtual and the Unreal will provide an invaluable tool to tackle these very real problems.

The Human Survives - Virtual Reality and the Liberal Tradition (Fritz-Wilhelm Neumann)

"The Human Survives" refers to the tradition of anti-utopian writing by Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells to analyse virtual-reality plots in films such as Matrix, The Next Generation of the StarTrek epic, and Johnny Mnemonic. While the of history science fiction begun more than a century ago, teaching science fiction classes at university level as part of the regular canon was launched in the 1950s, when there was obviously a cleavage between scientists and the humanities intellectuals. Nowadays, as students are deeply involved in the pictorial media, learning targets are the awareness of the reality problem, the proper way of assessing the potential of technology, and of the media themselves. The above-mentioned movies provide food for thought and discussion.

Ethically, these movies adhere to the liberal tradition with its creed of individual freedom, whatever the technology displayed. In Johnny Mnemonic, the Lowtecs defeat a conspiracy by a multinational company; the environment is fantastically techno-archaic with gothic elements; by contrast, Matrix was designed by experienced cartoonists and special-effect producers, which caters for the viewing habits of the audience and their longing for futuristic gadgets. StarTrek is even more conservative in its epic setting. The more romantic the plot structure of these movies appears and the more media-proof the average user or consumer may be, the more one cannot ignore the fact that advanced information technology presents a significant problem. If there is a shift of paradigm imposed upon the present culture, this will be the misuse of power by media technology.