Virtual on Actual: Augmented reality and contemporary worlds

By Jonathan Davies

Augmented reality (AR) is nothing new. From Frank Baum’s 1901 illustrated novel The Master Key to the head-up display of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator the concept of superimposing the virtual on to the real has sinuated into popular culture. After failed attempts at reaching the mass market, AR was thrown back into the spotlight in July 2016 with the launch of Pokémon Go, an application which allowed the user to upgrade their smartphone into a device capable of AR. The success of Pokémon Go proved there could be a business case for a form of AR and we are now seeing an emergence of new, alternative AR applications (for example the Ikea app which allows to user to place virtual furniture into actual space). The focus of this post is not so much on the current, specific, technological form of AR but an exploration of AR as an emerging phenomenon and its ability to alter our perception, operation and expression through the realisation of individuation as specified by Gilbert Simondon and supported by Gilles Deleuze.

Image: Rutkin (2016)

The increasing pace of technology becoming, as Heidegger might say, ‘ready to hand’ may encourage an opinion that places technology as a tool or mechanism for controlling and manipulating nature. Turning to Gilbert Simondon we see that this misunderstanding of the nature or essence of machine has resulted in a conflict between culture and technology. Only a philosophical manner of thinking can resolve this, a technical culture. Simondon encourages the thought of tools as an ensemble, which involves more than just the machine – the relation of the machine with beings and the relation of the machine with the environment – a network. The tools are interconnected because of the theoretical systems that generate them. These systems can be used in different milieus, so the technology is transferable (or in the Deleuzian sense, deterritorialized). Following Simondon, I consider how our contemporary condition is a dynamic network of relations between technology and culture and what role of augmented reality (AR) can play within this network.

So why AR? Sitting between the completely real and the virtual environment, AR superimposes virtual objects (or enhancements) with the real world. This combination of real and virtual objects in a real environment runs interactively, in real time. Whilst a virtual reality (VR) experience is created by blocking sensory impressions from physical reality (creating an almost neo-Cartesian reading of computer (dis)embodiment – a locked body and wandering mind) this dualism is impossible to achieve in AR. The physical body (rather than the virtual one) is always present allowing for a multimodal perception. The perception here involves an orientation towards objects, a consciousness towards it. Utilising AR technologies allows for an extension of the body into the virtual ultimately causing a re-realisation, or consciousness, of the body again.

Theorising AR through Simondon, we see a shift in the concept of subject consciousness. His ontogenetic perspective pushes us beyond transcendental phenomenological reduction, which grants privilege to the individual, to that of the pre-individual ‘being’ (Bardin, 2015). Before applying this concept to AR perhaps it is best to first explore this, often tricky, perspective.

For Simondon, previous philosophical understandings of ‘being’ (for example Aristotle’s hylomorphic schema – an individual is created from form encountering matter, or a substantialist view – the principle of individuation is intrinsic to the individual) create a constituted individual, externalising technical objects from the human being. Simondon uses his concept of ‘individuation’ (matter always has potential structure and form is never absolute) to shift philosophical thinking from a theorisation of beings as things or objects to being as event. We see a focus on the ontogenesis of technical and human individuals (Combes, 2013).

We find that the individual is never given in advance, but is produced from something prior to it. This ‘something’ is the pre-individual – a state of radical potentiality of excess which may unfold in various directions. Form is only attained in the actual process of this unfolding and therefore individuation can only be found within individuation itself (emerging, acting, unfolding within a milieu). For Deleuze, this role of the pre-individual is primary in Simondon’s ontology. As Deleuze helpfully highlights in his supportive review of Simondon’s L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, “Being is never One: as pre-individual, it is a metastable more-than-one, superimposed and simultaneous to itself; as individuated, it is again multiple because it is ‘multiphasic’, it is a “phase of becoming that will lead to new operations’” (Deleuze, 2001: 49). What is interesting here is that this more-than-one, metastable state results in the individual not exhausting the possibility for further individuation (Lapworth, 2016). Individuation is not a result but an ongoing process whereby the individual continuously becomes out of pre-individuals fields of potentialities.

As the individual cannot come into existence alone or exist alone it can only be defined in connection to the milieu associated with it. Any conflict with associated milieu cannot be overcome internally (psychic) and so Simondon considers an exterior individuation to simultaneously take place, the collective. Transindividuality is a relation that is mutually constitutive of both the individual and the collective, the purest expression of relational being (Scott, 2014).

Transduction is the mechanism that drives the process of individuation, creating a new metastable more-than-one being, from pre-individual potentials and singularities. The connection between the individual and the milieu, and the force that drives transduction, is facilitated by affect. It is affect that mediates between the individual and its associated milieu and belongs to the very activity of structuring the subject. This affectivity is registered at a sub-conscious level and causes a confrontation with nonindividuated potentials – a disindividuation (Lapworth, 2016). Deleuze argues that these encounters with an Other are involuntary “flashes of differential forces and singularities” (ibid:135). With current AR-as-other, however, we could suggest that there is some direction and control of a disindividuating encounter. Although to be affected by technology is not a conscious choice, by electing to engage in the technology, is the individual not making a conscious choice to perceive? The flashes of differential forces and singularities may be involuntary, but a being’s orientation toward the technology may not be.

ARs attitude to perception is what separates it from other forms of technology. It introduces a crisis in our typical separation of reality and the virtual allowing for possible variations of the virtual. However, in Simondon’s L’individuation psychique et collective we see a rejection of perception, which had previously been championed in L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique. This rejection is due to the failure of what he calls the ‘theory of Form’ – giving privilege to perception over the affective relation (Scott, 2014). Indeed, as Scott (ibid:66) states “it is not perception but affectivity which permits a true appreciation of how the relationship between the consciousness and the individual comes about”. Perhaps here it is best to accept the characterisation of perception conceptualised in Deleuze’s notion of The Fold highlighted by Murphie (2002): perception is affect. It is an exchange of deterritorialised quanta. Perception of AR is not just a simple object and subject relation but a series of interactions with each affect regarded as “its own processual micro-ecosystem…becoming only resembles itself” (Murphie, 2002:13). Whilst greater ‘perception’ of AR may be able to solve tension between the individual and the environment, other incompatibilisations require external resolution through affectivity and the collective. Subjects are composed of both already-realised individuations and pre-individual potentials. The subject realises it exceeds its individuated being through the emotional triggers such as anxiety. This disindividuation can only be resolved in the collective (as individuating all pre-individual potential at once is impossible) (Combes, 2013).

Image: The use of AR in Pokémon Go (Widder, 2017)

Applications such as Pokémon Go generate new affective relations to the transductive forces which modulate between the individual and the Other (Lapworth, 2016). The applications social aspects (playing against other nearby individuals) and active aspects (users must continuously walk around in reality, to move their character in the virtual) give rise to a range of environments, or milieu, where conflicts, emotions and affective encounters may take place. Through affective encounters, the perception of a new technology can provide conditions for individuations of the collective which are formed in the theatre of perpetual individuation from the potentials and singularities of the pre-individual. This gives rise to new transindividual forms between human and technical objects (Lapworth, 2016). The collective individuation is essential for this process. Without it there is no affective encounter, no disindividuation and therefore no capacity for further invention. This is key to our contemporary condition. A networked society exposes more individuals to technical innovation. As older AR technologies are forced into the invisible collective infrastructure new technologies will take their place, instantaneously incorporating themselves into our culture. This continued progression will not only blur the boundary between the virtual and actual but also between the human and the non-human, replacing augmented reality with more-than-human augmentation.

Bibliography

Bardin, A (2015) Epistemology and Political Philosophy in Gilbert Simondon: Individuation, Technics, Social Systems. Philosophyof Engineering and Technology 19.

Combes, M (2013) Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Trans: LaMarre T. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Deleuze, G (2001) Review of Gilbert Simondon’s L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (1966). Pli 12: 43-49.

Lapworth, A (2016) Theorizing Bioart Encounters after Gilbert Simondon. Theory Culture & Society 33 (3): 123-150.

Murphie, A (2002) Putting the Virtual Back into VR. In: Massumi B (ed.) A Shock to Thought: expression after Deleuze and Guattari. London: Routledge: 188-214.

Scott, D (2014) Gilbert Simondon’s Psychic and Collective Individuation: a Critical Introduction and Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Image sources

Rutkin, A (2016) Augmented reality set to overtake VR as new apps go live. New Scientist. [Online] Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23231044-600-augmented-reality-set-to-overtake-vr-as-new-apps-go-live/ [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017]

Widder, B (2017) Best augmented-reality apps. Digital Trends. [Online] Available at: https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/best-augmented-reality-apps/ [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017]

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