9.134 ontological breakdown

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Wed, 30 Aug 1995 13:39:08 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 134.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1 ] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca> (124)
Subject: ontological breakdown

The following was sent to me by Bob Kraft (Religious Studies, Penn). All
students of Ovid will be delighted.


Ontological Breakdown, or, Pretending to be a Help System
by Brad De Long <delong@econ.berkeley.edu>

I recently had an Internet experience that was profoundly
disturbing, and made me want to consult a philosophical
professional in the same way that a health problem makes me want
to consult a medical professional.

Let me start from the beginning. For the past year or so one of my
main Internet activities has been to look for pictures of
dinosaurs. My five-year-old sits on my right knee and my two-year-
old on my left. We stare at Triceratops eye-to-eye, and count the
teeth of Tyrannosaurus Rex. The five-year-old is pretty good at
following links; the two-year-old is still at the "Twicer'ops.
Piktur Twicer'ops" stage.

One of our favorite places is the University of California Museum
of Paleontology - the UCMP. On the Internet, the UCMP is a
marvelous virtual, interactive museum. Adam Engst even wrote in
one of his books that he could "spend the rest of the afternoon
here, browsing the exhibits, and all without hurting my feet."


Last June, I stopped being a Senior Treasury Department Official,
and became a Berkeley economics professor. Since the UCMP is in
the "berkeley.edu" domain, I asked around, and was told that the
UCMP had just moved into the newly-renovated Valley Life Sciences

So one afternoon I paused in my attempts to deal with the pile of
paper created by the Associate Vice Chancellor for Sending Junk
Mail to Faculty and the Assistant Associate Vice Chancellor for
Thinking Up Pointless Rules, and took the five-year-old and the
two-year-old to the Valley Life Sciences Building.

We first walked past a wall of news clippings and pictures of
paleontological digs. We soon found ourselves in the central
stairwell in front of a banner that said "University of California
Museum of Paleontology." There was an impressive Tyrannosaurus
skull behind glass. On the next floor up there was a similarly
impressive Triceratops skull. The hip bones of a Tyrannosaurus (a
different Tyrannosaurus) hung suspended in the stairwell.

That was pretty much it. The UCMP had just moved and not all of
the public exhibits had been unpacked yet. By mid-September an
entire Tyrannosaurus Rex will fill up the three-story stairwell.
But the public fossil collection was very small. The UCMP is a
_research_ museum, not a display museum: it is for twenty-five-
year-old graduate students fascinated by posters with titles like
"Acid Rain an Agent of Extinction at the K-T Boundary - Not!" This
research museum is not designed for five-year-olds, or for thirty-
five-year-olds who don't know as much about geology and chemistry
as they should.

I stood in the stairwell. I looked at the few impressive fossils.
I thought to myself, "Let's get back to my office computer, so
that we can see the real University of California Museum of
Paleontology Dinosaur exhibit at:


"The real museum," I thought, "has audio narration by the
discoverers of dinosaurs. The real museum has many more bones - a
Diplodocus skeleton, for one thing. The real museum has detailed
exhibits on dinosaur evolution and geology...

"No - wait.

"_This_ is the real museum. The Internet Web site is just the
"virtual" image - an electronic reflection - of this place."

And that was when I felt I needed a consulting philosopher bad.
There have long been speculations about how the electronic shadows
made possible by the computer and telecommunications revolutions
will acquire the intensity of effect, the immediacy, the
complexity and the depth to become - in a certain sense - real.
That afternoon in the Valley Life Sciences Building was the first
time in my life that I had compared a place in the real world -
the UCMP - to its virtual electronic image in cyberspace and found
the real world lacking, found that the real world experience
didn't have, compared to its virtual electronic image, the
intensity of effect, the immediacy, the complexity, and the depth
necessary for reality.

Thinking back, I realized that the electronic world behind the
computer screen has been slowly acquiring reality - and the real
world losing it - for some years. I check the card catalog for
something or other every week; but it has been four years since I
saw a wooden or metal drawer with 3 by 5 cards in it. If I say
"it's on my desktop," I almost surely mean that a pointer to the
computer file exists at the root level directory of my notebook
computer. As far as desktops and card catalogs are concerned, the
"virtual" images have so swamped the "real" objects as to make
them vanish from my consciousness.

My cousin Tom Kalil tells me that cyberspace has obtained "lift-
off." Traffic on the now-defunct NSFNET Internet backbone went up
from 3.6 billion bytes in March 1993 to 4.8 trillion bytes in
March 1995. WebCrawler and Yahoo now index over four million
electronic documents, and receive more than 9.4 million hits per

Some are oblivious to this transformation. I think of a respected
academic elder who claimed that all physical discoveries since
1930 (including our current computer and communications
technologies) were less significant than the past generation's
"discoveries" in literary criticism; he had the lack of perception
(or perhaps he was simply irony-challenged) to make this claim in
an electronic mail message!

For two generations people have been talking about how computers
will have an extraordinary impact on human society and human
knowledge. Our children will think as differently from us as we
think differently from pre-Gutenberg monks, who would spend years
copying and writing a commentary on a single illuminated
manuscript. Our children will find our doctrines and beliefs as
quaint as we find Socrates' distrust of the written word as an
suitable tool for education.

The evening after returning from our expedition to the Valley Life
Sciences Building I went upstairs to put the five-year-old to bed.
He was talking - but not to himself.

"If you want to read books," he said, "click on the bookcase. If
you want to play with dinosaur toys, click over here."

He was pretending to be a help system.

"To play with Lion King toys, click on the bottom of the bed."

I have pretended to be many things at play and at work - a space
explorer, a wise king, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the
Treasury, a Berkeley professor. But I have never pretended to be a
help system.

"If you need help, click on my picture on top of the dresser. I'll
be there in a flash..."

Not only is the virtual world behind the computer screen acquiring
an increasing aura of reality, but the real world on this side of
the screen is acquiring aspects of virtuality as well.

Copyright 1990-1995 Adam & Tonya Engst.