The Social Ontology of Virtual Environments. (Criticisms and Reconstructions)

Article excerpt

I

Introduction

COMPUTER SYSTEMS HAVE BECOME THE SITE OF many objects, events, and activities. The virtual environments generated by them seem to contain the virtual or electronic equivalent of almost anything found in the physical world. So we have electronic books, electronic money, virtual bars and chat rooms, and activities like trade, design, games, and communication. The ontological status of these various electronic objects, activities, and events is not always clear. Some virtual entities appear to be mere simulations of their physical counterparts. For instance, a real martini cannot exit in cyberspace and one cannot literally drink a real martini in it, although it is possible to hold a simulated martini in a virtual reality environment and to pretend to drink it. Other virtual entities appear to be just as real as their physical counterparts. For example, electronic money is, for all purposes, just as real as physical money, and electronic gambling can have the same devastating consequences as gambling in a physic ally real casino.

This paper aims to take away the ontological puzzlement that currently exists regarding objects and events in virtual environments. By a virtual environment, I mean any software-generated structure that is able to contain, or function as an environment for, software-generated objects and events, and human interactions with those objects and events. This paper contains an ontological investigation of virtual environments, with particular attention paid to the construction of social and institutional reality in them. The structure of the paper is as follows. In Section II, a basic ontology of the real world is proposed, which is based on recent work by John Searle. Searle's ontology distinguishes between physical and social reality, and outlines basic characteristics of social reality as well as of institutional reality, which is part of social reality. This ontology provides the background for a subsequent ontological investigation of virtual environments in Section III. In that section, a comparison is made b etween virtual entities (entities encountered in virtual environments) and real-world entities (entities encountered in the ordinary world), and it is argued that institutional entities, unlike other entities, can have real existence in virtual environments. Subsequently, it is analyzed how institutional entities are constituted and recognized in virtual environments.

II

A BASIC ONTOLOGY OF THE REAL WORLD IS AN ACCOUNT OF the basic types of things that exist in the world, classified according to their mode of existence. By a mode of existence, I mean the way in which something has come into reality and the manner in which it currently exists. One of the most influential recent ontologies of the real world has been presented by John Searle (1995). Searle's account is coherent and well supported with examples, and is more complete than most other ontologies of the real world, since unlike many other ontologies it also tries to account for social reality, and not just for physical reality. Searle's organizing principle in arriving at his ontological distinctions is the relation of things to human interpretation of them. Searle argues that things may be wholly independent of human interpretation or thought, but they may also be partially constituted, to different degrees and in different ways, through human interpretation.

Basic Ontology of the Real World

This organizing principle leads Searle to make a fundamental distinction between physical reality and social reality. Social reality is the set of all entities that are not genuinely objective but are the outcome of a process of social interpretation or construction. Physical reality is genuinely objective and includes entities that exist independently of our representations of them. Searle illustrates this distinction by pointing out the difference between physical and social facts. …