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Where Are the Angels?:Representation of Presence in Virtual Communities:An Interview with Philippe Queau  Interviewer: Erkki HUHTAMO


Erkki HUHTAMO (E.H.): In your presentation, Philippe, you talked about some very profound, important changes--if we think about the ideas of identity, personality, culture in general--that you think are coming along with the spreading of virtual communities. First, a very simple question. You said that there are hundreds of different virtual communities now. Do you see among them any which are really interesting, or really problematic, at the moment?

Philippe QUEAU (P.Q.): When I said that there are hundreds of variations of this concept of "virtual communities," you have to make a difference, for instance, between groupware techniques, where the emphasis is only on certain aspects of these communities, or trading or networks of academic exchange over the net, and ludic like World Chat, V-Chat by Microsoft, Mundo by Intel Corporation, The Palace etc...

For me, the most interesting virtual communities now are those using virtual avatars with communication capabilities like World Chat, V-Chat, Mundo. This is very interesting because it embeds the contradiction, which I try to underline, between two very important concepts of our classical relationship to others, which is "presence" and "representation." Because with those avatars you have a sense of presence but it's not really presence, yet it is presence. So it's kind of a strange oxymoron.

I think the long-term effect of those communities when they develop--the progress will be rapid and more and more convincing with the development of technologies--will change our relationship to others. It will change our understanding of our own person, our own reality. Exactly like in some tribes of Africa, where the relationship to others depends on the way you own your own visage, your own face. When you get a baby, you have to make a scarification on the face to make it enter in the communities of humans. Maybe, the Cyberspace will evolve like a new Africa, an Africa of cyberspace, where in order to be a member of the virtual community of cyberspace, you have to wear a scarification. It will not be real scarification of course, but only a metaphorical one. For instance, maybe a kind of reduction , an over-simplification or a symbolization of our own human complexity.


E.H.: One of your important hypotheses is that the traditional distinction between the concepts of presence and representation is melting away with these new forms of virtual community. Virilio, in one of his books, reminded us of a story related to Galileo Galilei and his telescope. When Galilei introduced his telescope, it was the era of the Counter-reform in the Catholic Church, so it posed a very important question: under what conditions would it be possible to use the telescope to actually participate in the community rituals of the Church, the mass? This is an ethical question, but it is also related to the essence of telecommunication: you are physically away but you are also a participant by means of the telescope. Isn't this also related to the connection between representation and presence - "the telescope" obviously had something to do with the Renaissance sense of the visual as well?

P.Q.: Yes, I would like to make a similar comparison with the idea of Virilio. I would like to quote the famous words by Thomas d'Aquino, the famous theologist from the Middle Ages, the 13th century. He asks the question: "Where are the angels?" And the answer is: "Angels are not where they are but they are where they act; they are where they love. That's the answer. We too could ask the same question--for instance, about virtual surgery. Where is a virtual surgeon? Where is he physically? In New York? Where does he act as surgeon? For instance, in Africa, through networks? The answer in this case would obviously be: Surgeons are, where they do act, because it is there where they express their finality. They are what they act. So, the question today, with the spreading of cyberspace on those distance/telepresence systems, is: "Where are we?--Are we where we are sitting or are we where our mind is exerting its own strength?

I think it is going to make the conception of "being somewhere" much more complex, much more entangled with other aspects. It is not only a question of where we do things but also the problem of how we are made of, what we are made of. That is the question because the more the technology of representation through avatars uses some part of our real face and some part of synthetic models the more we'll lack in criteria of the understanding of what is real and what is virtual, because we will be more and more blurred or blended together.


Then the danger is confusion. Confusion or difficulties to distinguish or clarify the levels of reality, the levels of virtuality, because the blurring will be more and more sophisticated. My only concern in this is the danger of confusing the minds of the new "illiterate people", the illiterate of the virtual, because they will lack in possibilities, in mental understanding of the levels of reality. It's a big problem, I guess. The Reform--you mentioned the Counter-reform--by Luther is for certain people, including myself, related to the printing press. There is a strong relationship between the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg and the spreading of the ideas of Reform by Luther, and maybe more importantly their actual practice, by personal access to the Bible rendered possible.

Today we are witnessing the development of a new printing press, which is digital technology, virtual technology. I guess there will be a new Reform which will be necessary, and perhaps a new "alphabetism" will also be needed. We don't understand very well what kind of Reform will be necessary yet. We also need to push forward more...

E.H.: If I go back for a second to my example about Galileo and the telescope, obviously it was very much a social and political question for the Church, because even the hypothetical idea that people would start using a telescope to "go" to the church threatened very important values of the Catholic Church. When the people were physically present in the church building they could be controlled, provided with exactly the same "word of God" by the priest, and so on. Now, if people would be in remote locations, it could be a potentially disruptive factor for the unity.

Today, we can also think about a totally different example. I have heard that in Japan there are still many companies that insist that all important decisions have to be made in physical meetings.Even though remote connections and telecommunications can be used in preparing all kinds of decisions, the really important things still have to be decided in such a way that everybody is physically present. The idea of a virtual meeting is not yet accepted. What does this tell about our contemporary attitudes?


P.Q.: For Japan, maybe it's the problem of adaptation to a new era. I have heard that when you trade some financial operation, you need to be present to sign the trading order in Japan. But in other countries like America and Europe, you don't necessarily need to be present physically, you can send a fax. So, it is really a question of necessary adaptation. Maybe we won't have time to be present, maybe being present will no longer be an essential condition to be efficient.

What I would like to say about that is: there will be a variety of attitudes, of conditions, of possible actions, mixing different levels of reality or virtuality, mixing different levels of being more or less present. What I think will come is more complex time, where there will be a variety of being more or less present physically, more or less present virtually. There will be different attitudes possible out of those different hybridization. Of course for ludic activities it will be much less important than for war game activities.

Let's think about this massacre in Cana, Southern Lebanon. There were shots on the United Nation's camp by which more than one hundred people were killed and we have the proof now that there was a drone, a little spy plane observing. This spy is without any pilot, a small plane with very precise observation technique. So, some brain was behind this, some brain out there behind the line, which was in, virtually in the drone. And you can generalize this. Of course, it is not only for war but it is also for financial operations. It's not a brain with eyes but it's a brain with computing capabilities, like observing the state of the planet with financial instruments, a technique of analysis of the flow of money throughout the world.

All those techniques are virtual in a sense, they imply a sense of virtual presence, at least a mental presence. Now, we have a variety of being-present-virtually but it's very difficult to understand that. In our "pre-cyber era" it was so simple: there was absence or presence. It was either one or the other. But now we have to consider a new state of mind, a new state of humanity: being absent but present (laughs).


E.H.: Maybe one of the important symptoms of this change is this burning down of the Credit Lyonnais' headquarters in Paris. The next day all the functions were actually OK, so the newspapers began to ask: "Why did they actually need the physical headquarters with its 2500 workers if the bank was perfectly operative virtually?" How do you see the significance of this discussion about the Credit Lyonnais' affair?

P.Q.: Well, more and more companies are becoming virtual companies now. Credit Lyonnais could operate on the following day because they had a back-up computer operating system somewhere else: they no longer needed any offices in the center of Paris. They can operate their virtual network from any point, they can also operate from any country. Now more and more companies are suppressing office space. For instance, IBM in France have no longer any offices for the vendors and marketing officers: they go on their commercial territories with a groupware technique on laptop and cellular telephone line and that's it.

The relationship to this discussion is that more and more human communities--for instance, commercial communities and professionals communities--are also becoming sort of virtual. But what we lack is an instrument of intelligibility of what it means to be virtual in the context of being a professional of financial operations, of being a professional of surgical operations; or to be virtual in terms of spying or making wars or making games. All those different activities imply different types of being virtual and different types of responsibilities for possible mistakes.

Do you remember the famous mistake of the downing (of a civilian aircraft) by an American warship called Vincennes during the Iran-Iraq war? They downed it by mistake. A civilian Airbus full of civil passengers was downed by a missile and, after an analysis of the case, it turned out to be a mistake on the computer radar, computer screen. They mistook the echo of the Airbus for an echo of a MIG21. So, it means that the modern technologies of virtual representation, which are for war but also for economy or for groupware: all those types of virtual representation are virtual instantiation of the "real" reality.


My hypothesis is that the more we develop virtual representations of what we think is "reality", which is true for many things, the more it will affect reality itself because it is not independent. Reality is what we think is reality--like the value of yen is what we think is the value of yen. But there is no essential value: it's just a social construction. If it is true of yen, it's also true of the war. It's also true of the poverty situation in some critical countries; it's also true of many other problems.

So, we have a very big problem facing us, which is only facilitated by the development of virtual technologies--not only virtual representation in terms of realistic rendering but also in terms of modeling the reality through mathematical models.

E.H.: Let us go back for a little while to your idea of "avatars" in terms of the different traditional forms of masks. The mask is always a representation but, at the same time, it means "hiding something", "hiding behind the mask." So, it has these two sides: expressing certain identities, belonging to a social group, social or symbolic values, while it also means that you are hidden behind it. Could you describe these two sides of culture in relation to avatars? In which sense are people expressing themselves as avatars? In which sense are they hiding behind the mask of an avatar in computer-generated virtual environments?

P.Q.: Well, the human face is a mystery, because it's actually a kind of nakedness--there is nakedness or nudity. It has a depth that is endless. But when we take a photograph of somebody, when we take a television shot of somebody, or now when we make a computer avatar of somebody, we have a reduction of this infinity, of this infinite depth of human face. So, I would say that--like a television image, like paintings, like photography--this new form of representation--"computer avatar"--will affect deeply our own image of ourselves.


As you know in the Bible it is said that man is made as "the image of God." But this is a metaphor, of course! Metaphor of what? Metaphor of "infinity." But representation has a series of drawbacks--at least, the representation we use technically now. The drawback is the suppression of possible infinity of the meaning of a face.

So, the big risk I can see with avatars is a philosophical risk: it is an oversimplification of what we think is reality; oversimplification of what we think is the other person; oversimplification of what we think is ourselves. It's really a new mirror--it's not only a real mirror but a mirror of our own representation. You have the risk to be attracted, like Alice, beyond the mirror.

E.H.: If we think about the idea of corporate communication, for instance, people often say that physical presence is necessary because so much of the communication is subliminal. So, people communicate not by actual words, they say, but by very small gestures, for instance, in very important business negotiations. Now considering a situation where this kind of negotiations would use avatars, like in cyberspace--you were just speaking about the way in which this infinity of details is reduced at the stage of developing avatars--what do you think about the development of the avatars? Will it ever get closer to the kind of "infinity" which you were describing in relation to the human face, or does it lead to some other direction?

P.Q.: I think there would be immense progress to make in terms of realism, but realism is not the only problem, the only dimension to solve. I think that even if we had a totally realistic avatar, it will lack some depth, too. Though it will be very realistic, it will always lack some depth because the representation by a computer is only a representation. The real presence--like being there or being here--is something much more magical in a way. There is magic in being present.

The big risk we are going to have with avatars is that we will make very strong, very interesting progress in realism. But this will stay superficial because the progress is not really in realism but in the understanding of it. The real understanding will not necessarily be related to the progress of realism. Maybe it's the contrary that will arrive, that will happen, that the emphasis on the technological side of the problem will be paid by a heavy price in a lack of real human development. Obviously, all this is open.


What I can say as an observer of the research and the development of the technologies of computer communication or computer-generated communication is that there are many projects led by engineers. What we need now is a much deeper understanding that should be related to ethnography, arts, religion--religion has always had some relation to masks and visages.

I have mentioned in this talk the Africans: you don't have a face; they don't see your face unless it has some human appropriation. This human appropriation is religious. You have to have a scarification. A scarification is not just any scarification: it's very personal, it's the trace of the cry or it's related to death. So, a baby has to have a scarification because it is the way it is inscribed on the time when it's being born, the time of its possible death at the end of his life. This is another level of understanding the life, you know.

This of course seems maybe a little bit strange for us which are for instance modern, but it is, however, very deep. It is maybe the only question that is worth asking: what do we do here on earth? It's not just for making groupware. What is the real state of our exchange with people? It is not just to have corporate meeting, you know. The only concern I have with the development of avatar is that they are perfectly fit for extremely narrow activities, in fact, such as games or maybe very simple transactions. But for anything really human, then, they are not fit at all or they are more dangerous than we think because they have a tendency to pervert our relationship to the essence of being real. To make a straightforward conclusion, the development of virtuality pollutes our understanding of reality.

E.H.: So, Philippe, if I go back once more to your talk, one of the really interesting things in it was the way in which you presented Husserl and his concept of epoche as a possible philosophical solution to the split that exists in the actual situation between presence and representation. Could you say something about how you bring this concept from Husserl into this relationship?

P.Q.: As you know, the concept of epoche is the central concept of phenomenology. The idea I would like to suggest is that we have a problem of confusion between presence and representation, as I already mentioned. Maybe the epoche could be used as a methodological tool. Epoche as you know is suspension of belief in the world, as a methodology, as a training tool, to make a distance between us and what we are confronted with. That is the phenomenological reduction, as Husserl says.


Now we have this confusion, growing confusion between different levels of reality, different levels of virtuality. The epoche as a tool would be like taking some distance or avoiding to enter too quickly into any of those levels of reality or virtuality. In a way, representation is the epoche of presence. Any representation is a distance, as is clearly understandable in French or English: "presence" and "representation" are contradictory to each other. Representation is like "renewed" presence.

To go into that line of thought, "present" has a double meaning both in French and English. It means "now" and also "gift." This duality of meaning is very interesting to analyze in fact because being present, being fully in position of feeling presence is a very real gift. What I would like to say is that epoche is a necessary access to get out of too simple feeling of being there, which will only be an illusion. It's just a necessary research to get out of the illusion of representation.

E.H.: Can you imagine such avatars, which were in a way expressions of this feeling or sense of epoche; avatars which would help in network communication to keep the distance and the suspension of belief? It is not always necessary to go from philosophical concepts to practical realizations, but I know that you are working not only on the theory of avatars but also practically on avatars. With avatars we get easily to a situation which is in a way the contrary of that. You said that Husserl's concept can also be a methodological idea. How do you apply this idea to designing avatars?

P.Q.: One aspect of the epoche in terms of avatars would be not to be attached to one's own representation but maybe to be able to fly into the eyes of one's counterparts. With fuzzy avatar technology you can not only be in your own viewpoint, but you can fly from your own viewpoint to the viewpoint of the others. By creating those kinds of tools, you would be put in a very interesting social situation, where you would not only see the world of cyberspace through your own virtual eyes, but would also be given tools--suspension-of-belief tools in fact, epoche tools--to fly to the viewpoints of the other persons you work with in the cyberspace. And it's a methodological tool, too, not to ever forget that it's all illusions. Maybe this kind of "social protection methods" would be very helpful to avoid taking oneself too seriously. (laughs)

E.H.: Yes, I think it's a wonderful idea. Think about an "epoche toolbox," which would be a necessary utility for people developing these forms of representation in network communications. A new concept. (laughs)


P.Q.: And there is also another idea of epoche tools. You know, you can augment your own face expression by special boosting muscular techniques. That is, when you detect the movement of the eyes or muscles, sometimes it's a little bit filtered out act by the algorithm of image processing. So, you need to boost the signal to make it more expressive. But if you go into that line of thought, you could have over-expression, so you would act like a kabuki actor, for instance, by boosting the expression. It would be a embedded epoche tool because you cannot believe that this guy is over-expressing himself. I think it's interesting to get to this level of exigence because it will be necessarily the ultimate frontier of "putting oneself in parenthesis" as I would quote Husserl. The suspension of belief is like putting oneself in parenthesis, to make an abstraction of one's own viewpoint.

E.H.: I think we have to finish now but I like this idea of an "epoche toolbox." Actually, it's a very interesting philosophical helper concept. It could be developed into something, really.

[In Kyoto, on May 13, 1996]

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