Rafael Capurro


Paper presented at VIPER 99 - International Festival for Film Video and New Media Symposium - 'Cut & Copy'  Lucerne, October 29-30, 1999.




1. Changing views   
2. Perception as world construction   
3. The real is the digital   
4. Beyond the digital   


PowerPoint 95&97



This paper deals with two questions: 1) what is real? and 2) what does real mean? Both questions got different answers in Western thought. Some of them are briefly presented in the first part. The present leading paradigm of reality construction on the basis of digital technology has its roots in modern philosophy (Kant, Berkeley) as explained in the second part. The thesis: 'the real is the digital' is explained in the third part. Finally the fourth part deals with the impact of digital technology on human affairs. The effect of this conjunction is described with the concept of spectrality. 

1. Changing views

Although common sense tells us that there is only one reality, it is not at all trivial to understand what real really means. This question is not of the same kind as the question what kind of things are more or less real.    

The human experiences of birth and death as well as the confrontation with a world of facts are basic to the most general human answer to the second question, namely that there is a kind of things which are not subjected to natality and mortality and which are the origin or the cause of all other real things. Gods are the mythical answer to the question: what things are the most real ones?   

The question: What does real mean? is not a mythical one. It belongs to a specific kind of research called by the Greeks philosophia i.e. the search for the origin of what is real and of what real means. Both questions are interrelated but the predominance of the second one is probably a specificity of the Greek tradition of thinking.   

Thales of Milet (6th Century BC), one of the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers, was the first to be called a wise man (sophos). He predicted eclipses of the sun and was, according to Aristotle, the first thinker who speculated about the nature of all natural things (physis), independently of what myths said. His answer was: water, on which the Earth swims. Thales believed that god was the world's intelligence, water being a kind of sacred force moving all things. Water is the reality or, as we would say, the medium of all things.   

The questions: What is real? and: What is the meaning of real? were at the core of classic Greek philosophy. Socrates was the living philosopher in the sense that his life was devoted to showing the persistent sense of these questions and the impossibility for a philosopher to find a solution to these problems without falling into a self-performative contradiction. Plato's theory of ideas and Aristotle's conception of the real (energeia = actuality) as being in a process of becoming (dynamis = potentiality) were two highly influential theories giving rise to science, the study of reality.   

Christianity introduced the conception of a transcendent god, creator of all things. The philosophical question: What does real mean? received the answer: to be real means to be the product of god's creative power. Real things are created things or creatures (ens creatum). A distinction was made between creation and information: once things are created out of nothing by god (creatio ex nihilo) they enter into a process where reality is the effect produced by a form on a given substance, its information (informatio). The divine fabrication as process of in-formation was described by Plato in his dialogue Timaios as the work of a pottery god (demiourgos) (Capurro 1978, Capurro/Fleissner/Hofkirchner 1999).   

If we take a god's form as the medium for all things or of all things being transformed into their original form through a process with a beginning and an end, we get, in a very simplified formula, the idea of the unity of the world with the world's spirit or form as developed by Hegel. The materialist antipode says: the real is nothing but the product of an evolutionary self-organising process of matter and form.   


2. Perception as world construction

Modernity changed the traditional constructivist view of reality as conceived by the theological thinking of the Middle Ages and the idea of a divine architect producing things out of nothing. According to Immanuel Kant's famous Copernican Revolution, things do not just revolve around a fixed human knower but such a knower, being a spatio-temporal one, can only have a look at things according to his own perceptual and intellectual constitution.    

What is the real? The answer is: the real is, for a human knower, the effect of his observation on given data. Things (res) are the product of an encounter. They are what they appear to be (phaenomenon). Reality is what things are when they are brought into a perceptual and conceptual order by a human knower. What they are in themselves, i.e. for a divine architect who is not limited in his knowledge by the medium through which it understands, is unattainable for a finite being (Kant 1910).   

Kant develops a double-bind conception of reality construction: he gives a human knower the power of world construction under given natural conditions and, at the same time, he leaves an empty place with regard to a possible view of reality under a divine perspective. In other words, he splits the concept of reality and does not accept any kind of analogies or even univocity between our way of reality construction and the creator's way.   

The construction of the given in the mind of the knower and perceiver was underlined by George Berkeley in his famous dictum: "Their esse is percipi": Unthinking things have no existence out of the mind of thinking things. "It is evident to any one who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge," he writes, "that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses; or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind; or lastly, ideas formed by help of memory and imagination" (Berkeley 1965: 61). Nothing can be real without a mind perceiving them. Their reality is their being perceived. When I smell or touch something and then I say: this is real, all I say concerns its relation of being perceived. He gives up any kind of substratum or given data. What remains as real are spirits and their ideas or sense-impressions.   

Kant and Berkeley are constructivists. Kant leaves our knowledge about the activity of the divine architect void and splits the real into given data and the human constructor's rules. Berkeley dissolves this dichotomy within the activity of human and divine pure spirit.    


3. The real is the digital

Paradoxically, Berkeley's spiritualistic approach is similar to today's conception according to which reality is a product of the brain. Everything that is, is a product of the brain. There is a third option beyond materialism and idealism as expressed by a famous pun: What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind! Instead of materialism and idealism we get something that could be called cerebralism or brain-oriented ontology.    

But what is the brain? It is (said to be) an information processing device. What does real mean? It means to be programmed. Things are programs. The starting point of this widespread digital constructivism is not Kant's given data but digitized data. What cannot be digitalized is not (real). To put it in Berkeley's formula: To be, is to be digital. Esse est computari (Negroponte 1995). We believe that we have understood something in its being when we are able to make it or to re-make digitally. Physical things are neither (no longer) the basis nor the paradigm for answering the question: What things are real? and they are not explained by permanent a priori rules in the constructor's mind as Kant postulated. The constructor may even be able to change his/her own perception rules at least through their externalization in a computer device. So-called real things are nothing but examples of original devices. There is a kind of digital Platonism in this view of the appearances as derived from some form-producing digital device.   

Digital beings are not just the sum of their bits. They must have a form or structure. Being is in-formation. Or, to use Berkeley once again: esse est informari. The old couple matter/form is substituted by a new one: digital/form or, under another perspective, electromagnetic medium/digital forms. Real things in the sense used by the materialists are not replaced by digital programs but they are re-viewed and displaced from their ruling position (Benedikt 1994). It is not the mind or the brain that is being in-formed or im-pressed by external things, as empiricists and idealists postulated but the other way around.    

The human brain itself happens to be just one kind of in-forming device, whose mechanisms and rules could be changed. Digital ontology takes us to a more fundamental question than the one about what computers can't do. It is the question, once again: what does real mean? Human beings or, as cerebralists prefer to say, human brains are not the only form producers. Computer devices are means for the production of forms as well as for knowing them. Evolution has been producing forms for thousands of millions of years. And we are part of this process. The physicist and philosopher Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who has analysed the concept of information in many of his works, states that the knowledge process, i.e. the information process of knowing and producing forms, being itself a product of evolution, cannot attain definite "clear concepts" (Weizsäcker 1992: 344, Capurro/Fleissner/Hofkirchner 1999, Capurro 1999a).There is a kind of circularity between knowing and producing forms that seems basic to any kind of information process, not just to the digital. Nevertheless the digital seems to have a special leadership in today's answer to the question: What is real?    


4. Beyond the digital

What is the impact of digital ontology on human affairs? There is a key human experience that I would like to call spectrality. Everybody knows what it means to say: Yesterday when I was in New York I was thinking about my being in Switzerland soon. Or: tomorrow I am planning to go to the mountains for a walk, but it depends on the weather. Or: at the moment I am physically here, in this room, but during the talk I am in my mind downstairs, expecting a friend.    

These are very simple everyday experiences of our being in space and time. We are here at some place but also somewhere else. We look through the window and we are there at the top of the mountain and at the same time here in this room. We think back and relocate ourselves within a situation yesterday which has, in this moment of its revival, a special kind of being. We constantly project ourselves back and forth. We have memories of the past but also phantasies of possible futures. We are together with other persons sharing our bodily presence but we do this also with the feeling of the possibility of sharing a common future, for instance, to walk together downstairs in a few minutes or to remember our flight last night.   

These kinds of experiences give our lives a special dimension that I call spectrality (Capurro 1999: 46, McHoul 1999). It is a kind of ghostly feeling in which probably the idea of being a spirit as well as the idea of pure spirits or ghosts has one of its roots. According to this possibility we have developed different kinds of techniques that have allowed us to re-present ourselves in different forms through space and time. Digital technology is, I believe, not just a computational device. Being in cyberspace allows us new forms and feelings of being here and there. It has the tendency of eliminating space and time just as other communication techniques such as TV, telephone and broadcasting do too, of connecting the universal and individual perspectives in a non-hierarchical architecture. As there is no physical transportation, bodily experiences are kept behind their digital transformation.    

The medium, made of numbers and intangible structures, seems to be ghostly too. Our expectation of instantaneous response is markedly stressed when we are disappointed because we have to wait some minutes or even some seconds for a link in the Internet. Finally the medium allows many ways of doing things with words. Perlocutionary acts, as John Austin called them, are now possible within a worldwide digital and decentralised network, with dramatic changes in the economic and cultural fields.    

To summarise some of the features of the impact of digital technology on human affairs:   

  • Our being in time is presence-oriented
  • Our being in space is globally oriented
  • Our being with others is ghost-oriented
  • Our being on earth is construction-oriented
Is the world after all just a dream? This question has a long and rich tradition (Capurro 1996). Digital technology has a major impact on it. Ghostly technology is dreaming us. There is a lot of media-smog in the air. Reality is vanishing. There is a lot of suffering, hunger and hate. We should look through the looking glass. Questions are more interesting than answers.   




Benedikt, Michael (1994): Introduction. In: ibid., Ed.: Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, Mass. 1991, 1994.   

Berkeley, G. (1965): The Principles of Human Knowledge. In: Berkeley's Philosophical Writings. London 1965   

Capurro, R. (1978): Information. Ein Beitrag zur etymologischen und ideengeschichtlichen Begründung des Informationsbegriffs. München 1978.   
- (1996): Die Welt - ein Traum?   
- (1999): Ethical Aspects of Digital Libraries. In: T. Aparic, T. Saracevic, P. Ingwersen, P. Vakkari Eds.: Digital Libraries. Interdisciplinary Concepts, Challenges and Opportunities. Zagreb 1999, 39-53.   
- (1999a): Einführung in den Informationsbegriff.   
Capurro, R., Fleissner, P., Hofkirchner, W. (1999): Is a Unified Theory of Information Feasible? A Trialogue. In: W. Hofkirchner Ed.: The Quest for a Unified Theory of Information. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Foundations of Information Science. Overseas Publ. Association 1999, 9-30.   

Kant, I. (1910): Kritik der reinen Vernunft. In: Gesammelte Schriften. Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Berlin 1910ff.   

McHoul, A. (1999): Cyberbeing and -space.   

Negroponte, N. (1995): Being Digital. New York 1995.   

Weizsäcker, C.-F. von (1992): Zeit und Wissen. München 1992.  

Last update: January 17, 2017

Copyright © 1999 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.     

Back to Digital Library 
Homepage Research Activities
Publications Teaching Interviewes