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Practical Solipsism: or how to live in a world of your own

Martin Thomasson on philosophy and design.

Solipsism – the idea that only I exist and that you, and all the other material things in the world are mere figments of my imagination – is one of those peculiar notions that make everybody realise just how barmy philosophers truly are. The average bloke in the pub, confronted with the suggestion that he exists only in my mind, might well seek to ‘demonstrate’ the falsity of the notion by nutting me, just to show how real he is. To the philosopher, this is hardly a rigorous proof. Nevertheless, it does illustrate the fact that people in general think it absurd to speculate about whether or not other people really exist. Of course you exist; I can see you, I can hear you, I can reach out and touch you. Q.E.D.?

And yet ironically, the conditions of contemporary western life seem to create in many of us a drive towards a kind of practical solipsism – that is to say, we try to live our lives as if no one else really exists. The average city dweller/worker seems to operate on the determined assumption that she or he is surrounded only by figments of the imagination (or, perhaps, by animated computer pixels).

Since you can’t really see imaginary people, there’s no point in making allowance for the fact that their paths might be on a collision course with yours. Just keep right on walking as if there were nothing there and, indeed, you will find that there is nothing there.

Since you can’t touch or feel imaginary people, the appearance of your elbow or shoulder thumping into their face or stomach as you pass is just that, an appearance, an hallucination caused by your clinging to the residual delusion that there actually is somebody else out there. These are not real sensations because there are no real people there to cause them.

Since you can’t hear or speak to imaginary people, there’s no point in trying to apologise to them and that curse you thought you heard was just… well, something you thought you heard. Dismiss it. Get on with the business at hand. And for God’s sake don’t look back! Don’t acknowledge. Never acknowledge… or you might find yourself condemned forever to be a human being sharing a planet with other human beings.

It could be argued, of course, that this is nothing new. Perhaps such behaviour is simply a manifestation of that facet of capitalism that, as Marx said, makes an enemy and competitor of her who should be a friend and cooperator – our fellow worker. Perhaps it is a deep and ineradicable aspect of human nature – a Nietzschean ‘Will to Power’. But one cannot compete against or hate someone who does not exist; one cannot seek to dominate that which is no more than a figment of one’s own imagination. To detest someone, or to seek ascendancy over them is at least to acknowledge some element of reality to their existence. And that is precisely what Practical Solipsism avoids. There is surely something new (or newish) at work here.

Amongst all those political and social factors that we share with previous western societies, or that are merely developments from those societies, two factors that seem to be qualitatively different are technology and the application of technology through design. Via microchip technology we find ourselves immersed in a designed world that allows ever increasing independence (to put it in individualist terms), or ever increasing alienation (to put it in communitarian terms). The personal computer, the personal stereo,the fax, the telephone answering machine, the video, the CD ‘Interactive’ television – each of these has tremendous potential to aid society in certain ways whilst simultaneously causing untold damage in others.

Theories of human nature that talk mainly of the individual and of the rights of the individual, theories of economics that speak in terms of individualism and ‘free enterprise’ (individualism in the market place), whilst not totally without truth and utility are, nevertheless, inadequate theoretical bases on which to construct the ‘good society’. Had Mao or Stalin been quoted as declaring there to be “no such thing as the individual”, this would no doubt have been taken as an indication of the ultimate folly and threat of Communism. But then why shouldn’t Margaret Thatcher’s infamous observation that there is “no such thing as society” be read as an expression of the ultimate folly and threat of individualism? That there is no (healthy) society without recognition of individuals seems patently obvious. An equal truth of which we appear to have lost sight is that there is no individual without society.

There is not, never has been and never could be a genuinely self-made woman or man. Whilst you and I are indeed distinct and unique individuals, each with our own responses, we respond to our environment. That is, our personalities are both developed and expressed in response to an environment which includes our family and friends (and our enemies), the social and political structures of the wider community, and even the non-human material world (both animate and inanimate).

The point is that living and developing in this way can be difficult and even dangerous. It requires interaction with things that are not under our control. It requires risk-taking. It requires us to relate to other people, to non-humans and to objects in ways that demand the practice of complex and subtle skills. It requires that, to some extent, we put our selves on the line. And worse than this, often we only get one chance.

Many contemporary designs, in seeking to maximize the benefits of new technologies have, often inadvertently, tempted us away from the need to practice such skills. Our digital watches are more accurate (a boon?), but in freeing us from the need to wind our timepieces, they also minimize our interaction with them, the sense of working with them. They also, paradoxically, make us prisoners of the very dimension over which they purport to give us added control – time. The telephone answering machine looked at from one angle allows us to be ‘in while we’re out’, looked at from another angle, it allows us to pretend to be out while we’re in – thus avoiding those awkward telephone confrontations with unwelcomed callers; or, to put it another way, thus avoiding dealing with people. The personal computer already allows many of us to work from home. It will soon allow us to learn from home (not just at home) and to shop from home, again replacing the need to interact with other humans with the need to have a modem link from one machine to another.

Let it not be denied that there are positive as well as negative aspects to all of these. Let it also not be denied that these pieces of technology are effectively electronic suits of armour, protecting us from the blows of a real world perceived as ever more hostile, at least in part, because it is ever more alienated. Let it finally not be forgotten that contact between humans and the real world need not always (or even usually) take the form of a blow. We cannot make love wearing suits of armour (metal or electronic). We cannot interact.

And if we do not interact, something human in us withers and dies. Virtual sex? Can it be a coincidence that, among those inviting us to take this trip into the potentially satanic realm of Virtual Reality is a voice that once invited us to “tune in, turn on, drop out”? There used to be other names for a reality that was ‘virtual’ – names like ‘illusion’ and ‘hallucination’.

Think of the personal stereo. To many whose ears suffered the pounding of blaring transistor radios from neighbours’ back yards, beaches, bus and train stations and countless other public and private sources, the personal stereo surely seemed like a gift from the gods. Yet how many of those who welcomed it, now grind their teeth at the constant whining, metallic and indecipherable overflow of sound from the earphones of the lad sitting three rows away on the train, whose personal stereo is turned up so loud that it sounds, to your ears, like an alien radio signal being picked up by your fillings? An ill-tempered and intolerant quibble perhaps, but consider what we are doing when we use our personal stereos (apart from damaging our hearing, of course). On the positive side, I am being considerate in not inflicting my musical tastes on an unhappy general public. Also, I am perhaps whiling away tedious travelling time in a pleasant way, and protecting my nerves from the assault of traffic noises and the foulmouthed schoolchildren sitting opposite. But herein lies the first problem; in refusing to listen to them am I not also reneging on a certain social duty to condemn their behaviour? Am I not in effect pretending that what is really happening isn’t happening at all? In creating a world accompanied by my own soundtrack, am I not attempting to build a ‘virtual reality’ in which I control the mood? Or turning the world into a movie, which I observe rather than exist in ? And when I confront others while wearing my earphones, can I be saying anything other to them than that I don’t want to be bothered by them, that they are not worth my time or attention?

Before this half-century, there was a neat sympathy between technology and human relationships. Most workers learnt their jobs as they learnt about life – from their ‘elders and betters’. The older generation had the opportunity to earn the respect of the young, as the two processes of accumulating knowledge and acquiring skills echoed and reinforced each other. Young men served trade apprenticeships lasting several years. Young women turned to their mothers and more experienced neighbours for help and advice in coping with running a home, giving birth and raising children.

Human beings still have more or less the same problems to cope with in learning how to deal with growing up, pairing off, reproducing and raising children. The same time and effort is probably needed, but the same help and advice is not being sought.

Instead of being shared, as it used to be, between the human and the technical skills, our respect for knowledge, for experience, now resides totally with the technological, and this is a realm where increasingly the son knows better than the father, the daughter than the mother. Worse than this, technological acceleration has led to a shrinking of generations, to the extent that a twenty-year-old will find herself in a different generation to a fifteen-yearold, not merely through their differing tastes in music and clothes, but through the latter’s superior grasp of innovative computer technology. This is not freedom; this is fragmentation.

Much has been said recently about the responsibility of designers to be environmentally aware. There are even laws, no matter how inadequate, aimed at forcing designers and manufacturers to adopt environmentally sound practices.

Many new designs are socially destructive – not by intent, but by consequence (it was rarely industry’s intent to destroy the environment). I am no luddite, counselling the destruction of such ‘instruments of Satan’ as the personal stereo and the personal computer (I own one of each). My concern is rather that we be aware of all the impacts of our designs, and that some design effort be put into rebuilding the bridges that have been torn down, into finding ways of encouraging and facilitating the removal of those suits of armour.

I recently watched a young friend of mine, playing a computer game, howling with indignation and frustration as his pixel character was zapped out of existence. As I attempted to console him over this ‘death’, his slightly supercilious riposte was, “You get more than one life, you know!”

But that’s just the trouble; we don’t.

© Martin Thomasson 1996

Martin Thomasson is a lecturer in philosophy at Bolton Institute and a member of the Design Research Society.

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