Emergent Virtual Constructs

The term virtual construct is used here to denote a non-physical, digital, artificial form; the interaction with which is made possible through a human/machine interface. The term software is often used to refer to virtual constructs, but in many cases proves to be of limited use. Indeed, software can be classified as virtually constructed, but the term loses much of its significance when referring to emergent virtual constructs, whose properties are difficult to pinpoint, as they extend far beyond the boundaries of the software used to create, modify, and interact with them.

There are two types of virtual constructs: discrete and emergent.

  • Discrete Virtual Constructs (DVCs)

The majority of software applications shipped today can be classified as discrete virtual constructs. Generally “feature complete” with all necessary resources contained within the application itself, examples of discrete virtual constructs include word processors, image editors, calculation engines, and even some single- and multi-player video games. Software developers may periodically issue updates to DVCs that add features or improve stability, but DVCs overall lack the ever-evolving natures of their emergent cousins.

Discrete Virtual Constructs live locally on the hard disks upon which they are installed, and carry out a user’s commands by taking advantage of the local machine’s computational resources. They may include a limited feature set requiring network access, but these are not the DVC’s defining characteristics. Most DVCs would be able to carry out their intended functions without ever connecting to the internet.

  • The Nature of Emergent Virtual Constructs (EVCs)

Virtual constructs are metaphysically unique forms in that in some sense they are otherworldly. Unlike spirits, gods, and other supernatural phenomena, virtual constructs surely exist as part of the material world, but we don’t interact with them or through them as such. Not only do virtual constructs physically appear to exist nowhere in particular, but they also have the ability to exist in more than one place at a time. They can be accessed on every desktop computer and smartphone simultaneously, yet the absence of their presence on any one of these devices in no way affects the existence of the construct as a whole. The existential nature of virtual constructs is as complex and contradictory as that of the now defunct conception of an omnipresent god-like being.

Where does a construct like Twitter or a virtual world like Minecraft exist? It can be said with certainty that they do exist, but where are they? They span vast distances, occupying disk space on servers across the world; servers that can be geographically located and physically accessed, but in no way can one point to a set of atoms and say “That is Twitter,” or “Here is Minecraft.”

Indeed, one could theoretically collect the entire complement of servers upon which every instance of World of Warcraft is stored, but even then it would be absurd to refer to an array of rack-mounted servers and claim “That is World of Warcraft.”

This is because a reductionist approach to the explanation and identification of emergent systems is absurd. For this is the very idea of emergence: that properties metaphysically necessary to the system as a whole are not, and cannot, be found in the system’s constituent parts.  Emergent virtual constructs cannot be understood by studying the interactions of particles at the atomic level of a hard disk. Nor do these constructs begin to take shape or show characteristics uniquely identifiable as virtually constructed until level upon level of complexity is added to the system.

Recall now the concept of the me in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (257). In his search to understand the ancient Sumerian civilization, the novel’s hero, Hiro Protagonist, searches long-forgotten recesses of the Central Intelligence Corporation’s archives. In a conversation with the Librarian, a virtual research assistant which is itself an example of an EVC, we gain valuable insight into how emergent properties within virtual constructs can mimic those within a civilization:

HIRO: “Execution? Like executing a computer program?”

LIBRARIAN: “Yes. Apparently, they are like algorithms for carrying out certain activities essential to the society. Some of them have to do with the workings of priesthood and kingship. Some explain how to carry out religious ceremonies. Some relate to the arts of war and diplomacy. Many of them are about the arts and crafts: music, carpentry, smithing, tanning, building, farming, even such simple tasks as lighting fires.”

HIRO: “The operating system of society.”

LIBRARIAN: “I’m sorry?”

HIRO: “When you first turn on a computer, it is an inert collection of circuits that can’t really do anything. To start up the machine, you have to infuse those circuits with a collection of rules that tell it how to function. How to be a computer. It sounds as if these me served as the operating system of the society, organizing an inert collection of people into a functioning system.”

Here, the Librarian has identified the me as an emergent property of civilization, and Hiro likens it to the role an operating system plays in the overall functioning of a computer. Emergence is manifest in the society through the me, and in computers through the OS.

The me–the operating system of society–is metaphysically essential to the civilization, but it cannot be identified within any constituent part of the civilization. Without the me the civilization would cease to be. Buildings, roads, people, etc. would remain, but without the governing, life-giving force of the me, the civilization would crumble, and what would be left would be something quite different. Further, the me cannot be created nor destroyed simply by adding or removing those constituent parts. Made manifest only when the entire system works together in harmony, this emergent property, the me, is the lifeblood of the civilization. Found everywhere is evidence of its existence, yet nowhere can the property itself be isolated and identified.

Just as Hiro Protagonist interacts with and utilizes emergent virtual constructs as tools to combat the rapidly spreading virus Snow Crash, we too now live in a world of EVCs that empower us to accomplish epic feats once found only within the pages of fiction.

  • The Classes of Emergent Virtual Constructs

As opposed to the static nature of DVCs, EVCs exist in a dynamic state of agile development and constant growth. Emergent virtual constructs are defined as virtual constructs containing the property of emergence, which is manifest today in four classes of EVC.

Examples of Emergent Virtual Constructs include:

  • global social networks that empower personified thought leaders to propagate individualized epistemologies
  • expansive virtual worlds capable of single- and massively multi-player gameplay enabling the creation of virtual economies and diverse learning and/or social environments
  • software employing extensive use of cloud-based computational resources and artificial intelligence
  • vastly distributed, democratized, and collaborative knowledge projects

The rapidly increasing significance of emergent virtual constructs on our daily lives and their impact on the future progress of civilization is the defining force of the New Era of Tech.

Until next time, I hope to hear from you. Goodbye.


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