Self-Destruct Mechanism

Nino Rodriguez

Fast-forward X number of years. What you used to call "the media" has mutated into a nearly inconceivable technology that directly stimulates not just your eyes and ears, but all of your bodily senses. Let's say you had an artistic bent, and could somehow get your hands on this high-priced gear, you might ask yourself,

"What exactly am I mediating with this thing?"

Assuming that cyberspace can connect your nerve endings to many like-minded participants, there will be some significant psycho-cultural effects. One result the futuristas don't agree on is whether this overwhelming media device will fundamentally alter the way the mind perceives itself. It's easy to imagine a machine getting in between the five senses and the brain -- think Smell-o-Vision on steroids -- but what about a device that somehow jams between the neurons themselves. Try inserting cyberspace between yourself and your Self.

It's a brand-name, mind/body problem. Said problem is also disturbing the socks off many who've pondered it. Science may be able to create such a totalizing, holistic media, but what will happen to one's perception of

"This is who I am?"

Mark Pesce -- a cofounder of the VRML, networked-simulation standard -- has written that this all-encompassing technology, what he calls "holosthetic media," will have the power to mediate ontologies.[1] Translation: What you experience in cyberspace won't just be mediated reality, it will be a mediation of your very sense of existence. Cyberspace won't merely depict a different kind of existence, it will literally alter the way both your mind and body know how to exist.

This is, apparently, cause for concern. Pesce warns of "pathogenic ontologies" -- artificial ways of being that are alien enough to cause psychological and biological damage to unlucky cyberspace explorers.[2] One big worry is that when this tech is finally invented, it will be impossible to thoroughly test all its side effects. The state-space of holosthetic media, i.e. all the possible combinations of sensory manipulations, is too huge to predict which media-existences will be harmful. Even in today's primitive VR, people can suffer "simulator sickness" if there's

a large gap between brain-reality and real-reality.

Pesce's solution for consumer safety in cyberspace relies on anchoring it with an accurate recreation of Earth. The Ebola of ontologies might be lurking around the next cyber-corner, but you'll always have a safe house to run to. If we can just make Earth as we know it the center of the cyberverse, then we needn't worry about inadvertently turning future couch potatoes into vegetables. Unfortunately, Pesce begs the question of whose ontology will be tapped to create this nonthreatening virtual Earth. By the way, if you're looking for a 21st-century career, his "primary interest in cyberspace is as a planetary management medium."[3] Perhaps we should also beware of an enlightened sysop.

What's so bad about these mediated ontologies anyway?

Pesce frames the creation of cyberspace in mythological terms, specifically the metanarrative of Western exploration. Pathogenic ontologies aren't just harmful, like a virus, they're purposefully evil, as in antihuman, as in damaging to one's morals. While professional philosophers might debate this point, it would seem that a way of being cannot be antihuman. Even if it were, it wouldn't be possible for any human to experience that way of being in the first place. The Evil Scientists can tweak the cyberspace-machine dials until the sun burns out, but they'll never mastermind an antihuman ontology. Nonhuman, perhaps, but we'd have no way of knowing about it, 'cause it ain't human.

If there's no such thing as antihuman ontologies, then what's the worry? Pesce's own exploration metaphor suggests that the true threat to our sense of Self in cyberspace is other people -- especially people who aren't like us:

We would do well to begin a full-scale investigation of pathogenic holosthesia, ferret out those spaces, and write on the maps "Here be Dragons!" A future Columbus may prove us wrong, but to err on the side of caution will save ourselves, and our children, from an uncertain insanity.[4]

To enter the cyberspace of an alien culture is to encounter the existential monsters of Not-Self. According to this formula, artificial ontologies won't cause cybersurfers to wipe out, it's the ontological realities of other humans that will lead to self-destruction.

"So, what exactly am I mediating with this thing?"

Future holosthetic media may indeed have the power to channel entire modes of existence. Then again, just because my brain wiretaps into someone else's worldview doesn't necessarily mean I've dragged my own ontology into the trash. The Self won't go away, but after cruising cyberspace's ontological tourist traps, you might not be able to recognize yourself either. Unknowable artificial existences can't destroy our sense of "This is me," but amplified human contact might transform our sense of who we are.

Cyberspace will create a way of being that embraces diverse ways of being.

The great potential for networked, total-sensory media is to jump-start communication between people with absolutely different belief-systems sloshing around in their skulls. Relationships between alien modes of existence will flourish. Cyberspace will be the medium for experiments in meta-ontological politics.


[Due to the nature of documents on the World Wide Web, page numbers in the following citations are approximate.]

[1] "Holosthetic" or "holosthesia...has its roots in the Greek 'holos' (whole) and 'aisthesia' (to feel or perceive), and describes any medium which produces the perception of an event through several (or all) sensory modalities in a self-consistent manner." Pesce, Mark D., "Final Amputation: Pathogenic Ontology in Cyberspace", World Wide Web (, 1994, p. ~4.

[2] Ibid., p. ~16.

[3] Pesce, "Scale", World Wide Web (, 1995, p. ~1.

[4] Pesce, "Final Amputation...", p. ~21.

"Self-Destruct Mechanism" was originally written for

The X-Factor Conference


October, 1996.