The theoretical foundation according to which virtual worlds can be studied and used as ontological machines and tools for self-construction was inspired by Michel Foucault and Peter-Paul Verbeek. It was first articulated in Stefano Gualeni's book
The book was published in 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan. Among several topics and themes concerning the experiential and ontological effects of our interactive experiences of (and in) virtual worlds, the book proposes - starting from page 73 - an understanding of virtual worlds as "technologies of the self":
4.3 Virtual worlds as “technologies of the self”
Generally, the perspectives on technology espoused in this book accept that humans are beings that are artificial by nature. The introduction of any form of technology into social processes and practices is understood as constituting a factor of cultural change because of its inherent capability for altering and extending the horizon of possibilities for humans to perceive worlds and relate to them both intellectually and operationally.
This understanding also embraces technological development as a way for human beings to materially objectify their worldviews, needs, and aspirations. I find this perspective of philosophy of technology particularly poignant as, by allowing people to expressing themselves through technical artifacts, technology also discloses specific forms of self-reflection and self-discovery.
This auto-gnostic aspect of how human beings extend and objectify themselves, their ideas, and their desires in technical artifacts and systems is present in the work of several academics in the field of the philosophy of technology. Donna Haraway tersely stated that “the cyborg is our ontology,” as it demonstrates (both in its practical integration with technology and as a revealing metaphor) the fundamental structure of being human (Haraway, 1991). Similarly, Dutch philosopher Maarten Coolen clarified that he too was “interested in precisely those anthropological ideas that one can associate with the act of technological transformation itself. What can man learn about himself from his own fabrications?” (Coolen, 1992, 165, 166; English translation by Peter-Paul Verbeek in De Mul, 2013, 234).
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Coolen, Maarten. 1992. De machine voorbij. Over het zelfbegrip van de mens in het tijdperk van de informatietechniek. Amsterdam (The Netherlands): Boom.
De Mul, Jos (edited by). 2013. ARTIFICIAL BY NATURE: Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology: Perspectives and Prospects. Amsterdam (The Netherlands): University of Amsterdam Press.
Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians,
Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York (NY): Routledge. 149–181.