What Does it Mean to Cheat?

A huge question, we might limit it to the following: What does it mean to cheat in digital and virtual worlds?

To begin, cheating refers to the exploitation of necessary form (for the garnering of some advantage). The exploitation of form may be expansive or reductive in nature, either boosting or curtailing the architecture of the thing. When exploitation stems from the short circuiting of necessary form, it is called circumvention. But exploitation may appear in any number of other ways not strictly covered by the short circuit.

The form in question may be temporal, spatial, logical, or otherwise. A jimmied door exploits spatial form, while a wrinkle in time exploits temporal form, and a computer bug exploits logical form. In popular parlance, cheating means “breaking the rules”; but here we say form instead of rule in order to avoid connotations of imaginary abstraction or inconsequential artifice. Rule suggests a detached or notional space; form includes both abstract spaces (computational or logical spaces) as well as physical spaces (bodies, societies).

Still, cheating means cheating necessary form. How is such necessity grounded? There are several ways to address this question. First, necessity may refer to mere observable existence -- and is thus shorthand for “to the extent that such and such exists in this particular way” -- and hence does not assume anything about origin or destiny. Second, necessity may refer to the result of a socio-historical process. This kind of necessity carries no transcendental force, simply the accumulated gravity of a particular historical evolution. Finally, necessity may refer to commandment or law, the logical extension of the power of authority, be it natural, metaphysical, political, psychological or otherwise.

This provides a basic schematic for thinking about cheating. But what do we mean by the digital and the virtual? While these two terms are often conflated as synonymous, or at least classified in similar ways as somehow dealing with computation or the online world or what have you, they mean almost entirely opposite things when defined correctly.

Digitization involves a point, or series of points, the selection of points as foreground and the deselection of all other things (as background). Sites and stages and phases and items are the raw materials of digitization. Digitization prevails whenever an otherwise indistinct world becomes a world grounded in discrete distinctions between elements. And this goes for all worldly modes: a relation, when digitized as a series of points, takes the form of an interface; a process, when digitized, takes the form of singularity; an entity, when digitized, takes the form of aspect.

Virtualization is the reverse of digitization. Virtualization involves the disintegration of points into suspended identities. Individuation and articulation migrate into continuity and insufficiency. Such a migration does not preclude subsequent digitization. But the virtual prevails whenever indifference takes hold through some kind of univocity or unary identity. An entity, when virtualized, becomes continuity or impersonality; a process becomes withdrawal or prevent; a relation, promiscuity or prophylaxis.

The digital and the virtual, when defined in this way, represent opposing forces. Digital and virtual worlds may co-exist, cooperate, even compliment each other. But they do not represent the same force. They should also not be understood simply on moral or normative lines; the digital is neither saint nor satan, and likewise the virtual is not inordinately redemptive nor necessarily regressive. They govern the balance of distinction and indistinction, from a series of points to a generic continuum.

Now we are in a position to answer the opening question, what does it mean to cheat in digital and virtual worlds? If cheating means the exploitation of necessary form and digitization involves the making of points, then digital cheating means the exploitation of necessary points. Digital cheating means essentially to “adulterate the resolution” of points, that is, to change points either by removing (or modifying) them, or flooding the scene with points, thereby skewing the value of each point. As temporal exploitation, digital cheating might mean that the duration between points becomes shorter or longer. As logical exploitation, it might mean that the points become uncoupled or otherwise recoupled according to different logics. As material exploitation, it might mean the impoverishment of the points, or a winnowing (or supplementing) of the total number of points. The repercussions of digital cheating are well known: rationalization and atomization, but also the notorious “false choice” in which the items for selection offer no true alternative (Pepsi vs Coke, Ford vs Chevy, etc.).

Defined in the negative, virtualization means the unmaking of points. In the positive, it means immanence, whether infinite (continuity of the whole) or finite (commonality of the ordinary). Virtual cheating describes the circumvention of whatever generic solidarity resides within an entity, process, or relation. In essence, virtual cheating means to “adulterate the composition” of the virtualization. It redirects or hijacks the principle of indistinction that drives the virtual. During such redirection a form of false universality is produced from the generalization of a single entity. One element emerges (or is elected) and dons the role of the general equivalent. Hence money is the most well known form of virtual cheating, but other forms include what Carl Schmitt called “neutralization,” or, today, the anti-utopian form of social organization called neoliberalism. Such circumvention produces universality but without collectivity. And thus the most common repercussions of virtual cheating are monocultures or totalizations.

This is what it means to cheat in digital or virtual worlds. One is the exploitation of particularity, while the other is the exploitation of commonality. Indeed each definition is a mirror of its opposite: the virtual cheats digitality by robbing it of its particles, while digitality cheats the virtual by coercing a local decision.

But everyone knows it's bad to cheat. The alternative means something else altogether: fortifying, enriching, animating. And it's possible to fortify a set of points, just as it is possible to enrich a sense of solidarity. The best response to cheating is to resist the lure of exploitation, and to reconnect instead with the necessity of form. Which leads to a new, more urgent inquiry... What kind of necessity? And what is our relation to it?