Existential Phenomenology Of The Internet

Søren Kierkegaard

The Internet has introduced, among other things, new modes of transactions, mostly involving what one can buy from a relatively competitive market. The Internet has reduced some transaction costs while increasing others.

The pundits have often exaggerated the effectiveness of the Internet in organizing and searching for "information," in distant "learning," and in citizen participation and "democratization" even if we include more recent phenomena such as blogs and podcasts. Much more has been said about the role, importance, expansion and revolutionary effects of the Internet than about how it can stultify action and movement.

Hubert Dreyfus is the one philosopher who has paid attention to these other concerns regarding the Internet. Earlier, on this weblog, I have written short entries on Dreyfus' book On The Internet. Now, I'd like to point to an essay of his whose content can also be found near the end of this book: "Kierkegaard on the Internet: Anonymity vrs. Commitment in the Present Age".

In this essay, Dreyfus explains why "Kierkegaard would have hated the Internet."

This is a must-read essay for anyone who wants to know what is going on with the Internet. I will quote a few paragraphs to titillate your interest:

Kierkegaard would surely have seen in the Internet, with its web sites full of anonymous information from all over the world and its interest groups which anyone in the world can join and where one can discuss any topic endlessly without consequences, the hi-tech synthesis of the worst features of the newspaper and the coffee house. On their web page anyone can put any alleged information into circulation. Kierkegaard could have been speaking of the Internet when he said of the Press, "It is frightful that someone who is no one ... can set any error into circulation with no thought of responsibility and with the aid of this dreadful disproportioned means of communication" (Journals and Papers, Vol. 2, p 481.) And in interest groups anyone can have an opinion on anything. In both cases, all are only too eager to respond to the equally deracinated opinions of other anonymous amateurs who post their views from nowhere. Such commentators do not take a stand on the issues they speak about. Indeed, the very ubiquity of the Net generally makes any such local stand seem irrelevant.

What is striking about such interest groups is that no experience or skill is required to enter the conversation. Indeed, a serious danger of the Public Sphere, as illustrated on the Internet, is that it undermines expertise. Learning a skill requires interpreting the situation as being of a sort that requires a certain action, taking that action, and learning from the results. As Kierkegaard understood, there is no way to gain wisdom but by making risky commitments and thereby experiencing both failure and success. Studies of skill acquisition have shown that, unless the outcome matters and unless the person developing the skill is willing to accept the pain that comes from failure and the elation that comes with success, the learner will be stuck at the level of competence and never achieve mastery. Since expertise can only be acquired through involved engagement with actual situations, what is lost in disengaged discussion is precisely the conditions for acquiring practical wisdom. Thus the heroes of the Public Sphere who appear on serious radio and TV programs, such as the United States's MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, have a view on every issue, and can justify their view by appeal [to] abstract principles, but they do not have to act on the principles they defend and therefore lack the passionate perspective that alone can lead to risk of serious error and also to the gradual acquisition of wisdom.

Kierkegaard even saw that the ultimate activity the Internet would encourage would be speculation on how big it is, how much bigger it will get, and what, if anything, all this means for our culture. This sort of discussion is, of course, in danger of becoming part of the very cloud of anonymous speculation Kierkegaard abhorred. Ever sensitive to his own position as a speaker, Kierkegaard concluded his analysis of the dangers of the present age and his dark predictions of what was ahead for Europe with the ironic remark that: "In our times, when so little is done, an extraordinary number of prophecies, apocalypses, glances at and studies of the future appear, and there is nothing to do but to join in and be one with the rest" (85).

From Hubert Dreyfus, "Kierkegaard on the Internet: Anonymity vrs. Commitment in the Present Age"


But don't you think there's also the potential, given that the internet is both relatively transparent and free of the 'criterion of competence', for discourse to be 'self-regulating'? If someone comments in error through ignorance, there's the opportunity for someone else who knows better to correct and explain. If someone persistently comments in error, won't they tend to lose credibility over time?
Is there also an element, in this analysis of Kierkegaard, of assuming that discourse doesn't really count as productive or meaningful activity ("in our times, when so little is done...")? Maybe in an Information Age, and particularly in a Particiation Age, one has to accept that "doing stuff" will as often be about discourse as about physical production...?

Posted by Robin Wilton on October 10, 2005 at 08:22 PM PDT #

Robin - I keep reading your blog, and I appreciate it very much! So, first, let me thank you for your comment here.

You make a very good point about the importance of discourse and dialogue. Certainly Internet helps with some aspects of this but I'm not sure about the global benefits when people stop there. I want to reserve judgement and say that the effect of "dialogue" or "discourse" on the Internet can never be like the effect of dialogue and discourse in person (probably even the one we're conducting here). We know this very well, from the recent effort by Cindy Sheehan to get a physical audience with the King of the White House. Her insistence on her request and his continual denial of it indicate to me that both of them know the great difference a physical meeting can make—specially because of how it is viewed by those who follow it on the press or in some other media.

Excellent other points, you've made, the yogi would say. One would really need to read the whole of Dreyfus' paper to better grasp Kierkegaard's point. I'm not sure if I've yet fully understood it myself but I think what Kierkegaard is saying is not necessarily about physical production. His main concern is with the loss, in the modern age, of responsibility and commitment to things that matter and on which we can exercise influence. He is basically saying that the "Press" (and by extension to more modern times, the Internet) bascially allows everyone to say anything about anything without having to stand and live by it or without having to lose anything precious (and personal) for it. Without the danger of failing through loss or other means, there could be no real commitment, and no responsibility to speak of. Without real actions, and accompanying successes and failures that mean something (i.e. failures that cost and successes that benefit one) there can be no real learning of skills. The "Press" provides the "safety" of distance from commitment and responsibility, but in fact it stultifies the individuals, it "levels" them, retaining no qualitative differences among them through which they could learn.

Yes, we can be committed to discourse on the Internet. I suppose that can be said to be a form of commitment and a form of responsibility. Such a commitment would be classified as the "ethical" stage in Kierkegaard's three existential stages, which Dreyfus' summarizes in his paper.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on October 11, 2005 at 06:55 AM PDT #

Interesting post.

There are probably numerous forums where people just talk and don't act. That is why Jim Grisanzio's experience open-sourcing Solaris is such an interesting read. In effect participating in an open source project is exactly the way to escape from the hell of irresponsible opinion. And I think Kirkegaard would have commended such activity for exactly that reason.

Posted by Henry Story on October 11, 2005 at 07:15 AM PDT #

Yes, I think he'd have looked favorably on Open Source, on the Internet, "communities" but you cannot tell me that being part of the inner circle of such communities makes no difference. Somewhere, some time, some amount of physical presence and get-together is necessary. I think even Open Solaris has had a few of these. Right?

Otherwise, why all the Apache Cons?

Posted by M. Mortazavi on October 11, 2005 at 07:19 AM PDT #

And why am I cycling over 1500 km to meet Danny Ayers in Italy? You are absolutely correct! Sometimes it is incredibly useful to meet people, as I found when I met Reto in Bern. You can find common understandings that would otherwise take for ever in e-mail to reach. But then without the internet I would not have met either Danny or Reto.

Posted by Henry Story on October 11, 2005 at 07:32 AM PDT #

Max - fascinating entry. I tried to track back to your blog, and I got a 404 error. No worries - I blogged about your entry here

Posted by Jonathan Bruce on October 11, 2005 at 07:42 AM PDT #

Henry -

All I can say is that you've what Dreyfus and Kierkegaard mean when they talk about practical wisdom :-)

Jon - Thanks, I'll take a look. I was actually correcting a couple of typos when you tried to trackback. There could be a bug (or "feature") in roller that prevents trackbacks on a weblog entry under edit. That's purely a guess. I've not investigated it. Good to hear from you !

Posted by guest on October 11, 2005 at 07:55 AM PDT #

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