Monday Oct 10, 2005

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"

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