The Network Society and its Reality Romantics

On Hubert Dreyfus' On the Internet

What happens when an old philosophy professor goes online? The result could be invaluable, but chances are considerable that he or she misses the point. Berkeley professor Hubert L. Dreyfus centers his study, ‘On the Internet’ around an unfortunate misunderstanding. He confuses very particular Extropian cyber dreams of ‘disembodiment’ with the Internet as such. No Internet agency promises “that each of us will soon be able to transcend the limits imposed on us by our body.” There is in fact a whole range of competing ideologies -such as pragmatism, communitarianism, and liberalism – fighting over the hegemony of Internet discourse. Yet, none of them promises that cyberspace will bring the super- and infra-human. Instead, people argue over globalization and the disappearance of the nation state. Dreyfus carefully routes around such economic and political themes. Says Viennese media philosopher Frank Hartmann, in an email response to ‘On the Internet’: “Do we really care if Kierkegaard or any other philosopher rejects the Internet or not? Is that the issue? The only point Dreyfus makes is that our sense of orientation in this world is physical/embodied—something Bishop Wilkins said 300 years ago.”[1]

According to Dreyfus, “Life in and through the Web may not be so attractive after all.” He is not alone in this judgment. After an initial period of curiosity and excitement, Dreyfus’ reassessment of the Internet coincides with the hangover of the post-dotcom period. In such a cultural climate a conservative backlash can easily gain popularity. Comparable to whitegoods, the Internet has by now become an invisible part of everyday life. It may be a liberating relief for some that there is more to life then the Internet, but such a truism can hardly be the foundation for a philosophical investigation.

It seems tempting to mix up popular culture motifs of virtual reality with the rather dull realpolitik of network architecture. So why can’t philosophers make the distinction between substance and appearance? The press release and the ad’ do not equal the product, no matter how hard public relations managers may repeat New Age mantras of becoming ‘virtual’. Body politics may have been significant at some point but cannot nearly cover the variety of all too real issues that the Internet as a global medium faces. The Internet is not in need of ‘re-embodiment’ but cries for a strong coalition, able to update and defend core values such as openness and access. For instance, philosophers are in great need to help define the underpinnings of open source and free software such as ‘freedom’ and ‘property’. Many can’t hear the talk of ‘free’ as in ‘free beer’ anymore. Or was it ‘free speech’? Is geek culture really as dazed and confused as it seems or is there more significance behind the Richard Stallman-Eric Raymond controversy? This would be an ideal case for techno-philosophy that wants to do a proper study of mankind online.

Dreyfus develops his version of ‘net criticism’ in four different fields: the limitations of hyperlinks and the loss of the ability of to recognize relevance; the dream of distance learning (no skills without presence); the absence of telepresence and a chapter on ‘anonymity and nihilism,’ leading to a life without meaning. In principle such topics could be relevant, yet they do not address contemporary concerns. As a conscious outsider Dreyfus gets stuck on the surface level of yesterday’s mythologies. There is no mention of pressing issues such as free vs. proprietary software, domain name politics, dangers of corporate takeovers, cryptography and censorship, the ‘digital divide’ or intellectual property. The control over the network architecture must have been too mundane for Dreyfus.

This leaves us with Dreyfus’ phenomenological preoccupation with the body. Numerous Internet critics looked into the mythological disembodiment dreams of 90’s cyberculture. Around 1990 science fiction futurism was used to popularize and electrify the yet unknown ‘cyberspace’. There had been a lot of speculations about ‘virtual bodies.’ However, by 2001, the year Dreyfus’ pamphlet appeared, the excitement and curiosity for the disembodiment has faded away. From early on there had been thorough (feminist) critiques of male dreams of leaving the ‘messy’ body behind, none of which Dreyfus mentions. In the meanwhile a range of artist practices had been developed which left the Extropian tendency far behind, developing a critical ‘body politics’ within the virtual arena. Scholars such as Cameron Bailey and Arthur McGee have done excellent work on race in virtual communities, arguing that online communication is never ‘disembodied’ but always carries racial and cultural markers. One might therefor rather expect criticism of this common sensical approach rather then going back to the same old adolescent cyberpunk culture.

Dreyfus confuses elements of popular cyberculture with the agenda of the creators of the Internet as recently defined by Manuel Castells in his ‘The Internet Galaxy’. Dreyfus is unaware of the ‘Californian Ideology’ debate, the agenda of digital Darwinism from the Wired clan and the critique s of techno-libertarianism in publications such as ‘Cyberselfish’ (Paulina Borsook) or ‘One Market Under God’ (Thomas Frank). For Dreyfus the Internet equals Hans Moravec plus Max More times John Perry Barlow plus Ray Kurzweil. “The long-range promise of the Net is that each of us will soon be able to transcend the limits imposed by our bodies.” Dreyfus is focused on the, in my opinion, wrong assumption that the Extropians embody the ‘truth’ of the Internet. He then sets out to deconstruct this presumably dominant Platonic wish to leave behind the body, without analyzing in detail the specific political, economic and cultural agenda of this tendency and its relationship to different new media discourses.

Dreyfus turns Nietzsche against the Extropians to illustrate that human beings, rather than continuing to deny death and finitude, “Would finally have the strength to affirm their bodies and their mortality.” When we enter cyberspace, Dreyfus answers the disembodiment advocates, we might “Necessarily lose some of our crucial capacities: our ability to make sense of things so as to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, our sense of the seriousness of success and failure that is necessary for learning.” Dreyfus summarizes: “If our body goes, so does relevance, skill, reality, and meaning.” That may be the case. As an analysis of the Extropian movement ‘On the Internet’ is a classic case of belated Ideologiekritik. Dreyfus is running after yesteryears’ ghosts. This leaves us with the general question of how knowledge, stored in books, can operate in an environment like the Internet that changes so rapidly. Often, the object of criticism has long disappeared once the theoretical objections are well thought through. The answer can only be a theory on the run. Internet-related critical knowledge is not only forced to operate in the present. It also expresses itself in a range of ways, as code, interface design, social networks or hyper linked aphorisms, hidden in mailinglist messages, weblogs, chat rooms, sent as an SMS message.

Not surprisingly Hubert Dreyfus outs himself as a cultural pessimist. To be more precise, he is a media ecologist comparable to Neil Postman, George Steiner, Peter Handke and others.[2] The deluge of meaningless information disgusts media ecologists. Nonsense should be banned—not just filtered. It is the high task of sovereign intellectuals to rule what can, and should not enter the media archive. Media ecologists dream of an authoritarian enlightenment regime in which chatting and rambling are serious offences. Along these lines denounces the World Wide Web as a “nihilist medium.” “Thanks to hyperlinks, meaningful differences have been leveled. Relevance and significance have disappeared. Nothing is too trivial to be included. Nothing is so important that it demands a special case,” Dreyfus complains.

There is no mention here of users and groups creating their own meaning and context on the Net. Dreyfus apparently never heard of mail and web filters. As if he were a small child, wandering around in the library, touching the shelves, Dreyfus is overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of accessible information that doesn’t make sense to him. “One can view a coffee- pot in Cambridge, or the latest supernova, study the Kyoto Protocol, or direct a robot to plant and water a seed in Austria.” The data ecology of the web really is not all that different from the information universe on offer in one of the Borders bookshops where “The highly significant and the absolutely trivial are laid out together.” Perhaps bookshops should also be cleansed. How about short-wave radio or the rising mud floods on the peer-to-peer networks? With J.S. Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, Dreyfus fears the Tyranny of the Digital Commons.

The origins of media are traced back to Kierkegaard’s 1846 ‘The Present Age.’ Kierkegaard blames the ‘leveling’ of society (“Everything is equal in that nothing matters enough to die for it”) on the Public. What Kierkegaard, and with him Dreyfus, really finds fearful and disgusting is democratic nothingness. The public and the press, these days renamed as ‘the media’ and ‘the Internet’ should not be allowed to celebrate radical uselessness. Instead the elites should restrict the public sphere and direct the masses towards progress, war, socialism, globalization, or whatever is on the agenda. The fear of the black hole of the commons is widespread and ranges from left to right. “In news groups, anyone, anywhere, any time, can have an opinion on anything. All are only too eager to respond to the equally deracinated opinions of other anonymous amateurs who post their views from nowhere.”

What Dreyfus finds particularly disturbing about the Internet is its anonymity, which he read not as a feature to secure one’s freedom but as a sign of indifference. Nowhere does Dreyfus actually proves how widespread anonymous communication on the Net is nor does he note what measures security officials have already taken to crack down on effective anonymity and free, unmonitored browsing (if that ever existed). As everyone should know by now, online privacy is an illusion—as is anonymity. Apart from that, only in rare cases, such as reporting from war zones, is anonymity really useful. In most cases the Internet anonymity cult is a sign of bored adolescence, exhibiting a hobby in the late hours. Not everyone is into anonymous role playing. Anonymity is one of the many menu options, used in specific cases, not the essence of the Net. Arguably, with all the security and surveillance techniques available, absolute anonymity is getting harder and harder to maintain these days. Anonymity may soon really go underground as everyone will be obliged to show his or her Microsoft Passport before logging onto the Internet.

For Dreyfus surfing is the very essence of the Net, and with it comes solitude and boredom. The undirected surfing and chatting on the Net Dreyfus so despises may have happened in the early days of excitement. By now, users know what they are looking for and no longer get lost. Dreyfus does not distinguish between phases: the academic Internet of the eighties; the mythological-libertarian techno-imagination of Mondo 2000 and Wired; the massification and dotcom craze; followed by the consolidation during the 2000-2002 Depression. Becuase of this inability to distinguish, an old fashioned essentialism gets projected onto a rapidly changing environment.

In one aspect Dreyfus is right: online learning won’t save the problems of mass education. But that’s an easy statement. The fact is that knowledge is increasingly stored digitally, distributed via computer networks. This is not done out of a disdain for the body, purposely preventing real-life gatherings of students with their teachers, as Dreyfus implies. The Will to Virtuality has a political agenda, aimed at the privatization and commodification of public education. As David Noble proves in his ‘Digital Diploma Mills’,[3] the agenda of the .edu managerial class is to run the university as if it was a corporation, with or without bodies.

Sydney philosopher and Digital Media teacher Anna Munster, writing in a response to Dreyfus: “The issue is not whether the net is replacing face-to-face teaching, but rather what kinds of networked technologies and communications are being deployed, serving what interests and for whose benefit. A lot of online teaching is clothed in rhetoric of ‘student-centered learning’. What role does the teacher play? In the feel good rhetoric of current educationalists the teacher becomes a ‘designer’ of the learning experience – which, when using a closed system such as webct – devolves their role to that of monitor/surveyor. The webct software serves the interests of educational designers and administrators, not teachers or students.”[4] The future struggle within .edu will be public access. If scientific research is hidden behind passwords, who will afford—and refuse—pay-per-view? The issue is not how dreadful it is to be glued to the screen but about the quality of the accessible information and online feedback support of staff—either offline or online. The solution for Dreyfus is lying in authoritarian scholarship: learn from the master, not from the networked knowledge pools. Anna Munster: “Dreyfus is out of touch with teaching altogether, as if the apprenticeship system is in operation anymore anyway, apart from a few privileged professors who merely meet with their postgraduate students a couple of times a week. The issue of bodily presence is and has not been the problem online for ages.”

Who will decide what is sense and non-sense? Internet enthusiasts point to the crucial difference between old media, based on scarcity of channels, resources and editorial space and the Net with its infinite possibilities of parallel conversations. For the first time in media history the decision over the sense/nonsense has been moved from the medium and its editors to the individual user. Dreyfus doesn’t mention the opportunities and problems that come with this important techno-cultural shift. According to Dreyfus curiosity is dangerous. “Groups committed to various causes” could potentially bring down the ethical sphere. In the end it this debate is about the freedom of speech. Dreyfus doesn’t want to openly raise the sensitive topic who is going to judge content. Censorship should probably come from within the self as voluntary self-restraint over the daily information intake and production.

Ever since the rise of virtual communities in the eighties there have been ferocious debatesabout how to distinguish—and balance—noise and meaning. A wide range of (self) moderation models and filtering techniques has been developed. It remains a mystery why this well informed and Internet-savvy Berkeley professor can ignore all this. ‘On the Internet’ is therefore a setback in terms of Internet theory. Without much effort the ethical-aesthetical position Dreyfus calls for could be developed. For Dreyfus, however, the ‘morally mature’ have to avoid the virtual sphere, in a search for the extra medial “Unconditional commitments.”[5] Kierkegaard would reject the Internet, according to Dreyfus because, in the end, “It would undermine unconditional commitment. Like a simulator, the Net manages to capture everything but the risk.” Bankrupt dotcom entrepreneurs would say otherwise. Looking at the tensions and confusion, caused by viruses and trolls, one wouldn’t say that the Internet is such a safe place.

The Net is not a “Prison of endless reflection,” as Dreyfus writes. I see the Internet as a challenge in the direction of a lively “Agonistic democracy” (Chantal Mouffe). Neither a separate realm nor a numbed consensus factory, the Internet could foster structural dissent (to be separated from protest as a gesture, lifestyle or even opinion). The more the Internet matures, the more it will become a both fierce and fertile battleground for a variety of social groups. The aim of the ‘Digital Divide’ should, and will be new forms of conflict. Today’s communication bridges are built to facilitate the redistribution of wealth, be it software or knowledge. In this understanding of a lively electronic democracy the naïve discourse of ‘consensus without consequences’ (Dreyfus so despises) will anyway be undermined by those reconnecting and redistributing ‘virtuality’ within society. As Manuel Castells points out in ‘The Internet Galaxy’, there is no return possible to an era before the network society: The Network is the Message. Reality romantics, similar to their historical predecessors in the late 18th century, can point at the blind spots of the Network Society, but will not succeed to outlaw or overturn the technological nature of, for instance, knowledge production and distribution.

For Kierkegaard and Dreyfus salvation can only come from the “Religious sphere of existence,” experienced in the ‘real’ world. If a pure and unmediated world ever existed, (or should do – in the form of “reality parks”) I doubt. ‘Real’ and ‘virtual’ are becoming empty categories. A call for a return to the ‘real’ can only be nostalgic and makes itself irrelevant, as it is runs away from the present fights over the future of the global network architecture. What is needed is a radical democratization of the media sphere. There is no reality behind the virtual, no bodies left outside the machine. ‘Real’ education, free of ugly computers, may sound attractive to some, but as a critique of technology it runs the risk of further deepening the crisis between the rising online masses and the elites, rich enough to retrieve in Fortress Reality, safely ceiled off from cheap and dirty cyberspace.

Hubert L. Dreyfus, ‘On the Internet’, London/New York: Routledge, 2001. URL of his bibliography:http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/rtf/dreyfus_cv_5_00.rtf.

  1. Private email exchange, April 12, 2002. I would like to thank Frank Hartmann, Anna Munster, Arjen Mulder and Matthew Fuller for their valuable comments. Thanks to editor Armin Medosch a short version of this article was published in the online magazine Telepolis, in German and English, in April 2002. English: http://www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/buch/12345/1.html . German: http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/inhalt/buch/12346/1.html
  2. See: The Revolt of the Media Ecologists, in: Adilkno, The Media Archive, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998, pp. 1159-164 (URL: http://www.thing.desk.nl/bilwet/adilkno/TheMediaArchive/39.txt). An adaptation of this early 90s essays with examples of the concerns about the nihilist nature of the Web by leading intellectuals: Geert Lovink und Pit Schultz, Sinnflut Internet, in: Telepolis, Die Zeitschrift der Netzkultur, nr. 1, Bollmann Verlag, Mannheim, 1997, pp. 5-11 (URL:http://www.thing.desk.nl/bilwet/TXT/angst.txt).
  3. David F. Noble, Digital Diploma Mills, The Automation of Higher Education, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.
  4. From a private email correspondence, April 15, 2002.
  5. The Dutch media theorist Arjen Mulder, like me a member of the Adilkno, has dealt with the question of the ‘extra medial’ extensively, for instance in his first book with the same title “Het buitenmediale” and also “Het twintigste eeuwse lichaam” (both titles not translated). Building on Arjen Mulder’s thesis there is an essay in Adilkno’s Media Archive (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998) called “The Extramedial”, which starts: “Everything is medial. There exists no original, unmediated situation in which ‘authentic’ human existence can be experienced.” p. 192 (URL:http://www.thing.desk.nl/bilwet/adilkno/TheMediaArchive/46.txt).