On The Internet: A Social-Software-centric Summary

30th November 2004 @ 2:06 pm
Web, Software, Books, Design, Reviews, Everything2, Internet and Embodiment
(This is a re-post of my earlier Everything2 review)
"For Kierkegaard, a world-wide electronic agora is an oxymoron ... [he] allows us to see it is not an agora at all, but a nowhere place for anonymous nowhere people. As such, it is dangerously distopian"
On The Internet by Hubert Dreyfus is a short but stimulating philosophy book addressing the implications the internet has on our current and future life-styles. In the book, Dreyfus argues that when people are disembodied and detached from a point of interaction, as web-surfers are in virtual communities, they cannot perform as effectively as their embodied and situated counterparts can in an equivalent real world scenario. In essence, he tries to show that, "if our body goes, so does relevance, skill, reality, and meaning". On a widely sourced tour through relevant parts of modern philosophy, the book covers the effects that world-wide interconnectedness is having on topics including politics, remote prescence, distance learning and document retrieval.

The book begins with an eye-opening account of research into the effects of spending time on line. In more than one study (see here and here), researchers have found that time online increasingly comes at the expense of time with family and friends, and often brings with it a sense of despair and loneliness.

Chapter one (The Hype about Hyperlinks) covers document retrieval on the web, including a Wittgensteinian analysis of Data vs. Document, and an explanation of the fallacy of abundancy (or: how Google manages to look good simply because returning a small fraction of billions of documents is normally satisfactory). There is also some discussion on the failures of Artificial Intelligence (harking back to Dreyfus's best-known work, What Computers Still Can't Do). Dreyfus still has little time for so-called common sense databases such as Cyc. Of prime importance in this chapter, though, is the assertion that a loss of embodiment leads to a failure to recognise the relevance of things in the world.

Chapter two (How Far is Distance Learning from Education?) leaps into a critique of distance learning, discussing what it means to be expert in a domain (chess being one example, teaching itself being another). The key point here is that it matters to matter. If things don't matter to you - if you don't feel wins and losses in "the pit of your stomach" and "the seat of your pants" - you will never make the transition from novice to expert. Dreyfus also places emphasis on apprenticeship and imitation as key to progression. In other words, without being truly immersed in what we are doing we cannot achieve our full potential.

Chapter three (Disembodied Telepresence and the Remoteness of the Real) deals mainly with telepresence and how technological advances in virtual reality and remote action/perception will always be lacking the critical involvement we get for free from our bodies. Dreyfus emphasises risk and challenge as being fundamental to presence, and lacking in telepresence. It's not all criticism though, since he acknowledges the benefits to his students of webcasting his lectures and providing audio recordings for revision purposes. An embodied presence is essential however, and to Dreyfus these technologies seem best summed up as better than nothing.

In chapter four (Nihilism on the Information Highway: Anonymity vs. Commitment in the Present Age) Dreyfus introduces the writings of Kierkegaard and from here on, it gets pretty heavy. Kierkegaard wrote in the late 19th century of the levelling effect that the press and coffee shop discussion (or the public sphere) had on the general public. He wrote of the seemingly inevitable despair following any degree of commitment to expanding one's knowledge outside of areas upon which one has a complete grounding. Dreyfus sees the internet as the ultimate extension of that which Kierkegaard feared most, concluding that the internet is where,

"anonymous electronic kibitzers from all over the world, who risk nothing, come together to announce and defend their opinions"
In other words, anonymity and lack of commitment leads to an electronic nihilism, to a life without meaning.

It is back to the notion of risk, along with relevance and commitment, that Dreyfus comes in the conclusion of the book. He rescues himself from committing to a complete damnation of the internet by summarising the short-comings outlined in the previous chapters such that they stand as a warning not to place too much faith in the powers of the web. Surprisingly, nothing is really made of the differences between books and the internet. It's not clear why reading the book is acceptable, whilst internet-based learning is flawed. I can only assume it's another case of better than nothing. The main conclusion seems to be that there is still potential for the web to be put to good use, but not in the ways that people intuitively expect, and we aren't there yet.

I've had On The Internet for a while, but prompted by this Penny Arcade strip (via plasticbag) I thought my Everything2 review of it could do with wider exposure in the context of other online communities.

Interestingly enough, I haven't really had to edit my concluding remarks about what Dreyfus's findings mean for Everything2, in order to make them relevant for the weblogs and social software in general.

So what does all this mean for Everything2 Online Communities?

Clearly, much of this book has a bearing on how we view this place. Not least because many of us are exactly the sort of "anonymous electronic kibitzers" Dreyfus is bemoaning. Appropriately enough, in 2003 the standard answer to "where can I find...?" is "on the internet". But can you really find Everything on the internet?

It's clear that those who stick around here find something, but is Dreyfus right? Is it at the expense of contact with the real world? Does the experience lack risk, relevance and commitment? Are we disembodied to the point where any and all knowledge is free territory, but expertise and true skill are destined to be lost art-forms? Have we really got to a nihilistic state, where nothing is worth dying for (and consequently, nothing is worth living for)? It's not so clear...

Based on the web's short-comings outlined in the book, my advice would be to keep on mentoring, keep on chatting, keep on specialising and (possibly most important of all) keep on gathering.