Nihilism online?

Philosopher Hubert L Dreyfus' 'On the internet': an out-of-body experience.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

Philosopher Hubert L Dreyfus has a reputation for criticising exaggerated claims about IT. His book What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence was published way back in 1972. It was followed in recent years by What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason.

In his new book, On the Internet, Dreyfus argues that ‘areas where a new and more fulfilling form of life has been promised have produced a great deal of talk but few happy results’ (1). He holds four overhyped aspects of the internet – the searchability of online information; online distance learning; telepresence in online communications; and online social commitment – up to scrutiny, and comes up with some useful explanations of the factors that conspire against perfection in each of these areas.

In the case of the searchability of online information, Dreyfus draws upon his previous critiques of artificial intelligence theory to demonstrate how a human understanding of the relevance of information cannot be reduced to 0s and 1s. This is the book’s best overall chapter.

In the case of telepresence, he points out the importance of ‘a subtle combination of eye movements, head motion, gesture and posture’ (2) to provide a context for communication – cues that are not easily transmissible online. (These observations may corroborate a prediction made by the forecaster James Woudhuysen at a recent spiked-seminar, that replication of facial expression will be the next major obsession in IT.)

One of Dreyfus’s best insights is the altered status of accountability in the online environment. Offline, we tend to be open to criticism for our beliefs and actions, and can therefore be held responsible for what we say. This gives us an incentive to say and do things that are worthwhile, and to commit ourselves to tasks and relationships.

In the online environment, by contrast, ‘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. Such commentators do not take a stand on the issues they speak about’ (3). This raises useful questions about how far it is possible to talk about the existence of an ‘online community’ – is it possible to have any community built on relationships to which people have so little commitment? (4)

Dreyfus makes similarly salient points about how the uncritical character of the internet also has consequences for online education. Since enlightened trial and error is crucial to the learning process, education can be undermined by the internet: ‘In the classroom and lecture hall…there is the possibility of taking the risk of proposing and defending an idea and finding out whether it fails or flies. If each student is at home in front of his or her terminal, there is no place for such risky involvement. ’ (5)

However, despite the usefulness of Dreyfus’ well-founded initial observations, his conclusions seem to verge on the misanthropic. Citing utopian extremists such as the Extropians (6), he contends that lovers of the internet wish to transcend the human body, as did the philosophers Plato and Decartes before them – and that this amounts to nihilism. Indeed, the London launch of On the Internet, at the Tate Modern gallery, was provocatively entitled ‘Nihilism Online?’.

While it is true to say that physiology plays an important role in internet usability, it is wrong to claim, as Dreyfus does, that physiology is the main barrier to realising the internet’s potential.

This latter assumption underpins Dreyfus’ entire argument. He puts his cards on the table when he claims that Japanese people and American people behave differently because ‘American mothers encourage passionate gesturing and vocalising, while Japanese mothers are much more soothing and mollifying’ (7).

I challenged Dreyfus about this behavioural determinism at the launch of his book, and he replied that I was correct to label him a determinist, but he didn’t see a problem with it. My objection was that behavioural determinism excludes the most useful category – the category of the social – from discussion of the internet. The fact that individuals express different levels of commitment to one another online and offline is not a physiological truth, but a social one.

Dreyfus maintains that the physical proximity between a teacher and a student is a defining factor of their relationship. But surely it is simply the expression of a social characteristic, namely that we learn better when we can be held immediately accountable. Physical proximity is not the dependent variable here. Notwithstanding the technical challenges listed by Dreyfus, it is conceivable that better technology will one day enable the teacher-student relationship to flourish online in ways we cannot yet imagine.

By counterposing the ‘virtual’ world to the ‘real’ world, Dreyfus falls into the same dualism as the Platonic and Cartesian traditions he derides. His concern, that ‘when we enter cyberspace and leave behind our animal-shaped, emotional, intuitive, situated, vulnerable, embodied selves…we might, at the same time, necessarily lose some of our crucial capacities’ (8), is a mystical concern. The internet is not separate from the real world, it is part of the real world; just as the telephone is part of the real world and telephone conversations are too.

Phil Mullan has pointed out elsewhere on spiked that recent discussion of the internet has been characterised by technological determinism: ‘The internet is [considered] innovative because of our belief it is an innovation. The model assumes what needs to be shown.’ (9) Dreyfus attacks this kind of determinism, to his credit, but he substitutes physiology for technology as a determining factor. Since physiology (in the terms in which Dreyfus presents it) is immutable, Dreyfus’ point of view precludes real advances in the social and educational benefits of the internet, because he invents an absolute barrier to progress.

The dotcom boom and crash was a tragedy – not because those behind the dotcoms dreamed of a better world (for surely, we should all be free to dream), but because they imagined that a better world had arrived already when it had yet to be created. Hubert L Dreyfus has invented new limits to the future applications of the internet, when what we should really be doing is investigating how the internet’s potential can be better realised.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
Read on:
From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg
spiked-issue: Don’t blow IT
spiked-issue: Education
(1) Hubert L Dreyfus, On the Internet, p2
(2) Hubert L Dreyfus, On the Internet, p58
(3) Hubert L Dreyfus, On the Internet, p79
(4) On this topic, see Frank Furedi, ‘Seeking communities where none exists’ in spiked-seminars: What’s real about the virtual community?
(5) Hubert L Dreyfus, On the Internet, p39
(6) See the Extropy Institute website
(7) Hubert L Dreyfus, On the Internet, p46
(8) Hubert L Dreyfus, On the Internet, p6
(9) IT’s potential: the internet, by Phil Mullan

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Topics Politics