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Review of 'On the Internet: Thinking in Action,' by Hubert Dreyfus, Routledge Press, 2001

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue January, January 1 - January 31, 2002 | BY Arun Kumar Tripathi 


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Life and learning on the Net through the eyes of a philosopher.

Life and learning on the Net through the eyes of a philosopher.

On the Internet: Thinking in Action, Hubert Dreyfus, Routledge Press, 2001 [Paperback - 136 pages (March 2001) Routledge; ISBN: 0415228077

On The Internet: Thinking in Action raises the following questions: Can we leave our vulnerable bodies while preserving relevance, learning, reality and meaning? Does life on the Internet achieve Plato's dream of overcoming space and time as well as body?

Drawing on philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the latest book by Hubert Dreyfus examines in detail the various perspectives of the Net through the eyes of a philosopher. In his criticism, Dreyfus explains that, in spite of its attraction, the more one lives one's life through the Net, the more one loses a sense of what is relevant, and so faces the problem of finding the information one is seeking.

Also, in spite of the economic attraction of distance learning, such learning by substituting telepresence for real presence leaves no place for risk-taking and apprenticeship, which play a crucial role in all types of skill acquisition. Furthermore, without a sense of bodily vulnerability, one loses a sense of reality of the physical world and one's sense of trust in other people. Finally, he says that while the anonymity of the Net makes possible experimentation, the overall effect of the Net is to undermine commitment, thus depriving life of serious meaning.

The book is divided into four chapters:

In "The Hype About Hyper-Links," Dreyfus discusses the hope for intelligent information retrieval and the failure of AI. He shows how the actual shape and movement of our bodies play a crucial role in grounding meaning so that loss of embodiment leads to loss of relevance.

In "How Far is Distance Learning from Education? " Dreyfus discusses the importance of mattering and attunement for teaching and learning skills, the phenomenology of skill acquisition, and the need for imitation in apprenticeship. Without involvement and presence we cannot acquire skills, Dreyfus says.

The chapter "Disembodied Telepresence and the Remoteness of the Real" describes the body as a source of our causal embedding and attunement to mood. Dreyfus discusses how loss of background coping and attunement lead to loss of sense of reality of people and things. (I see something like you, but I don't see you and I hear something like you, but I don't hear you.)

The final chapter "Nihilism on the Information Highway: Anonymity vs. Commitment in the Present Age" discusses in detail how meaning requires commitment and real commitment requires real risks. The anonymity and safety of virtual commitments online lead to loss of meaning. This chapter of the book is important for educators.

Dreyfus challenges the popular view of the Internet as a global classroom in which anybody and everybody can participate in a process of so-called "hyper-learning." The Internet promotes risk-free anonymity and idle curiosity, both of which undermine responsibility and commitment. Dreyfus considers how the Net would promote Kierkegaard's two nihilistic spheres of existence, the aesthetic and the ethical, while repelling the religious sphere.

In the aesthetic sphere, the aesthete avoids commitments and lives in the categories of the interesting and the boring and wants to see as many interesting sights (sites) as possible. In the ethical sphere students would reach a "despair of possibility" brought on by the ease of making and unmaking commitments on the Net. Only in the religious sphere is nihilism overcome by making risky, unconditional commitments. Dreyfus concludes that only by working closely with students in shared situations in the real world can teachers with strong identities, ready to take risks to preserve their commitments, pass on their passion and skill to their students. In this shared context students can turn information into knowledge and practical wisdom.

This work is a clear discussion of the promises of the Internet. Can it really bring humanity to a new level of community and democracy and solve the problems of mass education? Dreyfus, a writer on philosophy and technology, brings a philosopher's eye to bear on an issue that affects us all. Drawing on a diverse array of thinkers, he draws parallels between the Internet and the birth of a media-obsessed public in the 18th century and the Enlightenment quest for a universal, abstract knowledge. He shows how the Internet ignores essential human capacities such as trust, moods, risk, shared local concerns and commitment. He also uses compelling examples from the experience of teaching to show what "interactive" education leaves out.

On the Internet: Thinking in Action, is available at

Arun Kumar Tripathi is a research assistant with Telecooperation Research Group at Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany. His interests include e-learning, ubiquitous learning, building intelligent systems for schools, AI in learning and education, cognitive aspects of human-computer interactions, interface of philosophy and technology, instructional technology, and use of the Internet and computer technology for distance education.


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