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Digital promises

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


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The prospect of living our lives online may not be so attractive after all

The prospect of living our lives online may not be so attractive after all

In the article "As Educators Rush to Embrace, a Coterie of Skeptics Seeks to Be Heard," University of California-Berkeley professor of philosophy Hubert L. Dreyfus says relying on the Internet would discourage the passionate commitment that he sees at the heart of advanced learning in any field. The risk-free anonymity of the Internet, he says, makes it a good medium for slander, innuendo, endless gossip, and ultimately, boredom. "Without some way of telling the relevant from the irrelevant and the significant from the insignificant, everything becomes equally interesting and equally boring." He later argues, "The nihilistic pull of the new network culture doesn't prohibit such personal commitment, but does inhibit [it]."

Will it ever possible for us to leave our vulnerable bodies behind and enjoy the risks in cyberspace?

As a philosopher Dreyfus expresses his concern about not wanting to criticize specific uses of the Internet and defending others. His question is a more speculative one: What if the Net became central in our lives? What if it becomes what Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government calls an "irresistible alternative culture?" To the extent that we came to live a large part of our lives online, would we become super or infra human?

In seeking answers to the above questions, Dreyfus elaborates that we should remain open to the possibility that, when we enter cyberspace and leave behind our animal-shaped, emotional, intuitive, situated, vulnerable, embodied selves, and thereby gain a remarkable new freedom never before available to human beings, we might, at the same time, necessarily lose our ability to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, lack a sense of the seriousness of success and failure necessary for learning, lose our sense of being causally embedded in the world and, along with it, our sense of reality, and, finally, be tempted to avoid the risk of genuine commitment, and so lose our sense of what is significant or meaningful in our lives. In greater depth, he discusses the idea that if our body goes, so do relevance, skill, reality and meaning. If that is the trade-off, the prospect of living our lives in and through the Web may not be so attractive after all.

Can others really exploit you through the safe distance of the Net?

The problem is that cyber society is not developed fully enough so that we could, for example, do all our work online.

I question the notion of embodiment (bodily beings and presence) in cyberspace. We are physical beings, and known to the world through our bodies. We acknowledge that the natural body gives us extraordinary means of interacting with each other and with the world. But cyberspace has been built on the Cartesian ideals of metaphysical separation between mind and body. Is cyberspace creating a different world? Is cyberspace the extension of the real world? The making of cyberspace creates a problem with the notion of body and embodiment.

Will digital media extend and improve human interaction?

The Internet's promise of extending and improving human interaction through the digital medium isn't everything it's cracked up to be, Dreyfus states. One of the premises of distance education on the Internet is that people can learn without being physically present with their teacher or fellow students. That assumption is a modern legacy of the philosophy of dualism espoused by the Greek philosopher Plato and the 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes.

Their argument -- that the mind is self-sufficient and better off without the body -- severely limits understanding of how the mind, and learning, actually work, Dreyfus says. He turns to Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher, and Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, to argue that the body plays a crucial role in learning.

"Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are arguing for the importance of taking risks, of being involved and enjoying or suffering the rewards of involvement," Dreyfus says. The two men -- who are credited with starting the existentialist movement in philosophy -- proposed that involvement in situations could take place only through the physical body.

Dreyfus explores why Kierkegaard would have hated the Internet by examining his view of the 18th Century press and its role in fueling an expansion of a "Public Sphere" characterized by "risk-free anonymity, idle curiosity, and incipient nihilism." A noted philosopher who asserts a strong Internet presence through his own elaborate Web site, Dreyfus provokes audience members to reconsider their own love/hate relationship with the Internet.

Dreyfus also draws on 20th-century existentialists such as Martin Heidegger and especially Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who argues that the body plays a crucial role in all elements of life, from perception to politics.

Without physical bodies, people can attain only intellectual competence in skills, Dreyfus says. They cannot proceed further to mastery of those skills, which involves having an intuitive understanding of using the skills in real situations that entail real risks. Without the emotional investment and visceral connections that come only from actually being somewhere and doing something, people lack the commitment to learn as much as they can. Ultimately, physical presence and action are the only ways we have to acquire skills, learn what information is relevant, know reality, and have meaningful lives, he says.

On the other hand, Andrew Feenberg, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, says online pedagogy is still developing, and instructors are learning the constraints and appropriate behavior for online teaching. Once appropriate online teaching practices are established, instructors and students can form the strong personal and intellectual connections that enable high-level learning. I think the approach of Andrew Feenberg is worth exploring towards the online pedagogy techniques.

Stephen Downes writes in the essay on "Education and Embodiment" that, "Of course the world on the computer screen is a virtual world. But the experience of that world is real, and in the end, that's all that matters."

I think if we spend most our time looking at a screen, without knowing why, but convinced that this is the new step in human evolution, then we clearly have missed the point of why we exist.

Arun Kumar Tripathi (network educator, philosopher and facilitator) is a Director for the World Association for Online Education (WAOE), holding the Chair of Multilingual Project. His research interests include e-learning, ubiquitous learning, AI in learning and education, and cognitive aspects of human-computer interactions. Since August, he has been working in the Technical Philosophy department, Institute of Philosophy, Dresden University of Technology.


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