Hubert Dreyfus’ “On the Internet”

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on texts that fall under the “Philosophy of Technology” genre, and many of them are books and articles on artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, bodies in technology, cyberspace, and online identity. I thought I would post some summaries here to keep track of all my notes in an accessible place. Be aware that these notes are really rough, mostly in point form, and are in no way book reviews. I hope that anyone reading can glean something from the parts that I found important enough to transcribe.

First up, On the Internet by Hubert L. Dreyfus

Net enthusiasts: Through telepresence, “each of us will be able to transcend the limits imposed on us by our body.

Dreyfus differentiates himself from these theorists who believe that through technology, we are on our way to discarding our situated bodies and becoming ubiquitous and eventually immortal.

Telepresence may give one the appearance and feeling of being present and influential in cyberspace but this is dystopic. Much is lost through teletechnology, for our interactions with distant objects are mediated by a transmission across a network.

We should “remain open to the possibility that, when we enter cyberspace and leave behind our […] selves, and thereby gain a remarkable new freedom never before available to human beings, we might, at the same time, necessarily lose some of our crucial capacities.”

The connectivity that we experience has the potential to alienate us from what we are actually engaging in. The assumption is that the more interactivity and feedback teletechnology allows us, the more we will have a sense of being fully present with distant objects and people.

“Even though interactive control and feedback may give us a sense of being directly in touch with the objects we manipulate, it may still leave us with a vague sense that we are not in touch with reality.”

“Along with such indirect access comes doubts about the reliability […] by means of such prostheses.”

In modernity, we ask how can we ever get out of our inner, private, subjective experience so as to be in the presence of the things and people in the external world?

Our access to the world is indirect, things are never directly present to us, but we experience them by way of representations in our brain. What gives us our sense of being in direct touch with reality is that we can control events in the world and get perceptual feedback concerning what we have done. But even this sort of control and feedback is not sufficient to give the controller a sense of direct contact with reality. What we see on the screen will seem to be mediated by our long-distance equipment, and therefore not truly telepresent.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: there is a basic need we can never banish as long as we have bodies. The need is to get an “optimal grip” on the world. When we look at something we tend to find the best distance for taking in both the thing as a whole and its different parts. Merleau-Ponty states that we tend towards the maximum of visibility, and seek a better focus as with a microscope.

Primordial Belief: embodied readiness, what gives us our sense of the direct presence of things. Scientists agree that “full telepresence requires a transparent display system, high resolution image and wide field of view, a multiplicity of feedback channels […]and a consistency of information between these.”

“Intercorporeality” as Merleau-Ponty calls it, cannot be captured by adding together 3D images, stereo sound, remote robot control.

Intentional Arc: our sense of reality and ability to interact with interfaces depends on how our body works in the background, it’s ability to get a grip on things. We do this so well it’s hardly noticed, and it’s easy to think that thanks to telepresence we could get along without our body’s natural ability to do this, but thats not true.

Online Education: Dreyfus believes that online teaching is unlikely to help a student move beyond the third level of competence (after novice and advanced beginner) because of the absence of face-to-face. Anyone studying something like philosophy will have trouble achieving a level of proficiency and to write about the subject through online teaching. The development into a thinker needs arguments face-to-face, yet Dreyfus doesn’t really address possibilities of interactive messaging and online presentations. Dreyfus thinks that “mastery,” the final stage, is beyond the distance education learner, because of the absence of the teacher student relationship.

Some Key Points
– Dreyfus starts out pessimistic about how the internet has affected learning, but then softens up after the first edition
– considering websites of the 1990s, Dreyfus sees them as impossible to navigate, full of meaningless data
– he revises this in the second edition in the wake of Google’s impact and its searchable nature
– he is still concerned about the risks of getting too deep into the virtual, as learning needs to occur in face to face embodied atmosphere
– the body may be able to “zero in on what is significant and preserve that understanding in background awareness” but the ability for the body to “sustain our interpersonal world” is absent from virtual encounters
– highly skeptical of virtual worlds like Second Life, because it masquerades the offer of experimentation but this is only really possible in the real world
– Dreyfus doesn’t really engage with current online spaces that strengthen our corporeal existences such as Youtube, blogging, social media
– “as long as we continue to affirm our bodies, the net can be useful to us if we resist its tendency to offer the worst of a series of asymmetric trade-offs”
– we shouldn’t seek to free ourselves from embodiment, as our bodies are the mechanisms through which we experience the world
– As an ending note, I would say that the spaces that reaffirm our bodies online are already happening, Dreyfus just doesn’t address them

Texts Cited: Dreyfus, Hubert L. On the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2001.


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