Review: On the Internet by Hubert Dreyfus

This book is a brilliant polemic targeted at those who would promote the internet as a tool for the social good and, indeed, a tool for expanding the possibilities of being human. While there are ways in which the internet can allow us to overcome geographical and bodily impediments, for Dreyfus there is, ultimately, something corrupting and possible incoherent about abandoning our identity as embodied agents. Physically being in the same space as another human being not only brings a richness of detail that ‘virtual presence’ cannot achieve, it also brings with it a sense of engagement, of relevance, and risk, that is integral to genuine human-to-human engagement.

Dreyfus addresses a range of topics. He writes about the ultimate poverty of internet search engines, stressing that search in the absence of understanding will always have severe limits, limits we should not allow ourselves to forget. And he writes about how the idea of trust, interconnected with the idea of risk, must inevitably wither in situation in which human beings are only virtually, as opposed to actually, present to one another. But for me, the two most exciting targets concern education and public debate.

Distance learning is widely hailed as a means of broadening access and lowering education costs. Dreyfus is clear that much can be achieved in this way, but argues that it can only take us so far, and, indeed, only a little further than more conventional methods, such as reading books or watching instructional videos. For all that you might receive personalised feedback via email, there is something critical missing in the learning experience. Both learners and teachers need to see each other exercise and explore their expertise. To learn you need to try out your understanding or your skill, and run the risk of embarrassment when things go awry. When it comes to achieving expertise and mastery, the actual co-presence of teacher and learner, far from being some accidental feature of learning, is essential to it.

For Dreyfus, far from being a tool of democracy, the internet encourages the sort of communication that threatens to undermine clear, effective, and responsible social thinking. Dreyfus here draws on the work of the nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Writing about the increasing power of the press, Kierkegaard feared the creation of a ‘world in which everyone had an opinion about and commented on all public matters without needing any first-hand experience and without having or wanting any responsibility’. Arguably Kierkegaard overplayed his case, and under-estimated both the positive power of the press and the responsibility that some sections of it are prepared to take. But Dreyfus shows convincingly that Kierkegaard’s critical analysis fits perfectly the world of internet chat-rooms and newsgroups. Participation in such forums can be addictive, but it is, ultimately, a failure to engage. Moreover, because, as is true, what is said in such a forum really does not matter, and because if you get bored you can simply walk (virtually) away, it can encourage us to think that this is what human engagement is really about, and thus lead us towards nihilism. All very dramatic, you might say. But Dreyfus makes a compelling, and at times, quite chilling case.

Dreyfus mixes common-sense with sociological research, and makes obscure philosophers–Heidegger is invited to the party along with Kierkegaard–address some very contemporary issues with impressive clarity. And he gets us to think deeply about the internet, and to think about it in relation to deep and perennial questions about who we are and how we live. But, remarkably, he achieves all this in a short and highly readable volume.

Written sometime back in 2003