On the Internet

Book cover image

I was a big fan of Dreyfus’ classic book on AI, “What computers can’t do”. In that book, he took on the overly-optimist technologists of the early wave of AI, and discussed what made the ordinary human intelligence so extraordinary and resistant to formulization. A lot of time has passed since then, and the focus of technological thinking moved to the Internet. Dreyfus approaches the issues surrounding Internet from the same phenomenological perspective as “What computers can’t do”. The book opens with a very interesting example of a philosophical analysis getting proven wrong by the real world, and it’s to Dreyfus’ credit that he admits being wrong on the topic of search without giving any excuses. In an earlier version of the book, he argued that searching the web for content relevant to a given query is impossible, because search software would need to understand the content it indexed. The trick used by Google –mining the interconnectivity of HTML texts and the massive amount of textual information– circumvented this difficult problem.

Dreyfus then goes on to criticise promises to replicate either parts (online learning) or all of the real world (second life) on the net. His criticism of online learning derives from his and Stuart Dreyfus’ theory of human expertise, expanded in detail in this book, which is not really necessary considering it’s a book on the internet. The main gist of it is that becoming an expert involves working with other experts in a shared situation. The criticism fails to address the fact that online learning is usually limited to giving people a “head start”, without any promise of turning them into experts. Online learning sites and startups always stress how important forming a real community is, and encourage their users to engage with others to meet and create local communities. These communities are expected to take the students to the next level, not further disembodied online presence.

Dreyfus then goes on to attack two things web culture has taken on as its defining attributes, anonymity and multiplicity, by applying Kierkegaard’s analysis of different spheres of life. I find the fit between these spheres and the possibilities offered by the internet a bit too uncanny, and this book is worth reading even only to get a short introduction to this topic. According to Kierkegaard, people move through different spheres of life. The first is the aesthetic sphere, in which people “make the enjoyment of all possibilities the centre of their lives”. At this level, the human being tries to take in everything that is interesting, treating it all as of the same significance. This is, in the end, a state of despair, because one is constantly trying to be entertained, and is unable to create a unified self. A person who realises this and is willing to change himself moves on to the ethical sphere, where one seeks out information based on a stable identity, filtering the possibilities and seeking out involved action. Although one would think that this is a dignified way of living, Kierkegaard argues this also ends in despair, because either one is stuck with whatever is imposed on her (she is of this nationality and that occupation), or the pure power of her freedom undermines her commitment. This pure power creates a situation similar to the aesthetic sphere, levelling all differences. The highest sphere, the Christian/religious sphere of existence, can be reached only by unconditional commitment, possible if we feel “gripping passion” about something like a political movement or another human being.

All in all, “On the Internet” is a small but powerful book that does not always make the right generalizations about the net, but contains some very powerful ideas and criticisms that individuals and the net community in general should take seriously.