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Chapter 48 ~ “Anonymity versus Commitment: The Dangers of Education on the Internet” by Hubert L. Dreyfus September 23, 2009

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Chapter 48 ~ “Anonymity versus Commitment: The Dangers of Education on the Internet” by Hubert L. Dreyfus (1999)

I have to keep reminding myself that this was published in 1999. Even if the Internet were as Dreyfus imagined (or as he imagined Kierkegaard might imagined), things have changed in leaps and bounds within the last decade.

Essentially, Dreyfus takes Kierkegaard’s thoughts on “The Press” and holds them against the internet to show that the gluttony of information available can lead one away from commitment (involvement) and from connection and from growth.

According to Dreyfus, Kierkegaard saw three stages a learner must pass through if he or she is to have a meaningful life: aesthetic, ethical, and religious; the aesthetic and ethical, Dreyfus makes notes, could be integrated with information technology; however, the religious sphere could not. And of course, it is only this sphere that makes meaningful learning possible.

Overall, people take interest in everything but are not committed to anything. Through this, there is also no responsibility – for the lackluster information that grows or for the people who waste their time muddling through the lackluster information. With no responsibility and with anyone being able to disseminate information, relevance and significance disappear.

And there’s even a notion that we all can become godlike because we can now, like God, have an omnipresent view of the world. This thought has never dawned on me, and it still doesn’t. All I have to do is take a peek inward to know I know nothing. Information online will not make me God or be godlike.

I get the feeling that Dreyfus (and Kierkegaard through Dreyfus) sees people as awfully gullible. People don’t care if information is reliable (579) as if they just accept is as face value, and though there are some, not everyone is like this. No one assumes responsibility for consequences of information. Again, some may not – others do. And when you get situations like Wikipedia getting in trouble for “publishing” erroneous info on their site or a woman being threatened to leave her apartment for tweeting something derogatory about the complex, we can see consequences of misinformation.

Dreyfus even takes aims at interests groups as the height of irresponsibility because they are not rooted in particular problems, which results in endless gossip. I think of some of the tech discussion groups/forums I visit where the sole purpose is to discuss problems and relay information to fix those problems. I think of internet radio shows, podcasts, and specific blogs catering to a specific problem and using the media to discuss solutions, and I see Dreyfus – again – as overstating the issue.

Dreyfus states that for Kierkegaard, the only alternative “to this anonymity and lack of commitment was to plunge into some kind of activity – any activity – as long as one threw oneself into it with passionate involvement” (579). Hard for me to see the Internet of 1999 as a wasteland lacking in passionate involvement. Granted, in any society, you will see dispassionate people, but even in the Internet “society” of 1999 important things were going on and people were using the Internet to connect with others.

In discussing the three spheres, we learn that the aesthetic sphere is where we just have sheer joy in information, and we can’t live only in this sphere. Gluttony of information is not a way in which to live.

In the ethical sphere, however, we are committed to involved action; it’s where we turn information into knowledge, and it’s where we finally get to talking about education. Reading this section, I get the sense that Dreyfus thinks students are just plopped into a vast, dark space with no guidance, no connection to others, and because of this will be swept into information overload. In the end, the idea of making a choice of information to consider “reliable,” “sufficient” leads us to falter in this sphere, too.

What is needed, ultimately, is the religious sphere, for here is where we make one unconditional commitment, a comment that represents who we are and what we stand for and that (I assume because of this) narrows our scope of what’s important, thereby narrowing the information we take in.

In the end, Dreyfus sees true learning coming from work represented “in the nearness of the classroom and laboratory; never in cyberspace” (583).


Chapter 45 ~ “Heidegger and McLuhan and The Essence of Virtual Reality” by Michael H. Heim September 21, 2009

Posted by Shon in 5369, Carter, Philosophy of Technology, TCR, Technology.
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Chapter 45 ~ “Heidegger and McLuhan and The Essence of Virtual Reality” by Michael H. Heim (1997)

5 Heidegger and McLuhan: the Computer as Component

Heidegger and Computers
In the initial section of this work, Heim talks about Heidegger’s thoughts on technology and how technology and the looming development of computers could adversely affect and challenge “the legacy of human thought” as well as how we will come to process information — or if we even will.

Heim ends this section with the question, “Just what were the specific dangers of computers,” at which he states his initial “philosophical answer to this question was what I call the computer as opponent. In this approach, the computer appears as a rival intelligence that challenges the human being to a contest” (540).

The Computer as Opponent
Heim brings up Hubert Dreyfus, who argues “that we must delineate carefully what computers can and cannot do, lest we become unrealistic about computers and fall into a misunderstanding of the kind of beings we ourselves are” (540). Dreyfus also argued about information processing and the belief by some that human thought could be replicated because “human thinking operates in formal patterns” that could be easily replicated in computers.

Using Heidegger’s critique of technology to computers, Dreyfus seemed to see a combative stance between computers and humans, which caused him to see “the computer too narrowly as an artificial device” (541), and this notion moves us away from the real concern, which is not computers versus humans but we computers and humans can collaborate.

A part of me wonders if this “battle” they suggest between humans and computers is really a battle. Can you call something a battle if one opponent appears not to be fighting, but in fact creating an existence in which what they created (computers, other technologies) do all the work so that man can have more leisure?

By looking at how we work WITH computers, computers can now be seen as components instead of opponents. This relationship with computers also makes us ask an important question: how do computers, which have infiltrated every facet of our existence, shape our realities?

Going back to Heidegger, Heim concludes this section by examining that it’s not technology (or computers) that have the ability to overrun humans, but that humans by “being-with” technology (and computers) integrate technology, computers into our lives in a way that they affect the way we think, know, and will.

Heim also brings forth Heidegger’s notion of “the language machine” and equates it to the computer.

The Computer as Component
Heim discusses Heidegger’s criticism of the typewriter and its ability to remove “the word” from man’s hand. Heim disagrees with Heidegger’s assessment, stating how the computer (of which Heidegger was not around to see) actually brings the “hand” back into the interplay with words.

But he does state that Heidegger was right on the mark in regards to his fear “that electronic digital text might absorb his own work” (543).

Really love the quote “The word processor is the calculator of the humanist, giving its users the power to manipulate written language in new ways” (543). I recall hearing math teachers groan over the use of calculator. “Even for the most simplest of calculations,” they would say, “students are running to calculators for the answer,” moving the responsibility of thinking from the human to the technology. Are we not doing the same with computers? Sometimes, I think yes.

Toward the conclusion of this section, Heim asked, “What did he [Heidegger] mean when he said the language machine would ‘take language into its management and master the essence of the human being’?” (543). For me, I think again this is not about technology/computers taking over us so much as it’s about what “knowledge” humans place on computers and how this knowledge allows computers to do more and for humans to do less.

Because Heidegger never states clearly whether he’s optimistic or pessimistic about his thoughts, Heim likens him to Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan and Computers
First, we learn of a few similarities between Heidegger and McLuhan:
1- Each man believed their reflections on technology were more important than their personal value judgments on technology.
2- Each man saw intimate connections between information technology and the way the mind works.
3- Each man was fascinated by the role technology played in shaping and defining reality.
4- Each man “considered the most awesome power of technology to reside in its newly achieved intimacy with language” (544).

McLuhan seems to agree with Heidegger “that language technology belongs to us more essentially than does any other tool” (544) because once something touches our language, it touches us completely.

Here, Heim moves from McLuhan to Walter Ong and examines two major shifts in knowledge storage – oral-to-literate and chirographic-to-print – both of which he states coincides with Heidegger’s history of being.

There is a trade off to typifying and standardizing things, however. For everything we bring into us as a gain releases a loss from us, too. And in a technological world, where everything is at our fingertips, we can receive a loss that’s more devastating than any loss we could have: the loss of process of discovery. [I’m not sure if this is Heim’s, Heidegger’s, or McLuhan’s thought; I’m thinking Heidegger’s.]

8 The Essence of VR
The second-half of Heim’s article focuses on virtual reality. In trying to define it, Heim realizes that instead of looking at dictionary definitions and looking at virtual reality for what it is not, it’s better to talk to pioneers of VR and look at the concepts, of which he talks about several: simulation, interaction, interaction, artificiality, immersion, telepresence, full-body immersion, and networked communications, and even discussing these concepts leaves us wondering still, “What is Virtual Reality?”

This moves Heim’s into a discussion on “reality,” in which he talks about how tentative people seem to be to actually discuss reality. Makes me wonder if reality is something we can really define anyway. There are too many examples that show us that some people’s beliefs are their reality, no matter what others think. If reality is something that we can individually create for ourselves, how can we begin to define it?

And Heim, though through looking at the last 2,000 years and how we’ve grappled with this notion, agrees that defining reality isn’t going to happen overnight; therefore, defining virtual reality won’t happen overnight either.

Instead, Heim suggests when we look for the essence of technology, we are thinking about the essence of who we are and tying that to a vision because “behind the development of every major technology lies a vision” (550). And sometimes that vision is vague, but when it’s connected to the essence, it “calls forth the cultural energy needed to propel it forward” (550).

This eventually leads Heim to ask, “Where in VR is a counterpart to the space program’s esoteric essence? What is the essence of VR, its inner spirit, the cultural motor that propels the technology?” (552).

Two lines of thoughts arise: the cyberpunk writings of William Gibson and the Holodeck from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

And then Heim just seems to completely dismiss those looking for a real definition, suggesting that maybe more time spent IN virtual reality will enlighten these questioners.

I like the thoughts of the “Holy Grail” mentioned by Zeltzer and continued by Heim. I think all of this, this pursuit to do bigger, better with technology, this pursuit to understand virtual reality is all a part of some “quest” we have fashioned for ourselves. Can’t help but wonder what we would do if we actually “achieved,” retrieved the Holy Grail. We’ve been propelling at such an accelerated rate for so long, what do we do when we reach the pinnacle of a thing?

He uses Wagner’s “Parsifal” to show how the aspirations of VR (like Wagner wanted his musical dramas to be) are more than just about thrills, but about experience and the insight found within those experiences. It’s about being more than the thing; it’s about the thing becoming a part of the person and affected him/her, changing him/her.

Some advantages that VR can offer seem to be activity/passivity (VR can call forth greater participation with audience), manipulation/receptivity (a move from aggressive, first-person attitudes that traditional VR possessed to a more receptive experience), remote presence (the development of VR in which humans are more than spectators, and “presence includes an openness and sensitivity of the whole body” (554), and augmented reality (VR’s ability to offer a “smoother, more controlled transition from virtual to real and back” (554).