the internet:// a philosophical inquiry
Author: Gordon Graham
Publisher: London and New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: November 2000
In his original and important Internet study, the internet:// a philosophical inquiry, Gordon Graham, a Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, sheds light on the complexities of our technological future, although not without raising controversy. Graham assesses the implications of the Internet, mainly from the moral and social perspectives, by posing to his readers the questions that no one can afford to ignore: How does the Internet affect our concepts of identity, moral anarchy, censorship, community, democracy, virtual reality, and imagination? He also surveys many crucial issues such as the novelty of the Internet, the possibility of new political forms and new self-forming communities, the privacy of the individual versus powerful and intrusive government, and the emergence of virtual reality.
The critique of technology has a long-standing history in the philosophy of technology, which aims at understanding the place of technology within human culture as a whole, as well as its relation to knowledge, political decision-making, and the achievement of human goals. Consequently, philosophers' interest in Internet technology has produced a growing body of literature. Broadly speaking, this literature reflects two main attitudes towards this technology: that of technophiles and that of Neo-Luddites, or, in other words, the pros and cons. A third stance -- that of the technorealists -- may also be found together with the other two.
In his book, Graham maps the battlefield of controversy, stating the presumptions on which each of the two main attitudes is founded. While trying to avoid what he perceives to be the the futility of Luddism and at the same time escape the ideology of the technophiles (14), i.e. by ostensibly representing the reasoned middle course of the realist, he concludes with a pessimistic vision that resembles, more than anything else, that of the Luddites.
With regard to the novelty of the Internet, Graham argues, relying on Marx, that this technology is truly transformative as it better serves recurrent needs (qualitatively as well as quantitatively) and has a major impact on the form of social and political life . The first of these qualities -- the greater ability to serve needs -- is in effect an increase in power which entails an increase in choice. The interactive character of the Internet, unlike that of television, presents ordinary citizens with the possibility of exercising an unprecedented influence on the social and political events that determine their circumstances and prospects. By dramatically extending their control over these public or communal aspects of their lives, it gives them a greater degree of personal autonomy than ever before. The second -- the major impact on the form of social and political life -- concerns subverting national boundaries and a degree of internationalism which is without precedent in the three-century-old history of nationalism. The pervasive force of the state in social life is about to change dramatically, Graham argues, and activities of individuals and groups both indifferent to and subversive against the nation state will dominate social life.
After stating the novelty of the Internet, Graham proceeds to the main part of his book, in which he assesses the value of this technology. With respect to the possibility of new political forms, Graham deals with two of the problems faced by the democratic ideal. The first is the gap between the ideal of popular democracy and the representative system. Nowadays, many individuals and groups can easily avail themselves of the technology of the Internet and present themselves and their message to the world. By so doing they help fill the democratic deficit, or, in other words, bridge the gap between representative and direct democracy (69-70). Nevertheless, as the quantity of information and material presented grows, the amount of attention that any single site can be expected to attract will decrease and hence the value of the medium will diminish. Therefore "the deficiencies of democracy as a way of transferring power to the people may be mitigated to a marked degree by the technology of the Internet, but they will not be eliminated altogether" (80). The second is the indifference of universal suffrage to the rationality of the voter. It might be supposed that the extension of the Internet addresses this problem as more information about political issues becomes more available, so we may expect a better informed and rational public. Graham observes that "there is no reason to expect the Internet to act as a check upon irrational political opinion and behavior in a democracy. On the contrary, irrationality may be reinforced" (81).
While his argument regarding the gap between the ideal of popular democracy and the representative system and the mitigation presented by the Internet sounds plausible -- though he does not consider the multiple complexities of mass popular democracy -- his second argument, regarding the reinforcement of irrationality by the Internet, cannot stand. Nobody has ever demonstrated that the Internet increases irrationality or that it favors surfers who, according to Graham, like to wander into realms which do not challenge or conflict with their interests and opinions, i.e., those "who like their existing interests to be satisfied and their current opinions to be confirmed" (81).
It may be that what underlies Graham's argument about the nature of the Internet and its surfers is the possible associative nature of moving from one text to another via hyperlinks. Such a manner of moving could imply a certain mode of thinking, i.e. more chaotic. Even if this is the case, it should be said that within "rational thinking," which Graham favors, there is an important role for intuition, associative leaps, and chaotic moves. Rationality is not only logical and linear. It binds both linear and lateral modes of thinking. What Graham excludes from rationality is actually included in it. Most importantly, empirical research is needed in order to find out how surfers think. No generalizations can be made before this.
The implication of the foregoing irrationality is, according to Graham, moral fragmentation that will lead to anarchy (99). He first brings two definitions of anarchy: a positive one (absence of government, or freedom from the coercive power of the state) and a negative one (absence of government, or lawlessness) (85). He then points out two important features of the Internet: its internationalism (i.e., the use and exploration of the Internet are wholly indifferent to international boundaries, and thus unregulated by the state) and its populism (i.e., access to it is unconstrained and no credentials are required for exploring it or for contributing to it, thus keeping it out of the reach of any system of censorship) (87). He rightly concludes that the conflict between the positive and negative conceptions of anarchy is deep. While they "both acknowledge the ability of the Internet to extend the knowledge and freedom of individuals beyond social and political control, the first regards such knowledge and freedom as a source of good, the second regards them as a source of harm and possibly evil" (88).
Again, after heralding the realist's voice, Graham turns to assessment. As stated above, he is mostly concerned with moral issues. His rhetoric is simple and obvious. What he fears most is moral anarchy that, according to him, is the immediate consequence of the type of interactions that occur on the Internet, interactions between surfers and "a vast unstructured web of material which both expresses and provokes an enormous variety of tastes and interests." This sort of surfing "gives a scope to mere congruence rather than coordination" (99). "The logical terminus of such a form of interaction is moral fragmentation rather than moral community" (ibid.). Of course, if anyone doubted it, "such fragmentation is anarchic in the bad sense, since it is a means for the release and confluence of untutored desires of any and every kind" (100).
According to Graham, then, we are all doomed!
Once more, nobody has ever proven that interactions between surfers and an "unstructured web of material" are bad. Linear, ordered thinking or experiencing, as favored by Graham, are not, as the constructivist concept of learning has shown, the only possible "good" way of thinking, learning, or experiencing. Associative thinking and unstructured (virtual) chaotic wandering can be fruitful and meaningful. Graham's deduction from the manner of surfing and type of interactions to moral statement is therefore not well-founded.
Regarding child pornography and other material designated as "the trivial, the bizarre and the ludicrous," the Internet as a whole is, according to Graham, a huge trap of lures, "a medium in which everything that would challenge, check and correct can be side-stepped and everything that would reinforce can be sought and returned again and again" (99).
It seems to me that Graham's expectations are exaggerated. Both real life and Internet experiences produce all sorts of sensations, feelings, delusions, emotions, hazards, fantasies, information, and much more. Anyone who seeks to fulfill his carnal desires is able to do so regardless of which 'space' he or she is in, be it with RL sex magazines or on www.sex.com. True, the Internet does make everything a mouse-click away, i.e. renders all sorts of information more accessible, but it is not the medium as such which Graham should blame, but the people who post such material on it. Solutions should be sought through educating children!
To summarize this part of the book, Graham sees the Internet as an instrument of moral anarchy. He fears mostly the worthlessness that is primarily related to the question of what sort of people we are becoming (127), echoing Neil Postman's position in his well-known Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Graham's discussion of the new communities in the Internet is far from satisfactory. He first defines "enclave" (a set of people forming an interest group in both senses, the objective -- members are beneficially or adversely affected by the same things -- and the subjective -- members happen to be interested in the same things) and "community" (enclave with defining authority) (133-134). He then sets the stage for the liberalism/communitarianism debate (in which he sides with the latter). He continues by assuming that it is indeed the case that in order to deploy a stable set of values against which preferences may be formed and choices made, an individual must be radically situated in some form of constituting community. He further claims that the mere confluence of interests, subjective and objective, is insufficient for this purpose. Finally, he concludes that Internet groups can meet the three conditions required for the existence of a proper community, but questions the quality of the interactions among them.
He notes the inarticulate forms (e.g., looks, gestures) which make up a large part of human communication. According to Graham, e-mail and similar devices strip us of these. The communicative power of a tone of voice and inflection lies in their ability to give the same words different meanings. Pure minds (as Graham conceives virtual communities' members) are impoverished persons (145). He then concludes with the very pessimistic view that "electronic communication, which consists in linguistic exchanges between disembodied intelligences, is a seriously limited form of communication between persons" (ibid.). It may, "make relationships possible and facilitate the confluence of shared interest," but it does so, according to Graham, in a restricted form. The restriction means that an Internet community of thought and interest, even if it satisfies the three foregoing criteria, is a second-rate form of community (ibid.).
It is telling to note that Graham's discussion ignores a growing body of literature (Howard Rheingold, Sherry Turkle, Nancy Baym, Brenda Danet, and many more) that surveys virtual communities and their use of highly complex ways of exchanging gestures, feelings, and emotions. Digital writing can be strikingly playful, emotional, sensual; the variety of typographic symbols used to express solidarity, warmth, loneliness, fear etc. is extremely wide, not limited . Human reactions in RL such as gestures, looks, and physical contact are only one possible way of communicating. One could recall Norbert Elias' description of the historical shift of Western societies from the Middle Ages' physical contact as a way of communication to the complex ways of communication and coordination of modern communities.
It is therefore difficult to accept Graham's assertion that virtual communities are relatively poor substitutes for real ones. They are different, but they are not poor. Another possible approach to a critique of Graham is that he looks at the Internet in its temporal stage. Concluding remarks at this stage are about to become obsolete. In the future, we will all be able to see, hear, and feel our community members, thus regaining the possibility of being seen and making gestures.
Graham summarizes his book in a succinct, pessimistic, "Conclusion." The Internet, according to him, "will strengthen the downsize of democracy which has a tendency to favour consumer politics over rational decision-making." It will also, in all probability, "strengthen . . . the atomizing character of individualism because it encourages moral fragmentation and neither externalist attempts to police it nor the internal formation of virtual communities is likely to counter such a tendency effectively" (168).
Nevertheless, he visions new benefits, interests, and possibilities that the Internet will continue to bring like the telephone and motor car did, before. In this sense, he predicts only very minor alterations in people's mode of existence, as they all will still have to cope with illness and poverty and also will "continue to read, study and value Plato, the Psalmists, Augustine, Shakespeare, Omar Kayyam, Donne, Tolstoy and countless others" (169).
To conclude, most of us will definitely agree with Graham that technology comes into existence and develops in the context of human nature and human condition, but one should look clearly ahead and see if these human nature and human condition have changed. It seems that Graham ignores the broader context of post-modernity including the implications of the information communication technologies (ICTs) revolutions on education, recreation, and legislation (to name only a few . . .), the successful attacks on the literary canon and on all cultural distinctions, the new ways of forming communities, and many more. His book is worth reading even though.
1. Page 37. For an opposing position, see Kevin Robins and Frank Webster, Times of the Technoculture: From the Information Society to the Virtual Life (Routledge, 1999).
2. See, for example, Brenda Danet, Lucia Ruedenberg-Wright, & Yehudit Rosenbaum-Tamari, firstname.lastname@example.org>
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