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June 10, 2013

Heidegger on technology, and technodeterminism

I’m leaving tomorrow night for a few days in Germany as a fellow at the University of Stuttgart’s International Center for Research on Culture and Technology. I’ll be giving a two-day workshop with about 35 students, which I am both very excited about and totally at sea about. Except for teaching a course with John Palfrey, who is an awesomely awesome teacher, I haven’t taught since 1986. I was good at the time, but I forget the basics about structuring sessions.

Anyway, enough of that particular anxiety. I’m also giving a public lecture on Thursday at the city library (Stadtbibliothek am Mailänder Platz). It’ll be in English, thank Gott! My topic is “What the Web Uncovers,” which is a purposeful Heidegger reference. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to write this, and finally on Sunday completed a draft. It undoubtedly will change significantly, but here’s what I plan on saying at the beginning:

In 1954, Heidegger published “The Question about Technology” (Die Frage nach der Technik). I re-read it recently, and discovered why people hold Heidegger’s writing in such disdain (aside from the Nazi thing, of course). Wow! But there are some ideas in it that I think are really helpful.

Heidegger says that technology reveals the world to us in particular ways. For example, a dam across a river, which is one of his central examples, reveals the natural world as Bestand, which gets translated into English as “standing reserve” or “resource”: power waiting to be harnessed by humans. His point I think is profound: Technology should be understood not only in terms of what it does, but in terms of what it reveals about the world and what the world means to us. That is in fact the question I want to ask: What does the world that the Web uncovers look like? What does the Web reveal?

This approach holds the promise of letting us talk about technology from beyond the merely technical position. But it also happens to throw itself into an old controversy that has recently re-arisen. It sounds as if Heidegger is presenting a form of technodeterminism — the belief that technology determines our reaction to it, that technology shapes us. Against technodeterminism it is argued quite sensibly that a tool is not even a tool until humans come along and decide to use it for something. So, a screwdriver can be used to drive screws, but it could also be used to bang on a drum or to open and stir a can of paint. So, how could a screw driver have an effect on us, much less shape us, if we’re the ones who are shaping it?

Heidegger doesn’t fall prey to technodeterminism because one of his bedrock ideas is that things don’t have meaning outside of the full context of relationships that constitute the entire world — a world into which we are thrown. So, technology doesn’t determine us, since it takes an entire world to determine technology, us, and everything else. Further, in “Die Frage nach der Technik,” he explains the various historical ways technology has affected us by referring to a mysterious history of Being that gives us that historical context. But I don’t want to talk about that, mainly because insofar as I understand it, I find it deeply flawed. Even so I think we want to be able to talk about the effect of technology, granting that it’s not technology itself taken in isolation, but rather the fact that we do indeed come to technology out of a situation that is historical, cultural, social, and even individual.

So, how does the Web reveal the world? What does the world look like in the Age of the Web? (And that means: what does it look like to us educated Westerners with sufficient leisure time to consider such things, etc.) Here are the subject headings of the talk until I rewrite it as I inevitably do: chaotic, unmasterable, messy, interest-based, unsettling, and turning us to a shared world about which we disagree. This is very unlike the way the world looks in the prior age of technology, the age about which Heidegger was writing. Yet, I find at the heart of the Web-revealed world the stubborn fact that the world is revealed through human care: we are creatures that care about our existence, about others, and about our world. Care (Sorge) is at the heart of early Heidegger’s analysis.

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October 28, 2012

[2b2k] Facts, truths, and meta-knowledge

Last night I gave a talk at the Festival of Science in Genoa (or, as they say in Italy, Genova). I was brought over by Codice Edizioni, the publisher of the just-released Italian version of Too Big to Know (or, as they say in Italy “La Stanza Intelligente” (or as they say in America, “The Smart Room”)). The event was held in the Palazzo Ducale, which ain’t no Elks Club, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is that it’s a beautiful, arched, painted-ceiling room that holds 800 people and one intimidated American.

genova - palazzo ducale


After my brief talk, Serena Danna of Corriere della Serra interviewed me. She’s really good. For example, her first question was: If the facts no longer have the ability to settle arguments the way we hoped they would, then what happens to truth?


Yeah, way to pitch the ol’ softballs, Serena!


I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, which had three parts. (1) There are facts. The world is one way and not all the other ways that it isn’t. You are not free to make up your own facts. [Yes, I’m talking to you, Mitt!] (2) The basing of knowledge primarily on facts is a relatively new phenomenon. (3) I explicitly invoked Heidegger’s concept of truth, with a soupçon of pragmatism’s view of truth as a tool intended to serve a purpose.


Meanwhile, I’ve been watching The Heidegger Circle mailing list contort itself trying to understand Heidegger’s views about the world that existed before humans entered the scene. Was there Being? Were there beings? It seems to me that any answer has to begin by saying, “Of course the world existed before we did.” But not everyone on the list is comfortable with a statement that simple. Some seem to think that acknowledging that most basic fact somehow diminishes Heidegger’s analysis of the relation of Being and disclosure. Yo, Heideggerians! The world shows itself to us as independent of us. We were born into it, and it keeps going after we’ve died. If that’s a problem for your philosophy, then your philosophy is a problem. And for all of the problems with Heidegger’s philosophy, that just isn’t one. (To be fair, no one on the list suggests that the existence of the universe depends upon our awareness of it, although some are puzzled about how to maintain Heidegger’s conception of “world” (which does seem to depend on us) with that which survives our awareness of it. Heidegger, after all, offers phenomenological ontology, so there is a question about what Being looks like when there is no one to show itself to.)


So, I wasn’t very happy with what I said about truth last night. I said that I liked Heidegger’s notion that truth is the world showing itself to us, and it shows itself to us differently depending on our projects. I’ve always liked this idea for a few reasons. First, it’s phenomenologically true: the onion shows itself differently whether you’re intending to cook it, whether you’re trying to grow it as a cash crop, whether you’re trying to make yourself cry, whether you’re trying to find something to throw at a bad actor, etc. Second, because truth is the way the world shows itself, Heidegger’s sense contains the crucial acknowledgement that the world exists independently of us. Third, because this sense of truth look at our projects, it contains the crucial acknowledgement that truth is not independent of our involvement in the world (which Heidegger accurately characterizes not with the neutral term “involvement” but as our caring about what happens to us and to our fellow humans). Fourth, this gives us a way of thinking about truth without the correspondence theory’s schizophrenic metaphysics that tells us that we live inside our heads, and our mental images can either match or fail to match external reality.


But Heidegger’s view of truth doesn’t do the job that we want done when we’re trying to settle disagreements. Heidegger observes (correctly in my and everybody’s opinion) that different fields have different methodologies for revealing the truth of the world. He speaks coldly (it seems to me) of science, and warmly of poetry. I’m much hotter on science. Science provides a methodology for letting the world show itself (= truth) that is reproducible precisely so that we can settle disputes. For settling disputes about what the world is like regardless of our view of it, science has priority, just as the legal system has priority for settling disputes over the law.


This matters a lot not just because of the spectacular good that science does, but because the question of truth only arises because we sense that something is hidden from us. Science does not uncover all truths but it uniquely uncovers truths about which we can agree. It allows the world to speak in a way that compels agreement. In that sense, of all the disciplines and methodologies, science is the closest to giving the earth we all share its own authentic voice. That about which science cannot speak in a compelling fashion across all cultures and starting points is simply not subject to scientific analysis. Here the poets and philosophers can speak and should be heard. (And of course the compulsive force science manifests is far from beyond resistance and doubt.)


But, when we are talking about the fragmenting of belief that the Internet facilitates, and the fact that facts no longer settle arguments across those gaps, then it is especially important that we commit to science as the discipline that allows the earth to speak of itself in its most compelling terms.


Finally, I was happy that last night I did manage to say that science provides a model for trying to stay smart on the Internet because it is highly self-aware about what it knows: it does not simply hold on to true statements, but is aware of the methodology that led us to see those statements as true. This type of meta awareness — not just within the realm of science — is crucial for a medium as open as the Internet.

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December 4, 2011

[2b2k] Truth, knowledge, and not knowing: A response to “The Internet Ruins Everything”

Quentin Hardy has written up on the NYT Bits blog the talk I gave at UC Berkeley’s School of Information a few days ago, refracting it through his intelligence and interests. It’s a terrific post and I appreciate it. [Later that day: Here’s another perspicacious take on the talk, from Marcus Banks.]

I want to amplify the answer I gave to Quentin’s question at the event. And I want to respond to the comments on his post that take me as bemoaning the fate of knowledge in the age of the Net. The post itself captures my enthusiasm about networked knowledge, but the headline of Quentin’s post is “The Internet ruins everything,” which could easily mislead readers. I am overall thrilled about what’s happening to knowledge.

Quentin at the event noted that the picture of networked knowledge I’d painted maps closely to postmodern skepticism about the assumption that there are stable, eternal, knowable truths. So, he asked, did we invent the Net as a tool based on those ideas, or did the Net just happen to instantiate them? I replied that the question is too hard, but that it doesn’t much matter that we can’t answer it. I don’t think I did a very good job explaining either part of my answer. (You can hear the entire talk and questions here. The bit about truth starts at 46:36. Quentin’s question begins at 1:03:19.)

It’s such a hard question because it requires us to disentangle media from ideas in a way that the hypothesis of entanglement itself doesn’t allow. Further, the play of media and ideas occurs on so many levels of thought and society, and across so many forms of interaction and influence, that the results are emergent.

It doesn’t matter, though, because even if we understood how it works, we still couldn’t stand apart from the entanglement of media and ideas to judge those ideas independent of our media-mediated involvement with them. We can’t ever get a standpoint that isn’t situated within that entanglement. (Yes, I acknowledge that the idea that ideas are always situated is itself a situated idea. Nothing I can do about that.)

Nevertheless, I should add that almost everything I’ve written in the past fifteen years is about how our new medium (if that’s what the Net is (and it’s not)) affects our ideas, so I obviously find some merit in looking at the particulars of how media shape ideas, even if I don’t have a general theory of how that chaotic dance works.

I can see why Quentin may believe that I have “abandoned the idea of Truth,” even though I don’t think I have. I talked at the I School about the Net being phenomenologically more true to avoid giving the impression that I think our media evolve toward truth the way we used to think (i.e., before Thomas Kuhn) science does. Something more complex is happening than one approximation of truth replacing a prior, less accurate approximation.

And I have to say that this entire topic makes me antsy. I have an awkward, uncertain, unresolved attitude about the nature of truth. The same as many of us. I claim no special insight into this at all. Nevertheless, here goes…

My sense that truth and knowledge are situated in one’s culture, history, language, and personal history comes from Heidegger. I also take from Heidegger my sense of “phenomenological truth,” which takes truth as being the ways the world shows itself to us, rather than as an inner mental representation that accords with an outer reality. This is core to Heidegger and phenomenology. There are many ways in which we enable the world to show itself to us, including science, religion and art. Those ways have their own forms and rules (as per Wittgenstein). They are genuinely ways of knowing the world, not mere “games.” Nor are the truths these engagements reveal “pictures of reality” (to use Quentin’s phrase). They are — and I’m sorry to get all Heideggerian on you again — ways of being in the world. We live them. They are engaged, embodied truths, not mere representations or cognitions.

So, yes, I am among the many who have abandoned the idea of Truth as an inner representation of an outer reality from which we are so essentially detached that some of the greatest philosophers in the West have had to come up with psychotic theories to explain how we can know our world at all. (Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, you know who I’m talking about.) But I have not abandoned the idea that the world is one way and not another. I have not abandoned the idea that beliefs can seem right but be wrong. I have not abandoned the importance of facts and evidence within many crucial discourses. Nor have I abandoned the idea that it is supremely important to learn how the world is. In fact, I may have said in the talk, and do say (I think) in the book that networked knowledge is becoming more like how scientists have understood knowledge for generations now.

So, for me the choice isn’t between eternal verities that are independent of all lived historial situations and the chaos of no truth at all. We can’t get outside of our situation, but that’s ok because truth and knowledge are only possible within a situation. If the Net’s properties are closer to the truth of our human condition than, say, broadcast’s properties were, that truth of our human condition itself is situated in a particular historical-cultural moment. That does not lift the obligation on us poor humans beings to try to understand, cherish, and engage with our world as truthfully as we possibly can.

But the main thing is, no, I don’t think the Net is ruining everything, and I am (overall) thrilled to see how the Net is transforming knowledge.

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September 11, 2011

With a little twist of Heidegger

I’m giving a talk in Berlin in a week. My hosts want me to talk about the evolution of media, but suggested that I might want to weave some Heidegger in, which is not a request you often get. It’s a brief talk, but what I’ve written talks about four pairs, all based on Shannon’s original drawing of signal moving through a channel. 1. The medium and bits as idealized abstractions. 2. The medium and messages: How McLuhan reacts against information theory’s idea of a medium, and the sense in which on the Internet we are the medium. 3. Medium and communication: Why we think of communication as something that occurs through a medium, rather than as a way in which we share the world. 4. Medium and noise: Why the world appears, in its most brutal facticity, in Shannon’s diagram as noise, and how the richness of the Web (which consists of connections intentionally made) is in fact signal that taken together can be noise. (I know I am not using these terms rigorously.)

At the end, I’ll summarize the four contrasts:

Bits without character vs. A world that always shows itself as something

The medium as a vacuum vs. We are the medium that moves messages because we care about them

Communication as the reproduction of a representation in the listener’s head vs. Turning to a shared world together

World as noise vs. Links as a context of connection

Not by coincidence, each of these is a major Heideggerian theme: Being-as or meaning, care, truth. and world.

And if it’s not obvious, I do not think that Heidegger’s writings on technology have anything much to do with the Internet. He was criticizing the technology of the 1950s that scared him: mainframes and broadcast. He probably would have hated the Net also, but he was a snobby little fascist prick.

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September 3, 2011

[2b2k] Re-reading myselves

When I run into someone who wants to talk with me about something I’ve written in a book, they quite naturally assume that I am more expert about what I’ve written than they are. But it’s almost certainly the case that they’re more familiar with it than I am because they’ve read it far more recently than I have. I, like most writers, don’t sit around re-reading myself. I therefore find myself having to ask the person to remind me of what I’ve said. Really, I said that?

But, over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve re-read myself in three different modes.

I’ve been wrapped up in a Library Innovation Lab project that we submitted to the Digital Public Library of America on Thursday night, with 1.5 hours to spare before the midnight deadline. Our little team worked incredibly hard all summer long, and what we submitted we think is pretty spectacular as a vision, a prototype of innovative features, and in its core, work-horse functionality. (That’s why I’ve done so little blogging this sumer.)

So, the first example of re-reading is editing a bunch of explanatory Web pages — a FAQ, a non-tech explanation of some hardcore tech, a guided tour, etc. — that I wrote for our DPLA project. In this mode, I feel little connection to what I’ve written; I’m trying to edit it purely from the reader’s point of view, as if someone else had written it. Of course, I am oblivious to many of the drafts’ most important shortcomings because I’m reading them through the same glasses I had on when I wrote them. Things make sense to me that would not to readers who have the good fortune not to be me. Nevertheless, it’s just a carpentry job, trying to sand down edges and make the pieces fit. It’s the wood that matters, not whoever the carpenter happened to be.

In the second mode, I re-read something I wrote a long time ago. Someone on the Heidegger mailing list I audit asked for articles on Heidegger’s concept of the “world” in Being and Time and in The Origin of the Artwork. I remembered that I had written something about that a couple of careers ago. So, I did a search and found “Earth, World and the Fourfold” in the 1984 edition of Tulane Studies in Philosophy. (It’s locked up nice and tight so, no, you can’t read it even if you want to. Yeah, this is a completely optimal system of scholarship we’ve built for ourselves. [sarcasm]) I used my privileged access via my university and re-read it. It’s a fully weird experience. I remember so little of the content of the article and am so disassociated from the academic (or more exactly, the pathetic pretender to the same) I was that it was like reading a message from a former self. Actually, it wasn’t like that. It was that exactly.

I actually enjoyed reading the article. For one thing, unsurprisingly, I agreed with its general outlook and approach. It argues that Heidegger’s shifting use of “world,” especially with regard to that which he contrasts it with, expresses his struggle to deal with the danger that phenomenology will turn reality into a mere appearance. How can phenomenology account for that which shows itself to us as being beyond the mere showing? That is, how do we understand and acknowledge the fact that the earth shows itself to us as that which was here before us and will outlast us?

Since this was the topic of my doctoral dissertation and has remained a topic of great interest to me — it runs throughout all my books, including Too Big to Know — it’s not startling that I found Previous Me’s article interesting. And yet, Present Me persistently asked two sorts of distancing questions.

First, granting that the question itself is interesting, why was this guy (Previous Me) so wrapped up in Heidegger’s way of grappling with it? To get to Heidegger’s answers (such as they are) you have to wade through a thicket wrapped in profound scholarship wrapped in arrogantly awful writing. Now, Present Me remembers the personal history that led Previous Me to Heidegger: an identity crisis (as we used to call it) that manifested itself intellectually, that could not be addressed by pre-Heideggerian traditional philosophy (because that tradition of philosophy caused the intellectual conundrum in the first place). But outside of that personal history, why Heidegger? So, the article reads to Present Me as a wrestling match within a bubble invisible to Previous Me.

Second, my internal editor was present throughout: Damn, that was an inelegant phrase! Wait, this paragraph needs a transition! What the hell did that sentence mean? Jeez, this guy sounds pretentious here!

So, reading something of mine from the distant past was a tolerable and even interesting experience because PreviousMe was distant enough.

Third, I am this weekend reading the page proofs of Too Big to Know. At this point in the manufacturing process known as “writing a book,” I am allowed only to make the most minor of edits. If a change causes lines on the page to shift to a new page, there can be consequences expensive to my publisher. So, I’m reading looking for bad commas and “its” instead of “it’s”, all of which should have been (and so far have been) picked up by Christine Arden, the superb copy-editor who went through my book during the previous pass. But, I also am reading it looking for infelicities I can fix — maybe change an “a” to “the” or some such. This requires reading not just for punctuation but also for rhythm and meaning. In other words, I simultaneously have to read the book as if I were a reader, not just an editor. And that is a disconcerting, embarrassing, frustrating process. There are things about the book that pleasantly surprise me — Where did I come up with that excellent example! — but fundamentally I am focused on it critically. Worse, this is PresentMe seeing how PresentMe presents himself to the world. I am in a narcissistic bubble of self-loathing.

Which is too bad since this is the taste being left by what is very likely to be the last time I read Too Big to Know.

(My publisher would probably like me to note that the book is possibly quite good, and the people who have read it so far seem enthusiastic. But, how the hell would I know before you tell me?)

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July 11, 2010

Sunday funnies

In the comments to my post about understanding Heidegger in translation, Seth Young reminds us of this video, which I had in fact seen before but forgotten.

And, oh, what the heck….

3 Comments »

July 10, 2010

[2b2k] Understanding’s web

I’m on a mailing list that discusses the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Many years ago I was a fledgling Heidegger scholar, but now I am on the list strictly as a tourist.

Today someone posted: “If you don’t know German you don’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding Heidegger.” A few people posted immediately in reaction to the “dismissive” tone of the comment. I felt the same way, but then thought, hmm, this is an empirical question, isn’t it? List the people you think understand Heidegger best — or pick some other writer in some other language — and see how many of them don’t read him in his original language. There is something true about the dismissive remark.

But, there is something false as well. It draws too strong a line between understanding and not understanding. I obviously don’t understand Heidegger as well as the full-time scholars on the mailing list do. But, having studied Heidegger for several years of my life (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on him), I’m pretty sure I understand him better than most who haven’t studied him do. If we acknowledge that our understanding improves as we read and study more, we acknowledge that understanding doesn’t fall into only two buckets: understands or doesn’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding.

For the original comment to be empirically true, we’d either have to show that (a) there is a clear line between those who understand and those who do not (and that reading the original language is a requirement for getting into that first bucket). Or, (b) we could say that the commenter is actually talking about having professional standing as a scholar: You cannot claim to be a Heidegger scholar if you can only read him in translation. The first alternative seems to me to be ridiculous. The second seems far more plausible. The problems arise when someone applies the bright perimeter of professionalism to the messy web of understanding.

I certainly do believe that had my German been better — it was barely adequate at the time, and now has devolved into very basic travel glossary stuff — I could have understood Heidegger better. Likewise, better understanding the history of philosophy, knowing early 20th century German politics, reading Greek and Latin, and being conversant in German poetry all would have helped me understand Heidegger better. There is no end to what we need to know in order to understand the thought of another, because there is no such state as Understanding that excludes all doubt, excludes all errors, and excludes all others.

Finally, it’s not at all clear to me that if we list those whose understanding of a thinker we most respect, they will be in rank order based upon how many of the Professional Requirements they’ve mastered. Some of the best Heidegger scholars — and you can pick your own criteria of bestness — may be weak in Greek, weaker in German politics, but very strong in poetry. Others might have other sets of strengths and weaknesses. Not only doesn’t understanding necessarily correspond to the fields mastered, the community of scholars ameliorates the weaknesses of individuals by writing works that others read: A scholar weak on politics reads the work of scholars strong on politics. Understanding in this sense is a networked property, and a very messy one indeed.

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April 22, 2010

Heidegger film’s reception

A mailing list I’m on had a discussion about the movie “Only a God Can Save Us” (amazon) about Martin Heidegger’s Nazism. One of the contributors to the mailing list quoted a length from a personal communication with Jeffrey Van Davis, the creator of the film. I wrote to Jeffrey and asked permission to post the following lightly edited version (removing some of the comments that pertained to the person who posted it to the list), because I thought it might be of interest to others. (I have not seen the film.)

The film premiered in the Aula (auditorium) of Freiburg University on July 23 of this year. The response was phenomenal and I was invited back by popular demand to show the film again in Freiburg on October 21. The Heidegger family came and caused quite an incident. Hermann Heidegger kept yelling out during the film “Lüge, alles Lüge.” (Lies, all lies!”) and “nicht Wahr!” (“not true!”). People began yelling back at him to shut up. During the postfilm panel discussion which included Hugo Ott, Bernd Martin, Rainer Marten, Silke Seemann, Tom Rockmore and myself, Herman Heidegger insisted on coming up to the podium to speak. We said yes and even helped him up the steps to the stage. He is over 90 and recently had a serious cancer operation. He immediately began to attack the Freiburg philosophers and historians on the stage and myself for our lies and deceit. Things almost got out of hand with people from the audience yelling “Nazi” at Heidegger. After the discussion the Heidegger family descended upon me with all their complaints and criticism. I know Hermann Heidegger and spent over six hours with him doing an interview, but he wouldn’t allow it on film. He told me he liked the first part of the film but thinks that I came under the influence of Ott, Marten, and Rockmore too much. He told me that film was too one-sided and that outside of Alfred Denker there were no pro-Heideggerians in the film. I pointed out to him that Iain Thomson was in the film as well as Ted Kisiel. He doesn’t think you are pro enough Heidegger, I guess. … An interview of Hermann Heidegger which is in the Heidegger archive in Messkirch, I was not allowed to use. I do have a copy of it, however.

Frankly I could write a book about the city of Freiburg and how it has tried to deal with the Heidegger scandal, the whole Nazi past. There are powerful Freiburg families some affiliated with the university who have swept a lot under the rug in part because many members of these families were enthusiastic Nazis themselves. There were so many records and documents destroyed or stolen from the university archives, libraries, etc. Hugo Ott told me that many times files would be missing in the archive, yet he knew which families had taken them and he was able to get some of his information through these kinds of unofficial back channels. Anger, resentment, guilt and shame are alive and well among many in Freiburg. 60 plus years after the end of World War II, my film presentation and post film discussion at Freiburg University showed only too clearly how just below the surface these emotions are still boiling. I was surprised to see the vindictive, angry and sometimes out of control verbal attacks between the different camps in an audience of over 400 people. One man got so angry he left the Aula screaming and the audience applauded his exit. I have attended many academic conferences, film showings, etc and never experienced what I did in Freiburg. The response was so great that I was invited back to show the film again to an even larger audience on Oct. 21. Hermann brought more friends and allies and the discussion was just as lively as the first. Sorry, I begin to ramble. I have so many stories and anecdotes to tell from the many years I spent making my film. I interviewed over 25 people, each interview 2 to 3 hours long. I am now in discussion with a publisher about writing a book which would include all the interviews unedited with hundreds of photographs.

… I was an enthusiastic Heideggerian as a young man, but I have to tell you that based upon the interviews I have in my film and the research that I have done, I find it difficult to see Heidegger in a positive light. I know that you and many other excellent scholars have found Emmanuel Faye’s book to be shoddy, terrible, and down right bad scholarship…. I have recently finished reading it and I find it quite disturbing. Faye is also in my film and although one may find my film one-sided, no one can deny that the film is a good jumping off place to intense discussion of Heidegger and his thought.

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May 31, 2009

Utopianism: Threat or danger?

Shannon Bain has posted a long, thoughtful probing of Everything Is Miscellaneous and my defense of cyber-utopianism. It’s philosophical, serious, and generally right in its criticisms. He writes about my ideas in their philosophical context, as few have. I am very grateful for (and flattered by) this extended piece of clear-headed, morally-centered thinking.

His most telling criticism is (imo, anyway) that although he and I agree the Web is revolutionary, I assume the revolution will be for the good. Shannon worries that Cass Sunstein is right, and the Web’s openness and linkiness is really leading us to harden our positions, rather than opening up us to more diversity of thought.

My position has changed over the years on this, in part because I’ve had to the opportunity to hang out with folks at the Berkman Center. So, I now accept that the danger Sunstein points to is real. But, my reaction to this “echo chamber” argument is complex and confusing. I think (a) there are enormous challenges to evaluating the extent to which the Web is closing off thought; (b) the Web is probably leading us to be both more closed and more open simultaneously; (c) there is something wrong with the formulation itself; (d) the question probably mythologizes the degree of our openness in the pre-Web world. So, ultimately my position is: I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter too much because even if Sunstein is totally wrong (which he’s not), we’re still not doing enough to increase our interests and enlarge our sympathies. The Web won’t have this beneficial effect on us by itself; we must be ever vigilant and purposeful.

Shannon usefully connects this to my out-of-the-closet Heideggerianism. He wonders if I think cocooning (or, echo-chambering, if you prefer) “isn’t all bad”:

Maybe these cocoons of confirmation – these little webs of shared connotations and self-reinforced absolutist understandings, which I claim are negative aspects of a naturally biased humanity – are really what Heidegger’s beleaguered teacher Edmund Husserl called “lifeworlds:” the necessary and inescapable social, cultural and historical contexts within and through which we experience the world. Maybe so, but the problem is, these life worlds are hermetically sealed wholes of historical and cultural prejudice, incommensurable and unassailable. As Heidegger’s most influential student Hans-Georg Gadamer formulated it, prejudice – the historical, social and cultural “situatedness” we’re born into – is essential to Being-in-the-world. Outside of your lifeworld, your cocoon of prejudice, you simply aren’t… in the big metaphysical sense. Thus primordial prejudice – our cocoon of reinforcing ideas ever ready to disregard inconvenient or inconsistent “facts” – is the foundation of meaning in this Heideggerian sense.

Shannon’s right to see a connection, but I disagree with the conclusion he draws. I do strongly believe that we are inescapably thrown into a culture, language and history, and these determine much of who we are and how we thinkg. But, I don’t think that echo chambers are ok because of that. We cannot fully escape our context, but being a small-minded bigot who assumes that your beliefs and values are right simply because you believe them is not virtuous, wise, good, or acceptable.

This is, indeed, one of the reasons I think the “echo chambers” argument is mis-founded. The sharing of ideas, language, and values is essential to who we are. Without it, there is no culture and no conversation. But we are almost always in a complex dialectic of agreement and disagreement, identity and difference: We can only argue about something because we agree about so much already. So, in most arenas of life, we do better (as people, as a society) if we try to get past our own assumptions and sympathetically try to understand how the world matters to others. (FWIW, that’s what I found appealing about the academic study of philosophy. I saw it as a way to pry up the floor I was standing on, to see how many of the ideas I take for granted in fact have long, complex histories, and thus are not as “natural” and “self-evident” as I’d thought.)

(Also FWIW, I do think there are lots of areas in which asserting one’s agreement or identity has positive value, because it forms social and political bonds. But if that’s all you do, then you’re a small-minded nebbish.)

Shannon then tries to hang some anti-scientific beliefs on me, which I’m surprised he thinks I might hold. I don’t think science is just a Western superstition. Or whatever. But — and I’m sure Shannon agrees — I also don’t think science is the only way of thinking. It works at what it does. It doesn’t work at what it doesn’t work at. But, I love science. Sign me up for my flu shots!

Now, that doesn’t mean that every question can be settled, by facts, science, or by superstition for that matter. For example, in the piece Shannon refers to, I try to argue that the dispute among cyber-utopians, cyber-dystopians, and realists won’t be settled by facts because we are engaged in a political struggle, and the unknowable outcome of that struggle will give us the lens through we we look back and say “Hurray for the utopians!” or “Damn those utopians!” or whatever.

That criticism is toward the end of the piece, where Shannon then proceeds to argue against what I think is a strawman:

So, back to Weinberger’s utopianism. Remember that utopianism is the idea that the web is essentially good or for the best. Specifically that its native capacity to allow users to add metadata to content and make subtle, personal connections and relations is fundamentally and wholly positive.

Let’s drop the “wholly” from that last sentence. I never thought that the Web is wholly positive and I doubt I ever said it. (I am, however, quite capable of overstatement, so maybe I did. I am a writer with political interests, not a philosopher.) Shannon and I are closer than he thinks. He gives two alternatives to validate my utopianism. Either (says Shannon) I’m saying that we “Ignore the unfortunate facts about humans’ tendency to avoid disconfirmation…” or that we “embrace these tendencies as a prerequisite of authentic, human meaning.” I agree with Shannon that neither of these are acceptable. In order:

(1) I acknowledge our tendency to prefer the comfortable and closed. I acknowledge that the Web won’t magically overcome that. Rather, it is an unprecedented opportunity to work on overcoming it. Constant vigilance. And I think that may be a change in my thinking over the past decade. As I’ve said, I think the echo-chamber alarmists sometimes fail to acknowledge what sharing assumptions and values enables for us humans. But, my utopianism is not based on Shannon’s first alternative.

(2) I know ten years ago I thought “authenticity” was a good idea. But for the majority of the years since then, I’ve thought it’s a pretty bad idea. It does capture something that we want to be able to talk about — a country-western singer who grew up rich but pretends to be hardscrabble — but the metaphysics of authenticity is all screwed up…and within Heidegger it’s an unfortunately throwback to the essentialism he hated. (It did give philosophically-minded Germans a rationale for dying for their fatherland, however. Fucking Nazi.) I do think it’s good to acknowledge the inescapable effects of our birth, language, culture, history, family, etc. But acknowledging that doesn’t mean you can just settle into your prejudices. The reality is that we share our world with lots of people. They care about their lives and their world. If you reject that realization, you’re schizophrenic or evil. It’s our responsibility to always try to expand our circle of sympathy, to understand and care about how the world matters to others.

So, in what sense do I call myself a cyber-utopian? Applying that admittedly ridiculous term to myself is a political act. As I tried to say in the piece Shannon is commenting on, there are political consequences to these labels. I am a utopian because (in my view) it is useful to The Struggle to be one. Utopians remind us that the opportunity in front of us is epochal, and keep us from settling for too little imagination and hope. But the good the Web can do will not happen automatically, as we sit passively on our couches and let the Web work its magic on us. It will only manifest itself if we work tirelessly. My utopianism, as I understand it, is a denial of the sort of technological determinism that Shannon criticizes me for.

But, when you come down to it, I am indeed optimistic about the change we’re going through. It’s not inevitably or purely good, of course. And Shannon is completely right that I do tend to overstate the positive and understate the negatives. I tell myself that I do that for political reasons — there are enough fear mongers, and if they get their way, the Web gets restricted in ways I don’t want — but it means that I’m often writing a form of polemics. We are living through a “transvaluation of values,” and at this stage I feel a need to push on the door that’s opening. That undoubtedly means I need to acknowledge the risks and dangers more than I do, but I still want us to push on that door until it’s all the way open.

Thanks, Shannon, for your post. Truly. [Tags: ]

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