A notion on the role of philosophy in a world of technology

Internet as practice

Can’t we all recall at least one example of an online discussion gone haywire? Of people chewing one another out, or publicly shaming each other? Certainly. We have also heard the stories of people losing their jobs over online abuse, or even worse; teenagers that commit suicide over online violence that has befallen them. Perhaps each of us have dropped the ball on occasion, posting comments which we’d never dare utter in a face to face argument.

And here we come to the crux of the matter, for the internet does not appear to be a real life practice. In any case, I cannot think of a single practice similar to the internet; it seems to have become a free for all, a space in which one can behave according to whim without repercussion. How is it possible that the internet—and more so, social media—affects us in ways that leave us to abandon all the implicit and explicit rules that we practice in quotidian reality?

In my opinion, it is because the internet objectifies human existence, and on account of physical absence; whereas physicality is present in all other practices of life. Internet is a new practice which lacks this embodiment, leading to the objectification of the subject. This is further reinforced by arcane algorithms which are designed to provide targeted advertising and promote consumerist behaviour. The thought that the internet could function as a technical mediator1 for human connection is utopian, and could have drastic effects if we don’t pay careful attention.

Internet is a practice in which physical interaction and the context of human activity are absent. On top of that, it is a practice without definite margins; for where does it start, and where does it end? Online activity can have moral consequences in reality. On the other hand, the internet does not take root in reality, developing its own worlds and realities that are separated from real life—just think of the innumerable catfishes that roam the online domain.

How do internal feedback mechanisms function between central objects, goals, intentions, experiences, institutes, and activities of human relations, when they are mediated by technical apparatuses such as social media? Within this ephemeral realm, what still counts as an action? To what extent does one take responsibility for their actions? And how to formulate this notion of responsibility? Because on the one hand, we have designed the internet and make active use of it. But on the other hand, we lack insight in the underlying structures that determine the ways in which we get to experience the internet.

In my view, the greatest danger lies in the efficiently targeted algorithms and the meanings we attribute to them. 3 There is a real risk that we begin to objectify ourselves as humans. What, then, remains of the subjective experience? If human behaviour is dictated by the practices one engages in and is an inherent part of, it is high time to unveil and investigate the algorithmic structures that dominate online practices!

Addendum philosophy

I want to conclude this short reflection with a notion concerning the role of philosophy as a discipline in researching the practice of the internet. In my first ever class of my first year studying philosophy, I was informed that I shouldn’t have chosen philosophy if I wanted to have a career. Neither was academic philosophy described as a discipline that concerns itself with the meaning of life- but rather as a discipline concerning research on scientific methodology. But why? 

Why are we still focused on objectivity while, with the arrival of the internet, I believe that the question of what it means to be human and to take part in a society has become ever more urgent. And I am convinced that philosophy should play a dazzling leading role in this quest. The inquiry into what it means to be an inherent part of a practice should not be approached from the perspective of the objective sciences, in which information is obtained through observation and knowledge concerning primary relations. In that case, we will not move beyond a representation of what the situation is, and what it should be; yet another new theory on human vs machine, or a new ideal.

Questions concerning human practices and human activities without doubt fall under the philosophical domain. If we wish to ensure healthy interactions with new practices such as the internet—and more broadly, technology in general—in which the definitions of words such as responsibility, freedom and autonomy are in constant flux, I believe that philosophy should take on the role of inquisitor, rather than taking the world for face value – notice the career opportunities- . This to me seems an essential topic to expand upon in the run up to this blog during the meetup Technology & Human beings.