Dreyfus (Internet) – Howard Rheingold

It should thus be clear that tools are not neutral, and that using the Net diminishes one’s involvement in the physical and social world. This, in turn, diminishes one’s sense of reality and of the meaning in one’s life. Indeed, it seems that, the more we use the Net, the more it will tend to draw us into the unreal, lonely, and meaningless world of those who want to flee all the ills that flesh is heir to.

If, however, one is already committed to a cause, the World Wide Web can increase one’s power to act, both by providing relevant information, and by putting committed people in touch with other people who share their cause and who are ready to risk their time and money, and perhaps even their lives, in pursuing their shared end. The landmine treaty, for example, was hammered out and promoted largely thanks to the fact that the Web is international and has no gatekeepers.

But, the risk posed by the ambiguous similarity of social cyberspaces to communities in the embodied social world comes out clearly in the second edition of Howard Rheingold’s influential book, The Virtual Community. In his new chapter, ‘Rethinking Communities’, Rheingold responsibly discusses a tangle of issues surrounding the advantages and disadvantages of many—one interactions in cyberspace. Unfortunately, his analysis is marred by his failure to distinguish the various forms such Internet communities can take.

To begin with, Rheingold defends his conviction that cyber-communities could improve democracy. ‘The most serious critique of this book’, he says, ‘is the challenge to my claim that many-one-discussions could contribute to the health of democracy by making possible better communications among citizens.’ He then goes on to develop the claim made in the first edition that the Net ‘might help revitalize the public sphere’, indeed, that ‘the vision of a citizen-designed, citizen-controlled worldwide communications Network is a version of technological utopianism that could be called the vision of “the electronic agora’’ ’. ‘In the original democracy, Athens’, he explains, ‘the agora was the marketplace, and more – it was where citizens met to talk, gossip, argue, size each other up, find the weak spots in political ideas by debating about them.’

But the vision of a worldwide electronic agora precisely misses the Kierkegaardian point that the people talking to each other in the Athenian agora were members of a direct democracy who were directly affected by the issues they were discussing, and, most importantly, the point of the discussion was for them to take the responsibility and risk of voting publicly on the questions they were debating. For Kierkegaard, a worldwide electronic agora is an oxymoron. The Athenian agora is precisely the opposite of the public sphere, where anonymous electronic kibitzers from all over the world, who risk nothing, come together to announce and defend their opinions. As an extension to the deracinated public sphere, the electronic agora is a grave danger to real political community. Kierkegaard enables us to see that the problem is not that Rheingold’s ‘electronic agora’ is too utopian; it is not an agora at all, but a nowhere place for anonymous nowhere people. As such, it is dangerously distopian.

The discussion is blurred by the fact that Rheingold does not distinguish the negative influence of the contribution of the Net to the public sphere from two positive ways in which the Net allows people to leap out of the prison of endless reflection: the aesthetic possibilities of virtual commitments, on the one hand, and the ethical actuality of committed action, on the other.

Virtual communities constitute an interesting leap into the aesthetic sphere of existence. Such communities are in a certain way the antithesis of the public sphere since passionate commitments are encouraged, not frowned upon, and the issues debated are of crucial concern to the virtual community. Kierkegaard agrees that people in the aesthetic sphere of existence are involved in each other’s emotional lives. But what is essential to him is that, although the aesthetic person lives in a world of intense feeling and lively communication, all the drama is like a game in that it has no real-world consequences and there is no real-world risk. Individuals can enter or leave a virtual community much more easily than they can move out of a town they dislike. As we saw, Kierkegaard says that the aesthetic sphere turns existence into a play.

Rheingold frankly faces the danger ‘that virtual communities might be bogus substitutes for true civic engagement’. And he acknowledges that:

most of what needs to be done has to be done face to face, person to person – civic engagement means dealing with your neighbors in the world where your body lives. . . . Discourse among informed citizens can be improved, revived, restored to some degree of influence – but only if a sufficient number of people learn how to use communication tools properly, and apply them to real-world political problem-solving.

One could conclude, and Rheingold might well agree, that, as a game, involvement in virtual communities is not a threat to political engagement in one’s actual community. But it becomes harmful if, as is often the case, its risk-free nature makes it more attractive than the dangerous real world, and so drains off the time and energy that citizens could have given to actual community concerns.

So, in his new chapter, Rheingold’s emphasis shifts to the role the Internet can play in bringing together people with concrete problems and enabling them to act more effectively. Thus, he proposed ‘experimenting with different tools for civic involvement’. But his defence of such Internet interest groups is presented as a defence of the public sphere, so that the important distinction between detached and anonymous talk and involved responsible action is lost. Rheingold’s impressive list of Internet groups that foster concrete commitments — such as a group called Cap-Advantage that provides ‘Tools for Online Grassroots Advocacy and Mobilization’ – also includes free-floating public sphere groups like Freedom Forum, which he describes as ‘a nonpartisan international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people’.

If in reading Rheingold’s book one bears in mind Kierkegaard’s threefold distinction between the public sphere with its reflective detachment from local issues, the aesthetic sphere with its risk-free simulation of the serious concerns of the real world, and the ethical sphere with its local political commitments, one can then be grateful to Rheingold for laying out the impressive spectrum of what the Net can provide. But one needs to bear in mind, besides the above Kierkegaardian categories, Kierkegaard’s account of the religious sphere of unconditional commitment, before attempting to pose, let alone resolve, the serious social issues the Net raises.

In sum, as long as we continue to affirm our bodies, the Net can be useful to us in spite of its tendency to offer the worst of a series of asymmetric trade-offs: economy over efficiency in education, the virtual over the real in our relation to things and people, and anonymity over commitment in our lives. But, in using it, we have to remember that our culture has already fallen twice for the Platonic/Christian temptation to try to get rid of our vulnerable bodies, and has ended in nihilism. This time around, we must resist this temptation and affirm our bodies, not in spite of their finitude and vulnerability, but because, without our bodies, as Nietzsche saw, we would be literally nothing. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say: T want to speak to the despisers of the body. I would not have them learn and teach differently, but merely say farewell to their own bodies – and thus become silent.’