Review of On the Internet, by Hubert Dreyfus

by Alphaville Herald on 26/10/03 at 6:03 pm

Forthcoming in Teaching Philosophy

Peter Ludlow (aka Urizenus)

The first time I saw a talk by Jacques Derrida, he was expounding on a claim (which he attributed to Heidegger) that the sign of a great thinker is that he has but one thought. I think his point was that leading intellectual figures can take one key idea and use it as a fixed point in rethinking almost everything that we take for granted. Consider Freud on the role of sexual repression in our mental life, or Marx on class struggle. Hubert Dreyfus has his own fixed point — actually two: the importance of our being embodied agents (his Merleau-Pontian fixed point), and the importance of commitment and risk (his Kierkegaardian fixed point). In this book he uses those two fixed points as a lens for investigating the Internet.

Of course the problem with having “one thought” or even two is that it is easy to overlook the subtleties in a particular domain of human experience, and even worse, one can be flat out mistaken if the fixed points are poorly chosen. Like Procrustes, who said his bed would accommodate everyone, and then proceeded to stretch or amputate his guests so that they would fit, the fixed points can be more distorting than illuminating.

This tends to be the problem with Dreyfus’s On the Internet. It is serviceable enough as an introduction to Dreyfus’s ideas about embodiment and commitment, but as an introduction to anything about the Internet it is surprisingly narrow, often misleading, and at times simply mistaken. The intellectual foils tend to be laughably silly straw persons, and the discussion of the technology itself ranges from simplistic to being grossly in error.

Let me start with the issue of narrowness. There is no reason why Dreyfus should have to speak to all the topics related to the Internet, but persons thinking about adopting the book for a class should know that the coverage is much more narrow than the title (On the Internet) might suggest. For example, there is no discussion of government censorship of the Internet, nor of privacy issues that have arisen, nor of encryption and related technologies, nor of intellectual property rights, nor of the emergence of online governance structures and laws, nor of virtual economies, nor of the attempts of traditional states to tax and govern the internet. Likewise there is nothing on the world of online gaming, or file sharing (ala Napster), or blogging, webrings, electronic bulletin boards, and no more than a page on Usenet Newsgroups or common-interest chat groups. Familiar and pressing issues like controlling spam receive a cursory two page discussion and there is only a five page discussion of virtual communities (all of it limited to a discussion of Howard Rheingold’s book, Virtual Communities).

So what is covered in the four chapters of this book? Chapter 1 discusses the organization of information via hyperlinks, chapter 2 treats the topic of distance learning, chapter 3 takes up the issue of telepresence, and chapter 4 offers a Kierkegaardian critique of the Internet, maintaining that anonymity begets lack of commitment. I’ll take up these topics in order.

Chapter 1: The Hype about Hyperlinks

This is perhaps the most flawed chapter in the book. The point that Dreyfus wants to make is that the organization of data via hyperlinks is inferior to traditional models of organizing information because (i) traditional ways of organizing information reflect the interests of embodied persons (while hyperlinks do not) and (ii) traditional ways of organizing data induce a kind of commitment on the part of the user.

When information is organized in such a hierarchical database, the user can follow out the meaningful links, but the user is forced to commit to a certain class of information before he can view more specific data that falls under that class. (10)

For example, the idea is that before you do research on Neanderthals, you first have to commit to the categories of biology, then primate anthropology, etc. (Whether this is in fact the case when using traditional ways of organizing data seems unlikely, but let us assume it for the moment.)

Taking up these concerns in order, first, it seems quite doubtful that the ways of organizing data on the internet are any less sensitive to the interests of embodied agents than the ways of organizing data familiar from Aristotle or from the Library of Congress Catalogue system. While those older systems were in fact developed by embodied agents, they weren’t necessarily agents with our interests (or even our bodies). More significantly, the hyperlinks one finds on the internet are not made by disembodied agents or artificial intelligence ‘bots, but by living breathing embodied human beings.

No evidence is presented for the claim that the internet is exclusively organized by hyperlinks, nor is there even any evidence that it is even principally organized in that fashion. Hyperlinks exist, to be sure, but often they lead us to locations on the Internet that are hierarchically organized. Indeed, major internet sites like Yahoo! are successful precisely because they are able to organize information in a way that is perspicuous to human agents.

This leads to another issue. It is just false to suggest, as Dreyfus does, that sites on the internet are massively interconnected or that “the whole of the Web lies only a few links away from any page.”(10)

When information is organized by hyperlinks, however, as it is on the Web, instead of the relation between a class and its members, the organizing principle is simply the interconnectedness of all elements. There are no hierarchies; everything is linked to everything else on a single level. Thus, hyperlinks allow the user to move directly from one data entry to any other, as long as they are related in at least some tenuous fashion. The whole of the Web lies only a few links away from any page. With a hyperlinked database, the user is encouraged to traverse a vast network of information, all of which is equally accessible and none of which is privileged.


The fact of the matter is that the World Wide Web is what information theorists call a Scale Free Network (Cohen 2002, Barabᳩ 2002, Mendes and Dorogovstev 2003). Sites on the web are not equally interconnected but special nodes emerge that serve as hubs. In this respect the organizing principle is more like the organization of airline routes than a random system of links. These hubs arguably emerge precisely because they provide ways of organizing information that is useful (like Yahoo!). There are also, of course, smaller hubs serving small networks of interest. So for example, a few clicks away from many philosophy pages one can find David Chalmer’s beautifully organized page of online papers in the philosophy of mind. The links to this site are not random, but have been made by real live philosophers who find the site helpful in their work.

This feature of the internet is reflected in the way that many search engines are structured as well. Search engines like Google do not return a random list of sites that match the query, but return the sites in order of their interconnectedness. Major hubs are more likely to return a higher position in a Google search. Accordingly, a Google search on the phrase ‘philosophy of mind’ is likely to return Chalmer’s web sited because it is interconnected among philosophy-oriented sites, and those sites link to it precisely because it is a useful tool for philosophers.

Now of course, if a site designer so wishes, hyperlinks can allow us to jump outside of a certain class of information, but only a poorly designed site will facilitate jumps from, say, a page on the philosophy of mind to Web sites that traffic in pet care, porn, or Cajun recipes. And the ability to bail out on a particular line of investigation and just do aimless “info surfing” is not new, but is a familiar activity to anyone who has ever been distracted within the stacks of a university library and browsed aimlessly, or to anyone who was looking up something in Encyclopedia Britannica but became distracted by entries that happened to be nearby in the alphabet.

The point is that aimless information surfing is not new, and the World Wide
Web, both in terms of its architecture and its evolution, does not seem any more randomly organized than traditional ways of archiving information. This failure to see that the Internet is in fact organized is only exacerbated by Dreyfus’ frequent conflation of the Internet with the World Wide Web — the book does not seem to appreciate that the Internet is much more than the Web and email. For example, there is no discussion of web rings, which link sites by common interest, of online conference systems like The Well, which are organized into subject-specific conferences (like ethics, science fiction, parenting, and media) and then into specific subtopics, nor is there discussion of web logs, which are often linked to each other based on shared topics of interest. They are typically not linked arbitrarily.

These oversights and failures to understand the internet lead to a series of claims that range from laughable to outrageous. So, for example, we are told that?

Clearly, the user of a hyper-connected library would no longer be a modern subject with a fixed identity who desires a more complete and reliable model of the world, but rather a postmodern, protean being ready to be opened up to ever new horizons. Such a new being is not interested in collecting what is significant but in connecting to as wide a web of information as possible. (11)

What makes this claim silly is first the error in not seeing that a hyper-connected library would be a scale free network, not a randomly linked network, and second, the hyperbolic suggestion that a hyperlinked library would only be useful to “protean” or “postmodern” beings. Nor does the hyperbole end with the above quote. Dreyfus goes on to impute ridiculous intentions to web surfers.

Web surfers embrace proliferating information as a contribution to a new form of life in which surprise and wonder are more important than meaning and usefulness. This approach appeals especially to those who like the idea of rejecting hierarchy and authority and who don’t have to worry about the practical problem of finding relevant information. So postmodern theorists and artists embrace hyperlinks as a way of freeing us from anonymous specialists organizing our databases and deciding for us what is relevant to what. Quantity of connections is valued above any judgment as to the quality of those connections. (12)

No evidence is given for these tendentious sweeping claims, nor does it seem likely that a responsible study would support the claims.

Chapter 2: How Far is Distance Learning from Education

Chapter 2 turns to the issue of distance learning. Here I tend to agree that distance learning suffers from severe limitations that are not always recognized by its proponents, but Dreyfus fails to offer a sober criticism in this domain as well. The problems begin when we are told that distance learning is being promoted as a technological panacea. Specifically, Dreyfus contends that “many people in the United States believe that the Internet will solve the problems of our current educational system.”(28) If this is true, then we would naturally like to know who these delusional people are. Unfortunately, in the accompanying footnote the only examples that Dreyfus supplies are a passage from the former education secretary and current self-proclaimed moral guardian of the United States, William Bennett, and a quote from China’s Jiang Zemin (112-113, fn 3). While I am always happy to see Bennett ridiculed in print, in this case the misrepresentation of the man’s position is so strained and implausible that I take no joy in the flogging. Bennett has been arguing for years that the failures of education in the United States are due to schools and society losing their moral compass. Clearly, this is not a person who believes that the internet alone “will solve the problems of our current educational system.” The passage from Jiang Zemin cited in the footnote in fact says that “e-mail, e-commerce, distance learning and medicine would transform China,”(113) which to these literal eyes seems quite different from the position being discussed in the main text (that the internet alone will solve our education problems).

Suppose that we set aside the issue of whether distance education has been overhyped (I think we can agree that it has, although not to the outrageous degree that Dreyfus claims), and concentrate on the specific criticism of distance education. Here Dreyfus raises a number of very plausible criticisms, most of which are connected with the importance of embodiment (and reading the feedback of embodied students) in education. So, for example, anyone who has taught in a classroom is completely familiar with reading the body language of the students and picking up that they are hot or bored, or alternatively alert and paying attention. It seems that distance learning will not easily provide the robust information channel that classroom teachers currently enjoy, and hence there will be some serious limitations to effectively teaching via distance learning.

On the other hand, Dreyfus overlooks certain advantages of distance learning. It is arguable that distance learning allows students to view lectures and respond on a course web page at times of their choosing — times when they are alert and undistracted. If that is the case then the ability to see that students in an overheated classroom are wilting may be rendered otiose.

Dreyfus’s also employs his Kierkegaardian fixed point here, expressing concern that distance learning does not require the same sort of commitment as does classroom learning — there is less at risk for the students and the teachers. The student risks being called on to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject of the lecture, and the teacher risks being asked a question that he cannot answer. (58)

There is something to this. Some students really do respond to the sort of intense pressure of a classroom in which the teacher may call on them and they risk humiliation if they don’t know the answer. On the other hand, a number of students to not respond to this sort of environment at all. Different students respond to different kinds of classroom environments, and there is no reason to think that online learning might not be optimal for some of them. Quite apart from the classroom environment, distance learning provides otherwise unavailable educational opportunities for students who live far from a major research university or who are limited to studying at home by familial and work responsibilities. Somehow Dreyfus does not consider the fact that not everyone can afford to be a full time student with access to excellent teachers (for example students in rural provinces of China — a point not lost on Jiang Zemin, I gather). For such persons, distance learning may represent a tremendous, otherwise unattainable, opportunity.

Dreyfus offers a number of conjectures about why embodied presence is valuable in the educational experience, and I suspect that on some level he has to be correct about this. It is a truism that there is much about training philosophers or scientists that we simply don’t understand and which arguably cannot be distilled into a series of written instructions. The problem is that Dreyfus does not advance the discussion beyond this truism. All he can offer is the example of Wittgenstein, who “left several generations of succeeding generations of students not only imitating his style of questioning but even his gestures of puzzlement and desperation.”(44) My first thought on reading this was that Wittgenstein’s students might have been better served if they had taken an internet course from him!

Chapter 3: Disembodied Telepresence and the Remoteness of the Real.

In this chapter Dreyfus explores some of the limitations of virtual reality telepresence, for example in online conferencing or in one-on-one video chat sessions. Again there is a clear enough sense in which Dreyfus has to be right about the limitations of telepresence. The bandwidth of information available via current virtual reality technology is limited, and given that any environmental information might be important to what we experience, the only truly persuasive virtual reality environment might have to incorporate all the information in the ambient environment to get things right. The problem is that beyond this obvious truism, there is very little that can be inferred. For example, while cybersex might not pass for real intercourse with a living human being, it can be a robust sexual experience for all of that. As Julien Dibbell (1995) describes the phenomenon, the body is certainly fully engaged in the experience:

Netsex, tinysex, virtual sex — however you name it, in real-life reality it’s nothing more than a 900-line encounter stripped of even the vestigial physicality of the voice. And yet, as many a wide-eyed newbie can tell you, it’s possibly the headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has to offer. Amid flurries of even the most cursorily described caresses, sighs, or penetrations, the glands do engage, and often as throbbingly as they would in a real-life assignation — sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies. And if the virtual setting and the interplayer vibe are right, who knows? The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of trysting in the flesh.

The same goes for the more general case of persons who strike up friendships or fall in love on the internet. Dreyfus says he doesn’t “know what to make”(118, fn 26) of claims by persons that they fall in love on the internet, but his deafness to the possibility suggests a lack of experience with the medium if not a form of bigotry towards those who have found and nurtured love in this medium.

Dreyfus claims that even friendships forged on the internet are apt to be lacking because there is no risk taking. To trust someone, you first have to place yourself in a position of vulnerability — one where there is some (physical) risk. It is true enough that physical risk on the internet is rare, but anyone with even cursory experience in the online world knows that other forms of risk taking are ubiquitous. In online environments one faces extreme forms of verbal hazing if one breaks with local convention or offends members of a virtual community (and this hazing has cause more than one netizen to lose a night’s sleep). Nor are the risks confined to the experience one might encounter in the virtual community where one commits the offense. In one famous case recorded in Stivale (2001), a character in the virtual community LambdaMOO was banned from another virtual community (MITs MediaMOO) because of alleged offenses on LambdaMOO.

People can betray trust and sell you out in the online world just as they can in the so-called real world. Nor are members of virtual communities immune to what might be thought of as an attack on their virtual bodies. In a famous case on LambdaMOO, a character by the name of Mr. Bungle perpetrated a virtual sexual assault on a number of characters, including one with the name Legba. As Dibbell (1995) reports, in a subsequent discussion group on LambdaMOO, Legba expressed a kind of visceral negative reaction to Mr. Bungle’s behavior.

“mostly I tend to think that restrictive measures around here cause more trouble than they prevent. But I also think that Mr. Bungle was being a vicious, vile fuckhead, and I…want his sorry ass scattered from #17 to the Cinder Pile. I’m not calling for policies, trials, or better jails. I’m not sure what I’m calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly, [this type of thing] doesn’t happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his ass.”

Dibbell goes on to report that the human being behind the Legba character was herself no less emotionally engaged:

“Months later, the woman in Seattle would confide to me that as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face–a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting.”

LambdaMoo is a serious online community, but even in dungeons and dragon type online games there is much placed at risk. A gamer can spend months acquiring social connections and powers for her online character, and lose it all in an instant if she is incautious in a dangerous environment. Indeed, given that there is a market for characters one can quantify the financial loss as well — a figure that can be as high as $10,000. No risk in the online world? The contention in blatantly false.

Chapter 4: Nihilism on the Information Highway: Anonymity vs. Commitment in the Present Age.

As it’s title suggests, this chapter is principally concerned with Dreyfus’s Kierkegaardian fixed point and in particular an extension of Kierkegaard’s critique of the public sphere and the press to online media. The core of the criticism is Kierkegaard’s contention that the public sphere and the press bring us information in which we have no real stake — we end up abstractly reading about events which do not intersect with our everyday lives. We have no commitment to the information we encounter in that sphere, nor to the events that transpire there.

Now there is a serious question about whether we ought to celebrate or even remark sympathetically on Kierkegaard’s position here, given that since Kierkegaard’s time the public sphere has been invaluable in the exposure of abuses by centers of power, as well as in the reform and overthrow of many tyrannical governments and institutions. Perhaps, in his day, Kierkegaard could not anticipate this, or perhaps he did foresee it and thought that it didn’t matter. The remarkable thing here is that Dreyfus adopts the Kierkegaardian position without much critical reflection (or at least no serious criticism is offered in the book) and uses it as a point of departure for his critique of the internet.

There is much that goes wrong here. In the first place, persons can be passionately involved in causes that they discover on the internet, whether those causes are advancing sexual equality or white supremecism. Indeed, one might think that the problem is not that people become too disengaged, but rather too passionate and too engaged in their causes. At a minimum, Dreyfus’s claim that “nothing matters enough that one would be willing to die for it,” (73) seems chillingly off the mark in the wake of 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing among other recent events.

It is also worth noting that many kinds of risk taking would not be possible — or at least would be very difficult — were it not for the internet. Internet communications have been used by groups ranging from dissidents in China to feminist women in Iran, to Zappatista’s in southern Mexico. Arguably, the anonymity that the internet affords them makes it possible to take up causes and even risk death for causes that are very important to them and their friends. To say that these people can have only a detached “disengaged”(75) interest in these causes is insulting in the extreme. These people certainly know more about risk-taking than we university professors in our cozy offices.

It is surely the case that much of what transpires on the Internet consists of the mindless pursuit of sports information and photos of famous models, not to mention old standby’s like porn and weather information, but this seems to be countered in equal measure by very local and personal issues that are pursed by individuals that passionately share a cause, but who are separated by physical geography. The internet is local in the same measure that it is global.

My position here is not that the Internet is above criticism, or even that it is on balance a positive technology. There is certainly room for sustained and thoughtful critique of this and related new technologies. The problem is that Dreyfus has traded in the thoughtful critique for outrageous hyperbole. For example, Dreyfus offers the following.

What Kierkegaard envisaged as a consequence of the press’s indiscriminate and uncommitted coverage is now fully realized on the World Wide Web. Thanks to hyperlinks, meaningful differences have, indeed, been levelled. Relevance and significance has disappeared. (79)

Silly generalizations of this order are not apt to be true in the best of cases, but when the fault of this alleged condition is laid at the feet of hyperlinks, one doesn’t know whether to scratch one’s head or just laugh.

My criticisms of this book have been strong, and I think deservedly so, but I don’t want to put philosophers off of the reading the book. To readers of this journal there is certainly much in this book that makes it worth reading — particularly the chapter on distance learning. I think that philosophical critique of internet technologies is long overdue, and it is my hope that this book will spur further study and perhaps more compelling criticism. The problem with this particular critique is that it has much more to do with Dreyfus’s philosophical fixed points than with the technologies under investigation (which appear to me to be very poorly understood by Dreyfus). As it stands, Dreyfus appears to be an even worse host that Procrustes, who at least offered a plausibly sized bed. Dreyfus seems to be determined to cram his guests into a bed the size of an iPod. By comparison, Procrustes looks very accommodating indeed.


Cohen, D., 2002. “All the World’s a Net.” New Scientist 174: 2338, 24-29.

Dibbell, J., 1995. A Rape in Cyberspace.” In P. Ludlow (ed.) High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Barabᳩ, A.-L., 2002. Linked: the New Science of Networks. ???: Perseus Publishing.

Mendes, J.F.F., and S. Dorogovstev, 2003. Evolution of Networks: from Biological Networks to the Internet and WWW. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stivale, C., 2000. “Help Manners.” In P. Ludlow (ed.) Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias. Cambridge: MIT Press.

2 Responses to “Review of On the Internet, by Hubert Dreyfus”

  1. ray

    Apr 18th, 2004


  2. Urizenus

    Apr 18th, 2004

    hmmm ordinarily I just delete spam, but this bit dredged up this review, which just came out in printed form in Teaching Philosophy. It might be of interest still.

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