Dreyfus on the Internet

Dreyfus, H. L. (2001). On the Internet. London: Routledge.

In chapter 3, Disembodied Telepresence and the Remoteness of the Real, he considers the importance of embodiment to learning and teaching.

He starts with a review of bodily presence, beginning with Descarte’s innovative idea that human experience is subjective and indirect because corporeally mediated. In this new conception of experience the seeds of telepresence took root – if our lives are already mediated by the raw materials of our bodies, then why baulk at another form of mediation – the Internet – which could help us to bypass our bodies?

(Martin Oliver finds this nonsensical – how else do we interact with our computer if not through our hands and eyes, suspended from our bad backs and fuelled by our poor circulation? I embellish.)

Dreyfus echoes William James and John Dewey to ask whether our relation to the world is as disembodied, detached spectator or embodied, involved agent, and then proceeds to explore the limitations of telepresence.

He approaches the idea distance learning with two contexts – the lecture and the apprenticeship. He rules out recorded presentations for a number of reasons. Because the lecturer cannot see the audience, s/he cannot gauge the mood nor respond accordingly. Nor can fellow students feel and pick up on each other’s enthusiasm – in short there is no intercorporeality and therefore no atmosphere. He points out that even in live conferencing it is impossible for eyes to meet. He also draws on Merleau-Ponty’s argument (in Phenomenology of Perception) that fundamentally it is risk – as the indeterminateness of our surroundings – that has made us haptic, hearing, olfactory, generally perceptive beings who are ready to “cope with things in general” (p57). He argues that the risk of being asked an unanticipated question is a powerful factor in engagement during lectures, and that this risk is absent in recordings.

Considering apprenticeship, he once again rules out recordings since, because focused, framed and edited by the expert behind the camera, they cannot help the apprentice gain a physiognomy of a situation. In the case of student doctors, filmed consultations offer little to promote diagnostic skills – “he or she would always remain a prisoner of the doctor’s attention setting” (p 64).

He concludes that embodiment is more than the some of its parts and cannot be reproduced through more sophisticated interaction between life-like channels. The sense of presence telepresence provides is impoverished and attentuated in comparison to the riskiness, filtering and focus, and emotiveness of embodiment:

“All this our body does so effortlessy, pervasively, and successfully that it is hardly noticed. That is why it is so easy to think that in cyberspace we could get aloing wihtout it, and why it would, in fact, be impossible to do so.” (p72)

With respect to learning, his arguments seem emotional – fine – but narrow too. He sets up extreme scenarios (writing with the benefit of hindsight, maybe I would think that) like the “distance apprenticeship”, or the lecture recorded in the absence of an audience, or the replacement of human hugs with robot hugs, which are fairly easy to discredit. He is teachercentric – on what grounds does he privilege the lecturer’s ability to respond to the audience over the learners’ opportunity to access it when and wherever they choose?

And why is the importance of risk given so much consideration in the absence of, say, a teacher’s conscientiousness or a learner’s motivation to learn? I get the impression (and I don’t know anything else of his work, but I know he’s influenced by Heidegger and Kierkegaard – neither of which I know well either) that he takes the idea of an essence of human nature in some way for granted.

Would people separated by distance really all reject the idea of robot caresses – empoverished caresses, granted, but initiated by their loved ones? Maybe some people would consider them better than a poke in the eye. I think Dreyfus has written off robots and telepresence because he doesn’t like the idea of it. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that his points are worth making, though, especially in the context of Clay Shirky’s Breathless reports of an Immanent Shift in the Way We Live®.

Incidentally, I tried to follow up on some of the Merleau-Ponty references in our library and was excited to find that we have an- e-book of Phenomenology of Perception. But oh god – 8 or 10 clicks including a login just to pull it up on my screen. Then I couldn’t get any hits for ‘intention arc’ – not necessarily because it had been mistranscribed as ‘intention are‘, but more likely because the search engine doesn’t work at all. DX Reader via Taylor Francis – I’m underwhelmed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s