Prof. Dr. Mike Sandbothe
printed version in: Enquiries at the Interface: Philosophical Problems of Online Education. A Special Issue of The Journal of Philosophy of Education, edited by Paul Standish und Nigel Blake, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, pp. 53-69.
When, as a philosopher, you concern yourself with issues of media theory, you are often confronted with the largely rhetorical question as to what philosophy has to do with media. That logical, ethical, aesthetic, and epistemological issues, or questions concerning the philosophy of science and of language, are genuine philosophical questions seems self-evident to us today. The neologisms ‘philosophical media theory’ or ‘media philosophy’, however, sound unaccustomed, irritating, suspect. To some they may even appear to be a contradictio in adjecto. In the following considerations I would like to demonstrate that in the conditions of the transformation of media currently taking place it is important and meaningful to construe the question of media as a philosophical question. My considerations are organized in three sections. In the first section some fundamental sets of media-educational problems with regard to the Internet will be outlined, to whose solution media-philosophical reflections can make an essential contribution. In the second section two different conceptions of the currently evolving discipline of media philosophy will be introduced. Finally, in the third section, it will be shown how these conceptions, if they are sensibly combined with one another, could make a fundamental theoretical contribution to the clarification of important problems arising today in a media-educational perspective.
A transition is currently taking place from an educational culture shaped by the printed word and spoken speech to a form of educational practice in which working in the Internet’s multimedia environment assumes central importance. This transition puts in question four idealised basic assumptions in the self-understanding of traditionalist education. The first basic assumption is that the knowledge to be conveyed in schools and universities is to be localised, detached from its concrete contexts of use and relocated in a specifically academic realm of theoretical knowledge transfer. The second basic assumption is that lessons are to take place as communication among people who are present. The voice here appears as the distinguished medium of an educational transfer process which is conceived of as face-to-face communication. Within the framework of this process – according to the third basic assumption – teachers are vested with the authority of omnicompetent knowledge administrators. They play the role of living encyclopaedias, they speak as if in print, and have a preordained pigeon-hole, a binding definition and a fixed evaluation to hand for every question and every piece of knowledge. The fourth basic assumption follows from the preceding three. It relates to the structure of the knowledge that is to be taught or learned. In the conditions of traditional educational culture this knowledge is understood as a stock of established facts, standing in a hierarchically arranged context of order, and is represented paradigmatically by the institution of the library catalogue system.
In the context of debates on educational philosophy throughout the 20th century, all four assumptions have been repeatedly discussed and partially problematised from varying perspectives. Nonetheless they may be considered as the implicit guidelines for actual educational practice in most schools and universities in the USA and Europe. Under the influence of the media transformation that is currently taking place, it is practice iself which problematises the basic assumptions mentioned above, and in a sense directly relevant to school and university. Once educational activities reorient themselves to the dynamics of knowledge itself, as found in the new medium of the Internet, educators begin to need a more experimental understanding of their own practice, within whose framework they can scrutinise the basic assumptions of an educational culture shaped by the world of the printed book and oral culture.
The first of the four reconstructed basic assumptions of traditional educational culture – the notion of a closed realm of theoretical knowledge – is put in question in the open semiotic world of the Internet in two ways. This occurs, on the one hand, with regard to the physical space of knowledge, literally the classroom or seminar room. As soon as teachers begin to incorporate the Internet into work with students or pupils, the school class or seminar group enters a virtual space that transcends the limits of the class or seminar room. On the other hand, there are alterations in the symbolic knowledge space brought about by this transcending of borders. The complex networked character and unobservable intertwinements of theoretical knowledge, as well as its pragmatic binding to practical contexts of usage, clearly come into view in the light of the experience in the Internet (cf. Sandbothe, 1996).
The second basic assumption of traditional educational culture also becomes problematic with the use of the Internet in education. In conditions of Internet-oriented teaching and learning, face-to-face communication no longer appears to be distinguished in some particular way as the model or paradigm of the educational communication situation. Rather, synchronous and asynchronous communications possibilities between people who are not present come along, in the form of mailing lists, news boards, IRC, MUDs and MOOs, assuming equal value with conversation between people who are present and relativising its traditional primacy as the paradigm for the mediation of sense and meaning. The experiences of computer-mediated communication have a twofold feedback effect on face-to-face communication itself – on the one side decentralising, on the other revalidating it.
This has consequences for the third basic assumption. The incorporation of the Internet into lessons leads to a transformation of the educational communicative structure that furthermore affects the inner constitution of the face-to-face conversational relationship of conventional lessons. This happens in the form of decentralisation, such that teachers no longer stand at the hub of the learning situation as omnicompetent knowledge administrators. The restrictedness and short half-life of the teacher’s individual knowledge stock is immediately made clear to the students through the Internet’s collective knowledge network. This calls into question the traditional legitimation of the teacher’s authority and the classical structure of direct lessons. Teachers no longer appear to be sovereign administrators of a hierarchically organized framework of knowledge, which is to be imparted in a direct teaching situation. Instead, faced with the ‘information overload’ manifested on the Internet, they acquire new educational responsibilities for evaluation and communicatively pragmatic navigational tasks.
The notion of a hierarchically structured framework of knowledge is also questioned by the Internet, and with this the fourth basic assumption of traditional educational culture. In its place we find the experience of a hypertexually networked, interactively evolving and potentially infinite referential context of graphical, pictorial and acoustic signs. No intrinsic order or immanent systematism is discernible which would unite these data to a comprehensive bibliographical knowledge cosmos, such as had shaped the world of ideas of the Gutenberg age. Instead there is a continually increasing demand on users to introduce order to the data chaos themselves, relying on reflexive judgement and using the corresponding net tools (bookmarks, search engines, intelligent agents etc.). Knowledge is changing from supposedly being an objectively pregiven stock of intrinsically ordered facts to a constantly changing artefact of intersubjectively mediated judgement. It proves to be a process, open to constant revision, and in whose realisation the skills of associative networking, independent evaluation and pragmatic coupling to individual and collective interest are foremost.
How can the foundational principles of an Internet-oriented educational culture be developed in the light of the transformations described? How is one to secure the continued commitment of this new culture to the democratic ideals of political Enlightenment, whilst improving and extending the conditions for realising that commitment? How is the realm of educational knowledge to be conceived when we no longer apprehend it as a closed academic realm of theoretical representation of knowledge, which cognitively mirrors or constructs reality? How is educational communication to be understood when it is no longer to be characterized by the priority of spoken language and the guiding function of face-to-face conversation? How is the altered constitution of the authority of teachers to be described, when teachers can no longer be legitimated as opaque arbiters of selection and authoritative evaluation, personalising a preordained canon of knowledge in an institution-specific manner, and making this appear as an ordered and examinable system of factual matters? And finally, in what new way is the structure of knowledge itself to be understood in the changed media conditions? What is knowledge if it is not a system of hierarchically ordered facts? How do sense and meaning come about in a networked world in which there is no Archimedean point of reference, no ultimate reference text, no uniform systematism?
It is the task of media philosophy to respond to fundamental theoretical questions of this type, which form the point of departure for the development of media education in the Internet age. Media philosophy has to develop concepts which can help provide answers and open new horizons of action. Until now media philosophy has hardly any standing as an independent discipline within the framework of academic philosophy. But both in Europe and the USA there are a multitude of endeavours suggesting that this will change in the future. In the following pages, I will be concerned to move on from already existing departure points for the development of a contemporary media philosophy, and to relate these to one another in a productive manner such that fundamental philosophical principles for an Internet-oriented educational culture can be developed.
To this end I will draw upon two differing conceptions of media philosophy which at first glance appear heterogeneous and incompatible: theoreticist and pragmatist conceptions of media philosophy. Both emerge from philosophical camps that determine contemporary thinking in a decisive manner. The theoreticist conception of media philosophy was developed by Jacques Derrida in the framework of his deconstructionism. The basic ideas of the pragmatist conception of media philosophy have their origin in the work of the founder of neopragmatism, Richard Rorty, including Rorty’s pragmatist reinterpretation of Donald Davidson, the avant-garde thinker of analytic philosophy.1
Derrida’s deconstructionist media philosophy can help us to understand that the current media transformation does not undermine the constitution of sense and meaning, but rather allows the laws already valid for face-to-face communication to become transparent. Against this background the American computer sociologist Sherry Turkle has spoken of the way in which the Internet brings basic ideas of philosophical deconstruction ‘down to earth’ (Turkle, 1995, p. 17). By this is meant that through the forms of communication characteristic of the Internet, the epistemological insights and intuitions of deconstructionism are increasingly becoming an implicit constituent of common sense. To get to the bottom of the media philosophical significance of these transformations taking place at the level of our everyday epistemology, it is helpful to review the media-philosophical essence of Derrida’s thinking.
The same applies to the media-philosophical implications of the neopragmatism founded by Rorty. The Internet not only allows sense and meaning to appear in a different epistemological light. At the same time, our dealings with interactive data-networks also lead to a reassessment of the status and the function of sense and meaning itself. Knowledge no longer appears primarily to be a copy or construction of a reality that is to be cognized, but turns out in its pragmatic function to be a tool for the active and experimental changing of reality and shaping of the world. With recourse to Davidson, Rorty has suggested trying to understand our theories and vocabularies as means that serve to optimise our interaction with our environment in an intelligent manner. As the goal on the horizon for this interaction, he emphasizes the idea of a gradual improvement and extension of the democratic form of life, which for us today is binding precisely on account of its contingency. Both aspects of Rorty’s neopragmatism make an important contribution to the reconstruction of the media-philosophical transformations that are taking shape at the common sense level in the Internet age.
In the following pages, I will demonstrate how the deconstructionist constitution of sense and meaning on the one side, and the pragmatic-political project of democratic Enlightenment on the other are to be conceived of as fitting together. To this end, the varying conceptions of media philosophy which can be reconstructed with recourse to Derrida on one side and Rorty on the other will first of all be introduced in more detail.
In the context of contemporary media-philosophical reflections, we can distinguish two different conceptions of media philosophy. On one side, media philosophy is apprehended as a new fundamental discipline within the canon of academic philosophy, linking onto the foundational projects formulated in the 19th and 20th centuries by epistemology, philosophy of science, and analytic philosophy. On the other, the project of media philosophy is linked with a new orientation of philosophical self-understanding that Rorty has called the ‘pragmatic turn’ (Rorty, 1979, p. 149). By this is meant the transition to a form of philosophical activity whose focus is no longer the theoreticist question of the representational or constructivist reference of our linguistic cognitive achievements to reality, but instead the pragmatic question of the utility of our thinking in contexts of action, contexts to be determined morally, politically and socially. Both conceptions of media philosophy can be reconstructed by reference to their relation to the ‘linguistic turn’ (Bergmann, 1954, p. 106 passim; cf. also Rorty, 1967) taken by modern philosophy in the twentieth century.
The central claim of the theoreticist conception undercuts the linguistic turn by media-theoretical considerations, and sets it on deeper foundations. Two foundational movements can be distinguished: one horizontal and one vertical. The horizontal undercuts the linguistic turn by placing a plurality of pictorial, graphic, tactile, motoric, acoustic and other semiotic systems on an equal footing with spoken language, itself the focus of linguistic philosophising. These systems are presented as other and further dimensions of mediative constitution of meaning. The vertical foundational movement undercuts the linguistic turn by consideration of the material constitution of the media-based sign systems in which human beings generate meaning and interpret reality, a material constitution obscured by linguistic philosophers. Both strategies for a media-philosophical deepening of the linguistic turn can be paradigmatically illustrated using the example of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (Derrida, 1997; French original: 1967).
I will begin with the vertical foundational movement. The basic critical thesis of Derrida’s major early work relates to the special status spoken language has always implicitly enjoyed in occidental thinking, eventually quite explicitly in the enactment of the linguistic turn in philosophy. On Derrida’s view. the upshot is the thesis, a thesis to be media-theoretically problematised, of the philosophical priority of spoken language. Speech has this priority because of the specific materiality or, better, the supposed immateriality of that medium in which speech takes place. In his analysis of the medium of the voice, Derrida proceeds in two steps. Each of these two steps thematises a different aspect of the mediative materiality of spoken language. The first step is concerned with its obviously phonic character, the second with its hidden written signature.
To highlight the specific peculiarity of the phonic character of spoken language, Derrida emphasises that when we articulate a sentence, we not only externalise what is said as a message for a partner in communication, but always hear and understand the articulated sentence ourselves too. Derrida calls this phenomenon, characteristic of the human voice, a ‘system of “hearing (understanding)-oneself-speaking”’ (Derrida, 1997, p. 7). According to Derrida, occidental philosophy’s one-sided orientation towards the phenomenology of this system means that the medium of ‘phonic substance’ in which speech takes place appears ‘as the nonexterior, nonmundane, therefore nonempirical or noncontingent signifier’ (ibid., p. 7f.). In this interpretation however, the actual externalisation – which occurs not only in the act of communication addressed to a conversational partner, but in the very instance of hearing and understanding oneself speak – is blended out, replaced by hypostatisation of an inner and immediate presence of meaning. This hypostatisation, criticised by Derrida as ‘phonocentric’ (ibid., p.12f.), systematically obscures the mediative complexity that is proper to human speech. The second step of the vertical foundational movement reveals this complexity by displaying spoken language’s hidden written signature.
'Phonocentrism' implies a degradation of writing as a supplementary ‘signifier of the signifier’ or a tertiary ‘sign of a sign’ (ibid., pp. 7, 43). In these conditions the written sign is understood as a merely technical representation of the phonic sign that itself is understood as closely related to a supposed media neutral realm of pure meaning. Derrida takes this phonocentric definition of writing, and uses it in a deconstructionist manner as a model for the functioning of spoken language itself. On this basis one obtains a ‘modification of the concept of writing’ which Derrida speaks of as ‘generalized writing’ or ‘arche-writing’ (ibid., pp. 55, 55, 56). ‘Arche-writing’ denotes a semiotic (referential) structure, in which the sense of any sign – and therefore the sense of the spoken word as well, the meaning of logos – is a function of its relation to other signs taken as signs of signs of signs etc. (without any reference to a media neutral domain of pure meaning). This relational semiotic referential structure, which Derrida also calls ‘différance’ (cf. Derrida, 1982), at the same time serves for him as the point of departure for the second, horizontal foundational movement.
According to Derrida the word ‘writing’ is used in contemporary thinking ‘to designate not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible; and also, beyond the signifying face, the signified face itself. And thus we say “writing” for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural “writing”’ (ibid., p. 9). The internal logic and independence of the pictorial, graphic, tactile, motoric, acoustic and other semiotic systems, but also their equal primordiality and intertwining, are the focus of the 'horizontal' move which Derrida carries out, after having deepened 'vertically' the linguistic turn. Both moves undercut phonocentrism by deciphering the conditions of possibility for the constitution of meaning as the interplay of differences – an interplay due to the formal figure of différance, which in itself has no meaning, since it results from the material contingency of those media in which and as which it occurs.
I call the problem area taken up and further developed in a deconstructionist manner by Derrida ‘theoreticist’ because it abstracts from all concrete contexts of interest and all determinate targets set by human communities. The theoreticist demarcation of the tasks of media philosophy addresses the constitution of our understanding of both self and the world, and hence a domain beyond all practical horizons of utility, a domain that is supposed to produce, found or legitimize those horizons. In contrast to this theoreticist version, the pragmatist definition of the tasks of media philosophy emerges from culturally and historically given practical contexts of interest and socio-political targets. This can be illustrated by taking as examples selected considerations set out by Richard Rorty, the American figurehead of neopragmatism.2
Unlike Derrida, Rorty is not concerned with the deconstructionist deepening of the linguistic turn. Instead, following on from Donald Davidson, Rorty takes the linguistic turn more as an occasion for a change of subject and a side-stepping of the issues of the epistemological tradition in their linguistic reformulation. He does this by developing a pragmatic vocabulary (cf. Rorty, 1991b). In the conditions of the linguistic turn as further developed by Quine and Sellars, linguistic competence was apprehended as the ability to form content, and hence to individuate things and identify them, within a differentially structured and holistically conceived conceptual network, or semiotic scheme. Davidson confronts this view with the provocative thesis that ‘there is no such thing as a language’ Davidson, 1996, p. 475). This radical implication follows from Davidson’s rejection of the ‘dualism of scheme and content, of organising system and something waiting to be organized’ (Davidson, 1984, p. 189). According to Davidson this dualism can be traced back to Kant. It underlies not only the different readings of the linguistic turn from Carnap and Bergmann through to Quine and Sellars, but is even presupposed in Derrida’s general semiotics of différance. Against this Davidson suggests erasing the ‘boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally’ (Davidson, 1996, p. 475) and ‘thinking of language as a kind of know-how’ (Rorty, 1994, p. 976), i.e. as a collection of pragmatic instruments allowing us to interact with other people and the non-human environment.
Following Davidson, Rorty pleads in favour of an instrumental concept of media. Media are not, however, to be reduced to neutral tools in the mere transmission of pre-existing information, as in the phonocentric tradition criticised by Derrida. Rather, the determination of the function of media is extended beyond the narrow realm (specific to theoreticism) of the conditions of possibility of knowledge to the wider realm of human action. In this sense Rorty emphasizes: ‘For even if we agree that languages are not media of representation [of external reality – M.S.] or expression [of inner reality – M.S.], they will remain media of communication, tools for social interaction, ways of tying oneself up with other human beings’ (Rorty, 1989, p. 41). Human action is understood by Rorty in the practical and political terms of the goods and aspirations according to which people in the Western democracies have learned increasingly to organise their public conduct in the last two hundred years, in spite of all relapses. These goods and aspirations are the socio-political ideals characteristic of the Enlightenment’s political project, those of an increase of solidarity and a decrease of cruelty and humiliation in human coexistence (cf. here and in the sequel Rorty, 1991; 1994b, esp. pp. 67-89; 1998b).
Against the contingent, but for us today increasingly binding background of Euro-American liberalism, the pragmatist determination of the tasks of media philosophy answers to the efforts of democratic societies ‘to incorporate ever more people in their own society’ (Rorty, 1994b, p. 80). In order to increase solidarity and decrease cruelty and humiliation, there is no need for a profound philosophical moral justification. For ‘the moral development of the individual and the moral progress of the human species as a whole is based on the reshaping of human selves so that the multitude of relationships constitutive of these selves becomes ever more comprehensive’ (Rorty, 1994b, p. 76). In Rorty’s view the media play an important role in the pragmatic implementation of this project of democratic universalisation. Central to this is the practical efficacy of narrative media such as ‘the novel, the movie, and the TV program’ (Rorty, 1989, p. xvi). Rorty is concerned here primarily with the contents, the concrete narratives offered by the media. They are to contribute to bringing forward the ‘process of coming to see other human beings as “one of us” rather than as “them”(Rorty, 1989, p. xvi).
If one attempts to go beyond Rorty, making use of his comments on media for an exacting conception of pragmatist media philosophy, a modified view of the entire fabric of different types of media results. The system of media in a broad sense comprises sensuous perceptive media (e.g. space and time), semiotic communications media (e.g. images, language, writing and music) as well as technical transmission media (e.g. print, radio, television and the Internet).3 Whereas the emphasis of the linguistic, grammatological or picture-theoretical research of theoreticist media theories is mostly in the realm of semiotic communications media (or in the realm of spatio-temporal perceptive media), pragmatist media philosophy accentuates the peripheral realm of technical transmission media. From a pragmatist perspective, the media-political shaping of precisely this outer realm proves to be the central point of departure for those who want to foster long term changes in the realm of perceptive and communications media.
The close definition of the relationship between philosophy and politics expressed in these considerations takes a decisive step beyond Rorty. In Rorty’s view the public-political sphere of technical transmission media is to be sharply delineated from the esoteric vocabularies of philosophy. Philosophical vocabularies are, according to Rorty, to be understood as their author’s private self-creation projects, about whose relevance for common sense little can be said. And if philosophical vocabularies do after all find their way to the common man once in a while, which according to Rorty can indeed happen in exceptional cases, then this takes place ‘in the long run’ (Rorty, 1993, p. 445), that is, on the horizon of historical developments which are to be measured on the temporal scale of centuries. In the age of the new media technologies, corrections need to be made to this conservative assessment of the meaning of philosophy. For, although Rorty himself notes in the first chapter of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that the ‘process of European linguistic practices changing at a faster and faster rate’(Rorty, 1989, p. 7), this in fact leads to faster and more radical transformation of the philosophical fundaments of common sense than Rorty is prepared to admit (cf. Sandbothe, 1998b, 2000c).
If one interprets the technical media of modernity as machines with whose help whole societies can acquire new ways of perceptual and semiotic worldmaking in relatively short time, then it becomes clear that media-political issues have genuine philosophical dimensions and that philosophical media theories have eminently political aspects. Although pragmatic media philosophy in this exacting sense distances itself from the theoreticist programme of providing philosophical foundations for our socio-political contexts of action, this does not mean that it abstains from philosophical depth of focus altogether. Rather than this abstention (suggested in Rorty’s plea for a ‘post-philosophical culture’ (Rorty, 1982, p. XL)), it attempts to use the analytical instruments made available by Derrida’s theoreticist media philosophy in a pragmatic fashion. The project of a media philosophy that integrates the two approaches in this way aims at making the media-induced alterations in common sense accessible to experimental research. Thus, these mediative changes in our everyday epistemology can be related to the political-practical purposes of a democratic shaping of human coexistence. What this looks like in detail will now be demonstrated paradigmatically, with regard to the media-educational questions set out at the beginning.
The graphic user interface of the hypertextually structured World Wide Web stands at the heart of the Internet today. The World Wide Web is to be distinguished from the older Internet services, which are linear textual applications and include services ranging from e-mail and Talk, Net News and mailing lists, through to Internet Relay Chat (IRC), MUDs and MOOs (see below and in Sandbothe 2000b). I will begin with linear textual services and concentrate on the synchronous communications services of MUDs and MOOs (cf. Rheingold, 1993). MUD is the abbreviation for Multi User Dungeon, which is a virtual gaming ‘haunt’. A number of participants log in simultaneously to a fictional text-based game landscape in order to collect so-called ‘experience points’ in combat with other players and programmed robots, and to advance in the respective game’s hierarchy to being a ‘wizard’ or ‘god’. Wizards and gods have the power to alter the game landscape and to program the problems which the other participants must solve. MOO stands for Multi User Dungeon Object Oriented, which – in contrast to the strictly hierarchically organized, and sometimes quite violent, adventure MUDs – are games in which cooperation, solidarity, education and science are central. Every participant receives programming rights from the start, i.e. he or she can create rooms and objects in the medium of writing and independently contribute to the shaping of the text-based educational and game landscape.
The binding of writing to synchronous conversation in one-to-one or many-to-many communication creates a pragmatic recontextualisation of the use of writing in MUDs and MOOs. With the help of written signs, speech acts are performed between people in MUDs and MOOs which it would be difficult to carry out in the technical medium of print: people fall in love, make promises to one another, argue with each other and make up again, laugh, cry, flirt with each other, and do all those things that we can also do in face-to-face communication or on the telephone. In the synchronous interpersonal communications characteristic of MUDs and MOOs, writing does not serve exclusively, or even primarily, to make descriptive statements or truth claims. Rather it is utilised as an instrument for the coordination and execution of communal social activities.
In MUDs and MOOs even those actions which are not speech acts in the classical sense, but actions which in real life we would apprehend as non-linguistic actions, are also carried out in the mode of writing. This is because in interactive writing, as a form of communication which is restricted to the medium of writing, it is only that which takes place as a written act that functions as real communication. My smile only becomes present in a MUD or MOO when I write the sentence ‘Mike smiles’ or the equivalent emoticon ‘:-)’. (An emoticon is a graphic device combining simple punctuation marks in conventoional combinations, to express simple emotions non-verbally in text on the Internet.) The same applies when I drink a beer in a virtual bar or sit on the desk in the virtual office of a colleague in MIT’s Media MOO. In all these cases, it is irrelevant whether some independent reality is represented by the letters I type in. It doesn’t matter whether I’m really smiling, really drinking a beer, really sitting on the desk, or if I merely construct these actions. Rather what matters is that, by formulating these sentences online, I carry out actions in the respective MUD or MOO, that is, modify the conversational situation through my actions.
The pragmatisation of our sign usage that is taking place in the Internet becomes even clearer when we turn to the hypertextual constitution of the World Wide Web. It is characteristic of hypertexts that they point to intertextual references not merely in the mode of footnotes, but by using active links which make these references constituent parts of those texts. The idea of a closed meaningful content, already suggested at the material level by the closed unit of a manuscript bound between two book covers, is made problematic by the hypertextual constitution of textual elements presented and interconnected with one another in the Internet. The positive side of this change, in hypertextuality, consists in the explicit and technically manifest opening of signs to other signs and to virtual as well as real actions. In the hypertextual World Wide Web, letters and graphical signs become programmable. Pragmatically, signifiers, as icons, generate, with a mouse-click, no longer a merely symbolic, but a real connection to what they designate. So in the digital bookstore Amazon.com, a click on the button with the inscription ‘Buy 1 Now With 1 Click’ suffices and - assuming that I am registered with address and credit card number as a customer on the server - I immediately receive the following answer: ‘Thank you for your 1-Click order! (Yes, it was that easy.) One copy of the book you ordered will be sent to you as soon as possible.’
Of course the fact that we can order books through the exchange of written signs is not a distinguishing characteristic of the World Wide Web. We can also carry out such an ordering process by post or fax. The distingushing feature is that, through the Web, the pragmatic dimension of our use of writing is made explicit and salient by the immediate answer which our order elicits in an interactive system. This brings me to an important point, which I might not have highlighted clearly enough until now: Of almost all the properties distinguishing our sign usage in the Internet as something particular in relation to our everyday, non-digital sign usage, it can be said that these properties are in no way things radically new, but rather that they make explicit and vivid things which happen implicitly and unconsciously in everyday sign usage. In summary one can say, with recourse to Derrida and Rorty, that against the background of pragmatic embedment of sign usage in the Internet, the deconstructionist constitution of sense and meaning appears as directly ratifiable and evident, while it would otherwise be systematically concealed by the presence of voice and the (derivative) authority of the printed word. How can the transformations being experienced by the basic assumptions of traditional educational culture in the Internet, as reconstructed at the beginning of this paper, be redescribed against this background?
In an Internet-oriented educational culture, the first basic assumption of the givenness of a closed academic realm of theoretical knowledge representation is replaced by the deconstruction of academic knowledge spaces (cf. Ulmer, 1985). De-construction has two aspects, one destructive, one constructive. The destructive aspect is emancipation from the fixedness of the educational communication process in the world of the classroom or seminar room. With the integration of the Internet into the educational process, the virtual world opens up as a space of shared learning. This opening at the same time constitutes the constructive aspect. In the design of a university’s or school’s own MOO, or in working together on a seminar’s or a school class’s own homepage, learners experience the learning space in a quite literal sense as the product of their cooperative imagination and collective design capabilities.
These self-designed and permanently evolving knowledge spaces can at the same time be networked with other knowledge spaces and virtual, as well as real, action spaces. In this way possibilities for transcultural communication are revealed which contribute to the realisation of learning in a transnational context. On the Internet, it becomes possible for students and learners who are spatially and geographically separated from each other, and to this extent live in different worlds, to live together virtually in a common world whose basic spatio-temporal coordinates they can cooperatively construct in a deliberative process of negotiation. In this way, globality as a form of life becomes tangible and ingrained as a basic everyday attitude in a playful, matter-of-course manner. Furthermore, on the level of everyday epistemology, the deconstruction of academic knowledge spaces leads to a conscious awareness of the interpretive and constructive nature of our experiences of space and time. The recognition that come with this, of the contingent character of even our deepest convictions and epistemological intuitions, represents a further important basis for transcultural dialogue which is concerned precisely with the intertwining of contingent convictions and supposedly self-evident intuitions of different origins.
The second basic assumption of traditional educational culture is also deconstructed by the incorporation of the Internet. In this case, the destructive aspect consists in the fact that voice-centred face-to-face conversation no longer functions as the dominant paradigm of the educational communication process. Instead, interactive writing undergoes a characteristic revaluation. In Internet conditions, writing no longer functions – as in the printed book – solely as a medium of knowledge storage, but (in MUDs, MOOs and IRC) becomes useable interactively as a synchronous medium of communication. The constructive aspect is that in interactively writing a conversation, we experience the constitution of sense and meaning as always mediated by signs which themselves refer to other signs (as signs of signs of signs etc.). In this way the inner written signature of our thought and communication becomes immediately ratifiable. Common sense changes. Under the influence of the Internet, our everyday epistemology is becoming increasingly deconstructionist.
This applies not only to our use of alphabetic writing, but also to our use of pictures. If one considers the internal data structure of digital pictures, then it becomes clear that in terms of their technical structure, images composed of pixels have the character of ‘writing’ in Derrida’s sense. By using editor programs, the elements of the digital image can be exchanged, shifted and altered, just as the letters of a system of writing can be. Images thus become flexible scripts which can be editted. In the digital mode, the image loses its distinguished status as a representation or construction of reality. It proves to be a technological work of art whose semiotics arise internally from the relations between pixels and externally through the hypertextual reference to other documents (cf. Mitchell, 1992).
Moreover, the deconstruction of the educational communication process where the Internet is used has profound repercussions for the status of face-to-face communication, effects of both decentralisation and revalidation. I will discuss decentralisation later. The revalidation effect consists in the sharpened perception of the characteristics proper to the real conversation situation in real space, a sharpened perception made possible by the experience of its difference from virtual communication in virtual space. The anaesthetic reduction of communication to the medium of interactive writing – as takes place in IRC, MUDs and MOOs –also renders the visual, acoustic and tactile evidence that we subconsciously presuppose in face-to-face communication the object of conscious deconstruction in the medium of writing. The appresent presence of participants in online Chat means that in order to be present at all as a Chat participant, we must describe to the other participants what we look like, what our voice sounds like, how our skin feels, in which spaces and times we move, and altogether what kind of beings and in which kind of world we are. Out of this there arises a deconstructionist awareness of the body through which we become sensitive in a new way to the specific gestural and tactile signatures of everyday face-to-face communication in real space.
The decentralisation effect that arises from the experience of the inner written signature of our thought, speech and communication is closely linked with the transformation which affects the third basic assumption of traditional educational culture. In an Internet-oriented educational culture, the authority of the teacher is no longer grounded in the authoritative personalisation of theoretical knowledge stocks in the figure of the omnicompetent teacher. Instead the authority of the teacher is now grounded in her competence to use language in a pragmatic way and in her ability to make transparent use of different sources of knowledge, heterogeneous interpretations and divergent interests. Where the teacher has these abilities, the integration of the Internet in lessons no longer presents a problem. On the contrary, teachers who are already prepared to disclose to learners the sources, contingencies, relativities and openness, as well as the developing character of their own knowledge in the framework of decentralised face-to-face lessons will also use the Internet to enter into a shared media-based learning process with their pupils. The authority of the teacher is preserved here, above all by helping the learners to learn the art of independent, reflective and intelligent learning themselves (which is decisive for success in their own lives). The teacher’s advantage thus no longer consists primarily of possessing preordained curricular reserves, but rather of the competence to channel the constantly growing flows of information in an understandable, pragmatic and cooperative manner, and to transform them, in cooperation with the learners, into situated knowledge that is useful and beneficial to the learning community.
In Internet conditions, the fourth basic assumption of traditional educational culture, that knowledge is to be understood as a fixed stock of hierarchically ordered facts, is replaced by a process concept of knowledge. The intersubjectively mediated faculty of reflective judgement is central here. This faculty is comprised of those pragmatic and deconstructionist abilities whose intelligent interplay is decisive for media competence in the use of the Internet. In traditional media practice, the spectator or reader can usually pre-judge the value of an item from its association with a particular publisher, a particular TV or radio station, or a particular newspaper editor – that is, to something already known and general. On the Internet, things are different. Through the use of search machines and work in the various databases accessible via the Web, users are confronted with a broad spectrum of quite disparate information in relation to a given keyword. The origin of the information is not always transparent and its attributability is often difficult to ascertain. While the classical media system was based on the development by viewers or readers of stable long-term preferences for programmes or newspapers that appear trustworthy, on the Internet we have to do with an information overload. Even with the use of search machines and intelligent agent programmes, this overload can ultimately only be channelled through the reflective judgement of the individual user. The comprehensive and systematic development of reflective judgement at all levels of the population and on a global scale is the central task for a democratic educational system in the 21st century.
I would like to conclude by providing two examples from my own work with the Internet at the universities of Magdeburg and Jena. Within the framework of a seminar in Magdeburg on ‘Philosophical Media Theory’ that I offered in the summer semester 1996, I stressed the deployment of interactive communications services like MUDs and MOOs for academic use. We began by reading a book and an essay by the American media theorist Jay David Bolter of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta) in a sequence of four sittings without computer support. In the course of the reading we worked out questions together, some straightforward questions of textual understanding, but some too which problematised Bolter's basic theses. The second seminar sequence took place in a computer room. Two students sat at each PC, with all the PCs being connected to the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Media-MOO in which Jay Bolter had invited us to a discussion. By reference to the communicative situation that developed, one can demonstrate very well what I mean by a deconstructionist decentralisation and pragmatic dehierarchialisation of the teaching situation.
The characteristic communicative situation of the first seminar sequence should first be briefly described. The conversational situation was structured so that I, as the teacher, worked together with the students on the development of an open understanding of Bolter’s texts, an understanding which admitted questions and unclarities. The point was not to cover up my own problems of understanding, but rather to articulate these problems as clearly as possible so that students were encouraged by my example to express their own problems of understanding in the same manner. My function in the seminar was thus not to present the students with a binding and true textual understanding for them simply to reproduce. I did not offer them a standard interpretation, comprehensive and general, with which they would have been able to subsume the text definitively. Instead, I entered with them into a targeted process of reflective judgement, in the course of which we communicated with each other about the uncertainties, different interpretative possibilities, open questions, manifold references and associations which turn up in the process of reading an academic text. At the end of this deconstructionist process, we had a list of questions of understanding and interpretation which we thought we could not settle amongst ourselves, as well as a second list of questions which seemed to us to problematise certain of Bolter's basic ideas. Equipped with these two lists, we began our march into the Internet and our visit to Bolter’s Media-MOO.
What was interesting above all about the communicative situation in online discussion with Bolter was that the decentralisation and dehierarchialisation which had implicitly characterised our work in the computer-free text-reading sessions, expressed itself in conversation with Bolter as a peculiar experience of solidarity. In conversation with Bolter we experienced ourselves as a thinking and reflective community which posed questions, formulated objections, followed up, changed subject, brought up new problems and so on, in a coordinated and cooperative manner. The technical boundary conditions contributed to this. Bolter could only see what we wrote, but we ourselves could communicate orally at all times to discuss what we were writing and our continued argumentative procedure, without Bolter hearing. The weak degree of determinacy or, more positively formulated, the deconstructionist openness which we had allowed ourselves in the first seminar sequence, now proved to be our strength. The author, who had been brought back from the anonymous world of the printed book to the virtual conversational reality of online discussion, could now be confronted step by step with our specific problems of interpretation and critical objections. In the transposition from the world of the printed book to the interactive world of written conversation, the seminar participants experienced with clarity the way that, in a successful reading, one reflective judgement leads on to another. Bolter answered those of our questions that went beyond textual understanding by incorporating them into his own reflections and thus helped us understand how published knowledge is the momentary take of an open thought process, a process in which good texts invite their readers to participate, by thinking for themselves.
I would like to describe my experience of Internet use in philosophy seminars at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena with the example of a Proseminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which I led in the 1999 summer semester. In the framework of this seminar I tried to utilise the World Wide Web collectively in a targeted way to improve the seminar discussion and the ability of students to take themselves and their fellow students seriously as writers, that is, as text authors. The participants prepared themselves for the respective Aristotelian sequences that were to be dealt with in the seminar by writing short summaries and comments on the corresponding passages before the sitting. A week before the relevant sitting, these summaries were made available to all by publication on a seminar homepage set up for this purpose (http://www.uni-jena.de/ms/seminar/) so that each participant could already form an image of the published state of reflection of all their fellow students before the sitting. The procedure in the seminar was that one participant then offered a so-called ‘survey-presentation’. These survey presentations reconstructed and interpreted the Aristotelian text to be thematised and in so doing incorporated the summaries and comments of the other participants as secondary literature.
In this way the authors of the summaries and comments experienced early on what it means to be received and taken seriously as an author. They sensed, as it were through the example of their own publications, how a text alienates itself from its author in the medium of publication and how deconstructionist processes of reflection are necessary to reconstruct the openness of thought in reading. Through this form of collective writing and publication, they learned new forms of reflective reading that no longer apprehend the text as a pregiven general stock of knowledge that is to be subsumed under a certain heading, but which recognise in the text an instrument which it is important to learn to use pragmatically and meaningfully by means of reflective judgement in an open, interactive and participatory intellectual exercise.
The two examples from my own teaching experience show that the Internet not only means a great challenge for media theorists and media educationalists, but also, and precisely, that it can provide creative impulses to teaching in subjects as seemingly media-independent and withdrawn as philosophy. In addition, the examples make it clear that in educational policy, it no longer suffices to acquire new computer technology, set up network connections and install intelligent educational software. Technical use of new media is by no means a sufficient condition for the development of reflective judgement. This false optimism, disseminated by many educational policy makers today, is based on deterministic asumptions about media. Against this prejudice, it must of course be emphasised that the targeted development of reflective judgement has its educational place not only and not primarily in the computer laboratory or in front of the Internet screen. Rather it begins in the everyday communication situation of normal, non-computerised face-to-face lessons, which at the same time as its deconstructionist decentralisation, is pragmatically revalidated in an educational world shaped by the new media.
The central challenge which current and future educational policy is confronted with is how the revalidation of face-to-face classroom practices is to be combined with the reshaping of knowledge promoted by the emergent information network technologies. Here, I have taken the Internet as a paradigm to set out the need it presents to revise important basic assumptions about the nature of knowledge and education, and I have argued that a blend of deconstruction and pragmatism accounts theoretically for the phenomena currently emerging. The salient point from the viewpoint of educational policy is that the Internet is currently our best paradigm for the topology of information in the future, and that there is every reason to believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg. History has taught us what fate awaits those who are too late in identifying and circumnavigating icebergs.
Translated by Andrew Inkpin
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1 Cf. here Sandbothe, 2000c; a shortened version of the text has appeared on-line as Sandbothe, 1998b. For an introduction to deconstruction see Rorty, 1989b; for an introduction to (neo)pragmatism see Rorty, 1998.
2 For an account of the prehistory of pragmatic media philosophy in Peirce, James, Dewey, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, see Sandbothe, 1998 as well as Sandbothe, 2000.
3 On the inner differentiation of the media concept see Sandbothe, 2000 and 2000b.