What the Web hides from us
Consider a walk through the jungle before machetes were invented and afterward. Before, the jungle would appear as a landscape that was mainly impassable except for the natural breaks that allow passage. After the machete, it looks like a sea of vegetation that can be traversed somewhat freely, albeit with great effort. The "breaks" now look like the long way around that slow passage, not the affordances that enable it. And, after the machete, the act of moving through the jungle now violently alters it according to our will.
This is a pretty crude example of what it means to talk about technology as revealing the world in particular ways, an idea that comes from Martin Heidegger's essay, "The Question of Technology," published in 1954. In that essay, the German philosopher—or "thinker" as he would have said, which might sound like a more humble phrase but which he means as far grander-uses examples like dams and power plants. For Heidegger, those technologies reveal nature as something at the command of humans, a "standing reserve," or what we today would call a "resource." This for Heidegger-and for most of us-diminishes the true power and beauty of nature.
The Internet also reveals the world in particular ways. But every revealing also conceals much else, which is another idea from Heidegger. Since so much time has been spent talking about what the Net reveals, let's ask what the Net conceals. Here are three examples.
Those who think of the Net as a series of "echo chambers" in which people only encounter other people with the same interests, beliefs and values think that the Net conceals the fact there are opposing viewpoints. But I think that that's not quite right. In many of the most rigorous echo chambers, the participants fully understand that there are opposing viewpoints. People in an echo chamber supporting a particular candidate or political cause certainly understand that they live in a world that contains people who disagree with them. Even people in echo chambers committed to crazy conspiracy theories organize themselves around the belief that they are the defenders of the truth in a world too close-minded to wake up and smell the extraterrestrial coffee. In short, echo chambers not only know there is disagreement in the world, they frequently define themselves by that fact of disagreement.
So, in an odd way, I think the echo chamber nature of the Net may actually be hiding the similarities among us more than the differences. When it's your echo chamber against everyone else's, the sense of there being an overall culture, or even an overall humanity, can get lost. The Net hides sameness more than it hides differences.
This is exacerbated by the fact of a second thing that the Net hides: our physical being. Online all we get are some words or images. Worse, frequently those words and images have no context beyond themselves. When you are with someone in physical space, you cannot avoid the fact that the person is a complete being who is literally coming from somewhere and will be going somewhere else. Physical presence makes manifest the continuity of our stories. Reading a drive-by comment does not. This makes it easier not only to misunderstand what's being said, but also to invent your own context for the commenter that perhaps assumes that s/he's stupid, racist or a troll. That makes it easier to write off what they've said, and lets you write a corrosive reply. The presence of an embodied person makes that harder to do, if only because the person can react and reply. So the Net hides not only the context but that the context is actually the story of someone's lived life.
The Net also hides the authority of what's being said. It used to be that simply by being published, a work could be assumed to have some authority, especially if the publisher were prestigious. After all, would Oxford University Press have published a book if it had no merit? Of course, that authority was often overstated, and a lot of junk got published by serious publishers. Still, on the Net, being published indicates exactly zero about the merit of the content. Things that look authoritative—a serious font, a set of scientific diagrams, a domain name that sounds important—may be the mental droolings of a liar and an idiot. There is a constant jostling for position, to be noticed and to be believed, that turns the old orderly signifiers of authority into noise. The old system of authority was too narrow and way too smug, but the new system hides authority under bluster and self-assertion.
Those are just examples. The Net of course hides much more. And what it truly hides is so hidden that we can't even notice its absence.