Towards A Phenomenology Of The Internet
It is in the general nature of a mediated experience that the original signal is falsified in some way. This falsification may be more or less radical, but results in a simple phenomenological disjunction between the unmediated, which is paradigmatically authentic for the experiencing subject (meaning that it is experienced as true and real) and the mediated, which is paradigmatically inauthentic (meaning that it is not directly experienced as true and real). In order to make the suspension of reality which is necessary if such a falsified signal is to be integrated with the normal flux of experience, the subject needs to construct a falsified and provisional version of the self, somewhat as Milan Kundera (in The Art Of The Novel) suggests the novelist constructs provisional selves in order to construct his falsified narrative world. In low-technology societies, we observe that the ratio of un-mediated to mediated experience is relatively low; which is another way of saying that the ratio of mediated to un-mediated experience is relatively high in our own societies. But the mode of mediation - the medium, that is, and the manner of its use - certainly makes a difference to the quality of the mediated experience. We are entering a period of global internet use; and so this essay will set out to analyse some of the consequences of this mode of mediation, in phenomenological terms.
The Perspective Drawing: falsification as redimensionalization
Our paradigm of the falsified, mediated experience will be the perspective drawing. While there may be some falsification of other aspects of the image as well, what is characteristic of perspective drawing in particular is the falsification of the dimensional frame within which the experience is represented. A three-dimensional space is represented in a two-dimensional image, in other words. The space in which the image is meaningful and legible, then, is a mental or experiential space (a region of the life-space, to use phenomenological terminology) which has some features of a two-dimensional space and some features of a three-dimensional space. It is an impossible, self-contradictory space. While this can exist provisionally in experience, it is not "real" in the sense of having an independent outside existence: it is internally inconsistent, that is, and that is why we can characterize it as false in a technical sense, even if it still clearly has a relation to the real, and is experienced as a representation of something real. The person who looks at the perspective drawing and "sees it in three dimensions" does this in a special, provisional, temporary way. We can say that the subject has constructed a falsified self in order to de-code the mediated experience. The falsified self is a redimensionalized correlate of the falsified image, existing in a version of space which is determined by the manner and degree of falsification of the original image.
From the example, we see that there has been a redimensionalization of the original signal (which is the nature of its falsification), and we suggest that this is the general feature of mediated experience: whether it is a simple jump from one integer-dimensional space to another, or - and perhaps this is the more general case - a jump from a non-integer- dimensional (i.e. fractal) space to an integer-dimensional correlate.
In this radical form, the falsification of experience does not necessarily change the content of the experience in other ways, but it does necessarily affect its dimensionality. This has immediate consequences for the falsified self that is constructed so as to experience this. For instance, there is a large family of modes of mediation which require that the viewer is more or less fixed in space: slumped in an armchair watching television, for instance. The falsified self is immobilized; and the real, physical self (the body) is immobilized so as to conform to the same logic.
Some further examples will make this concept clearer. In representational art, we see that not just spatial dimensions, but also time can be negated, so that a moving object (a living object, say) is represented as something static. In sculpture, for instance, there is a progression from the kind of monumental sculpture which merely ignores the time dimension, to the sculpture which captures the subject frozen at a particular moment. In cave art, we see the same progression: there are images of animals which are schematic, like maps or diagrams, and there are others which represent the animal as a living thing, caught at a particular moment. We instinctively know that the latter is less inauthentic than the other - closer to the real - and this makes for archaeologies of image-types, progressive ladders in which the image is falsified in a series of dimensional transpositions, each being less inauthentic than the last. So a charcoal drawing is superseded by an oil painting; a black and white photograph is superseded by a colour photograph; a silent film is superseded by a sound film; and so on. There is an instinctive urge for a higher degree of dimensional reduction: so that the falsified experience, which is controlled directly by the subject (since it involves the engagement of a falsified self), and which can be suspended at any time, gradually comes to include more and more dimensions of experience.
It may be questioned how the term "falsification" can be justified: does this not suggest a true original, which is then distorted? For if so, then the familiar epistemological question arises of how we could ever approach such a noumenal construct. In the classical metaphysics of Aristotle, as much as in the modern metaphysics of Kant and the German tradition, it was not questioned that some underlying reality like this must exist, but proofs tended to be theological, invoking some higher force which guaranteed a stable underlying reality. From Descartes onwards, though, a sceptical strand appeared in Western thought, based on questioning the existence or even the logical possibility of such a noumenal world. The phenomenological reduction of Husserl - the attempt to construct a kind of metaphysics resting solely on experience, and therefore not relying on a noumenal external world - was supposed to deal with just this apparent contradiction, and the coherence of Husserl's approach is what has given the "phenomenological" method its lasting appeal.
We can deal with this question of falsification as follows. It is not necessary to assume that any unmediated experience survives in consciousness. It is only necessary to accept the logical possibility that there could be such experience. This logical possibility is guaranteed in the stream of experience by the experience of the mediated image itself. The subject knows that the perspective drawing of a tree is not a real tree; and therefore the subject has a direct intuition of falseness, which comes not from imperfections in the content of the representation, but rather from an intuition of the redimensionalization that has taken place in the synthesis of the experience. This direct consciousness of falseness relies on the awareness of the possibility of a non-false correlate, but only in an abstract kind of way: it does not necessarily rely on the actual possibility of having a non-mediated experience. Indeed, if we argue (as we may) that the mind uses various forms of representation, originally learned in order to deal with the outside world, in order to represent its own content and workings to itself, then we can say that even apparently un-mediated experience, such as introspection and memory, is in fact still mediated by a series of mental images - produced by mental skills which are to some degree culture-specific. An obvious example is the person who experiences the real world in terms of images learned from television; but this type of mediation, we can argue, is a structural feature of human experience, whatever technologies of mediation are employed to achieve it.
The Vanishing Point
We have just argued that the experiencing subject will necessarily have a direct intuition of something true and real - authentic, that is - but also that all experience, including introspection and memory, may in fact be mediated, and therefore falsified. Now, this creates an apparent contradiction, which needs to be resolved in some way. One line of attack would be to suggest that some experience is unmediated: that there are body states (reactions to biochemical or neurological changes in the organism) which produce direct, unmediated experiences, and that it is the content of these experiences which provide the benchmark for the true, real, and authentic experience, allowing it to be differentiated from experience which is false, unreal, and inauthentic. Candidate experiences of this type might be orgasm, pain, or fear, for example; and a more conventional view (of Hume or Locke, say) would also put ordinary perception in this category. But an opponent could still argue that even these "direct" experiences are still mediated by culturally-determined systems of representation, and therefore (according to the terms of our own argument) falsified. Either side of this debate could be defended at length, but we can deal with this problem in another way and avoid it. So let us take a different line of attack.
The perspective drawing is organized about a geometrically determined point which is called the vanishing point. (Disregarding for simplicity the use of a horizon line in some perspective drawing; this horizon point being a redimensionalized representation of the vanishing point, which makes the drawing into a perspective drawing of a perspective drawing in the terms of our theory.) To make some definitions of terms, we say that the vanishing point is hypervirtual, in that it represents all the dimensions of the system of representation simultaneously, and real, in the sense that it is the relation of the drawing to this point which makes the drawing into a representation of reality: it is the vanishing point which introduces the element of reality into the image (defining reality as all the potential dimensions of experience). These two formal features are unique to the vanishing point, which is therefore experienced in a unique manner. It is not directly perceived, but its effects - its phenomenological qualities - are felt in the whole experience of the image. This, we can further suggest, gives the perspective drawing - and particularly the vanishing point - a phenomenological signature which is formally equivalent to the phenomenological signature of the synthesizing self, which is similarly organized about a point which is not directly perceived, and which, in fact, cannot be directly perceived. It exists in a higher-dimensional space - is, in fact, nothing but a unique dimensional category in experience, and is not directly available to experience. But all experience of the self and its activity is organized in relation to this hypothetical point. This ego point, like the vanishing point, is paradigmatically real (since the self is always experienced as real), and is hypervirtual, in the sense that at this one point, all possible dimensions of experience coincide and are simultaneously expressed (even though the point has no other content). The perspective drawing and the vanishing point, then, are a model and mirror of the synthesis of the ego, understood as a process and structure of redimensionalization of experience around a hypothetical central point. This process and structure, we can say, are consistent features of experience.
Structures Of Mediation
Since we take the perspective drawing as a phenomenologically primitive form of mediation - a model, that is, of mediation as a process of redimensionalization - we are in a position to make a structured analysis of the various technologies and techniques of mediation: visual, auditory, narrative and so on. In diatonic harmony, for instance, the "tonal centre" can be understood as a kind of vanishing point, with the melodic line being interpreted in experience according to its relation to this hypothetical centre. In narrative structures, the vanishing point is the resolution of the narrative, and the development of complex narrative forms (the novel, for instance) relies on the development of a technique of multiple vanishing points - multiple narrative resolutions, that is - within the larger structure; much as Italian Renaissance painting developed the technique of multiple vanishing points for large canvases, which could be interpreted as a number of smaller pictures combined together by these means. Now, the techniques of mediation made possible by the technological advances of the twentieth century include a number of forms which combine sound, vision, narrative and so on in very complex wholes: television and film, especially. The success of these forms, not just commercially, but we could say phenomenologically (in the sense that probably the majority of people on the planet now routinely perform the provisional falsification of the self that is necessary to accept television and film into the flux of experience - to accept these mediated experiences, that is, as provisionally real), can be explained in terms of their potential to redimensionalize experience in a more compelling manner. Indeed, the phenomenological training provided by the experience of television in particular (several hours daily, that is, for a great many people) ingrains the habit of living inside the falsified self that is constructed in order to make this experience possible in the first place, and does this so deeply that many keen television viewers seem to experience the rest of their lives as an inferior form of television: their selves having been falsified so completely that they can no longer function in a world which is not mediated by this particular technology and technique. The reason for this is only partly phenomenological, though; for apart from the existential pleasure to be had from entering a mode of experience where time, space, and all forms of effort are negated by technology (and of course there are many other attractions), the content of experience is made vastly wider. The television viewer can experience a greater range of events through television than through more direct experience in the non-television world - even if this experience is only very partial in a formal sense.
A roughly similar analysis can be made of the internet. But there are important differences too. To get at these, let us reverse the order and look first at the content of internet experience.
It is difficult to judge the extent to which internet use is dominated by pornography and other sexual material. But it is clear that for many internet users, anyway, the experience of surfing the Web goes deep into their sexual responses, and offers a means by which these can be falsified in a manner which seems unlikely to leave the general functioning of the personality untouched. The huge quantity of sexual material available illustrates a fundamental difference between the Web and the television world: it is inexhaustible. You will never run out of channels of information. It is not just the technology that dictates this. In a very minor specialized field - I suppose there are sites for people who collect match box labels - it is probably still possible to exhaust all the global possibilities offered by the entire network; but in more mainstream fields of interest, of which sex is the most constant and the most visible, that point has been surpassed long ago. This abundance of material turns the surfer from a passive viewer, just selecting between channels of information which are produced by corporations and made available in a relatively narrow range of options, into something much more active: an agent with a specific kind of freedom, who can exploit the huge field of information according to a unique personal pattern. It is a tendency that is already there in multi-channel television, but the search tools act as amplifiers for the interests and motives of the Web surfer more completely than the most expertly-handled TV remote control unit ever could. The content of the Web - its quantity and its variety - changes the texture of the experience of using it, compared with more passive forms of mediation such as television.
This experience of "freedom" is also worth considering. From one point of view, the surfer is totally un- free, and has become the slave of the machine, for without the machine there is no access and no movement. Symbiosis with the computer is a basic assumption. But still, there is real freedom, at least compared with other forms of mediation (newspapers, television, books . . .). The technology does make it possible to search across the whole world, and to find information which is often not available by other means. It certainly makes it practicable to retrieve information which, though in principle available, it would in fact be too much trouble ever to hunt down without the Web.
But our main interest here is the phenomenology of the Web, and so we should consider not just what information is available, but how the internet fits in to the rest of the life- space. What unique or new elements are introduced into life by this technology?
We have seen the vanishing point of the perspective drawing as a mirror image of the self, and the perspective drawing as a whole as an image of the activity of the synthesizing ego in relation to the world of experience or life- space. We have said that the act of experiencing the perspective drawing as representing something real involves the temporary, provisional invocation of a falsified self, the dimensional status of which is determined by formal features of the mediation involved. Although it would take some complicated analysis to reveal exactly how this is achieved, we can also suggest that any and all other forms of mediation similarly generate a characteristic type of falsified self; so that, in the same way as we can look for an archaeology of mediation, we can think of an archaeology of the self: of a stratigraphy in which progressively falsified selves are nested like Russian dolls around a central ego point, a paradigmatically real hypothetical ego which, although it has no content, it is necessary for us to posit at the centre of the life-world if anything else is ever to be experienced as real.
The outermost doll, then, for the time being anyway, is the surfer doll; for the Web has the technical potential to include most other forms of mediation in some form. Newspapers, dance, painting, whatever it is, a digital form can probably be produced and posted somewhere or other. Indeed, we see a tendency (remembering the television case just discussed) for surfers to see the Web as more real than the rest of experience: as closer to the hypervirtual centre, and as more authentic. It provides a model for experience as a whole which is clearly something very compelling, and something we should analyse very carefully. The falsified self constructed by the television viewer is as all-knowledgeable as government regulation allows; the falsified self of the Web surfer is a quantum level more omniscient, more omnipotent. A search can bifurcate and spread and meander around and change and transform itself so easily and quickly that it produces a similarly chameleon-like image of the hypothetical self who is supposedly conducting this search: for it is forgotten that this is all technology, and that actually we are staring at the outside of a machine as our imagination takes us zapping around the world.
So let us conclude with an interesting conceptual question: where is the vanishing point in all this? We have suggested, remember, that local vanishing points may help to articulate complex mediated experiences, but in coherent large forms of mediation there is still at least in principle the subordination to an overall structure, which we can interpret as meaning an organization of material in relation to some form of vanishing point, corresponding to the ego point we assume to exist at the heart of our ego-related experience. At any rate, if our analysis is accurate, it seems that this is how we will experience a large, complex, mediated signal, whether this structuring has been intentionally built in or not. We actually cannot experience the meaningless: it just becomes noise. However random the signal may be in the principles of its construction, if we are to interpret it at all we must make this interpretation as if the signal were structured and meaningful. We read the narrative as if it is going somewhere; listen to the news as if it is all adding up to some kind of big picture; and so on. And this, let us say, gives us some kind of answer to the question just formulated: a geometrical answer, which, if lacking in content, at least gives us some kind of understanding. If we assume that our search is always directed in some way (if only by subconscious forces), then we see that there is a constant movement inwards. We experience web-surfing as a movement in from a starting point at the surface or outside: and our search is an attempt to uncover deeper and deeper levels. We know that we are dealing with a huge and practically inexhaustible quantity of material, but also we know that this material does have a physical limit, even if we will never reach it.
The flat screen, then, as far as our experience of it is concerned, is like the apparently flat surface of the world: it is actually the surface of an unimaginably large sphere. We search inwards, into this sphere of information, and that is what gives our search its meaning. Somewhere, the sphere has its centre, and we are constantly pressing down towards that centre, even if sometimes we are repulsed back towards our starting point, and even if we sometimes stop to rest or to exit, or to slide from side to side at one level of our search. And since this form of mediation, like newspapers, paintings, or any and all other forms of mediation, is a kind of mirror or image of the self - of the self in relation to the life-space, that is - we can also interpret this search as an externalized or mediated search inwards to the centre of the self. The surfer may choose to search for a deep sexual truth about the hidden depths of the ego; or just search for some deeper level of knowledge or pleasure in a non-sexual way; or carry out any other kind of search: but the Web surfer is (consciously or otherwise) surfing the self at the same time - attempting to move from the surface of experience to the hidden hypervirtual centre. This is fundamentally the same kind of manipulation of the relation of the ego to the outside world which is made possible by other forms of mediation, from cave art on, but the quantity and variety of information now available, together with the qualitatively different freedom of movement offered by this bundle of technologies, gives the search for the self a new and characteristic quality. A sense of reality.