Learning to be Human from the Center of the Internet

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Attending strictly to the more phenomenological aspects of the internet, it is easy to fall into a kind of idealism.  Zygmunt Bauman (2005), for example, has argued that the era of space has come to an end, that the extraterrestrial realm of cyberspace has broken away from the realm of places and, consequently, social life has become reconfigured in such a way as to privilege decentralization, mobility, and fluidity over the centralized institutions, rigid borders, and stable relationships.  Increasingly, it is argued, the material world is becoming irrelevant as we live more and more in a utopia, a ‘no place’ where identities are as liquid as the virtual planes they navigate.

In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum argues that our everyday experience of the internet (as a ‘cloud,’ for example) obscures the fact that the world wide web actually depends upon a physical infrastructure that is located in space, adapted to geography, and surprisingly vulnerable to human error, environmental conditions, and general decay.  In fact, among the more shocking discoveries made by Blum is that, in contrast to the distributed network envisioned in the 1960’s, the contemporary internet is actually made up of a relatively small number of major centers connected, at times, by what seems like only the thinnest of threads. Suffice it to say, attention to the physical infrastructure of the world wide web paints a very different picture from the infinite and eternal cloud that we experience as users each time we open a browser.

In uncovering the hidden materiality of the internet, Tubes helps to raise some interesting pedagogical questions. On the one hand, there is a strong contemporary tendency to praise advances in web-based technology for allowing us to offload knowledge functions and focus, instead, on cultivating the imagination. The goals of education are less and less about delivering content, and more and more about empowering students to seek out relevant information necessary to finding innovative solutions to emergent problems. The world wide web is powerful because, like never before, it allows us to create new worlds and, explore a seemingly infinite range of potentialities. On the other hand, however, I wonder if obscuring (or simply forgetting) the physical and technological infrastructure that makes the world wide web possible doesn’t actually end up promoting a particular set of philosophical perspectives, namely, idealism.

Idealism is a philosophical perspective according to which the greatest amount of reality is given to the immaterial. For Plato, sensible things are real only to the extent that they participate in the forms. For Berkeley, all of our sense experiences are caused by God. For Kant, our knowledge about empirical reality is mediated and made possible by the basic structures of consciousness. To the extent that we ignore the material infrastructure supporting the world wide web, and as we increasingly incorporate web 2.0 technologies into the classroom that aim to be as transparent as possible (facilitating productivity and creativity without also making it obvious that we are using tools–transforming tools into prosthetics), are we tacitly encouraging an idealistic view of the world? Does a failure to educate students about the solidity and vulnerability of the internet as an infrastructure contribute to an ethics that values minds over bodies? Technology is not value neutral. The world wide web is not merely a tool for learning and communicating, but rather also actively reinforces certain world views at the expense of others. By shining a light on the material side of the internet, Tubes effectively brings the body back, reminds us that even our spiritualized identities in cyberspace are dependent on space and place. Ironically, in considering the more technical components of the internet, its vulnerabilities and dependencies, its greasy and dirty underside, we are perhaps reminded of the same qualities in ourselves, and so reminded of what it means to be human, tubes and all.

Bauman, Z. (2002). Society Under Siege. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Blum, A. (2012). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York, NY: HarperCollins.