Being in the Digital World

Husserl, Heidegger, and your digital habits.

Two true stories. After sitting down on a bus, a girl of about ten takes a vacated seat with her father and little brother at her sides, and then pulls out a paper fortune teller she obviously made herself. She asks two women sitting across the way for colours and numbers, working the folds in the fortune teller once they answer. Both were clearly amused as the girl told them their futures. There was something strange in this scene: strangers talking on a bus in a good-natured way. But there was equally something missing.

A couple of weeks later, four students sit at a round table in a busy cafeteria at the university where I teach. They’re chatting, joking, and like the people on the bus, happy to be there. But about a foot or so in front of their faces they’re holding smartphones like cherished religious icons, repeatedly glancing at them during their conversation. Their talk takes place around, over, and through their iPhones, now an essential part of their worlds. They can’t leave home without them.

These parables illustrate two modes of being, the former slowly fading away, the latter triumphant, like soldiers marching in a parade as their dictator waves from his palatial balcony.

Husserl, Heidegger and the Digital World

Two ideas from my largely wasted philosophical adventures come to mind here: Edmund Husserl’s concept of the Lebenswelt, or Lifeworld, and Martin Heidegger’s idea of Dasein (being there) as a fundamental mode of Being-in-the-World.

The Lifeworld is the world as we experience it immediately and inter-subjectively. It’s our feelings, beliefs, cultural habits, and the physical environment they take place in. Unless you’re in a Skinner box, it’s right in front of you now. Since our habits and values are all tangled within our Lifeworld, and we’re rarely conscious of how they’re connected, phenomenologists like Husserl and Alfred Schütz thought we had to analyse it free from moral and social presuppositions. With an open mind.

Heidegger’s Being-in-the-World was perhaps a bit meatier, ontologically speaking – he thought we’re thinking, valuing beings thrown into a world whether we like it or not, and that our basic choice in that world is to choose whether to live life authentically or inauthentically. To own our practices and habits as conscious choices, or to fall in with Das Man, the herd, and without much thought do what everyone else is doing. Just to be popular, or cool, or to avoid standing out. Like a furry coat in winter, the embrace of the crowd keeps us warm and comfortable.


"The point is that reality itself is now in the process of being uploaded." 


Digital devices are everywhere in our Lifeworlds and they both promulgate and ossify habits. All you have to do in a cafeteria or on a bus is to look up and see students and commuters hunched over smart phones like hungry zombies, munching on texts and social media posts as hungrily as the walkers in The Walking Dead munch on bodies. It isn’t just a matter of communication leaving the worlds of print and speech, being translated into 1s and 0s, then being uploaded to the Net as digital texts and pictures. That creates problems in and of itself.

The point is that reality itself is now in the process of being uploaded.

Most experience the Lifeworld of digital capitalism naively and inauthentically, as I expect Heidegger would say if he were still with us. We shop on Amazon via our iPhones and laptops, blissfully unaware of the exploitive labour practices in China and other sweatshop nations that provide us with the hardware and consumer goods that fill our virtual shopping cards. We like the Facebook pages of friends and family, without being fully aware of the data profiles and massivead revenues all that clicking generates. We blithely accept invasions of our privacy and personal space to download the newest programs and apps, telling anonymous bots who and where we are, information we’re afraid to share with a stranger sitting at the next table.


"We shop on Amazon via our iPhones and laptops, blissfully unaware of the exploitive labour practices in China and other sweatshop nations." 


We all know the ingrained habits of the digital mode of being, long since outlined and critiqued by the likes of Nicholas Carr, Douglas Rushkoff, Sherry Turkle and Jean Twenge. Cat-like attention spans fuelled by constant sideways glances at whatever screen is in front of you; a fervent belief in the myth of multi-tasking tied to the inability to get things done; social isolation in the midst of hundreds of social media posts; an inability to process, sometimes even to pronounce correctly, words in your native tongue; defending against stranger-danger with the imaginary force field of the smart phone; and last but not least, missing time. You look at your watch (or iPhone clock) and realize that the last 45 minutes has mysteriously disappeared.

These habits aren’t just psychic ticks or blockages on the road to “job done”: they speak to the way that digital tech massages our minds into accepting and embracing a new mode of being. Watch this Channel 4 report from 2015 about three English teens forced to undergo an arduous digital detox.  They state with conviction that they expect to experience the analogue world in one way only: as boredom. Instead, they go on walks, bake cupcakes, read a whole book in a single day, and “discuss the migrant crisis whilst playing Monopoly.” In other worlds, they visit the world of their grandparents, which at first they see as an empty void un-illumined by the glare of their smart phone screens.

For most, the medium is the massage: the content of the pre-digital Lifeworld doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether this content is on a network. Increasingly, reality is online. As J. F. Lyotard suggested way back in 1979, knowledge will be collected in data bases. If it isn’t, it won’t count as knowledge. That’s why students today refuse to believe there are perfectly good books in the library that they can’t access online. Because reality is online.

Digital Modes of Being

There are four modes of being in the modern worlds of technology and communication. These are not generations per se, since they bleed into each other, and earlier micro-generations have the tendency to take up the habits of later ones as they adopt the same suites of hardware and software. We can date these modes of being to periods of time when each group came of age – from roughly 12-24 years old, from middle school to the end of university.

In the beginning were the Dinos, now going extinct. As each day passes, there are fewer and fewer of these Stegosauruses swinging their mighty spiked tails, or Triceratopses charging horn-first at marauding predators. They lived in a world full of books and magazines and posters, listened to RCA radio sets whose tubes took a few minutes to emit a yellowish glow, and went to the cinema on weekends to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster – but only after an exciting serial about space men or jungle princesses.

My own species, the Trogs – or digitally illiterate cavemen, as later generations see my generation – grew up surrounded by electronics, though little of this was networked. Everyone had a TV and stereo set in their living rooms or basements. Everyone listened to the last pop hits on the radio or their record players. We even experienced the wonder of the first home computers, with their primitive command line interfaces, and crude video games, where you could actually count the pixels that made up your elven warrior on an Atari or Commodore machine. And the proto-Net too: dialup modems, bulletin board services and Usenet. These were our Lascaux cave paintings, heralding greater things to come.

The curious thing about us Trogs is that we didn’t “black box” our hardware as much as later micro-generations do. If a TV set, VCR or home computer didn’t work, why not unscrew the lid and see if we can fix it? It could be just a loose wire, or a burned-out fuse. Try doing that with an iPhone. At worst, we took our dead tech to a repair shop downtown.

The third mode of digital being was born around 1994 with the Netscape web browser and the Web Crawler and Lycos search engines, making Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web a practical Lifeworld. Those living within it I call the Netizens, since at first many hoped that the utopian promise of the Net would usher in a new era where knowledge would be widely diffused, where Australian grandmothers could debate American teens on global issues at the speed of light, where politicians had to listen to the people.

But then came the commercialization of the Net through online markets and adbots. The small corporate fish got eaten by bigger and bigger ones. By then end of the dot-com bubble in 2001, the Netizens’ optimism started to seem naive. It came to a crashing halt in September 2006 when Mark Zuckerberg graduated Facebook from the ivory-covered halls of academe, this crash hammered home in January of the next year when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. A new Web was born.


"We accept telling anonymous bots who and where we are, information we're afraid to share with a stranger sitting at the next table." 


The final mode of being is that of the Nodes, people who experience themselves first and foremost as points on a digital network. Their being is online: they communicate there, they socialize there, they get news and entertainment there. Laptops and smart phones are their larders, their life preservers, their swords and shields. They protect them from ennui, isolation, and personal reflection. From the analogue world, with all its messy confusions.

Through a constant repetition of digital habits, the Nodes entrench their own unique, often rude and inauthentic, mode of being.

Cashing in on Your Habits

What is the power behind these habits? In a word, capital. Or in three, globalized digital capitalism. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied even a modicum of political theory, or media studies, or sociology.

Yet I hazard a guess that very few connect the immersive digital habits we see everyday to any specific organization. Or see their habits as structured by power. After all, it’s us doing all that texting and tweeting and Facebook liking, not Mark Zuckerberg.

But the power brokers within Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a dozen or so other digital success stories want us to remain in Das Man, to stay naïve about the habits their devices spread and entrench. Because it pays. A lot.

So end your protests and sit down so you can keep clicking on those like buttons and popup ads, keep sweeping through those social media posts. Lean back and let the digital magnates massage that wonderful brain of yours with their flow of messages and images. No need to think too much.

Relax. Doesn’t it feel good?

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Haji Benstoke 29 July 2021

There was something strange in this scene: strangers talking on a bus in a good-natured way. But there was equally something missing.