Philosophy ON the Internet
A brief examination of the offering of 'Cyberphilosophy'
Dr. Jeff McLaughlin
University College of the Cariboo
May 5, 2000
This presentation examines the development of a course on philosophy and the Internet that aims to increase learner awareness of the special questions that lie behind online technologies. Key to the success of 'cyberphilosophy' is the broad audience, significance of the issues and the appropriate use of technology. As such, many of the pedagogical initiatives in this course are offered as a possible template for other academic and professional - centered courses.
"I'm disappointed...I didn't think I'd have to use a computer in this class."
- student in the first computer seminar
A course about computers that doesn't use them is like teaching people how to cook without ever stepping into the kitchen. In theory, the recipe may sound good, but how does it taste? Extensive immersion in cyberspace is a necessity if we want to understand it. This course compliments 'hard-core computer courses' that teach programming languages, computer interface design and such by discussing some of the consequences of putting those very skills into action.
The aim of cyberphilosophy is to provide a philosophical and practical understanding of current computer technology and trends, with a consideration of the philosophical ramifications of the advent of computers in the modern world. We pay special attention to the impact of the virtual realm and on-line communications as a way to understand more about the nature of our 'self' and the human condition. The sorts of questions discussed included: How real are virtual worlds? Is assuming a false Internet persona problematic? Where are you when you are on the Internet? Is the Internet a holistic organism with a group mind or just a giant warehouse of data? Is the right to privacy threatened by computer technology? Should Cybersex and Cybersexism be restricted? Does information want to be free? Will the world be divided into those who have computer knowledge and those who do not? Will _we_ be divided into our real selves and our 'online selves? Although some of these topics may sound somewhat 'abstract', be rest assured that hacking and cracking, data mining and consumer self-defense, copyright, network security, webmaster responsibility, corporate monopolies and even refrigerators that have the capability to order coffee table books from Amazon.com...are all 'real world' issues that have their rightful place in our discussions.
Along these lines, it should be noted that questions about computers and the Internet shouldn't simply be matters of ethics. For it is the case that in many applied ethics courses there is a central focus on the very controversial and as such, the more 'obvious' questions get highlighted. I suggest however that it is the more abstract, the more metaphysical, indeed the more mundane questions that allow us better insight into the impact of technology.
"I was hoping for more Immanuel Kant."
- student who didn't grasp what the course was about.
Who has the course attracted?
The current mix of students includes:
Those who 'work' in computer environment (e.g., computer science students).
Students who 'play' on computers (e.g., a recent study shows that the Internet replaces beer as the coolest thing about going to University).
Those who are 'lost' in the computer environment (e.g., those who think that "mice and labs are things found in biology").
Students who are interested in philosophy.
This diversity of students provides a great opportunity for sharing and learning from a variety of perspectives. Thus, while some students are more comfortable with computers than others, each student has a unique history and point of view to bring to the class. This is no better or worse than other sorts of classes (for example, where the students move from class to class as a group) but sets the stage for an interesting class dynamic. With the diversity comes differing levels of ability. One becomes quickly aware that some of the learners may know more about technical matters then the instructor. Accordingly, (and depending upon the attitude of the particular student of course), those with greater knowledge can be treated as potential resources. Hackers often make great peer tutors since it gives them the chance show off. We also must recognize that some people will be completely lost and will require significant amounts of handholding and encouragement to try. It should come as no surprise to realize that people are often afraid of things that they don't understand and so some brave students have taken this course to overcome these fears and to understand how these magic boxes fit into their lives.
While some level of computer knowledge is required, you doesn't need extensive technical 'know-how' since being comfortable with the technology and being willing to experiment only requires that you be able to download and play around until you break it and try again. What is important in my particular offering of the course is that I bring my professional skills as a philosopher and as a person with significant practical experience related to distributive learning ("distance education" for the jargon-impaired) to the venture.
The important lesson that is learned is that we can't be all things to all people because we don't have all the answers. So, instead a collaborative approach to the learning exercise whereby the instructor acts more as a guide than a guru and is able to draw in students who have valid contributions to make can be a successful approach. If I don't know, I'll ask someone who does. If I don't learn something from the class I'm teaching then something is amiss.
It is important to recognize why a broad spectrum of students ought to be encouraged to take such a course. Such a course provides the necessary: "think about what you are doing" component of computer science courses. Theory guides us about practice and practices can be extrapolated into theory. Even if our students are only interested in learning employable skills they still need to appreciate, for example, that they might be setting up databases that contain highly sensitive information, that the applications they develop might help a child learn more easily, and that their programming can be used for "good or evil".
Likewise, in addition to providing a philosophical grounding to our liberal arts students, if we don't show them how to use the web effectively and how to express oneself online (either in pictures or words, in static pages or in chat, or even when they are buying something on line) we are doing them a disservice. We are denying them the skills needed for living in the ubiquitous digital world that is slowing creeping up upon us. These students may ultimately want to reject this technological world-view and that is fine of course, but they still have to possess an informed understanding and appreciation of what that world is before rejecting it. In other words,
We have to challenge students to be productive citizens and netizens. We must force them to reflect upon: "What is the good of this technology?", "What does it do to you?", "For you?", "Because of you?"
Why should I have an on-line chat with my classmate when he's sitting at the computer right next to me?
-student making an interesting observation
Let me give you a sense then of the sorts of things we do and the way in which we do them in cyberphilosophy.
1. Learning cells involve weekly writing samples where students ask two or three questions based upon their readings or the previous lecture. The students must also attempt to answer these questions themselves. These questions are then used to form the basis for in-class group discussions. Sometimes the small groups will all agree, while at other times the answers will spark heated debate that carries over into our other discussion forums. Regardless, learning cells provide students with the opportunity to equally participate in the class and to express their own ideas while improving their own ability to get their ideas down on paper.
Students can sometimes learn more from each other than they can from me. They may be more receptive to the suggestions from their peers and appreciate the comments more especially if they are from people who have different experiences or different backgrounds, be less intimidated and so forth. Since the student has to answer his/her own question it forces him/her to think about it more thus forcing them to be active and responsible participants in their own learning.
2. Lab assignments consist of numerous 'hands on' projects ranging from learning how to conduct effective online research to reviewing websites or creating one's own webpage. Teaching basic HTML is somewhat unusual for a philosophy class but nowadays if one wants to be heard, one has to learn this skill just as people need to know how to write or use a word processor. Assignments are not 'marked' in the traditional manner so that those who are just learning how to do a web page won't be judged as weaker as those students who build them for a living. Accordingly, effort and results are equally important.
3. An online Student Journal was designed and created by the class to disseminate their knowledge to others. It also provides the opportunity for students to read and critique other's work for philosophical merit and to see their own work 'published' on line.
4. Students joined a Discussion list (cyberphil-l) which allows for asynchronous sharing of information and ideas. Open to all professionals around the world (who tend to lurk and listen), students are required to post or respond to a certain number of messages per term. This requirement is unfortunate but necessary since I find that one has to assign participation marks if one wants students to participate.
5. Email allowed students to correspond with me one-on-one for whatever reason; either to just to send me a joke, a website of interest or a question at their convenience.
6. Experts 'virtually visited' the course to share their insights with us. Individuals such as Internet Pioneer Vint Cerf, the folks at Zero Knowledge (a company that is concerned about on-line privacy), noted children's author Philip Pullman, and UMass graduate student H. Shrikumar who created the world's tiniest webserver have all dropped by online to respond to student questions. These visits were used not only to tap directly into the words of wisdom from leading individuals but also to demonstrate to students the power of the Internet. They could 'talk' to someone (sometimes in real time) that they normally would never be able to. While the questions to Vint Cerf were focused on Internet issues, just having a noted author respond to questions about his work brought home made a very large impact on students' awareness of the power of the Internet.
7. Multi-media presentation of lecture materials, where appropriate, reinforced the message that technology is a effective tool to use to 'get to the important stuff', namely, the content of the course. While 'sexy', multi-media is also something that students are used to nowadays with music videos, video games, movies, etc. Getting the student to write an essay on, for example, some movie that they liked gets the student to move beyond 'it's just entertainment' to 'these people have something to say' in a way that perhaps the student didn't perceive before.
8. Moos/Muds (text-based environments) were used since you can't just talk about non-verbal communication online or what it is like to be a member of a virtual community - you have to experience it to appreciate it. Some students love chatting online and formed strong friendly relationships with others while others detested it and resented the assignment. But in either case, they were able to make informed judgments based on personal testimony.
9. Team taught initiatives - The first offering of this course was also taught in parallel at the University of Alberta. With one common text book as well as some common projects, students shared discussions, ideas (either synchronously or asynchronously), read each others' works, visited each others' home page and so forth. In this particular incarnation we wrapped up by having the UA professor giving live lecture to the UCC class via interactive television (which was a first for him too!)
10. Future plans - The next group of experts is being lined up for virtual visits. As well, I'll take the 'virtual' aspect one step further as I will be teaching the last third of the course from Austria while I go 'face to face' with information technology students in Europe.
In closing then, "Philosophy on the Internet" is meant both figuratively and literally. It is a course that uses the Internet to understand the issues of the Internet. While the topics are clearly important there is a second important element that I hope students walk away with, namely that critically thinking about computers and technology or any topic, is not something that can be confined to the four walls of a classroom. I hope some of you will be interested in joining us.