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The internet brings new developments to philosophy

HOU XIANLI | 2020-08-19
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In the internet era, competition valued by industrial civilization and modernity will no longer be the only choice. On the contrary, cooperation will create greater value. Photo: FILE


 
With the continuous development of information technology, the internet has penetrated every aspect of human life and production, exerting far-reaching impacts on the ways people produce, live, communicate and think while reshaping relationships between man and nature, between man and society, and between man and himself. This has prompted reexaminations of a series of philosophical issues, such as subject and object, thinking and existence, the physical and virtual world, technology and the humanities, and freedom and necessity. 
 
Deconstructing modernity
The internet not only represents the further progress of industrialization and modernization, but also contains the dialectical negation of industrial civilization and modernity, displaying some features of postmodernism. 
 
The internet was born as postmodernism rose in the West and human society transitioned from the industrial to post-industrial stage. The transition was driven by the third industrial revolution marked by the information technology revolution. 
 
Before that, people generally accepted a logocentrism featuring grand narratives, rationalism, efficiency-first utilitarianism and a unitary outlook on truth, all of which have aimed to promote the thorough development of Western capitalism. Pursuing efficiency and valuing competition, the industrial civilization was regarded as a superior one. 
 
However, the cruel reality is, the intense industrialization under the guidance of rationalism-based modernization has failed to bring about inevitable social progress as expected. Instead, it has caused the destruction of nature and heightened the tension between man and nature, inviting multi-dimensional crises to threaten capitalist resources, energy, the environment, social welfare, human development and human values. 
 
Therefore, postmodernism entered the historical arena, questioning and deconstructing logocentrism as characterized by grand narratives, a unified legitimacy-seeking mechanism, and a speculative philosophy capable of explaining all phenomena. Deconstructing abstract and rational modern subjects and the absolutely unitary view of truth, postmodernism strives to rebuild postmodern subjects and diverse values that stress selection, free expression, individual participation, personal autonomy and the emancipation of the individual. 
 
Deconstructive postmodernism advocates diversity and counters unification, authority and instrumental rationality for manipulating man and nature. Created at the time, the internet carries precisely these ideological genes of postmodernism. 
 
From a technological perspective, the internet is not a hierarchical pyramid typical of traditional society. Rather, it is a system of networked distribution, resembling a fishing net. There are no center nodes in the network framework.
 
Although the weight of nodes varies on the network, the internet in general has no absolute center, showing such attributes as decentralization, distribution and equality. Equality and the negation of centralization constitute the ideological core of the internet, corresponding to postmodernism’s opposition to authority and advocacy for individual liberation. In this sense, the internet implies a certain criticism of modernity and exhibits the ideological features of postmodernism. 
 
Constructing a new ecosystem
At the turn of the 21st century, constructive postmodernism represented by British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy was brought into the spotlight due to a discontent with deconstructive postmodernism’s excessive criticism yet inadequate construction of modernity. 
Constructive postmodernism proposed combining positive factors in the Enlightenment of the 18th century with postmodernist thought and developing the proposition of liberating the individual into caring for others and respecting differences. 
 
Furthermore, it introduced ecologism to postmodernism, championing the harmonious coexistence between man and man and between man and nature while attempting to surpass the dualism and anthropocentrism of modernity to build a warmer and more eco-friendly postmodern society that values the common well-being of all lives. 
 
The development of the internet echoes this trend of thought. At the beginning, it served as a technological tool, specified into the consumer-oriented internet and the industrial internet. Now it represents an intelligent ecosystem, dubbed as the value internet and the ecological internet. Data has become an important means of production, computing become a productive force and the internet become the relations of production in the era when all things are interconnected.
 
This has reshaped productivity factors and production relations, making mutually beneficial and reciprocal sharing and cooperation a new way of organization for production, fueling the growth of the sharing economy, challenging the deeply rooted capitalist view of privatizing the means of production, and highlighting the core spirit and values of the internet, such as opposition to authority, display of individuality, decentralization, inclusiveness, sharing and the favoring of diverse cultures. 
 
In the network architecture of the internet, every information node becomes stronger and more valuable as other nodes join and grow. Under the altruistic principle, “Hell is other people,” the famous quote by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, will be invalid, and competition will no longer be the only choice. On the contrary, only cooperation will create greater value. 
 
With the advance of the new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation, the internet has transcended the traditional domain of information technology, evolving from the underlying infrastructure for economic and social development into a new model of thinking, a new ecosystem and a new concept of socioeconomic growth. It not only explains the world, but also changes it, facilitating the free association of free individuals and promoting the emancipation of humanity. 
 
Reforming traditional philosophy
In brief, the function of the internet can be summarized as establishing connections and effecting relationships. Between mind and matter, the subject and object of traditional Western philosophy, the internet implants an intermediate link of information and softens the abstract opposition between subject and object. 
 
In the interconnected world actualized by the internet of things, information effectively plays the role of subjectivity and realizes the organic unity of the world of subjects and objects. Philosophy thus breaks further away from the abstract, isolated and narrow ontology and from the worldview of traditional Western philosophy characterized by the dichotomy of mind and matter. The worldview of Marxist dialectical materialism that upholds universal association is verified. 
 
The digitalized internet also opens up a space for humanity to live virtually, making virtual survival and practices possible, and significantly widening the space for human survival and practice. 
Meanwhile, the internet will prompt philosophy to accept the fundamental principles of diversity, sharing and dialogue, divorce itself from the solipsistic discourse model of traditional Western philosophy, and break away from academies and elites to make philosophy truly accessible to the public. 
 
In addition, on the internet, different philosophies and values from nations all around the world can hold dialogue freely without territorial and border restrictions. And via the internet, different civilizations can communicate with and learn from each other, seeking common ground while preserving differences and living harmoniously together. 
 
All in all, the changes of thought brought and contained by the internet, with postmodernist ideas at the core, are a form of dialectical criticism and the inheritance of industrial civilization and modernity. The new values and ideas the internet adheres to are new achievements of human information civilization. 
 
In the internet age, it is necessary for philosophy to take an internet turn on the basis of new and rich internet practices. Philosophy must extract the ideological essence of the internet and imbue philosophical studies with the modern values advocated by the internet, such as innovation, diversity, openness, sharing and inclusiveness. 
 
Hou Xianli is from the School of Philosophy at Heilongjiang University.  
 
edited by CHEN MIRONG