Fear and Trembling on the Internet


Brian T. Prosser
Dept. of Philosophy
Fordham University

Andrew Ward
School of Public Policy
685 Cherry Street
Georgia Institute of Technology


“The world’s fundamental misfortune,” the 19th century Søren Kierkegaard writes, “is …the fact that with each great discovery …the human race is enveloped … in a miasma of thoughts, emotions, moods, even conclusions and intentions, which are nobody’s, which belong to none and yet to all…” The great discoveries Kierkegaard is referring to are those made possible by the use of technology, and his concern is that the use of technology often results in human beings having a “destitute” relationship to the world. As exemplified for Kierkegaard by the popular press, the use of technologies not only transform face-to-face relationships, they create masks behind which people hide from one another. It is this latter point that is especially important. For Kierkegaard, what ultimately drives people to use technology, and to create masks through its use, is fear. “What rules the world,” Kierkegaard writes, “is… the fear of humanity. Therefore this fear of being an individual and this proneness to hide under one abstraction or another…. Ultimately an abstraction is related to fantasy, and fantasy becomes an enormous power… [T]he human race became afraid of itself, fosters the fantastic, and then trembles before it.”

Although the prose may be somewhat oblique, what Kierkegaard recognizes is that traditional face-to-face encounters between individuals structure the dynamics of communication in ways that can be avoided through the use of various technologies. For instance, face-to-face communications often permit the immediate and dynamic clarification of the appropriateness of a particular piece of information. Moreover, the contexts of face-to-face communications generally impose a stronger concern for the veracity of information and instill in the participants a greater sense of responsibility both for what is communicated and how it is communicated. For Kierkegaard such elements are essential to our most “important” and characteristically human experiences. Using technology to avoid these experiences represents, for Kierkegaard, a fear of, and an attempt to flee from what it is that is most important and characteristic of our own humanity. Kierkegaard, like many others, sees an inherent tendency to transform human experience in the use of technology. However, what particularly concerns him is that using technology to mediate our communications permits us to reconstruct human relationships devoid of the experiences most important to our humanity. For these reasons Kierkegaard writes that, “[F]rom fear of the others, one dares not to be an I and therefore strives to become an impersonal something…. This again has led to anonymity.” The dynamic force behind contemporary technology is, for Kierkegaard, fear, which turns the impersonal, anonymity-enhancing powers of technology into an attraction.

It is the possibilities of anonymity permitted by the use of technology that, as Kierkegaard sees it, removes communication from what he refers to as “The Situation”. The Situation represents for Kierkegaard that characteristic of individual existence that distinguishes the “individual” from the “crowd” or “the public”. In “The Situation” you and I have the possibility of having an encounter not as anonymous agents, but as people with distinctive, accessible histories. Because of this, communication within “The Situation” can become individualized – my words can become words meant for you and words that you can recognize as being from me. When communication is removed from this context, the identity of those communicating becomes a mere abstraction, and words cease to belong to anyone in particular. In an anonymous exchange devoid of particular content, “all personal communication and all individuality have disappeared; no one says I or speaks to a Thou…. It is the old sophistry of being able to talk – but not of holding a dialogue. For dialogue immediately posits: Thou and I, and such questions as require ‘yes’ and ‘no’….” Impersonal, technologically-generated contexts become, for Kierkegaard, a “miasma” that offers a convenient escape for those who are unwilling to accept the often challenging, sometimes even distressing, contingencies and expectations that are unavoidable in face-to-face “dialogue” between individuals.

So, what is to be done with all of this? Kierkegaard’s analysis offers an insightful explanation of why someone would write, as Maia Szalavitz recently did in a Newsweek editorial, that “I was immediately hooked by [the Internet…] a world where what you write – not how you look or sound – is who you are. It had definite appeal to someone who has always found socializing difficult.” We often allow technological replacement of standard face-to-face activities, not because we fail to realize that the number of immediate face-to-face interactions is diminishing, but because the reduction is taking place. As Szalavitz suggests, we often appreciate not having to deal with the “difficulties” that traditional relational contexts require. But, is there not something “healthy” about learning to deal with those difficulties? Such questions encourage us to reconsider Kierkegaard’s fundamental assumption that there are some experiences – perhaps constituted by, or inherent in traditional face-to-face activities – which simply cannot be captured in and conveyed by technologically mediated communications. As Kierkegaard’s “fear of humanity” thesis suggests, perhaps some of our attempts to reach beyond the legitimate framework of such relationships arise not because we are trying to preserve the relationships to an illegitimate extent, but because we are trying to subvert them and escape them. Consequently, Kierkegaard challenges us to question our motives for wanting to displace such activities.

If, as people other than Kierkegaard have agreed, technologically-mediated contexts really do foster a more impersonal atmosphere of communication, and if Kierkegaard is right that such impersonality and anonymity diminish important aspects of interpersonal relationships, then we should ask why we increasingly allow technology to transform our world in such ways. Kierkegaard’s claim of a psychological attraction toward anonymity and interpersonal isolation – an attraction that comes from within the individual – suggests that it is insufficient to describe “technological reality” as “invading” the private space that is the individual. For Kierkegaard there is always complicity involved in the way we allow ourselves to be transformed by technological society. Technology, even in its negative forms, enters our lives as much by invitation as by invasion. From a Kierkegaardian perspective, technological society plays an enabling role for the “fearful” individual who chooses to hide behind the fantastic abstractions provided by technology.

With these remarks in mind, we will explore in more detail the Kierkegaardian critique of technologically mediated communications. We will compare the Kierkegaard’s account of technology’s appeal with that offered by Marcuse in an attempt to delineate the degree to which technology is responsible for dehumanizing our relationships with others. Finally, we will offer some positive recommendations for how technology can, in some carefully defined contexts, offer possibilities for communication that should be embraced and supported.