Near Cowra, NSW 2011.

Behind The Screen: A Review

Hiding Behind The Screen is a fascinating article by Roger Scruton, on the New Atlantis website. Scruton makes the effort to place criticism of the internet in a philosophical and moral context, and this alone makes the article worth the read.

Scruton is not making a facile attack.  He acknowledges “e-mail is reality, not virtual reality, and the changes it has brought about are changes in real communication between real people.”  It is not so different from the old practice of writing letters. There is still significant change, he argues. He asks if that change is “as damaging as many would have us believe, undermining our capacity for real relationships and placing a mere fantasy of relatedness in their stead? Or is it relatively harmless, as unproblematic as speaking to a friend on the telephone?”

A clear difference in internet relationships highlighted by Scruton is ease of contact.

No more need to get up from your desk and make the journey to your friend’s house. No more need for weekly meetings, or the circle of friends in the downtown restaurant or bar. All those effortful ways of making contact can be dispensed with: a touch of the keyboard and you are there...  But can this be real friendship, when it is pursued and developed in such facile and costless ways?

Scruton outlines some basic understandings of friendship with which I find much agreement.

Real friendship shows itself in action and affection. The real friend is the one who comes to the rescue in your hour of need; who is there with comfort in adversity and who shares with you his own success. This is hard to do on the screen — the screen, after all, is primarily a locus of information, and is only a place of action insofar as communication is a form of action… Only words, and not hands or the things they carry, can reach from it to comfort the sufferer, to ward off an enemy’s blows, or to provide any of the tangible assets of friendship in a time of need.

The crux of his argument here is that real relationships involve risk.  I think there is truth in what he says. There are limits to screen friendship, and protections in screen friendship, which are not present when you meet in a café. However,  I think he underestimates just how much screen friendship can support a person. For those who are isolated, a keyboard, let alone a webcam or Skype, is a wonderful thing. Scruton is alert to the dangers, but shows signs that he has perhaps not had the benefit of the distance relationship.

He also overestimates the protection and distancing that the screen provides.  Clear examples of this are the internet  aggravated suicide toll, and the potency of internet and sms bullying.  A client of mine was once traumatized by a young man who took control of her screen with a malware program.  It never occurred to her to simply “pull the plug” on him. The screen sometimes seems to have great power to hold on to us.

There is no doubt that “cost-free, screen-friendly character” attracts people to Facebook, as does plain voyeurism. But relationship online is not “cost-free” by definition.  “Cost-free” relationships are a choice. We limit our spread. Some people refuse to relate closely even face to face. Scruton says, “I am not risking myself in the friendship to nearly the same extent as I risk myself when I meet the other face to face.” Sometimes this is true. Yet people I have seen seeking to build and maintain online communities seemed to suffer plenty and risk much.

In all of this, Scruton completely ignores existing relationships which are augmented by online contact. He makes no case for their being damaged or cheapened, but simply ignores them. I find Facebook a very useful tool for maintaining contact with a group of geographically distant friends and colleague to whom I rarely wrote or made phone calls in pre internet days.

Scruton locates the philosophical origins of his critique in the philosophy of Hegel and Marx. He critiques them quite strongly;  their “critiques of property and the market, it should be noted, do not merit endorsement,” but they had a “crucial” understanding about “the realization of the self through responsible relations with others.” There is much in this part of Scruton’s paper which resonates with Christian and Jewish thought about justice.

Hegel, he says, thought

we human beings fulfill ourselves through our own free actions, and through the consciousness that these actions bring of our individual worth. But we are not free in a state of nature, nor do we, outside the world of human relations, have the kind of consciousness of self that allows us to value and intend our own fulfillment. Freedom is not reducible to the unhindered choices that even an animal might enjoy; nor is self-consciousness simply a matter of the pleasurable immersion in immediate experiences, like the rat pressing endlessly on the pleasure switch. Freedom involves an active engagement with the world, in which opposition is encountered and overcome, risks are taken and satisfactions weighed: it is, in short, an exercise of practical reason, in pursuit of goals whose value must justify the efforts needed to obtain them. Likewise, self-consciousness, in its fully realized form, involves not merely an openness to present experience, but a sense of my own existence as an individual, with plans and projects that might be fulfilled or frustrated, and with a clear conception of what I am doing, for what purpose, and with what hope of happiness.

This risky engagement with the world has a “crucial” aspect for Hegel. The

life of freedom and self-certainty can only be obtained through others. I become fully myself only in contexts which compel me to recognize that I am another in others’ eyes. I do not acquire my freedom and individuality and then, as it were, try them out in the world of human relations. It is only by entering that world, with its risks, conflicts, and responsibilities, that I come to know myself as free, to enjoy my own perspective and individuality, and to become a fulfilled person among persons.

We might argue with Hegel about exactly what a “life of freedom and self-certainty” is. But if we talk about human fulfillment in the context of ekklesia, in the context of Christian community, it is clear that there is much in common, at this point, between being church, and his view of being human.

Scruton notes that Marx

drew an important contrast between the true freedom that comes to us through relationships with other subjects and the hidden enslavement that comes when our ventures outwards are not towards subjects but towards objects. In other words, he suggested, we must distinguish the realization of the self, in free relations with others, from the alienation of the self in the system of things.”

In our consumer driven society, that comment is as relevant as the day it was made, and is profoundly Christian. “You cannot serve God and mammon.

Scruton notes that this critique by Marx is expanded with the idea of

“fetishism,” according to which people lose their freedom through making fetishes of commodities. A fetish is something that is animated by a transferred life. The consumer in a capitalist society, according to Marx, transfers his life into the commodities that bewitch him, and so loses that life — becoming a slave to commodities precisely through seeing the market in goods rather than the free interactions of people; as the place where his desires are brokered and fulfilled.

The parallels with internet addiction, and the avoidance of life with a Second Life, are obvious.

Scruton is scrupulous in insisting the internet is not unique.

Transferring our social lives onto the Internet is only one of the ways in which we damage or retreat from this process of self-realization. Long before that temptation arose (and preparing the way for it) was the lure of television, which corresponds exactly to the Hegelian and Marxist critique of the fetish — an inanimate thing in which we invest our life, and so lose it. Of course we retain ultimate control over the television: we can turn it off. But people don’t, on the whole; they remain fixed to the screen in many of those moments when they might otherwise be building relationships through conversation, activities, conflicts, and projects. The television has, for a vast number of our fellow human beings, destroyed family meals, home cooking, hobbies, homework, study, and family games. It has rendered many people largely inarticulate, and deprived them of the simple ways of making direct conversational contact with their fellows.

It is in such blunt, even overstated, paragraph that the importance and the limitation of Scruton’s article lies. At one level he is correct. “The television has, for a vast number of our fellow human beings, destroyed.” I think we are so inured to this phenomenon that we are no longer able to properly comprehend it, or its magnitude!  I’ve had young people- not TV junkies either- ask me, quite mystified, what on earth we did at night, before TV! There is a need for some extremity, and even hyperbole here, to make people sit up and take notice.

I have a pet theory that women’s magazines are evil.  They set you up to desire the body beautiful, in so many ways, and are yet loaded with recipes that make that same body impossible. They glorify envy and greed and gossip. The issue here is not my exaggeration, (or the insertion of my hobby horse into this article.)  It is not that the magazines exist and we tolerate them. The issue is that so many otherwise rational people do not seem able to understand that there might be a problem. These magazines are so much part of our social landscape that critique and questioning has ceased. It can be the same with TV, and with aspects of our internet experience.  At this point I am profoundly in sympathy with Scruton.

And yet… in my house the TV is tuned to edgy comedy and politics: Good News Week, Modern Family, Insights, The 7pm Project, and Q and A. As an excessively non-multi-tasker, I am constantly irritated and distracted by the side commentary and discussion among our lounge room audience. The screen does not, by default, substitute for real relationships. It may augment them , and often does.

My adult kids still try and wind me up with a parody of my past.  After a particularly inane advertisement a voice will say, “Now children, what do you think that advertisement is really saying?”  TV and internet do not rule. We decide with whom, and how, we will relate and risk and live.

Scruton is correct: “take away the healthy ways of growing up through relationships and the addictive pleasures will automatically take over…” But then, equivocating almost, he says

And, just like the theater, the media of mass culture can also be used positively (by those with critical judgment) to enhance and deepen our real sympathies. The correct response to the ills of television is not to attack those who manufacture televisions or who stock them with rubbish: it is to concentrate on the kind of education that makes it possible to take a critical approach to television, so as to demand real insight and real emotion, rather than kitsch, Disney, or porn. And the same is true for the iPod…

The extreme of internet life, as seen by Scruton’s critique, is the avatar. This is where my self is replaced by an image, where I do not have my photo on Facebook, but an idealized image. Interestingly, some of my colleagues have replaced their photos with small caricatures, which are not so much idealizations as wry self criticisms combined with whimsy. Nonetheless,

The avatar can therefore be seen as merely the latest point in a process of alienation whereby people learn to “put their lives outside of themselves,” to make their lives into playthings over which they retain complete, though in some way deeply specious, control. (They control physically what controls them psychologically.)

This last couple of sentences deserve some deep thought. It is abundantly clear that much internet discourse is psychologically out of control. It is driven by alienation, anger, hurt… and loses the accountability demanded of us in more civilized discourse and locations. Mild people become on-screen monsters or trolls, just as some drunks become vicious and violent. It is all the more worrying that there is no chemical depressing the normal social mores. All that is missing is any sense of accountability.

Scruton says

In human relations, risk avoidance means the avoidance of account ability, the refusal to stand judged in another’s eyes, the refusal to come face to face with another person, to give oneself in whatever measure to him or her, and so to run the risk of rejection. Accountability is not something we should avoid; it is something we need to learn. Without it we can never acquire either the capacity to love or the virtue of justice. Other people will remain for us merely complex devices, to be negotiated in the way that animals are negotiated, for our own advantage and without opening the possibility of mutual judgment.

It is easy to miss the depth of this comment.  In the last sentence I have quoted lies the beginning of a profound critique of our consumer culture.  How much development and marketing, and employment, and  is based around “negotiating others” for our “own advantage.” Accountability is not merely some issue to do with politeness and social niceties. It goes to the heart of civility; namely, justice.

Justice is the ability to see the other as having a claim on you, as being a free subject just as you are, and as demanding your accountability. To acquire this virtue you must learn the habit of face-to-face encounters, in which you solicit the other’s consent and cooperation rather than imposing your will. The retreat behind the screen is a way of retaining control over the encounter, while minimizing the need to acknowledge the other’s point of view. It involves setting your will outside yourself, as a feature of virtual reality, while not risking it as it must be risked, if others are truly to be encountered. To encounter another person in his freedom is to acknowledge his sovereignty and his right: it is to recognize that the developing situation is no longer within your exclusive control, but that you are caught up by it, made real and accountable in the other’s eyes by the same considerations that make him real and accountable in yours.

Scruton provides a potent discussion of where use of the internet goes wrong. His critique has obvious application to television.  But the danger of retreating “behind a screen”, is not new.  We all do it, and need to.  Time out is important and necessary for health. Some of us do it too much, and always have.  The back shed, and the front bar, can cease being retreats and become avoidance mechanisms. But not more so than that conversation overheard at the hair dressers, where two people talk at each other non-stop, but appear not to listen at all.

Do not read Scruton not as providing a critique of the internet. Read him as a critique of the non-engagement which we already do too well, even without the internet.

Read Hiding Behind The Screen

Andrew Prior Oct 25 2010


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