Facebook as a Form of Life?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951
Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

Wittgenstein’s ‘form of life’ construction, one which has addled my brain for over a year now, is a philosophical device that allows us to think about life, and what it means, in a layered and constructed form. Human beings, in their pure essence, are not really a form of life, but merely a life-form, shorn as they are of context and relativity. If you take a human, take away everything that is non-essential for the preservation of mere existence – legs, arms and so on, and then replace those organs vital for the maintenance of that state of existence with machines – a mechanical heart, even the parts of the brain that are not required, such as those controlling motor functions. There is very little in the bare, denuded essence of man that is in any respect a form of life. It is mere existence, presence; it may even be argued that while rational potential exists, reason does not, as that potential has no access to nurturing functions. It is only when the human interacts with the outside world, with the world that exists beyond consciousness and the self, that she becomes a form of life.

Wittgenstein theorises that communication was a form of life. Human beings expressing themselves, and human beings communicating with one another, represents a form of life (Philosophical Investigations, p. 88e, #241). The reductionist approach is instructive. Antonio Damasio, a noted neurologist, student of consciousness, and author of Descartes’ Error, has narrowed the physical location of consciousness to the upper part of the brain stem. Charles Hables-Gray, a philosopher studying the concept of the cyborg and its role in society, looks still further at how humans and machine interaction challenges conventional notions of identity and social order. One wonders what he would have made of Chief Justice Roberts’ recent suggestion in the US Supreme Court regarding smartphones, that they had become ‘…such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.’

Others have taken Wittgenstein’s structure and extended from communication as a form of life, to religion as a form of life, or commodity fetishism as a form of life, an idea I find particularly dystopian, somewhat reminiscent of  Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Langdon Winner in his 1986 work The Whale and the Reactor explored the concept of technology as a form of life, a particularly compelling thought. One must bear in mind that technology is not just computers and cars and bombs, but also clothes and roads and more seemingly mundane and ordinary things. As Douglas Adams put it, ‘[n]ewsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people ‘over the Internet.’ They don’t bother to mention when criminals use the telephone or the M4, or discuss their dastardly plans ‘over a cup of tea,’ though each of these was new and controversial in their day.’ Technology is not new.

Combining Wittgenstein’s communication as a form of life with Winner’s extension of technology as a form of life, it must be valid to consider social networks, or more accurately the Internet, as a form of life. Too often we think about the challenges of artificial intelligence and what Hables-Gray calls cyborgization as potentially existential threats because the machines take on a life of their own, an independent consciousness. That is truly an horrific, Kafkaesque prospect. But perhaps more plainly and more commonly we should think more about the Internet as how many of us live our lives today. The Internet is our form of life.


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