Transparent Media and the Development of Digital Habits

In Yoni Van den Eede, Stacy O'Neal Irwin & Galit Wellner (eds.), Postphenomenology and Media: Essays on Human-Media-World Relations. New York: Lexington Books. pp. 27-44 (2017)
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Our lives are guided by habits. Most of the activities we engage in throughout the day are initiated and carried out not by rational thought and deliberation, but through an ingrained set of dispositions or patterns of action—what Aristotle calls a hexis. We develop these dispositions over time, by acting and gauging how the world responds. I tilt the steering wheel too far and the car’s lurch teaches me how much force is needed to steady it. I come too close to a hot stove and the burn I get inclines me not to get too close again. This feedback and the habits it produces are bodily. They are possible because the medium through which these actions take place is a physical, sensible one. The world around us is, in the language of postphenomenology, an opaque one. We notice its texture and contours as we move through it, and crucially, we bump up against it from time to time. The digital world, by contrast, is largely transparent. Digital media are designed to recede from view. As a result, we experience little friction as we carry out activities online; the consequences of our actions are often not apparent to us. This distinction between the opacity of the natural world and the transparency of the digital one raises important questions. In this chapter, I ask: how does the transparency of digital media affect our ability to develop healthy habits online? If the digital world is constructed precisely not to push back against us, how are we supposed to gauge whether our actions are good or bad, for us and for others? The answer to this question has important ramifications for a number of ethical, political, and policy debates around issues in online life. For in order to advance cherished norms like privacy, civility, and fairness online, we need more than good laws and good policies—we need good habits, which dispose us to act in ways conducive to our and others’ flourishing.

Author's Profile

Daniel Susser
Pennsylvania State University


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