We live in communities whose political, legal, military, cultural and economic systems established upon digital transmission and information networks or in societies that are making major attempts to bridge the so-called digital divide. Maybe this is one reason why hermeneutics, the philosophic theory dealing with issues of interpretation and communication, has apparently lost the academic interest it had in the nineteenth century as a methodology of the humanities as well as understanding human existence in the twentieth century. So, let us take a look at hermeneutics in a binary way!
The Internet’s challenge for hermeneutics considers mainly its social relevance for the creation, communication, and interpretation of knowledge. This challenge refers to a questioning of the pseudo-critical rejection of hermeneutics with regard to technology in general and to digital technology in particular. Confronting the digital challenge hermeneutics must propose a “productive logic” (Heidegger) for understanding the foundations of digital technology and its interplay with human existence.
Hermeneutics and the Internet
As the Internet and particularly the World Wide Web (WWW) became a social interactive information and communication technology in the mid-1990s the relevance of its challenge to hermeneutics became even more evident.
The leading modern pre-understanding of the engine as a metaphor for the process of social construction has been replaced by the one of the networks understood as technology and as a medium of communication. What is new with regard to binary hermeneutics? I believe that we are dealing with two sides of a single diminishing process of modern technology. On the one side, there is a diminishing of the interpreter that finds herself within a network that she can only partially control.
On the other hand, information technology is a powerless technology as far as it deals with “conversations of mankind” (Rorty) now based on networked subjects, an oxymoron from the point of view of the independent subject built by European modernity. The Internet has brought up changes in our spatio-temporal social experience that were difficult to imagine some decades ago. It would be childish to speak about this technology just as an instrument without taking seriously its effect at all levels of our being-in-the-world.
Binary hermeneutics deals with how the digital code is being interpreted and implemented (or not) in the globalized societies of the twenty-first century. It is concerned with processes related with the digital network at the social level, independent systems of interpretation, communication, and interaction (robotics) as well as all kinds of hybrid biological systems (bionics) and digital manipulation at the nano level.
In a digitally globalized world with societies based on digital networks without a fixed meta-system, questions such as those of the search for truth criteria or ethical and political legitimization become a key aspect of the technological innovation. These questions concern the polarization, misunderstandings, conflicts, oppositions, conjunctions, aspirations, interests and illusions with regard to the processes of understanding at a local and universal level. But the effect of digital communication goes far beyond such a global system as it implies a methodological perspective that transforms genetic biology into a technology aiming at the artificial transformation of living beings, atomic physics into a technology aiming at the manipulation of the material support of all beings at the most basic level.
“As long as we remain ’embedded’ unquestioningly in the digital casting, everything is manifest as bits. But what does it mean that everything appears as a bit? Precisely this view of beings as a whole, that we only admit everything that is in its being when we understand it against the horizon of the digitally functionalized logos represents the encasing central draft thesis of a digital ontology.” (Eldred 2001)
The main point considers the word “unquestioningly” that makes the whole difference between digital ontology as a possible and indeed today’s spreading interpretation of Being and the metaphysical thesis that the digital is the real. An epistemological (weaker) version of this thesis is: things are (understood) as far as we are able to digitize them. Digital ontology is spreading since it is not necessary that people stick to it knowingly. It has an inclination, as every ontology, to becoming apparently the only true perspective. Binary hermeneutics has a double-bind with regard to the linguistic and the mathematical code. It aims at translating and interpreting logos and arithmos within the human domain but it is not limited to this globe.
It also concerns about the digital interpretation and structure of natural processes. And on the opposite side: the horizon of the digital is not the only possible one for the un-covering reality – including human existence as well as nature – or the “truth” of Being in Heideggerian terms. I believe that we live in an age in which the sense of Being is widely interpreted from a digital perspective as the ‘Zeitgeist’ of post-industrial societies. The consequences of digital metaphysics can be devastating as described for instance by Albert Borgmann in Holding on to Reality (2000).
Borgmann’s answer to the challenge of “utopian hyper-information” is a no less utopian book culture. Any dualistic thinking is risky as far as it inspects the vague on both sides and other possibilities in between. The “lightness” of digital technology has become part of the gravity of everyday life which is also the gravity of the market. Everything, including our body, can be an object of digitization and become a matter of economic transactions based on the space-time fluidity of the digital globe.
A similar dualistic thinking can be found in Hubert Dreyfus book On the Internet: on the one side there is the Internet which includes virtuality, aesthetics, anonymity, knowledge, the infinite, invulnerability, detachment and the observer, while on the other there is reality, ethics (and religion), commitment, the body, finitude, vulnerability, responsibility, and action.
In Being and Time, Heidegger indicates human understanding as a circle that is not a circulus vitiosus but a hermeneutic or productive one. What is vital is not to get out of the circle but to come into “in the right way”. Today this circle is described by the hybridization of the digital at all levels of human existence and self- assessment. Societies in the twenty-first century are looking for the “right way” to get into the digital network. This means that the hermeneutic circle as a key metaphor of philosophic hermeneutics should be re-interpreted as a hermeneutic network. And this leads to a change of another core idea of hermeneutics, namely the Gadamerian “fusion of horizons”. It is not only a “fusion” but a “linking” that characterizes the relationship between the messengers of the digital network that need to call each other through what system theory calls the “meaning offer” (Luhmann). In this regard, Binary hermeneutics transcends the classical task of hermeneutics as a theory of interpretation and discovers its own hidden dimension as a theory of messages or angeletics (from Greek ‘angelía’ = message). There is no interpretation without a previous “meaning offer.”
Binary hermeneutics and second-order cybernetics come together. While in the last century mass media could give the impression that they were a kind of meta-observer that would guarantee an objective view of all social systems, such vision becomes today problematic. This is the main lesson brought about by the Internet as an interactive technology that transforms all receivers of mass media messages into potential messengers beyond the one-to-one technology of the telephone. The cellular phone, as a mobile device linked to the Internet, challenges our conceptions of freedom and space mobility, of independence and vulnerability, of nearness and distance, of public and private, of being busy or being available, production and consumption, masculine and feminine. Conceived like this, the mobile phone is an eminently existential or ‘ontological’ device on today’s message society. This is a hermeneutic insight that becomes manifest today in all its global and local relevance.
Another crucial topic of hermeneutics, namely the relation between the whole and its parts is getting transformed by the digital network with regard to the possibility of having an overall view of its object of study. Binary hermeneutics questions the obviousness of these totalitarian visions. It can look at the whole (“totum”) from different perspectives but not at the same time (“non totaliter”).
The task of hermeneutics in the digital age includes two parts, namely to think the digital and at the same time to be addressed by it. The first task leads to the question about in which way the digital code has an effect on all kinds of processes, particular the societal ones. The second task refers to the challenge of the digital with regard to the self-interpretation of human beings in all their existential aspects, particularly their bodies, their independence, their way of conceiving and living in time and space, their moods and understanding of the world, the building of social structures, their understanding of history, their imagination, their conception of science, their religious beliefs. Hermeneutics misunderstands itself if it does not take care ontic and ontologically of digital technology with its overwhelming impact on our lives.