Dissertation Summary (English)

NET RECOMMENDATION
Prudential Appraisals of Digital Media and the Good Life

Digital media has become an integral part of people’s lives (at least, for those who live in the developed world), and its ubiquity and pervasiveness in our everyday lives raise new ethical, social, cultural, political, economic and legal issues. Although many of these issues have already been taken up by researchers, they are primarily being dealt with in terms of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ with digital media and digitally-mediated practices. And, questions about the relations between digital media and the good life are often left in the background. In other words, what is often missing is an explicit discussion of the relations between digital media and the good life, especially in a more balanced and constructive manner.

Under the label of ‘Net recommendation’, the present study aims to offer a more balanced and constructive normative analysis of digital media, focusing on the relations between digital media and the good life. The project of Net recommendation aims to (re)assert the importance of actual discourses in our normative analysis of the relations between digital media and the good life. In the present study, I pursue the project of Net recommendation with a Walzerian approach to digital media and the good life that takes seriously (and, ideally, also interacts with) actual discourses. This approach, as I shall argue, allows us to have a better understanding of our normative judgements on the impacts of digital media has (or will have) on the good life and, at the same time, allows us to answer the question of ‘how should we live with digital media?’ more adequately. At the most general level, therefore, I hope the present study will contribute to the field of Information and Computer Ethics and critical studies of digital/new media by (re)turning to the good life through an analysis of the relations between digital media and the good life.

Yet, the Walzerian approach is not only useful to normative analysis of digital media and the good life in an intra-cultural context, i.e. the critical study of the impacts of digital media on the good life within a culture, it is also useful in an inter­cultural context. Using China’s Internet as a case study, I show that the relations between digital media and the good life in each culture have to be examined in its own right. In short, the Walzerian approach is useful not only at a local level, but also at a global level. In this way, I hope the present study will add to the growing body of research in intercultural (and cross-cultural) studies of digital media.

In Chapter One, I introduce my approach to normative analysis of digital media and the good life, which is based on Michael Walzer’s idea of social criticism. This approach is characterised by five features, i.e. (i) hermeneutical, (ii) immanent, (iii) participatory, (iv) empirical and (v) pluralistic. It takes seriously the actual discourses (e.g. popular discourse) on digital media and urges researchers to integrate them into their normative analysis. Since the focus of my study is on the relations between digital media and the good life, I identify a specific type of actual discourses on digital media that is relevant to the present study, i.e. prudential appraisals of digital media. Here, I argue that prudential appraisals of digital media are normative, and that their normativity is grounded in our practical identity (or our self-interpretation and self-understanding). I discuss how, and in what sense, practical identity is the source of normativity, and point out what this means to normative analysis of digital media and the good life. Finally, I end the chapter by offering an additional argument for the indispensability of prudential appraisals of digital media in normative analysis of digital media and the good life.

As I argue in Chapter One, prudential appraisals of digital media are normative and their normativity comes from people’s self-interpretation and self-understanding. In order to properly understand our normative judgements on the impacts of digital media on the good life, it is necessary first to explicate the normative ground(s) behind the judgements, i.e. our mode(s) of self-interpretation and self-understanding. In Chapter Two, through a discussion of the works of Charles Taylor, Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, I identify three different notions of the self in modern and late modern societies that serve this purpose, i.e. the disengaged self, the expressive self and the reflexive self; and, at the same time, I also identify the ideals (or the views of the good life) these notions of the self embody. Finally, I support my characterisation of the views of the good life in modern and late modern societies by looking at the empirical research conducted by Ronald Inglehart and his colleagues. The main objective of this chapter, in short, is to lay the ground for my analysis of prudential appraisals of digital media in the next chapter by recollecting the normative and evaluative resources for (re)interpreting and understanding them.

In Chapter Three, I apply the Walzerian approach with the notions of the self I discuss in Chapter Two to prudential appraisals of digital media. I examine two sets of prudential appraisals of digital media: the first set focuses on the impacts of digital media on culture and society, which influence people’s lives by transforming the exteriors of their lives; and, the second set focuses on the impacts of digital media on our brain, mind and/or the self, and how it influences people’s lives by transforming their interior lives. More specifically, I attempt to show that prudential appraisals of digital media—and, for that matter, any normative judgements on the impacts of digital media on the good life—are best understood with the notion(s) of the self. This, I also attempt to show, has an important implication to normative analysis of digital media and the good life, namely we should (re)direct our attention to the question of ‘who we should be in a digitally-mediated world?’

Chapter Four is devoted to explore a different notion of the self, i.e. the Confucian self in (contemporary) China. I argue that the modern and late modern self I discuss in Chapter Two are inadequate for a comprehensive normative analysis of digital media and the good life, because they are not readily applicable to societies that have a different cultural root, and thus a different trajectory of modernisation. I propose that we should move beyond the idea of singular modernity and replace it with the idea of plural modernities, which allows us to properly acknowledge the importance of various cultural roots. With the idea of plural modernities in place, I explore the Confucian self and the view of the good life it embodies. Similar to what I have done in Chapter Two, the aim of this chapter is to lay the ground for my analysis of prudential appraisals of digital media in (contemporary) China by exploring the normative and evaluative resources available in the Confucian tradition.

I have applied the Walzerian approach in an intra-cultural context in Chapter Three, but the approach is also useful in an intercultural context. In Chapter Five, I illustrate how the Walzerian approach can be applied at a global level. I analyse the Chinese Communist Party’s position on the Internet with the Confucian self, and illustrate the fundamental role of Confucian values (and the Confucian view of the good life) in grounding China’s Internet policy and normative judgements in the opinion pieces. I argue that if it is indeed true that China’s Internet is informed by a different normative and axiological foundation, i.e. the Confucian self, then the question of ‘whether the Internet is good or bad?’, or the question of ‘how we should live with digital media?’, should also be answered differently—in a socially and culturally sensitive manner. To illustrate this, I offer a discussion of social media from the Confucian perspective. I show that there is a prima facie incompatibility between the Confucian way of life and social media, but I also point out that the incompatibility between them may be resolved. In short, the lesson of this chapter is that different societies require their own normative analysis of digital media with their own evaluative and normative resources.

Implicit in the project of Net recommendation and the Walzerian approach to digital media and the good life is philosophers’ responsibility to proactively offer practical recommendations to the public, i.e. users of digital media. However, the practice of recommendation is often faulted as paternalistic, and thus is considered to be morally undesirable. This criticism must be answered if the project of Net recommendation or the Walzerian approach is to be considered as a (morally) feasible option. In Chapter Six, I look at this criticism more closely. I argue that offering recommendations is indeed paternalistic, but we should not see it as morally problematic, because paternalism is inevitable in our technologically-mediated lives. Hence, philosophers should not be shied away from the practice of recommendation—especially only if it is for the worry over paternalism. Although there are philosophers who already take seriously the inevitability of paternalism in our technologically-mediated lives via the idea of design ethics, I point out that it must too be supplemented by the practice of recommendation. And, I illustrate how the Walzerian approach may supplement design ethics, as well as how it can actually minimise the worry over paternalism from the practice of recommendation.

Finally, in the Epilogue, I offer a brief summary of the present study and briefly discuss several practical implications of the project of Net recommendation and the Walzerian approach.

Together, I hope, this study have provided an adequate illustration and defence—in the guise of the Walzerian approach—of the project of Net recommendation, i.e. a balanced and constructive way to examine the relations between digital media and people, particularly the relations between digital media and the good life, that does not start with the assumption of digital media being a source of moral problem and strives to recommending specific ways to reform and/or transform digital media and digitally-mediated practices that allow us to have better relations with digital media and enable us to live better lives with them.