Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Phenomenology of Digital Media

  • Joris Vlieghe
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_90



Although digital media are fairly recent phenomena, it could be said that the phenomenological movement, from its earliest stages on, has offered a most fruitful starting point for understanding the meaning and the impact of these media for our lives, in general, and for education, in particular. Central to the work of both Husserl and Heidegger is a concern with the growing presence, if not the ubiquity and inevitability, of technology in our daily lives. Their reflections sometimes have a prophetic quality. It is no coincidence that their ideas inform many contemporary thinkers who aim at coming to terms with our present world, which is increasingly a digitized one. The sphere of education is no exception to that: even more educators and children/students relate to one another through screens, instead of meeting one another in real-life presence. And, whereas the initiation into the world used to be one predominantly based on reading and studying (school) books, it is imaginable that digital and social media will become the dominant technologies which structure the way in which the new generation encounters the world.

First, a particular, “traditional” phenomenological understanding of technology, as present in the work of Heidegger, is discussed, as well as how this view informs contemporary debates on the growing impact of digital technologies on education. As often as not, this impact is deemed unfavorable. Subsequently, this chapter also zooms in on recent work on education and digitization which criticizes this traditional perspective and which tries and comes to an experiential account which is more open to the possibilities that go together with the use of digital media – an account that also gives due to the complex history of technology and stresses bodily dimensions. In view of the format of this text, only a limited number of authors and a limited scope of issues can be discussed. However the authors and examples presented are representative for the way in which phenomenology can contribute to a better understanding of how digital media affect the world of education.

Digital Technologies and the Framing of the World

A basic insight to be drawn from Heidegger’s seminal text The Question Concerning Technology (1978) is that we completely misunderstand technology if we only regard it as a set of tools at our disposal. Instead, technology pertains to a way of understanding itself. The world appears to us “enframed” in a way never encountered before we started to rely on technology when leading our lives. More precisely, Heidegger claims that under the conditions of a technological worldview, literally everything is seen as a resource, i.e., something which is out there only to be used and optimized. This analysis stills holds true today (if not with greater urgency than in Heidegger’s own time), as Iain Thomson has shown in an important study on Heidegger and higher education (Thomson 2005). Thomson argues that Heidegger’s analysis, although written long before the introduction of computer technology in our daily lives, actually gives a most accurate description of how digital media operate: the things which appear on our computer screens are marked out as mere information that can circulate – things that can be quantified and exchanged. And, this applies to almost literally everything: the texts we read and write; the people we encounter and befriend; the world we live in, explore, and enjoy; etc.

As such, we no longer appreciate things for their intrinsic qualities. Rather, we have come to take mere quantity as a sign of quality. This might well explain a rise in instrumental thinking, which has intensely affected the sphere of (higher) education. For instance, subject matters are no longer seen as worthwhile to explore in and out of themselves, but as a potential source of economic benefit, and students solely appear as a possible source of investment (Ibid.). It is important to note that this way of looking isn’t a harmless and easily rectifiable distortion of sight but that it reflects what subject matters, students, and universities are: a technological worldview goes together with an ontological reduction. As Heidegger claims in regard with the contemporary world: “Only what is calculable in advance counts as being” (quoted in Ibid., p. 149). In that sense, the use of technologies, and particularly of digital technologies, defines what we are, and they delineate the ways in which we relate to reality as such.

On a more ontic (i.e., concrete) level, similar analyses have been made in relation to the introduction of digital technologies in the classroom. For instance, Richard Dreyfus (2001) argues that the physical copresence of students, teachers, and the things we study is a necessary condition for education to take place and therefore that the telepresence we increasingly encounter on-screen and online is a dangerous evolution. Drawing from Merleau-Ponty, he claims that we can only learn to master a subject matter when it is sensed as having a reality of its own, i.e., when we (as bodies) are confronted with something external that poses a challenge to us and that doesn’t automatically yield to our will and intention. Therefore, Dreyfus argues, computer and Internet learning is most problematic: the hyper-mediated relation to reality within virtual spaces, as well as the ready-made and algorithmic character of e-learning-programs, prevents this confrontation with a recalcitrant reality. These programs seem to be developed to immunize pupils/students against this kind of unsettling experience.

To give another illustration, it could be argued that the use of ready-made (PowerPoint) presentations prevents students from experiencing the way in which a teacher actually composes (letter for letter) the words she draws attention to: they just appear with a click of the mouse. This precludes a most valuable educational experience students might have in the traditional classroom context. As Cathy Adams (2016) shows, the use of blackboard and chalk grants students the possibility of witnessing how words come into being. Chalkboarding thus provokes a different and more caring sort of attention when compared to the consumerist-style attention that goes together with seeing appearing slide after slide. Under traditional conditions, it is as if students have a more direct feel of why the words which are produced are important and of how much the teacher cares about these words. This unique way of disclosing the world has up till now no equivalent in the digitally supported classroom (Ibid.).

Beyond a Normative Approach

These analyses underline that technologies, and especially digital ones, are never just means at our disposal, i.e., instruments which we might choose to use (or not) and which are easily interchangeable for other instruments without this having much consequences. They show, on the contrary, that (digital) technologies define to a rather large extent how we experience ourselves, others, and the world. More importantly, they actively give shape to the realm of education – in a more harmful than a fruitful way, so it may seem. As such, phenomenology appears to be a good ally for those who believe that with the advent and proliferation of new technologies, we are destroying something of great value and that the use of digital media obstructs the path of true education. Such a view is not only normative, but also technological determinist, as the consequences which are laid out appear to be unavoidable.

Nonetheless, it is also possible to take a more neutral and productive approach, open to the possibilities which come with digitization. This is evidenced by recent work on digitization and education that starts from a (post)phenomenological perspective. This other approach is closer to the principal aim of phenomenology, viz., try and give a precise, rich, and detailed but also maximally unprejudiced and unbiased account of the way in which reality appears to us. Not unsurprisingly, phenomenology has also been effectively applied in order to come to detailed descriptions of what it means to relate to others and the world under pre-digital and digital conditions. Rather than seeking for a justification against (or for that matter in favor of) new technologies, the first and most important task of such a purely descriptive approach is to draw out what it means to educate and to educate digitally, which (new) possibilities come with (new) technologies, and to draw out differences with what education looks like in more traditional (i.e., classroom) settings.

A substantial effort to give such a descriptive rather than a judgmental account can be found in the work of Gloria Dall’Alba and Robyn Barnacle (2005), Max van Manen and Cathy Adams (2009), and Norm Friesen (2011). Rather than playing out traditional media against digital ones, van Manen and Adams argue that “on-line computer technologies intensify the phenomenology of writing” (van Manen and Adams 2009, pp. 20–21). Digital, and especially online, technologies open up writing to an unprecedented experience of what it means to be a writer. Drawing from Blanchot, they show that writing online and offline is about entering a not easily graspable space (and as such writing offline and online are markedly different from oral discourse which is always a matter of direct expression and which therefore never implies this kind of journey into the unknown). In order to come to terms with the differences between online and offline text production, van Manen and Adams carefully craft an experiential account of the different ways in which writing comes into being under these two conditions. And so, they convincingly show that in “cyberwriting” there is a different sense of what it means to make one’s ideas and feelings public, another contact to the insight and truth one seeks through writing, a different feel of one’s own and one’s readers presence, proximity/distance and corporeality, etc.

Likewise, in his study The Place of the Classroom and the Space of the Screen (2011), Friesen gives a detailed and rich analysis of “the differences separating screen and classroom as spaces for pedagogy” (p. 15). At stake here is not a plea against or for online learning but the development of “an experientially attuned vocabulary,” in order to offer an accurate picture of the lived experiences of teaching and learning online and offline. Defying much of the mainstream research regarding digitization, which is almost exclusively concerned with how the use of traditional and digital media affects study performance and learning outcomes, Friesen’s goal is to flesh out what it means to be a student, to be a teacher, and to be together (to share experiences and meanings) in both conditions. As such he is describing things which we can all recognize ourselves, but in a more structured way than we usually do. More exactly he analyzes teaching and learning according to the four basic dimensions (or existentials) that structure lived reality: “lived time, lived space, lived body, lived relation[ality]” (p. 25).

The Constitutive Role of Digital Technologies for Humanity

Next to challenging a normative take on the digital in education, recent (post)phenomenological work has also addressed other assumptions which are implicit to the account sketched in the first section, viz., that technology is only a phenomenon of a recent date and that digitization is the paramount exemplification of the recent tendency of relying too much on technology. Over and against this, it could be argued, from a (post)phenomenological point of view, that technology has a much longer history and that our very humanity has actually always been dependent upon the uses of technologies. This follows from Bernard Stiegler’s (1998) reinterpretation of Husserl’s analysis of the constitution of time consciousness and the role of memory. Whereas Husserl only discriminates between primary retention (actually sensed experience) and secondary retention (past experiences that are not directly accessible, but which co-constitute the meaning of our actual experiences), Stiegler shows that Husserl omits to take into account the most important constitutive dimension of memory: the technological tools we rely on – which he calls tertiary retentions (e.g., carving a date on the wall of a monument or writing a diary entry). The idea here is that it is only thanks to the existence of external memories that human beings have something they can properly call memory in the first place. Technological memory is not an exteriorization of the conscious faculty of memory; it is exactly the other way around.

Therefore, our reliance on digital technologies is not a recent or exceptional phenomenon. Rather, our very constitution as human beings (and the very possibility of conscious phenomena) is dependent upon the use technological prostheses. In that sense digital media are less a “new” phenomenon than often taken for granted. They are merely the latest version of the technologies without which a human life is inconceivable. Moreover, this view entails that the word technology refers to much more than to mechanic, electronic, or digital devices alone. Instead, it concerns all tools and supports we rely on to lead a human life. An electric drill is as much a technology as a prehistoric stone axe is, and the same goes for chalkboarding and PowerPoint. Also, technology has not merely to do with the instruments we use but also with the use itself in a practical, material, and bodily sense, i.e., with the gestures and disciplines required to work with particular technologies (Stiegler 1998). It is here that education plays a crucial role, as it is the place where we get acquainted with the basic grammar of the operations necessary to master the culturally dominant technology – be it reading and writing in a traditional or in a digital way (cf. Vlieghe 2015). As Norm Friesen (2011) has argued, even though there exist marked differences (e.g., the inevitability of the play of concealing and disclosing that goes together with the body that cannot not talk in the classroom), there are also important similarities between classroom and educational on-screen activities. Both demand the development of habits, an inflexible bodily discipline, and a “regimentation of time, space and the body” (p. 81). Over and against the prejudice that we leave our bodies behind when sitting in front of a screen, engaging with digital media should be considered as being as much a physical engagement as using traditional media is. And so, in order to understand what it means to teach and learn off- and online, we first and foremost need to concentrate on how we come to embody particular technologies (cf. Dall’Alba and Barnacle 2005).

On this point a fruitful dialogue has been opened between (post)phenomenologists and media theoretical approaches. According to these last approaches (developed in the wake of McLuhan and the Toronto School of Communication and more recently in Germany as media ecology), communicating our feelings and ideas is not only dependent upon technological infrastructure but profoundly influenced by it (i.e., the medium is the message). Media theorists have been especially interested in differences between pre-digital and digital writing and reading technologies. In this regard the recently translated work of Vilem Flusser deserves to be mentioned (e.g., Flusser 2011). Drawing from both phenomenological description of experience and the analysis of features of the material infrastructure we rely on, Flusser argues that there are marked differences between alphabetic and nonalphabetic writing systems, as well as between picture-based, text-based, and computer-based forms of communication: each media technology goes together with a substantially different experiential realm. Flusser goes so far as to claim that our capacity for logical thought and our sense of historical progress are predicated upon the characteristics of (alphabetic) writing. This particular form of writing presupposes a particular repertoire of bodily gestures which support a one-dimensional, linear form of thought (alphabetic writing goes in one predefined direction without any possibility of returning), which is opposed to the two-dimensional form and much less inflexible form of thought which is related to image-based scripts such as ideographic writing systems. Most prophetically, but without making normative commitments à la Heidegger, he argues that we are gradually shifting toward a new era, in which our experience of the world is mediated by computer images rather than alphabet-based texts. This will introduce a new, zero-dimensional style of thought (a form of thought which is akin to the computational force of computers) (Ibid.).

The Digital and the Human Body

As noted, a major consequence of the work discussed above is that the often heard claim that digitization implies disembodiment is misguided. A full phenomenological account of digital education requires attention for the body, even if the body is engaged in different ways in digital teaching and learning than it is in the classroom. Taking the human subject as external to the technologies she counts on is not an accurate starting point for understanding the digital (or for that matter for coming to grips with the role of any educational technology, as the example of the gesture of writing illustrates). Rather, as Don Ihde (2002) – one of today’s most renowned phenomenologists of technology, proposes, we should ground phenomenological analysis on human-technology relations (meaning that this relation is as important as the intentional subject-world relation in Husserlian phenomenology). Over and against the technological determinist reading of Heidegger sketched above, Ihde (Ibid.) claims that this positive reading of what (digital) technologies allow for is already (implicitly) present in Heidegger’s prioritizing the practical relation which we entertain with our world when analyzing the proper characteristics of human existence.

Drawing from Ihde and Levinas, Gallit Wellner (2014) argues that we should understand the human-digital technology relationship in terms of the screen. Digital media don’t accidentally have screens. Rather, they are defined by having a screen. Moreover, digital media appear as closely intertwined with our own bodies, in the sense that they address us as a face (or, more exactly, as a quasi-face as Wellner wants it). For instance, “[t]he screen of the cell phone, like a facade of a home, represents an exteriority which hides an interiority. The screen acts like a face that requires a response …” (Ibid., p. 311). Therefore, in order to understand our rapports to the digital, we need to take into consideration bodily and emotional qualities that relate to the screen which always appears as something other (alterity) in the strong meaning of that word.

This sense of alterity inherent to screens might be disputed by turning once more to Friesen’s (2011) analysis of experiential differences between classroom and online education. To give only one example, Friesen draws attention to how the experience of silence (e.g., occurring between two students collaborating on a project) is totally opposed on- and offline. Whereas the meaning of silence in the classroom is always constituted by the bodily presence of others and the surroundings one happens to find oneself in, silence experienced online is always linked to the physical distance between those who fall silent. In the first case, the meaning of this silence might be drawn from the other’s body language or her gazing at a salient thing in the surrounding (which might be expressive of heightened attention or boredom). In the second case, however, the other’s silence might mean that the other is no longer communicating (as she is presumably checking up her Facebook account).

This last example illustrates how difficult it is to get away from the normative and technological determinist assumptions discussed above. Although the last analysis gives a rich and detailed account of the phenomenon of silence under both conditions, and although it takes into account the embodiment of both online and offline learners, it also tends to reinforce the idea that the technology in question fully settles what is and what is not possible under digital conditions (techno-determinism), and it tends to frame the digital in a judgmental way, opposing the flat space of the screen to the living place of the classroom – which seems by and large preferable (normative stance). This will probably remain a pitfall and an ever present challenge to any future phenomenological investigation into the meaning of digital media for education.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Liverpool Hope UniversityLiverpoolUK