Coronavirus and Web 2.0: Philosophical Questions and Answers by Lorenza Saettone

A new INC essay, Coronavirus and Web 2.0: Philosophical Questions and Answers by Lorenza Saettone, now available, in Italian, here as pdf and here as an e-pub file. Thanks a lot to Tommaso Campagna for the design and technical work.

Italian philosopher Lorenza Saettone and I started corresponding at the end of my  ‘Sad by Design’ year, 2019. The collaboration became concrete soon after when Lorenza offered to write an essay about the role of philosophy concerning the internet in the lockdown months of 2020. Saettone majored in epistemology and cognitivism at the University of Genova. Her two BA ‘new media’ theses dealt with the formation of the identity online and offline and the philosophical novelties of Web 2.0. Her current master’s research, also in Genova, focuses on coding and robotics. She describes herself as a theorist and poet who aspires to become a high school teacher, investigating how technology can help teachers with their job. Students need media education. She believes the competences that Europe wants are all linked to digital literacy: learning languages to communicate, maths and science to write algorithms. And to gather a ‘metacognition’, to be able to develop an awareness of others, our own processes and the context—all aspects that are missing in the current educational programs.

In Coronavirus and Web 2.0: Philosophical Questions and Answers Lorenza Saettone talks about the inconsistencies of connections in a period of distancing and the tools with which to read ourselves and the reality around us. As we can read in the abstract, the lockdown measures call for separation such as the digital divide and the metaphysical division between virtual and real, a dualism that does not exist in practice. Art is also distancing in many ways: for example, it allows us to transcend borderline situations, but also to look at reality itself from a more distant, and therefore more lucid, point of view. Through a case study, the author analyses how culture also offers the possibility to approach people authentically, despite the restrictions. All these thanks to the web. Without the internet, how could we now realize our essence as human beings? The web allows us to work, communicate and mirror ourselves: on social networks we produce an infinite amount of selfie and narratives, i.e. biographies. But why do we post? Why are scientists uncertain? Why all the conspiracies? Are we ready to realize, in practice, what science fiction only hypothesized earlier in literary form? What are the risks and virtues of Big Data applied to the pandemic? How would the philosophers of the past guide us? How could art help?

The text we publish today, on May 6, 2020, of Lorenza Saettone is a full seize INC Network Notebook essay that embodies what philosophy in this age of the COVID-19 pandemic could look like, published in Italian, INC’s second language, awaiting translation. Those familiar with Latin languages can read it, for sure. Other too, as the condition described is, sadly, a universal one, and its poetry is there, for all to enjoy.

Below a short interview with Lorenza Saettone, in English, to give a context to the text.

Geert Lovink: Can you tell us something how this text came into being? Where did you write it? How did you experience the lockdown and quarantine? What’s the life of a writer without libraries, book stores, people to meet and discuss ideas? Should we praise the productivity that European romanticism (and its emphasis on solitude) so often seems to suggest? The fact was, most likely, that you were online, all the time.

Lorenza Saettone: I have to admit that my life has changed little. I used not to go out even before the arrival of the virus, avoiding restaurants, appetizers, cafés and business dinners. I’ve never loved the crowd, but at least now I can have a legal, and social justification for being non-social. Regarding solitude, there’s a poem written by Emily Dickinson that comes to mind entitled There is a Solitude of Space. She is the best witness of loneliness. Dickinson says that the only true solitude is the one when the soul is alone, in the presence of itself. Even Death is a social phenomenon in comparison to the loneliness of the self-reflection. The soul is sheepish when it is naked, looking at itself:

There is a solitude of space

A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself –

Finite infinity

Indeed, the lockdown hasn’t made us automatically lonely. Actually, we have never been so busy. We have to escape the room, because, as Pascal said, we can’t be firm, deep-rooted, at a certain point, while we think to our Whys. When we are bored, it is more likely that we reflect on our misery (and mystery). This is why we escape, physically, or through our conscience, benefiting from each opportunity to distract ourselves. We escape the room, breaking its restrictions. To do that we invent every sort of reasons for not trusting experts. These reasons are invalidated by our interests.

In my view, the Internet is a wall that distances us from others. We can see people through it like we had the superpowers of Nembo Kid. The sight isn’t a participatory one, and, as far as we can spy through a keyhole, we remain outside, we can’t pass through it, and hug those that live on the other side, virtually. When, like at this moment, the web is added to the other material walls we are closed in, it becomes an opening. The wall isn’t only a ‘dividing peace line’, it is also a shared wall, one you can use to put up advertising posters, or ‘cave arts’ to testify your passage and to build together a tradition. In our rooms, the internet is the last chance, by which realizing the human Entelechia. For sure, the drifts and the side effects of improper use of the instrument are not minor. Conspiracy thinking and cynicism are widespread, and social networks create interest groups around these topics. The number of likes justifies their position.

Virtuality isn’t enough: this is proof that before this quarantine we didn’t live just online. Life was settled in the paradox of the interreality.

During the lockdown, I spent my time ‘poking the old mare’, as Socrates taught us. When it comes to writing I comment and post online. My essay is one of those dialogues. I strongly believe that philosophers must exit their ‘philosophical store’, and start to engage in the real job. Art and philosophy are on the Wittgenstein’s staircase, that’s true, but they are on watch!

I am concerned about the fate of artists. In fact, I don’t know how much longer they are prevented from organizing concerts and performances. To help them, I proposed, already in February, to plan live concerts using Twitch. Donations would have been a virtual hat for sustaining such a project—and our healthcare system at large. My idea has been converted into a Facebook Group with thousands of followers (called Quarantena Tour). Our streaming events, where we share art and high-level debates, are proof that platforms can support the construction of a community of people, linked by their entire Being.

GL: Your text seems to struggle with the extraordinary gap in Italy between theoretical sophistication and the dirty reality of a country that struggles with institutional collapse, incompetence, family dependencies, corruption and bureaucracy. The same contradiction was noted early on between the supposedly high level of Italian health care and the overwhelming amounts of death. Your reflections on digitalization are in sharp contrast with the ‘digital divide’ that has become visible now that everyone and every institution had to switch to online, overnight. Is this a specific Italian problem?

LS: Italy was unlucky to have been the first to manage an unknown virus. People experienced the uncertainty and falsifiability of science, up to the point that they thought these were merely philosophical speculations. Incoherence among virologists has caused political confusion about what measures had to be applied. Italian corruption has not betrayed our expectations. Again, it has given us the proof of what is the major Italian evil, but this time it is not the fault of the South. This mafia is in Lombardy, and it hasn’t got the lupara, the sawed-off shotgun.

I must confess that, aside from initial mistakes incoherence and the lowdown caused by an infinite bureaucracy and by business interference in managing the public healthcare system, Italian people demonstrated with facts to have run the first phase very well, and now lovers can finally come together. The lockdown could have been easier if we had invested more in digital literacy. The E-learning and the smart working would have been less traumatic if we had developed a right digital literacy among the broad population—not limited on being able to post a short video where we lip-sync on Tik-Tok.

GL: There is no English translation (yet). What is your text proposing? Which role can philosophy play? When we look at Agamben, Žižek and others, the ‘philosophy of technology’ is rather absent in the of the first three months of the Corona crisis. Needless to say that all writers, intellectuals and researchers have been intensely using the internet. What do you propose to integrate thinking and the digital? And how do see the role of pre-digital thinkers? Are they merely there to bring salvation?

LS: I have chosen to write the essay in Italian, my mother language. As a philosopher, I needed to dig deeply into questions and answers with my most familiar tool. I will translate the essay in English because it is fair to overpass linguistic borders (damned collapse of Babel!), to be a guide for more people, in particular now that this situation is a pandemic emergency, a global one.

With regards to the role of thinkers dealing with technical issues, we should remember that there is no such thing as a neutral point of view. Perspectives are conditioned by the observer’s conceptual framework. As Albert Einstein said, there is a necessary and fruitful collaboration between philosophy and science. When he examined the world, he employed a certain kind of reasoning, which was a mixture of art, philosophy, religion, ethics. Technology needs philosophers. It must be led, recounted, hence it must be introduced into the social grid. It can’t be accepted without an idea of humanity. This is what leads to the construction of code, apps and devices. Only a founding discipline like philosophy can offer a concept of what men and women are. Ethics is essential for justifying each research. We understand this point now more than ever because we are truly experiencing what risks may involve researches that deal with a virus that can extinct our species.

We cannot exit philosophy. Each justification why we should avoid to philosophize is in itself practising philosophy. Again, we can’t go off-topic when we are doing philosophy, because everything is its object, also what’s supposed to be ‘off-topic’. This is why philosophy can’t save us. It is the slavery of not being able to be slaves: hence it represents the paradox of the Freedom – recently the freedom is too often invoked, and without a vademecum about it.