I in the digital sphere?

By Salvatore Lavecchia, July 2021

I encounter a fellow human being. I perceive them as an other, a foreign self, but also equally as a being endowed with a self as much I am. This elementary perception of the foreign I happens instantly and goes beyond gestures, sounds, words, images and thoughts. Without this happening, an encounter would not be human in the true sense of the word.

Photo: © Anna Krygier

Where can I locate my I when I perceive another I as an I in its own right? Certainly not only somewhere within my physical body, within my inner self; how else would a genuine openness and perception towards the other I then be possible? And in the same way, I cannot locate my I exclusively externally, on the outside; otherwise, who would be the perceiver from my own physical body, from my inner self?

In fact, when I perceive another self, I can neither locate my own self purely internally nor purely externally.

Is it possible for me to locate my own I at all in the event of an encounter with another I? Assuming an unprejudiced perception, the answer is unequivocally: No! As a self, I am and act in the perception of another self in a manner that is beyond the internal and external, beyond the identity of my self and the other self, but also beyond any separation from the other self: I am and act as a perceiving self that encounters another self in a manner that is unlocatable, that is, beyond any limiting definition. This boundlessness, this freedom, in turn means unrestricted openness and receptivity when perceiving the other I. It is precisely this receptive openness, which can be felt as a gesture of love, that is effective not only when encountering another I, but in every perceptual encounter with another being, regardless of whether this be a human being, an animal, a plant or a mineral. How could it be possible for me to perceive the other being in its reality in the absence of this unrestricted receptivity, in the absence of this freedom and love that is inherent to my own I, so that the other being can reveal its individuality to me?

Considering the senses as action of the I

We are not accustomed to experiencing our sensory structures as structures of freedom and love. The impulse for this experience – an impulse that is of course not only of interest to teachers – is to be found in a previously little, if at all, regarded observation made by Rudolf Steiner in an unfinished study on hearing and speech. In it, he notes that the type, i.e. the archetype of an organ of perception, is connected with the activity through which the I “can make present in itself the image of an identical foreign I”. This is an invitation to no longer understand the sensory system and the sensory organs on the basis of a dynamic of touch based on stimulus and reaction. The archetype of their activity here is the activity of an I that encounters another I in such a way that it can visualise the image of the other I within itself. All human perceptions and organs of perception should therefore be regarded as approaches to the gesture and the qualities that the self reveals through this active visualisation of the other self.

This implies a reversal of perspective, a revolution in the conventional view of the senses and the sensory organism. Away from an organism of touch that forms itself starting from stimuli and reactions, towards an organism of the I that forms itself through the receiving, boundless unlocatability of the I; away from an organism in which my I acts as a locatable, delimited, shrunken point – which is hit like a target by stimuli to which it reacts like a rubber ball – towards an organism in which my I, as a centre of spiritual warmth and spiritual light, opens itself without restriction to the encounter with other beings, revealing freedom and love as its own essential disposition.

Is not the organism of freedom and love thus presupposed an authentically human reality that can transform every encounter into a community-building moment? Would not the deepening of sensory perception, nourished by the image of this organism, bring about a creative revolution both at every level of education and in every social dynamic? And would this revolution not be the best basis for shaping the most important technological revolution of recent decades, the digital revolution, in harmony with human dignity?

A digital surrogate of the I?

If we want to take the sense organism seriously as the organism of the I, or the I as the archetype of the organs of perception, we come to an important perception in relation to the encounter with another self, which is mediated by the digital: in this encounter, the digital takes over precisely the decisive activity that the I can and should bring about in the encounter with another self. For here it is not the perceiving I that, starting from its own sense organism, “can make present in itself the image of an identical foreign I”. In this case, the I and its sense organism do not act as the origin of that image.

The image of the other I is produced by the digital, projected and received by the perceiving I as already prefabricated without any creative activity of its own. The digital thus arouses – especially when it penetrates into the visual – the impression, which increases to the point of illusion, that it can completely replace the perceiving I and its sensory organism in the visualisation of the image of the other I. This impression becomes all the more illusory the more the digital directly intervenes in the sphere of activity of the I as the archetype of the organs of perception, recreating the event of the I encounter ever more realistically and supposedly reproducing it. The more realistic the supposed reproduction and the more frequent the encounter with it, the more the perceiving I can distract itself from its own activity, and ultimately get out of the habit of its activity.

In the encounter with another I, which takes place in the warmth and light of physical space, the whole sense organism acts as the organism of the I. The perceiving I acts here, beyond any separation of inside and outside, as an unrestrictedly open, boundless spiritual centre that encounters the other I through a gesture of freedom and love: momentarily, the I itself opens a space for the visualisation of the image of the other I, and at the same time, through its own sensory organism, it visualises that image in harmony with the activity of the other I. In the digital encounter, the perceiving I, in contrast, becomes a shrunken, firmly locatable, passive point: the digital projects onto this point a prefabricated image of the other I – which is not one – and the point reacts in the stimulus-reaction or input-output mode.

Understanding the digital as a tool, not as a master craftsman

Do the preceding reflections preach hostility towards the digital? Not at all! They want to encourage an unprejudiced perception based on phenomena which the digital can in no way replace. This irreplaceable thing is a sensory organism that has developed healthily and coherently through childhood and youth, which learns to function as an organism of the I through the encounter with physical earthly reality: as an organism that, through the creative openness that the I exercises in the physical-earthly sphere, can provide the most fertile ground and soil for the revelation of freedom and love, and consequently for every form of harmonious community building.

Without the vigilance brought about in the perceiving human being by such an organism, the digital will increasingly become the source of all kinds of suggestions and illusions. Without this vigilance, the digital will be able to convince people more and more of the digital substitutability of the human being, of the I, of freedom and in any case of all education, which perceives in the healthy physical encounter between people a basis that is indispensable for people.

Only if we respect and protect for children and young people the inviolable right to a physical-earthly development of the sense organism as an organism of the I, will the digital prove to be a companion and servant, not a destroyer of human dignity. In itself, the digital is neither good nor evil, since it is an immaterial tool created by human beings. This truism is too often forgotten, so that pseudo-religious suggestion and proselytising or prejudiced fear shape the encounter with the digital, eliminating the authentically, creatively human in the encounter. The authentically human can only be conveyed through the whole organism of the senses, which acts as an organism of the I. Unlike all earlier tools, however, the digital can act as an image not only of one or more senses and organs, but – as its rapid progress shows – of the whole sense organism. This is why its coherent, humane application is so difficult!

The harmonious education of the whole sensory organism is thus all the more urgent. For we are dealing here with the most difficult art: the social art of the I, which as a community-building conversational being can fruitfully transform the whole earth through freedom and love. The digital will be able to accompany this transformation productively if it remains a powerful but at the same time modest tool: a tool of freedom and love; a tool of a sense organism that can live and work as an organism of the I, and therefore as an organism of the heart.

About the author: Salvatore Lavecchia is a professor of philosophy and lecturer as well as a member of the academic advisory board on the Masters in “Meditazione e Neuroscienze” at the University of Udine (I).

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