FAQ: Computers and Philosophy

Author: Herbert Hrachovec
Department of Philosophy
University of Vienna

According to common opinion, philosophy is engaged in answering frequently asked questions concerning human existence and the order of being generally. FAQs, as they have been developed on the internet, are a very different enterprise, offering practical advice on a considerable number of problems that typically arise for novice users. The Socratic attitude is, at a first glance, unrelated to the collection of technical know-how organised in fictive dialogues. But even though traditional philosophy and computer science seem worlds apart the methodology of questions-and -answers might provide some common ground. The Department of Philosophy at Vienna University has set up a workgroup exploring the impact of philosophical work on activities involving computers and vice versa. Digital data-processing obviously challenges philosophy to investigate this new subject-matter, including algorithmic methodology and practical modelling of its results. Widespread attitudes and behavioural patterns concerning computers can, conversely, be challenged in a philosophical spirit. Drawing on its resources of critical imagination philosophy might open up non-standard ways of looking at the set of rules imposed on mankind by the computer industry. Many of the recent developments in this area are unprecedented, demanding some re-examination of previously well-established opinions. Given these circumstances, asking the right questions is probably more important than attempting a systematic overview of the rapidly changing terrain.

"The Digital Phoenix" project initiated by the "Committee on Philosophy and Computing" (established by the American Philosophical Association) has recently published the results of some of its sessions as a book: Terrell Ward Bynum and James H. Moor (edd.). The Digital Phoenix. How Computers Are Changing Philosophy. Oxford 1998. While the editors stress the tentative nature of their enterprise the very fact of putting ideas in print precludes a more cooperative, open-ended venture, modelled according to internet FAQs, employing the most advanced instruments of digital information-processing and computer-assisted work. The Vienna group has therefore decided to establish and maintain an electronic depot of questions-and-answers on computers and philosophy, inviting contributions from the internet community and making the results available in various formats. The intended collection should exhibit the unavoidable tension between reflective approaches and learning processes imposed on scholars from outside their discipline. Three different kinds of contributions are, therefore, envisaged. A first division contains miniature essays exhibiting the potential of philosophical procedures as applied to common digital phenomena. It aims at de-familiarising easily acquired habits of coping with computers. Sample questions that have already been submitted are: "What is the difference between text processing and word processors?", "What is e-mail?" and "Is there any philosophical interest in data-bases?" Closer to existing FAQ's, a second division is meant to list the impact of information technology on the various philosophical disciplines (Ontology, Epistemology, Ethics ...). A skeleton curricular pattern of philosophical teaching can be presupposed at this point; internet resources are to be included wherever appropriate. To give an example, "Can a machine compute every possible algorithm?" is a question to be included under a subheading "Computer in Logic". Another piece might cover available Logic software. The third part of the envisaged FAQ is to address itself to everyday problems encountered by most people as they try to become familiar with computer-mediated services. The point of reference here is the on-going experience of a computer-lab maintained by the Viennese workgroup and open to all students at the department. Typical pitfalls and misconceptions are thematised and put into proper perspective. Relevant issues include password protection and privacy; setting up a modem connection as well as an e-mail client or dealing with the threat of viruses. While these topics do not touch on philosophy proper, they are included for a philosophical reason. In order to be creative one must first gain control of the medium. Bridging the gap between the Socratic approach and computer pragmatics questions of different _kinds_ - "What is ...?", "How do I ...?" - have to be interlinked. The essayistic contribution on e-mail can, for example, be cross-referenced to an article explaining how to use "pine". Designing a pattern of such links (relating items from different sections) will, in fact, be of topmost importance in preparing the web-presentation of the project.

Technical Note:
The workgroup's activities include seminars at Vienna University as well as offering a BSCW-Workspace on the internet. A server running the necessary software (accessible by any web-browser) has been installed and several Austrian and German philosophers have already joined the group. The common format of contributed texts is to be SGML with a proper Document Type Definition and style-sheets provided by the team. Using J. Clark's jade engine (available for MS Windows and UNIX) it will be possible to render the FAQ in HTML, XML, Postscript (via LaTeX) and various Microsoft formats (via RTF, as well as building a full-text database searchable with appropriate tools (mtsgml, various perl libraries).