If we assume that the settings online and offline are so dissimilar that we fall back to different sets of earlier responses when we encounter them, then maybe our experience of other people is fundamentally different online and offline.
Let’s start by considering how we experience other people offline since this subject has been covered by great thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas.
Levinas places our self firmly within the physical world. Because of our physical existence – because of the fact that we have bodies – we are subjected to a logic in which our individuality is invisible. According to Levinas, we live in a situation of “totality”: we are mere parts of a greater whole, defined by external factors. In this situation of totality, we experience others as objects that can be thematized – described in general terms. And others experience us as if we are objects, not subjects.
While we are bound to this totality, we have the disposition to escape. An escape is possible when we truly meet another person. This is not a casual occurrence for Levinas. In order to truly meet another person, we have to leave all meaning and all sense from the physical world behind. We have to open up to the other person and derive meaning and sense only from experiencing the other. We may not thematize the other, for then we would fall back on the logic of the physical world. We must enter the realm of the ethical and start feeling responsible for the other, and through the other, for ourselves.
While we escape from the physical world by truly meeting another person, we do not leave the physical world altogether. In the thinking of Levinas, our escape is only possible when we are body among bodies.
Let’s now consider the online realm. In this realm our bodies are absent, or at best represented. We are no body among bodies there. Following the work of Levinas, this would mean that online no escape is possible. We cannot truly meet others online, nor derive meaning from them or responsibility. We cannot experience them online as subjects, only as objects. From this, we may conclude that online we can only pretend to escape from totality. In reality, though, we reduce the others we meet online to a part of a greater whole in which we can describe them in any way we please, for instance as intimate and trusted friends.
This interpretation of Levinas would explain why nearness online does not automatically translate to nearness offline. While online the experiencing others is a construct in which they are extras in our fantasy, offline it is an ethical goal that is extremely hard to achieve.
Levinas’ way of thinking is reminiscent of how art critic Clive Bell looks at art. According to Bell, there are two distinct ways of experiencing art: reducing art to a mere representation of the real world or accepting it as something totally different and entering it without preconceptions. In the first case, we try to look for familiar forms even in an abstract painting. In the second case, we surrender to the work of art to derive new sense and meaning.
But even when we open up to art we still need a physical art product to move beyond the physical world. Similar to what we have seen in the thinking of Levinas, an embodiment is the precondition for a truly sublime experience.