November 12, 2019 - 11:08am

The Irish philosopher and journalist Mark Dooley calls it “Cyberia” — the condition of being distanced from the world by virtue of experiencing it through a computer screen. It is, he argues, a strange kind of exile. Exile in a place that is not a place.

For the last 10 weeks I have been listening in on, and trying to comment about, largely UK affairs from the distance of the Middle East. I have sat in my favourite air-conditioned coffee shop and trawled the web and responded to the stories that I come across. How liberating that I can travel so far yet remain engaged. Connected, yet at the same time profoundly disconnected. Only returning home do I begin to appreciate something of the nature of this disconnection.

Back home, I am immersed once again in the climate, the people, the smells and the sheer physicality of being located in the place I have been writing about. It’s easy to wax lyrical about the leaves on the ground and the impression my boots make in the soft grass of my garden. But the issue here is not merely aesthetic, it is also philosophical.

For the exile of Cyberia is the collapse of all experience into mere information. Heidegger captured this best when he described human being as fundamentally ‘Being-in-the-world’. The point of all those hyphens is to express the oneness of being and location.

The contrast here is with Descartes, the patron saint of Cyberia. For the whole nature of Descartes philosophical project is to describe thinking prior to engagement with the world. First, he establishes the existence of pure thought — I think therefore I am — only after which he seeks to connect up the thinking subject with the world around. On this influential model, thinking is structurally disconnected from its surroundings. All thinking is an out of body experience, as it were.

Being-in-the-World — see this excellent film on the subject — is the attempt to overcome the alienation of thinking from a sense of place and time, an alienation that Heidegger believed technology only deepened, though he didn’t even know the half of it. In the run up to that great cosmic feast of place and time — the incarnation — it is a joy to return from home from Cyberia.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.