(Digital) experiences
First Monday

(Digital) experiences by Ronald E. Day and Hamid R. Ekbia

What is digital experience? This question is of interest to different discourse traditions, each of which would answer it differently. The literature in Human–Computer Interaction, Computer–Mediated Communication (CMC), virtual worlds, and Artificial Intelligence, for instance, each present distinctive understandings of the concept of ‘experience’ and, consequently, of ‘digital experience.’ However, if we start with the concept of experience as an event, the common historical lineage of these distinct understandings reveals itself. We are interested in this historical lineage, and would like to explain ‘digital experience’ as a historically developing category. For this, we begin by returning to discussions on two modern concepts of experience (Erlebnis and Erfahrung) in the mid–twentieth century works of Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin. Then, we discuss three forms of ‘digital experience’ — simulated, embedded, and artificial — and we suggest that these experiences constitute a modern understanding of experience, namely, as a tension between experience as an embedded or ‘situated’ event and ‘experience’ as one that is had. By focusing on this tension, we hope to shed light on some of the shared underlying assumptions among disparate discourse traditions.


1. Introduction
2. Historical background
3. Three types of digitally mediated experience
4. Simulated experience and the digital
5. Embedded experience: The real in the digital and the digital in the real
6. Artificial experience
7. Conclusion



1. Introduction

What is digital experience? This question is of interest to different discourse traditions, each of which would answer it differently. The literature in Human–Computer Interaction, Computer–Mediated Communication (CMC), virtual worlds, and Artificial Intelligence, for instance, each present distinctive understandings of the concept of ‘experience’ and, consequently, of ‘digital experience.’ However, if we start with the concept of experience as an event, the common historical lineage of these distinct understandings reveals itself. We are interested in this historical lineage, and would like to explain ‘digital experience’ as a historically developing category. For this, we begin by returning to discussions on two modern concepts of experience (Erlebnis and Erfahrung) in the mid–twentieth century works of Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin. Then, we discuss three forms of ‘digital experience’ — simulated, embedded, and artificial — and we suggest that these experiences constitute a modern understanding of experience, namely, as a tension between experience as an embedded or ‘situated’ event and ‘experience’ as one that is had. By focusing on this tension, we hope to shed light on some of the shared underlying assumptions among disparate discourse traditions.

By beginning with the question of digital experience’s relation to the modern conception of experience in general, we place the concept of digital experience in an historical context — namely, the context of discussions on experience in relation to previous modernist information and communication technologies. Central to the modernist understanding is that experience is a cultural event, foremost one that is mediated by technological tools. In the works of the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the social theorist Walter Benjamin, for example, the advent of nineteenth and twentieth century technological modernity gives rise to two categories of experience — Erlebnis and Erfahrung. In order to understand the importance of these two categories of experience in modernity, and in order to show the continuity between modernist conceptions of experience and our understanding of the spectrum of digital experience, we will begin with a brief review of the concept of experience in their works.



2. Historical background

The question of experience may seem odd to us who came of age when the understanding of our movement through life has been that of an understanding and appreciation of human developmental life as the having of experiences. In other times, certainly, a person’s passage through his or her life may have dominantly been understood in terms of the learning and performing of progressively more challenging or complex tasks or the attainment and holding of a career or job, or it might have been understood simply as the personal assumption of adult social roles with their rights and responsibilities. Or, as in medieval Christian Europe, this passage may have been seen as stages in moral development or religious enlightenment. But today, and for some time previous in the twentieth century in industrially developed countries, parents have been seeing as part of their responsibilities toward their children the task of giving to their children experiences, and this template, perhaps, has been extended through much of adulthood, not least through the entertainment industry and through the industrial–education–military complex’s insistence upon formal and informal ‘life–long learning.’

Such experiences are often seen as unitary events via their intentional or contingent packaging through educational institutions, the media, and various other industries, such as advertising and tourism. Thus, for example, one experiences ‘Africa’ by a trip to some places in Africa, one experiences ‘being a teenager’ by practicing academic, social, and cultural skills that are seen as part of ‘being a teenager,’ and one experiences one’s illness and even one’s process of death by the routines, diagnostics, bills, and whatever sympathies one can elicit or are given one by hospital or hospice workers around certain diagnosed or recognized unities of symptoms known as diseases. In brief, one buys and consumes, absorbs, and psychologically ‘processes’ experiences as unitary events that one can have. One believes that one can have experiences in this way, and parents contort themselves to give them to their offspring. Capital, including educational institutions, produces experiences as commodities and services. And in turn, such experiences come to constitute types of persons as specific, unitary identities (the tourist, the teenager, the educated one, and finally, the diseased or deceased one).

‘Experience,’ in one very prevalent, modernist sense (Erlebnis), is an event or a set of events that is present to consciousness, rather than being a ground that surrounds one such that it is difficult to conceptually grasp it (Erfahrung). To such experiences, in the mode of Erlebnis, we attempt to correspond and comport ourselves, as if the experience had nothing to do with us in our own most being. It is this sense of experience as an aesthetic affect that lies at the heart of the modern understanding of experience, for it not only comes to characterize a certain modern sense of the term ‘Erlebnis,’ but also, as the modernists suggested and as we will suggest, it also comes to color what is sometimes understood as its opposite modern sense of experience, ‘Erfahrung.’

Heidegger: Alienation and the philosophical recovery of authenticity

In Martin Heidegger’s (1962) work the search for ontological authenticity in the face of mediated experience takes the form of a return to a genuine ontology, as distinct from the relatively new at the time, “ontic” social sciences, the latter which Heidegger saw as a continuation of Western metaphysics. Heidegger’s disparaging remarks about the chatter of everyday talk (Alltäglichkeit), the comments that dot his works regarding the fetishisms and fixations of personal psychological experiences, and his combative relationship to the Der Spiegel interviewer in 1966 and in regard to journalism in general, suggests — to put it in a wry sense — that Heidegger had a rather ‘bad attitude’ toward the chitter–chatter of everyday life, the media proliferation of it, and its fetishism in popular psychology. But, the matter is more complicated, of course, if we view such in terms of Heidegger’s critique of Western metaphysics and its unfolding in modernity, rather than from the perspective of our own psychological and media–centered Alltäglichkeit. For, Heidegger shows himself in Being and Time and throughout his later works to be a very engaged cultural psychologist, although one more akin to Nietzsche’s conception of the psychologist as a cultural anthropologist digging out artifacts of the Western metaphysical tradition from everyday life, rather than as a sympathetic therapeutic ear listening to the babble of mass–mediated expressions.

For Heidegger, the objective claims of positive science reside in the historical triumph of metaphysics upon the understanding of the life and being of human beings, including human being’s self–understanding. The transformation of beings and life into unitary events of experience (Erlebnis) [1] — which are understood as information — is a chief symptom of this triumph of metaphysics upon the understanding of being and time (Heidegger, 1962; Day, 2001). Here, experience is understood as representation and persons are understood in terms of what we could call the ‘informationalized subject.’ For Heidegger (1977a; 1977b), this informational manner of thinking even extends into understanding the arts as communicative events (an understanding of ‘information’ that was expressed by no less than Warren Weaver in his understanding of dance affects as communicative or informational effects (Weaver, 1949; Day, 2001). From the perspective of the Western metaphysical tradition, all beings, including a person him or herself, appear as information, which can be grasped and managed. Events, too, are understood in this managerial manner, as experiences that one has.

By contrast, in a broad sense Heidegger’s understanding of Erfahrung is exemplified in what Heidegger saw as the original experience of the ancient Greeks in understanding themselves as enduring creatures in a world that exceeds them. ‘Experience,’ here, is understood as events that one lives within and through, events with which one endures and dwells — not something that is presented to one in the manner that one may have a house or a car. A person, as a specific person — as a singularity — is thrown about in experiences, rather than being ‘one’ who has experiences as objects before them, as if at a distance. In Heidegger’s work, one has the sense that he views the original sense of Erfahrung as being constantly threatened with being co–opted by Erlebnis, just as the ancient Greek experience of truth as aletheia has been overshadowed and appropriated by the metaphysics of the Latin tradition’s understanding of truth as veritas (the correspondence between the subject and object). Indeed, as we will suggest, the modern sense of Erfahrung — as a dialectically opposing, instead of original, sense to Erlebnis — seems to justify Heidegger’s fears.

Benjamin: The atrophy of modernity

Though the analysis of modern experience is common in German language thought and poetics in the pre–World War II period, one of the most direct critiques of the modern understanding of experience, other than Heidegger’s, comes from Walter Benjamin’s writings.

For Benjamin, the shock of industrial modernity upon tradition during the nineteenth century gave rise to an “atrophy of experience” (“Die Verkummerung der Erfahrung”). This atrophy of experience involved the splitting of experience into a personal sense of experience (Erfahrung) and a sense of experience as events that are had (Erlebnis) [2]. This split is important because it gives rise to a sense of personal versus public experience, with the latter given more political value and the former given more value in the sphere of private life in bourgeois culture. Benjamin argued that this dichotomy arose out of the destruction of traditional cultural and social contexts, which lent to objects an “aura” of meaning, rooted in those traditions. This aura provided a unitary whole for experiencing events, without a strict private/public division. For Benjamin, in the place of traditional senses of aura, state and capital concerns give to people nationalist and commodity senses of aura, and within these, personal and social identities and values are constructed.

Benjamin’s later works chart this construction of state and commercial sponsored experience, examining mass commoditization in cities and the alienation of work and life in these cities, as well as the public distancing of personal experience and the privileging of mass reported public experience (even when it is personal experience that is said to be reported upon) in newspapers and the media at large. In journalism, for example, Benjamin saw experience given at a distance, so that one can experience one’s own life as if at a distance (Benjamin, 1968a). According to Benjamin (1968b), experience has become aestheticized in modernity so that one’s life as well as politics has become an issue of media representation and media participation, rather than seeing one’s life personally and in the polis as specific and real enough to struggle for. Developmentally, people are raised so as to account for their life as if at a distance, to see their life as made up of experiences given to them or bought, and to see the limits and possibilities of their personal and political agency restricted to styles, tastes and domestic choices. An aestheticized cultural politics has replaced a more material political agency, and an aestheticized sense of self has replaced a sense of self as a singularity formed by and struggled for in time. In his works of the late 1920s up until his death in 1940, Benjamin constructed accounts of the destruction of traditional life–worlds of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their replacement by commercial and state life–worlds.

The split of experience into the modern sense of Erfahrung and Erlebnis, according to Benjamin, followed the shock introduced by technological reproduction upon the relatively unitary life of traditional pre–modern existence. If shock was the cause, then paradoxically, Benjamin saw shock, too, as the appropriate response to aura’s reconstitution by the state and capital. Following the Soviet avant–garde and Dada, and the work of artists such Bertolt Brecht, artistic shock was viewed by Benjamin as one manner of breaking open the smooth narratives of representation and of recovering the underlying material contradictions of experience. Benjamin’s antidote to fascism’s reorganization of life according to a state and commercial aesthetics of representation and reification was to shatter the illusions of reality and progress by bringing out the inherently political tensions that lie buried within them as a sort of “residue.” As Benjamin wrote at the end of his essay, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”: “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self–alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics, which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” [3] (Needless to add, “communism,” in the sense that Benjamin was using the term, was not to be understood in terms of the party–state and “art” was not socialist realism, but rather, both were understood within a politics of critique and revolt, here against fascism.)

Benjamin engaged aesthetics in his own historiographic undertakings. In the notes to his Paris arcades project Benjamin writes: “The first stage in this undertaking [of writing about the Paris arcades] will be to carry over the principle of montage into history.” [4] One has to — to appropriate the Nietzschean trope — strike the ideological narratives and devices with a hammer in order to release the residue hidden inside of them, and thus, to reveal the unacknowledged relationships between the past and present. The purpose of the critic was to freeze the narratives of capitalist progress in their tracks and, like the deteriorating Paris arcades, to show the forgotten labor and destruction hidden away in their glimmer (“materialist historiography … is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.” [5]). By means of the juxtaposition of historical materials otherwise overwritten by representations and narratives of political and technological progress, the historical “residue” or “remainders” (Abfall) could be recovered. Such “residues” are the acts of forgotten persons and the structures and devices (physical materials, policies, and rhetorical tropes) that make up social, political, and cultural, meaningful products. A counter–history and sometimes a counter–form is necessary in order to recover these from the smooth space of what we are told is ‘reality’ and ‘progress.’

Benjamin’s critique of historical and current narratives was directed toward a recovery of experience as the material conditions for the construction of the modern sense of experience as the modern dichotomy of Erfahrung and Erlebnis. One must strike Erlebnis with a hammer in order to regain an original sense of Erfahrung, that is, in order to regain a sense of one’s life as a material worth fighting for, since the modern state–market attempts to put such at a distance to individuals, personally and collectively, by means of aesthetic mediation, cultural forms, and social norms repeated in and inculcated through educational and media institutions and technologies (resulting in the dominance of Erlebnis serving a ruling class of interests).

There are three types of material entities: social, cultural, and physical powers of being and expression. Material entities are those entities that afford expressive powers and resist other expressions or there being no expressions at all. Benjamin’s ‘deconstruction’ of modernist cultural objects, media, and social relationships located richer and more powerful materialities in the residues or remainders of commodities than in these latter as constructed products, valued and celebrated within narratives of ‘progress’ and ‘reality.’

The contradictions and fractures in objects, persons, and events are the ‘fault lines’ that show the titanic and microscopic historical alignments and realignments of institutional and structural forces that shape individuals, as expressed powers, in the form of amalgams of traits and contradictions.



3. Three types of digitally mediated experience

The split of modern experience highlighted by Heidegger and Benjamin finds various manifestations in contemporary, digital, society.

Digitally simulated experiencesi.e., ‘virtual experiences’ in a certain sense — erase the boundaries between previous events, combining them into a single experience, with much less sense of resistance and distinctiveness between ontological realms, material types, and previously distinct events. The act of unification, here, is relatively totalistic, immersing the user in a mimetic experience of constructed events or, more recently, immersing the user in the role of being an active agent in a simulated environment (Fogu, 2009). The critical literature on such events of ‘simulacrum’ is rich during the nineteenth and twentieth century (the Frankfurt School analyses, Situationism, Baudillard’s writings, and much of the work of the modern avant–garde in art), though critical writings on non–mimetic immersive environments are relatively recent (for example, Fogu, 2009).

Digitally embedded experiences are experiences afforded by digital technologies, which technologically mediate and enhance actions and events, some of which were previously had without such technologies (such as conversation over a mobile digital phone). These display a high rate of ‘drag’ or ‘infusion’ between events. What is unique about them is that they take previously distinct events and unify them into a new experience, without, however, destroying the fundamental powers and distinctiveness of either the previously distinct events or the sense of their being embedded and embedding technologies. In other words, the technologies remain relatively evident rather than disappearing from the user’s perception. So, for example, the mobile phone enables the rapid juxtaposition of telephonic, map reading, and other events into a new unity of experience (e.g., finding a restaurant through the use of telephonic communication devices that easily enable the coordination of voice or text conversations with the searching of GPS maps). These mediated technologies allow previously distinct events to be experienced as a new unity of experience, without destroying the fundamental powers and boundaries of the original events and without destroying the sense of distinction between the user and the technologies.

Finally, artificial experience is experience attributed and sought in artificial agents. The previous two types of ‘digital experience’ appear here in the shape of AI systems concurrently seen as enabling technologies and as models of the mind. The purported incorporation of these two different epistemological views leads to an inherent tension between the scientific and engineering aspirations of AI, reflecting and reifying the aforementioned modern dialectic between “lived” and “had” experience (Ekbia, 2008). The AI dream is interesting in that it puts this modernist tension in high relief, making it easier for us to see it in full force (Ekbia, 2008).



4. Simulated experience and the digital

Strictly speaking, the term ‘digital’ refers to tools for experience, rather than experience itself. When we speak of ‘digital’ as an experience itself, then we are using the term ‘digital experience’ as a synonym for an experience composed by digital technologies, which, as all technologies, enable or afford events or experiences, rather than exist as such in themselves. In recent years, the term ‘virtual’ has been used as a synonym for digital experiences and the notion of ‘virtual experiences’ has sometimes been understood to constitute new and distinct realms of experience, most prominently with ‘virtual reality’ technologies. Virtual reality, as a distinct technology of simulacrum and immersion, has enabled perceptions and work that would not have been possible otherwise in medical and other arenas.

There has also been, however, a popular extension of the term ‘virtual’ in the sense of ‘simulated experience.’ ‘Virtual experiences’ — in the sense of digitally mediated broadcast medium — tend to follow the pattern of constructed fantasy in the manner of television, popular cinema, etc., though now with increased interactive, ‘immersive,’ abilities. As Fogu (2009) has argued, immersive experience may be seen as distinct from previous simulated experience based in mimesis. From a different perspective, however, we might see such ‘immersion’ to be a type of mimesis where the structural design and mediation of reality is even further erased.

The relation between “striated” and “smooth” experiences (to appropriate Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) terms) — that is, of experiences where the materiality of the devices is apparent or disappears — leads us to an account of digital technologies as media technologies.

One way of understanding “smooth” digital experiences — ‘virtual experiences’ in the broader sense — is in terms of fantasy. Not the fantasy of fairy tales (which provide childhood catharsis), but the fantasy of what we could call ‘the–subject–captured–in–the–frame.’ The subject–captured–in–the–frame is a rough equivalent to what Heidegger saw as the root cause of “inauthentic” experiences or Erlebnis. Experience in this sense captures both beings and things in relationships that are representational. It can eschew material and ontological distinctions, resulting in a certain type of private hallucination or public hysteria. It is constituted by the transformation of signifiers within a field according to a common logic of signification, sometimes eschewing all factual differences and passing over all differentiating ruptures. It is overwhelmingly aesthetic in its affects.

As we mentioned above, this event of technological modernity is a source for a tradition of critique, particularly during the twentieth century. Such a critique is explicitly political in that it critiques politics — both as a social function and as a source for individual inscriptions — as aesthetics (as we saw, for example, in our brief summary of Benjamin’s later works). From this perspective, the event of technologically mediated simulated experience is understood as an ideological event and the question is how modern technologies, including digital technologies, contribute to or contest this within conditions of production and reproduction.

Let us, however, elaborate on this because there is the danger of equating the modernist critique with a misplaced understanding of ‘Romanticism.’ The modernist critique of Heidegger and Benjamin, for example, was based on other conceptual grounds than that of a lost privatized object of the material or ‘real’ as the inverse of smooth representational narratives. The ‘existential crisis’ of the self is, itself, a narrative of Erlebnis and the resultant modern reconceptualization of Erfahrung. The very turn toward historical experience as a given experience mediated by the encoding and the form of a digital game, for example, points to the danger of seeing personal action as the basis for experience and for history when the conditions for experience are designed. Rather, the modernist contestation over experience was, to put it in Heideggerian/Derridean terms, over the material inscription for experience — that is over the understanding of experience itself as an event of presence. For Heidegger, the nature of truth as either an act of simultaneous veiling and unveiling (aletheia) or as the grasping of an object by the understanding (veritas) is, essentially, an understanding of truth as experience.

The metaphysics of presence — that is, ‘presence’ understood as re–presentation — frames our understanding of digital experience. Against this, critical modernists attempted counter–readings of our dominant cultural understanding of experience as something objective. Heidegger’s ruminations on poiesis as the techne of making — present in the mode of co–determinative social, cultural, material, and labor affordances sought to reposition human activity within a notion of experience as struggle and an acute awareness of finitude and historicity (Heidegger, 1977b). Benjamin’s thinking through of modern cultural production found the basis for modern truth in the erasure of what the ruling class found to be residue or debris.

More recently, Fogu’s (2009) examination of games and “historical consciousness” (i.e., historiography, historicity, and historical agency) sees presence as occurring in the actions of historically recreated actors whose historicity is normatively constituted. Increasingly, in what is sometimes termed the ‘attention economy,’ presence is understood as instinctual actions. Artificial Intelligence, as a cognitive science and an engineering discipline, has more or less pursued the last two senses of presence and experience: that of a limited actor and that of a perceptual and instinctual actor.



5. Embedded experience: The real in the digital and the digital in the real

Experiences mediated by digital technologies, however, are a larger class than simulated ‘virtual experiences,’ and practical uses of ‘virtual reality’ often intersect with the real in such ways that result in striated spaces and uses, so that the virtual simulacra abut and sometimes stop at the feet of real results. Virtual simulacrum and ‘immersion’ give way to real and material ‘embeddedness’ — that is to say, the situated use of technologies.

We can identify two very general manners by which such ‘embeddedness’ occurs. The first is when digital actions supplement non–digital actions (an extensional manner), and the second is when digital tools are used to mediate non–contiguous spaces and times (a unifying manner). In both cases, we are looking at digital technologies as enabling technologies.

In the extensional manner, for example, users search the Internet and use results in order to do things in their daily lives that are not absolutely necessitated by the technologies. Digital technology, for example, may supply additional information or, in various senses, extend communicational outreach. Digital technology can allow us to do a multiplicity of tasks, not just those beginning on the Internet, more efficiently or more effectively. In turn, expectations might increase for what needs or can be done — numerous e–mail messages to be answered, more purchasing of goods, greater ‘multitasking,’ etc.

In the unifying manner, one uses digital technologies to mediate non–contiguous ‘digital’ or ‘non–digital’ events into unitary experiences. So, to use the example mentioned earlier (finding a restaurant and coordinating with others), one may use previously distinct technologies and events in a manner that converges them into a single unitary experience. Today, these are familiar events for mobile digital technology users, for example, if they have the proper technologies. Both extensional and unifying embedded technologies attempt to increase the power of social, cultural, and sometimes physical affordances that are available to us through other means. But unifying technologies are distinct from extensional technologies in that the unitary experience of a single event is afforded by a type of technological and social convergence that was previously not possible.

Such digitally mediated experiences approach a certain modern sense of Erfahrung because they are both situated by and situating of the technologies in particular site–specific and time–valued manners. Neither the subject nor the technologies are ‘lost’ in the experience. Here, in a sense, digital materials continue to drag their materiality into experience and their material ‘residue’ to some degree remains in the experience. Although this may not be the awareness of the cultural and political production of experience that Benjamin strove to make apparent, some degree of specific materiality remains apparent for the technology user.



6. Artificial experience

The notion of experience has been the subject of inquiry by certain practitioners in Artificial Intelligence (AI), as well as a point of debate between them and their detractors. Early thinking in AI on experience, as on other topics, was largely influenced by what can be called a formalist perspective — that is, by a view of the human mind as a rule–based machine. In early AI, these rules came in many varieties — from purely grammatical rules of language as in augmented transition networks, to heuristic rules of inference in General Problem Solver, to the domain–specific rules of expert systems. The common premise in all these formalisms is that the system (a mind) operates on the basis of a set of rules, and the task of AI modeling is to discover and implement these rules in computer systems. This common premise is rooted in a logico–philosophical theory of objective meaning (formulated by Frege, Tarski, Carnap, and others), which is concerned with specifying the nature of truth and reference. According to this theory, sentences are true or false independently of whether we recognize them as true or false, even of whether anybody has ever thought of them. This ‘objective’ theory of meaning was motivated by a mistrust of psychologism — that is, a mistrust of anything that has to do with the processes going on in an individual mind. A psychologically driven reaction to this trend can be seen in a close intellectual relative of AI and of the cognitive view of mind — namely, psycholinguistics. The psycholinguistic tradition sees meaning not in terms of ‘truth conditions,’ but as what is communicated between a speaker and a hearer.

A strong reaction to the objective theory of meaning from within AI came from what has come to be known as case–based reasoning (CBR). The core intuition in CBR is that people reason and learn from experience, and that the knowledge acquired from experience, captured in cases, is central to their understanding of the world. Striving for psychological realism, CBR is motivated by the belief that “the best way to approach the problem of building an intelligent machine is to emulate human cognition.” [6] Human intelligence has to do with getting “the right information at the right time,” according to the proponents of CBR, and information, in their view, has mainly to do with world knowledge. Therefore, the main challenges to those who would design and implement a computational model of mind are “what data structures are useful for representing knowledge and what algorithms operate on those knowledge structures to produce intelligent behavior.” [7]

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein also challenged the idea that human language derives its meaning from an objective world, and argued that the meaning of any utterance depends on the human and cultural context of its use. CBR could perhaps be thought of as an attempt to realize Wittgenstein’s view in computer systems; in other words, of building machines capable of experience — a claim that would sit well with the proponents of CBR, but not with those critics who see major flaws in this way of thinking. One such critic is the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus who purportedly takes his lead from Heidegger. Dreyfus’ key argument against CBR (and many other similar views in AI) is in the strongly representational character of its models that, as we mentioned earlier, involve knowledge structures such as scripts that stand between the experiencing ‘self’ and the experienced world. This understanding of a representational relationship between the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ has been the dominant philosophical tradition since Descartes (Ekbia, 2008), and to break out of it, Dreyfus argues, “we must begin with everyday involved phenomena and then see where consciousness and its intentional content fit in.” [8] Heidegger, according to Dreyfus, “holds that human experience (Erfahrung) discloses the world and discovers entities in it — and yet this does not entail the traditional conclusion that human beings relate to objects by means of their experiences (Erlebnisse), that is, by way of mental states.” [9]

In other words, while there is such a thing as intentional directedness, it is not necessarily mental in character: “We sometimes experience ourselves as conscious subjects relating to objects by way of intentional states such as desires, perceptions, intentions, etc.,” but these are “a derivative and intermittent condition” — such as when familiar things become problematic or break down. In most other cases, we relate to objects by simply “being–in–the–world” — that is, by “knowing–how–to–cope” in various domains [10] This way of being requires a kind of practical, pre–ontological understanding that only belongs to self–interpreting entities such as human beings. On these grounds, Dreyfus rejected the possibility of experience by computers for many years, arguing that they do not, and cannot, dwell in the world in a concerned manner.

However, with the emergence of so–called connectionist models, Dreyfus was ready to embrace them as potential candidates for future artificial intelligence (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986). He argues that these models can account for the way past experience affects present experience by associating memories of special situations with current input. What makes this different from classical empiricist associationism Dreyfus argues, is that the state of the neural network, rather than a stored memory of the past, determines the output — hence, the possibility of “learning without representation” that is of deep interest to Dreyfus. While this shift in Dreyfus’ stance may be attributed to his misreading of Heidegger’s view on representations (Christensen, 1997), what is significant for our purposes here are the motivating assumptions that drive the shift. Briefly speaking, the assumption is that three things — brain structure, salience and order of experiences, and similarity of satisfactions — can potentially enable artificial neural networks of learning, or of what we have called artificial experience here. Although current neural networks are typically at a disadvantage compared to biological brains in terms of embodied interaction with the world, in principle they can overcome this barrier through proper affordances. The odds are, of course, overwhelming against such a network understanding and experiencing the world in the same fashion as we do.

What is perhaps more significant in all of this is the possibility of experiencing the world without representing it. As Merleau–Ponty (1962) has shown, there are at least two kinds of passive experience, one of which can be attributed to the experiencing individual as an agent. Take the example of a movement triggered by direct brain stimulation versus a tennis player responding to the situation on the court in skillful manner. What makes the latter, unlike the former, a case of “skillful coping” is that it involves bringing our mind into line with the world (not the opposite), allowing the possibility of experience without representation.



7. Conclusion

Where does this, then, leave us with respect to the distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung in regard to ‘digital experience’? On the one hand, we see the extension of the modernist terms to the three categories of digital experience that we have given. On the other hand, we see the modern dominance of Erlebnis over Erfahrung — for example, even in the embedded sense of ‘Heideggerian AI.’

The very modeling of beings by artificial systems has had its doubters. For example, Heidegger was appalled at the extent to which cybernetic theory — an attempt at a general science of communication and agency that posits a subject that is not so far from Fogu’s (2009) understanding of subjective agency in interactive computer games — came to be seen as an applicable model for all areas of thought, including the arts (Heidegger, 1977a). One irony in the history of AI is that Dreyfus’ critique of representation has come to be seen as the beginning of ‘Heideggerian’ — i.e., embedded–AI. In reality, it is hard to accept that Heidegger would have felt comfortable with the word ‘experience’ having any extension to a description of AI systems. And, given his decades long critique of modern technology and his criticisms of information theory and cybernetics (see Day, 2001), it is hard not to believe that Heidegger would have found the term ‘Heideggerian AI’ to be not only an oxymoron, but he would have been appalled at it.

It is worth mentioning this latter not because we are rending a judgment on the use of Heidegger’s work in Dreyfus’ writings or, even more, writings of others after Dreyfus, but because it shows the extent to which even some criticisms of AI have come to be framed in terms of AI. Similarly, we would argue, that the overextension of the notion of ‘virtual’ technologies to all sorts of digital technologies obscures, rather than helps us, understand the nature of these technologies and the experiences that follow from them and obscures their relations to earlier modernist conceptions of experience.

If we return to the first part of our paper, in regard to this latter from a Heideggerian perspective, beyond both the concepts of that of ‘having’ experiences and that of being had by experiences — understood in terms of our being held within cultural forms and social norms — there is a more ontologically “primordial” or “authentic” (Heidegger, 1962) sense of experience that seems to elude us when we see all experiences as mediated by this or that technology or tradition of technology. The increasingly modern, and today the contemporary sense of Erfahrung, dialectially follows the basic logic of Erlebnis. This we see in the ‘reaction’ to cognitivist AI that results in ‘Heideggerian AI’ — a reaction that fundamentally fails to understand Heidegger’s concept of experience and truth as aletheia. In the Heideggerian conceptualization of experience and truth, techne opens us to experience, but does not constitute experience in the sense that Heidegger understands Erfahrung [11]. For Heidegger, modern technology, as a means of assembled techne for predetermined ends, is given within a certain mode of metaphysics as representation, which itself closes off the examination of a more ontologically primordial relation of human being to the question of being and to other beings. In other words, for Heidegger, it is a particular historical relation of human being to the question of being and to other beings that has been the founding experience that allows techne to be understood technologically. Human being’s relation to the question of being and to other beings is the experience that gives ‘experience’ — for example, in the mode of the modern dialectic of Erlebnis and Erfahrung. Such are given not as an object, but as the conditions for experience. Heidegger’s work tries to uncover this founding moment for experience, as we now understand it, in the turn from ancient Greek philosophy to the Latin tradition and now to modernity. From this perspective, what we could call our ‘informational’ cultural and social episteme today is a culmination of this metaphysical tradition (Day, 2001).

And from a Benjaminian perspective, what is given in modernity is a multiplicity of understandings of experience through the splits and fractures that constitute a subject. ‘Experience’ is multiple due to the multiplicity of interests constructing the subject. Less a model of mind, it would require a model of persons, as one of contradictions and confusions. A true representation of digital experience from a Benjaminian viewpoint would be that of schizophrenic interruptions layered over by stories of harmony and progress — in a sense, a picture of the modern Erfahrung–Erlebnis dialectic (governed by an overall logic that is dominantly that of Erlebnis, so that the chaos of Erfahrung is seen as a personal or private issue). From an AI perspective, it would require, for example, an artificial intelligence that could betray its own experiences (Erfahrung) by its actions — the actions themselves based in experience (Erlebnis). In Benjamin’s vision of modernity, experience as Erlebnis is both the shock of the subject’s modern Erfahrung and the cure to such that lies in a supposed trans–subjective rationality. It is, in other words, experience as both the trauma and the cure of a ruling logic of Reason.

It is unclear if the concept of ‘digital experience’ or any such particular historical or technical attributions of experience as a product of certain technologies can reveal these issues from within their own particular, historically and technically bound, perspectives. The problem that the critical modernists pose is the problem of how the conditions for experience can be experienced, foremost, when technology and technological thought condition both what is to be thought and the mode of thinking, that is namely, as experiential objects. AI extends this to the problem of trying to think experiential subjects, doing so analogically.

It seems problematic whether we can just jettison the discourse of critical modernity as a whole in regard to experience in the name of a ‘post–modern,’ ‘post-human’ concept of ‘digital experience’ as a stand–alone, ‘new’ concept. To do so seems to accept the very theoretical and practical problems that the critical modernists warned us about, and it seems to discard a critical and continuing encounter with modern technology that reaches back at least two hundred years, if not longer. End of article


About the authors

Ronald E. Day is Associate Professor of Library and Information Science in the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.
E–mail: roday [at] indiana [dot] edu

Hamid R. Ekbia is Associate Professor of Information Science in the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University, Bloomington and also director of the Center for Research on Mediated Interaction (CROMI).
E–mail: hekbia [at] indiana [dot] edu



1. A very scholarly and useful discussion of Heidegger’s use of the terms Erlebnis and Erfahrung can be found in the entry “Experience” in Michael Inwood’s A Heidegger dictionary.

2. Benjamin, 1968a, p. 159; Day, 2001.

3. Benjamin, 1968b, p. 242.

4. Benjamin, 1999, p. 461 (N2,6).

5. Benjamin, 1968a, p. 262.

6. Schank and Kass, 1988, p. 181.

7. Ibid.

8. Dreyfus, 1991, p. 30.

9. Ibid.

10. Dreyfus, 1991, p. 15.

11. A discussion of the complex relation between Heidegger’s phenomenological sense of experience as Erlebnis and his pre–phenomenological sense of experience as Erfahrung exceeds what is textually and discursively possible in this paper. The relation is not simple, however, and cannot be reduced to simple dichotomies. John Martis gives a brief, but admirable, hint of this complexity in his book on the work of Philippe Lacoue–Labarthe (Martis, 2005, p. 34f.). Such an investigation would explore the role of technology in the relation between Erlebnis and Erfahrung as a necessary, but not sufficient, component in accounting for experience. Such a question gets to the heart of the issue of technological mediation and experience, but it is beyond the scope of our focus upon digital mediation.



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Editorial history

Paper received 4 May 2010; accepted 10 May 2010.

Copyright © 2010, First Monday.
Copyright © 2010, Ronald E. Day and Hamid R. Ekbia.

(Digital) experiences
by Ronald E. Day and Hamid R. Ekbia.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 6 - 7 June 2010

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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