The Online Umwelt

Eddie Ejjbair
2 min readAug 26, 2023

The Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) used the German word umwelt (meaning environment) to refer not just to an animal’s surroundings, but to its experience of those surroundings; its ‘perceptual world’ — or, as it is sometimes translated, its ‘self-centered world’. Within the same physical space, there can be completely different umwelten, depending on the organism:

We comfort ourselves all too easily with the illusion that the relations of another kind of [animal] to the things of its environment play out in the same space and time as the relations that link us to the things of our human environment. This illusion is fed by the belief in the existence of one and only one world, in which all living beings are encased. From this arises the widely held conviction that there must be one and only one space and time for all living beings

One’s umwelt feels all-encompassing, but this is an illusion — one that all organisms share. According to Uexküll, ‘only when we can vividly imagine this fact will we recognize in our own world the bubble that encloses each and every one of us on all sides’. This was, according to Ed Yong, a ‘radical notion at the time’, but we have since assimilated it into our thinking (in concepts such as standpoint epistemology and perspectivism).

As this image demonstrates, the human umwelt differs from that of other animals. Meanwhile, humans in the same physical space would likely perceive similarly. But what about online spaces — which are catered to personal taste?

The proliferation of online spaces was thought to have expanded our horizons. Instead, it has created a situation where people sharing the same physical space (neighborhood, town, country, etc.) ‘are not sharing the same facts or extremely different opinions on shared facts, resulting in conflicts from minor disputes to violent ones’ (Atiqi).

These ‘echo-chambers’ are, essentially, highly specific umwelten. They’re even referred to as ‘bubbles’, just as Uexküll calls them. But here is the distinction: for Uexküll, our bubbles ‘effortlessly overlap’ with one another, not because they are identical, but because this fiction facilitates greater co-operation:

If we still cling to the fiction of an all-encompassing world-space, that is only because we can get along with each other more easily with the help of this conventional fable

Online echo-chambers undermine this ‘convention’, creating bubbles that either burst on contact, or grow more myopic with every encounter.

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’