Over at The New Inquiry, Nathan Jurgenson, a graduate student in sociology, has a captivating essay called The IRL Fetish (IRL is net slang for “in real life”), which argues that, far from alienating us from unmediated experience, from “real life,” as it’s quaintly known, the net has actually deepened our appreciation of “the offline” — to the point, in fact, where appreciation has turned into fetishistic obsession. The piece is crisply written, sharply argued, and fundamentally wrongheaded.
Jurgenson begins by describing what he grants is an ever deepening “intrusion” of digital media into the most intimate spheres of our lives:
Hanging out with friends and family increasingly means also hanging out with their technology. While eating, defecating, or resting in our beds, we are rubbing on our glowing rectangles, seemingly lost within the infostream.
Where’s the Lysol?
But it’s not just that we’re spending so much time online, Jurgenson notes, perceptively. It’s that “the logic” of social networks and other online sites and services “has burrowed far into our consciousness.” Software shapes not only our lives but our beings. The saturation of “real life” with “digital potential,” he continues, has spawned a backlash against the net’s hegemony. He gives a quick summary of the argument of the critics: “Given the addictive appeal of the infostream, the masses have traded real connection for the virtual.” We can’t eat a meal with friends or loved ones without also dining on data from our smartphones. The backlash, Jurgenson suggests, is gaining momentum: “Writer after writer laments the loss of … sensory peace in this age of always-on information, omnipresent illuminated screens, and near-constant self-documentation.”
Then, not exactly out of the blue, comes the Big But (the first of two, actually):
But as the proliferation of such essays and books suggest [sic], we are far from forgetting about the offline; rather we have become obsessed with being offline more than ever before. We have never appreciated a solitary stroll, a camping trip, a face-to-face chat with friends, or even our boredom better than we do now. Nothing has contributed more to our collective appreciation for being logged off and technologically disconnected than the very technologies of connection. The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity. We savor being face-to-face with a small group of friends or family in one place and one time far more thanks to the digital sociality that so fluidly rearranges the rules of time and space. In short, we’ve never cherished being alone, valued introspection, and treasured information disconnection more than we do now. Never has being disconnected — even if for just a moment — felt so profound.
When we are pummeled so relentlessly with the first person plural, we get antsy. We begin to suspect that words are being shoved into our mouths and thoughts into our heads, that our sensibilities are being poured into a mold of someone else’s fashioning. Such suspicions are more than warranted here.
You might say that Jurgenson is just stating the obvious, reprising the old Joni Mitchell refrain: “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” A really thirsty man will appreciate a glass of water more than an amply hydrated man. But instead of arriving at the obvious conclusion — that being amply hydrated is better than being really thirsty — Jurgenson gives it a wrenching spin. The sense of loss that comes with being hyper-mediated, he wants us to believe, is actually a sign of gain. “Nothing has contributed more to our collective appreciation for being logged off and technologically disconnected than the very technologies of connection.” That sip of water was amazing! Thank god I’m parched! I guess you can’t blame a guy for looking at the bright side, but while it’s true that having less of a precious thing makes that precious thing seem all the more precious, that hardly means we should applaud the loss. The yearning for something slipping from our grasp should be taken as a warning, not a cause for celebration.
But there are deeper problems. What are we to make of this: “We have never appreciated a solitary stroll, a camping trip, a face-to-face chat with friends, or even our boredom better than we do now.” That’s the kind of sweeping statement that would benefit from a little evidence. A brief backward glance at the history of philosophy, literature, art, or even just nature photography will tell you that there have been plenty of folks that have had a very deep — indeed, profound — appreciation of the beauties and restorative capacities of solitude, nature, and “face-to-face” chats with friends. I’m going to resist the temptation to quote some Wordsworth or Thoreau, but I will say while our present age may be tops in some things, it’s far from tops in the area of solitary strolls. The real tragedy — if in fact you see it as a tragedy, and most people do not — is that the solitary stroll, the camping trip, the gabfest with pals are themselves becoming saturated with digital ephemera. Even if we agree to turn off our gadgets for a spell, they remain ghostly presences — all those missed messages hang like apparitions in the air, taunting us — and that serves to separate us from the experience we seek. What we appreciate in such circumstances, what we might even obsess over, is an absence, not a presence.
And then, more out of the blue, comes the second Big But: Jurgenson doesn’t even want to grant us license to recognize the absence as an absence, to pay tribute to, much less seek to regain a piece of, what’s been lost. When we do that, we’re merely “fetishizing the offline.” We’re indulging a reverence for something that, apparently, never really existed. “It is the fetish objects of the offline and the disconnected that are not real,” he concludes, his argument becoming a tangle of abstractions. “Those who mourn the loss of the offline are blind to its prominence online.” No, actually, they’re not. One need not subscribe to what Jurgenson calls “digital dualism” — “the habit of viewing the online and offline as largely distinct” — to believe that there are real losses involved when we enter an environment mediated by ever-beckoning computer screens and saturated with data. Of course “the online” is now as much a part of real life as “the offline” — the human world has always been, to borrow Walter Ong’s term, technologized — but the fact that they’re blurring, and blurring quickly, should spur us to examine, critically, the consequences of that blurring, not to conclude that the blurring turns a real distinction into a fiction, as if when you whisk oil and vinegar into a salad dressing, you whisk oil and vinegar out of existence. To exaggerate a distinction is a lesser crime than to pretend it doesn’t exist at all.
UPDATE (7/4): Another grad student, Michael Sacasas, offers an Arcadian critique of Jurgenson’s essay. Here, Sacasas looks at “the claim that ‘offline experience’ is proliferating”:
What I suspect Jurgenson means here is that awareness of offline experience and a certain posture toward offline experience is proliferating. And this does seem to be the case. Semantically, it would have to be. The notion of the offline as “real” depends on the notion of the online; it would not have emerged apart from the advent of the online. [...]
It remains the case, however, that “offline,” only recently constituted as a concept, describes an experience that paradoxically recedes as it comes into view. Consequently, Jurgenson’s later assertion – “There was and is no offline … it has always been a phantom.” – is only partially true. In the sense that there was no concept of the offline apart from the online and that the online, once it appears, always penetrates the offline, then yes, it is true enough. However, this does not negate the fact that while there was no concept of the offline prior to the appearance of the online, there did exist a form of life that we can retrospectively label as offline. There was, therefore, an offline (even if it wasn’t known as such) experience realized in the past against which present online/offline experience can be compared.
What the comparison reveals is that a form of consciousness, a mode of human experience is being lost. It is not unreasonable to mourn its passing, and perhaps even to resist it.
That’s clarifying. The concept of “offline” came into existence at precisely the same moment as the concept of “online,” which means that, as a concept, “offline” can only exist in the shadow of “online” and hence is inextricable from “offline” (as Jurgenson, in a sense, argues). But when we use the word “offline,” what we’re often actually doing, as Sarcasas observes, is referring to a state of being that existed prior to the arrival of “online” — a state that is, or at least was, real and that is, or was, very different from our current state of “online/offline interpenetration.” The very existence of the online/offline dichotomy suggests the extent of the net’s influence on the way we perceive the world.
Human reality has always been augmented by technology, but each new augmentation changes the nature of the augmentation and hence of reality. So to say that reality has always been augmented is to say something both obvious and meaningless.