The line between offline and online

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.

16 Comments

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16 Responses to The line between offline and online

  1. It appears that there’s a major conflict going on inside – of Jurgenson of course – and a solution seems to be in the very far distance.

  2. Well said. Another example comes to mind: there has been a proliferation of books and essays over the last 20 years mourning the death of the Humanities in American education. Does that mean we’re actually, as a culture, “obsessed” with the Humanities, that the Humanities are actually terribly important to us, that we appreciate Melville and Schumann all the more because we watch so much reality TV and play so many video games?

  3. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler has devoted his seminar of this year to a reading of Plato’s REPUBLIC seen as a response to the impact of writing on Greek society and psyches, in relation to the impact of the new digital technologies on our own minds and brains. Crucial references are Nicholas Carr’s THE SHALLOWS and Maryanne Wolf’s PROUST AND THE SQUID. He has kindly allowed me to publish English translations of his manuscripts for this unpublished work in progress. If you understand French you can see the videos of the seminar here:
    http://pharmakon.fr/wordpress/le-seminaire/
    (NB: to gain access to the videos you must register, but this is a simple formality).
    The translations are available here:
    http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/translations-of-bernard-stieglers-seminar/
    The first class is called “From Nicholas Carr to Plato”

  4. CS Clark

    We read this essay by Jurgenson and we are reminded somehow of the childless-by-choice person complaining about his friends with children who won’t shut up about them. We can all sympathise, especially when his friends were, before their childful state, just as dismissive of the joys of having children, as boastful of the benefits of being sprog-free. But we do wonder if the complainer is missing that just because someone is smug about something doesn’t mean they are wrong, and that complaining about others being too smug is also a form of smugness.

  5. Thanks for checking out the essay! An honor you read it, even if you disagreed. I’m not sure *I* agree with it, fully. Remember the context, this is a culture mag where I’m a little more free to play McLuhan: instead of trying to say a series of True statements, I’m trying provoke (probe), to stir things up, and maybe see them a little different at the other end. I fully grant that there were sweeping, evidence-less statements, and an over-use of the first-person plural…an intentional decision given context/format/audience/etc. That said, I stand by the argument, one that I think you have (unintentionally) mischaracterized a bit here.

    I do not think we are doing less offline but just appreciating it more. We are doing more of those things people call “offline.” On the rise: vinyl records, analogue film, biking, camping, and most importantly, research shows an uptick (especially among social media users) of meeting more face-to-face.
    The simplest way to say it is: those things Turkle-ites call “offline” and say are disappearing (e.g., the solitary stroll) -1- are not disappearing and -2- are not offline at all.

    You say,
    “Of course “the online” is now as much a part of real life as “the offline,” 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”

    This bit is most troubling for me. I never say the distinction between the digital and physical isn’t real. In fact, I say: “To be clear, the digital and physical are not the same, but we should aim to better understand the relationship of different combinations of information, be they analog or digital, whether using the technologies of stones, transistors, or flesh and blood.” Not sure how I could have been more clear; your conclusion here seems close to what I’m arguing for. Here’s an explanation of digital dualism that is less sweepy-cultural-mag-y and a bit more academic: http://www.mdpi.com/1999-5903/4/1/83

    Last, you characterize my piece as “applauding”/”celebrating”/”looking on the bright side” of our obsession/fetishization with the “offline.” The piece was not at all making an argument that this trend is a good or bad thing. In fact, as close as I come to a value statement is criticizing those who try to gain cultural capital by pretending they have some special access to the offline where others do not. That’s far from applause, but, in any case, this habit of forcing THE INTERNET IS GOOD OR BAD into every debate is tiresome. I’m really hoping we can move past MOROZOV VERSUS JARVIS tech writing (though, I dig a lot of what both of them have to say, I’m just tired of the cable-news-style GOOD V BAD format).

    Anyways, a real treat to see the essay being read, especially by you. Glad it was provocative, and apologies for grammatical errors in this comment (tapping it out on a phone). Thanks!

  6. Nick

    Thanks, Nathan. No need to be defensive — I took the essay as you intended it, and responded in kind. Probes need counterprobes. With that in mind …

    I wrote that you applaud the way “the online” has sharpened our appreciation for “the offline” (to use those categories you find so fraught). You disagree, saying that you made no “value judgments.” It’s very hard for me to read a passage like 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. 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.”

    — without hearing applause. Maybe you didn’t intend that to sound celebratory, but as a reader I can only read the words you wrote. And, to boot, I don’t think that what you’re describing is true. Sure, a small elite may be self-consciously “savoring” deliberately contrived “offline” experiences, but the masses sure as hell ain’t. The fact that a few hipsters are buying film cameras hardly counters the fact that zillions of people are throwing their old film cameras in the trash. When you write, in your comment here, “We are doing more of those things people call ‘offline,'” I don’t know who exactly that “we” is — Brooklynites? — but if you’re referring to society as a whole, you couldn’t possibly be more mistaken.

    I’m sorry if I overstated your objection to “digital dualism” — it sounds like we’re more or less in agreement on that topic — but I would point out that just because people use the terms “offline” and “online” to draw distinctions between activities and modes of being doesn’t mean that they are so unsophisticated as to be unaware of the fact that such terms are fuzzy and non-mutually exclusive. It’s impossible to examine the net critically (which, of course, is not the same as resorting to GOOD vs BAD judgments) without using the terms “offline” and “online.” I think most of us understand that that’s just shorthand.

    And I really, really hope you weren’t sitting on the can when you tapped out that comment on your phone. As it is, your essay has convinced me to never shake hands with a person who owns a smartphone again.

  7. right, digital dualism is not just semantics (though, it irks me when people call not-facebook the “real world”), it is a usually unintentional conceptual starting point that, i think, leads to incorrect conclusions. like turkle’s assumption that more online means less offline. unlike this digital dualist assumption, i do not think the on/offline are zero-sum.

    i say people ‘appreciate/savor’ being offline, and then critique them for that. again, difficult to read “applause” into that.

    last, i’m not thinking just of the ironic-disconnectors, but everyday facebook usage. the stuff Pew reports on in their representative surveys; the stuff i talk to my undergrads bout; the stuff i talk to seniors about; the stuff being reported on by tech writers, academics, whomever (writing a dissertation means i have no choice but to be on this stuff). e.g., when a parent posts a set of baby photos i see lots of “offline”: most obviously, they were taken while not on facebook, and most importantly, the meaning of the photos, why they were taken, for whom, for what purpose, is deeply saturated in “real world” histories, bodies, etc. “offline” is much of what social media is made of. and we know from research that those who use social media more do more offline; from face-to-face meetings to civic participation.

    the only real disagreement here is over what is being lost. a point i made in the essay and should have made in my previous comment is that our reality has always been deeply augmented by information and technology. i think katherine hayles makes this point most convincingly in her How We Became Posthuman. i’m also drawing heavily on Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto. digital augmentation is only the latest flavor. so i’m a bit less romantic about the supposed loss of the “real.”

  8. Nick

    Terence, Thanks very much for those translations. Nick

  9. Nick

    Before dismissing the romantic view, you really ought to read some Blake. He had this “augmented reality” shit nailed a long time ago.

  10. will do! can you recommend any specific readings?

  11. David

    I work in a tech company striving to put more and more business online. Ironically, the company recognizes that face to face interaction is often more efficient (for our business) and thus discourages excessive email/Skype.

    When we have these face to face meetings, issues come up that are outside the scope of the meeting. The organizer will always say “Let’s take this offline” (Valley jargon that means “Let’s talk about this in private or at another time”). Ironically, these meetings are really the only time we’re offline! These “offline” private conversations will usually take place over email and are often the basis for more meetings! Dilbert would be proud.

  12. Nick

    Any of the “prophecies” that include the character Urizen.

    Short form: When you accept a “reality augmentation” devised by someone else, you’re probably wrapping yourself in the chains of tyranny.

    Not so different from what McLuhan wrote: “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.”

  13. Hybrids of “hypertext” or “hard copy” can also sound paradoxical. Contrast online/offline with bound and unbound as used to reference content display in physical and virtual books where the bibliographic identity is either assured or dissolved. Here and with other contraries we can advance by looking exactly between. There is frequently a huge conceptual space between polarities.

    With bound and unbound we find between the performative range of books and an inherent interdependence of print and screen for book transmission. Between off and online experience we also find mood, perception and story telling at play. That leap from binary to tertiary is useful.

  14. Nick

    Yes, in business lingo, to “take something offline” now means, effectively, to take it online. Funny. The technological metaphor has been overwhelmed by the technology.

  15. I posted this on Twitter, and my virtual friend Sheila sent this from her own blog. I think it makes a good companion read with this post.

  16. I just came back from a 2 weeks offline experience on a Greek island. No internet. No phone. An no Facebook exhibition afterwards. Offline is not the oppposite of being online. Offline is being disconnected in a very profound and not accidential way. It´s solitude. Time for a vertically (in opposite to a superficial multisomething) experience which goes for the deepness. Offline offers precious things which you will not like to share over social media. It´s the value which makes the distinction. It´s us who make it.