“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” [source]
A couple of cavemen are walking through the woods. One sighs happily and says to the other, “I’m telling you, there’s nothing like being out in nature.” The other pauses and says, “What’s nature?”
It’s 1972. A pair of lovers go camping in a wilderness area in a national park. They’re sitting by a campfire, taking in the evening breezes. “Honey,” says the woman, “I have to confess I really love being offline.” The guy looks at her and says, “What’s offline?”
Continuing the discussion of Nathan Jurgenson’s essay on the fraught relationship between “the offline” and “the online” — I said my piece here, Michael Sacasas made his points here — Adam Graber observes:
People have always had awkward dynamics with other people, but [...] books gave us a new metaphor to describe the experience of not being on the same page. Similarly, the Internet has given us new ways of thinking about experiences we’ve always had.Yet, things aren’t exactly the same after the metaphor either. With our new awareness, our perspective has changed. We’re faced with a new normal. This is how technology changes us. It alters our perspective and our perception. We see the world in a new way.
That’s right, and it’s worth emphasizing the point because most people don’t really want to acknowledge it. If you advocate even a mild form of technological determinism, you tend to get an immediate and very dismissive reaction: “Tools don’t do anything. It’s how we use them that matters.” The reaction is an expression of what McLuhan termed “somnambulism,” and it seems to be our default mode. We hate the idea that we’re not in control, not driving the car. If a technology has some effect on us, we tell ourselves, it’s because we chose for it to have that effect.
But the fact that we now consciously experience two different states of being called “online” and “offline,” which didn’t even exist a few years ago, shows how deeply technology can influence not only what we do but how we perceive ourselves and the world. Certainly we didn’t consciously choose to look at our lives in this way and then formulate the technology to fulfill our desire. The defense contractors who started building the internet didn’t say to each other, “For the good of mankind, let’s create a new dichotomy in perception.” And when we, as individuals, log on for the first time (or the ten-thousandth time), we don’t say to ourselves, “I’m going to use this new technology so I’ll be able to think about my life in terms of being online and being offline.” But that’s what happens.
It’s not that technology “wants” us to think in this way — technology doesn’t want a damn thing — it’s that technology has side effects that are unintended, unimagined, unplanned-for, unchosen, often invisible, and frequently profound. Technology gave us nature, as its shadow, and in a similar way it has given us “the offline.”