We talk a lot about “being online” and “being offline” or “going online” and “going offline,” but what do those terms mean? The distinction between online and offline is an outdated holdover from twenty years ago, when “going online,” through America Online or Prodigy or Compuserve, was like “going shopping.” It was an event with clear demarcations, in time and space, and it usually comprised a limited and fairly routinized set of activities. As Net access has expanded, to the point that, for many people, it is coterminous with existence itself, the line between online and offline has become so blurred that the terms have become useless or, worse, misleading. When we talk about being online or being offline these days, we’re deluding ourselves.
That, anyway, is the argument that some writers at the blog Cyborgology have been making over the past couple of years. They’ve been building, in fits and starts, a case against what they call “digital dualism.” The phrase was introduced by Nathan Jurgenson in a post in February 2011. He took umbrage at people’s continuing use of the words “online” and “offline” to describe their experiences, particularly the implication that the online and the offline are separate realms:
Some have a bias to see the digital and the physical as separate; what I am calling digital dualism. Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy.
He proposed, instead, an “opposite perspective,” which he termed “augmented reality.” The augmented reality view sees “the digital and physical [as] increasingly meshed”:
I am proposing an alternative view that states that our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once. We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities, ala The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits.
The observation that “our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical,” is banal. I can’t imagine anyone on the planet disagreeing with it. Being natural-born toolmakers, human beings have always lived in a world that is both technological and organic, that is at once natural and, as Thomas Hughes put it, “human-built.” Nor can I imagine that anyone actually believes that the offline and the online exist in immaculate isolation from each other, separated, like Earth and Narnia, by some sort of wardrobe-portal. Jurgenson uses the charge of digital dualism to dismiss a host of very different critiques of digital media, by people like Sherry Turkle, Evgeny Morozov, Jaron Lanier, Mark Bauerlein, and myself, but that seems little more than intellectual stereotyping. It is the “meshing” of the offline and the online, the physical and the digital, that is the fundamental subject and the fundamental concern of pretty much every critical examination of the Net—the generally positive ones as well as the generally negative ones—that I’ve come across. If the two states actually existed in isolation, most of the criticism of digital media would be rendered irrelevant.
Jurgenson came close to conceding this point in a later post in which he presented four “conceptual categories” to describe different ways of viewing “the relationship between the physical and digital”:
Strong Digital Dualism: The digital and the physical are different worlds, have different properties, and do not interact.
Mild Digital Dualism: The digital and physical are different worlds, have different properties, and do interact.
Mild Augmented Reality: The digital and physical are part of one reality, have different properties, and interact.
Strong Augmented Reality: The digital and physical are part of one reality and have the same properties.
As Jurgenson more or less admits, the two extreme categories, perfect separation and perfect sameness, are made of straw. They are purely theoretical constructs, notable for their lack of members. Basically everyone, he grants, agrees that the digital and the physical “have different properties but interact.” So the distinction on which Jurgenson’s digital-dualism theorizing hinges is between those “mild dualists” who see the digital and physical as “different worlds” and those “mild augmentationists” who see the digital and physical as “one reality.” We’ve now entered a realm of very fuzzy semantic distinctions. What the terms “worlds” and “reality” actually denote is not at all clear. As Jurgenson allows, “Sometimes mild dualism and mild augmentation look very similar.” Well, yes. It’s not altogether impossible for “one reality” to encompass “different worlds.” But then, having painted himself into a corner, he leaps out of the corner in order to criticize those who “waffle back and forth across each of these categories.” Given the vagueness of the categories, a bit of waffling seems not only inevitable but wise.
Jurgenson makes his intent clearer in “The IRL Fetish,” an essay he published in The New Inquiry last year. What seems to underpin and inform his critique of digital dualism is his annoyance at people who sentimentalize and “over-valorize” the time they spend offline and make a self-satisfied show of their resistance to going online:
Every other time I go out to eat with a group, be it family, friends, or acquaintances of whatever age, conversation routinely plunges into a discussion of when it is appropriate to pull out a phone. People boast about their self-control over not checking their device, and the table usually reaches a self-congratulatory consensus that we should all just keep it in our pants. … What a ridiculous state of affairs this is. To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection.
Jurgenson is making a valid point here. There is something tiresome about the self-righteousness of those who see, and promote, their devotion to the offline as a sign of their superiority. It’s like those who can’t wait to tell you that they don’t own a TV. But that’s a quirk that has more to do with individual personality than with some general and delusional dualist mentality. Jurgenson’s real mistake is to assume, grumpily, that pretty much everyone who draws a distinction in life between online experience and offline experience is in the grip of a superiority complex or is striking some other kind of pose. That provides him with an easy way to avoid discussing a far more probable and far more interesting interpretation of contemporary behavior and attitudes: that people really do feel a difference and even a conflict between their online experience and their offline experience. They’re not just engaged in posing or fetishization or valorization or some kind of contrived identity game. They’re not faking it. They’re expressing something important about themselves and their lives—something real. Jurgenson doesn’t want to admit that possibility. To him, people are just worshipping a phantom: “The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online.”
Another Cyborgology writer, David Banks, pushes Jurgenson’s dismissal of people’s sense of a tension between online and offline to an absurd extreme. In a recent post, he observes:
Ever since Nathan posted [his original piece on digital dualism] I have been preoccupied with a singular question: where did this thinking come from? Its too pervasive and readily accepted as truth to be a trendy idea or even a generational divide. Every one of Cyborgology’s regular contributors (and some of our guest authors) hear digital dualist rhetoric coming from their students. The so-called “digital natives” lament their peer’s neglect of the “the real world.” Digital dualism’s roots run deep and can be found at the very core of modern thought. Indeed, digital dualism seems to predate the very technologies that it inaccurately portrays.
If it weren’t for that supercilious “inaccurately,” one might expect, or at least hope, that at this point Banks would take people’s “pervasive” views at face value and would dedicate himself to a deep exploration of why people feel that digital media are eroding their sense of “the real.” Instead, he dismisses people’s concerns. He claims that they’re just reenacting, in a new setting, Rousseau’s view of masturbation as lying outside the natural sexual order:
Rousseau claims at different points in his Confessions that masturbation is a supplement to nature: something constructed or virtual that competes with an existing real or natural phenomenon. Derrida, in his Of Grammatology asserts that erotic thoughts not only precede sexual action (you think about what you do before you do it) but that there is no basis for finding sex any more “real” than auto-affective fantasies. This “logic of the supplement” mistakes something that was “always already” there with an unneeded addition.
That’s an awfully tortured way of denying the obvious: The reason people struggle with the tension between online experience and offline experience is because there is a tension between online experience and offline experience, and people are smart enough to understand, to feel, that the tension does not evaporate as the online intrudes ever further into the offline. In fact, the growing interpenetration between the two modes of experience—the two states of being—actually ratchets up the tension. We sense a threat in the hegemony of the online because there’s something in the offline that we’re not eager to sacrifice.
In a rejoinder to Jurgenson’s “The IRL Fetish,” Michael Sacasas gently makes the point that Jurgenson, Banks, and the other digital dualism denialists go out of their way to avoid seeing:
Jurgenson’s [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.
Nature existed before technology gave us the idea of nature. Wilderness existed before society gave us the idea of wilderness. Offline existed before online gave us the idea of offline. Grappling with the idea of nature and the idea of wilderness, as well as their contrary states, has been the source of much of the greatest philosophy and art for at least the last two hundred years. We should celebrate the fact that nature and wilderness have continued to exist, in our minds and in actuality, even as they have been overrun by technology and society. There’s no reason to believe that grappling with the online and the offline, and their effects on lived experience and the formation of the self, won’t also produce important thinking and art. As Sacasas implies, the arrival of a new mode of experience provides us with an opportunity to see more clearly an older mode of experience. To do that, though, requires the drawing of distinctions. If we rush to erase or obscure the distinctions, for ideological or other reasons, we sacrifice that opportunity.
Yes, digital dualism can go too far. But the realization of that fact—the fact that the online and the offline are not isolated states; that they together influence and shape our lives, and in ways that can’t always be teased apart—should be a spur to thinking more deeply about people’s actual experience of the online and the offline and, equally important, how they sense that experience. What’s lost? What’s gained? An augmentation, it’s worth remembering, is both part of and separate from that which it is added to. To deny the separateness is as wrongheaded as to deny the togetherness. Digital dualism denialism does not open up new frontiers of critical and creative thought and action. It forecloses them.
Photo by Florian.