I was offline before offline was offline

“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.”

8 thoughts on “I was offline before offline was offline

  1. Bob

    Are you familiar with Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek’s book ‘What Things Do’?

    It provides a very well thought out framework for thinking about the mediating effects of technologies that you give examples of here, preceded by very thorough critiques of determinist and instrumentalist philosophies.

    Just like technology gave us ‘nature’ and ‘offline’, Verbeek gives examples such as ultrasounds and similar scanning technologies that made us aware of unborn babies in a way we’d never been before, suddenly confronting us with new types of decisions based on the results of those scans.

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    Would it do any good for me to point out that you’ve switched and conflated two very different ideas of “determinism”? You’ve taken an absolutely trivial meaning – i.e. there’s “when it’s available” and “when it’s not available” – and used the same word for that as the sense of “utopia or dystopia”. It’s almost a joke:

    “The telephone produces technological determinism. You can’t make a phone call when the technology doesn’t work, no matter how much you’re determined”.
    (badda-bing, I know, don’t quit my day job).

    “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.”

    Umm, no, this actually doesn’t follow, in terms of “deeply”. It might be deep, but it might also just be a relatively simple label. As in:

    “But the fact that I experience two different states of the day designated as “before lunch” and “after lunch” shows how deeply “lunch” can influence not only what we do but how we perceive ourselves and the world.”

    Yes, there’s all sorts of cultural aspects about how one divides time and space and food, but “lunch determinism” could get silly (I did once read a fascinating paper about laundry as the building block of color assignment).

    That is, the mere fact of noting a division doesn’t particularly say much of the impact of the division, except that it’s enough to be noted (which is fairly weak just by itself).

    “Technology gave us nature, …”

    Yes, and as I sit here offline from the bugs and the heat and the humidity and online with clean water and indoor plumbing and light when I want, I embrace the changes wholeheartedly, which include the neurological effects – the most profound of which are my brain not shutting down from heat stroke and insect stings.

  3. Nick Post author

    Bob: No, I’m not familiar with the book. Thanks for the tip.

    Seth: I’m not sure I get the distinction you make at the start, but I don’t believe that I was making any point about utopia or dystopia in the post. I certainly don’t think those terms are synonymous with online and offline, or offline and online, if that’s what you were implying.

    As to: “the mere fact of noting a division doesn’t particularly say much of the impact of the division.” Yes, I agree. Noting the division should start the thinking process, not end it. But I do think that some of the kinds of before/after distinctions that I’m talking about end up altering our perceptions in important and even profound ways. (Of course they don’t change everything about those perceptions. I have no doubt that we’re still cavemanish in many ways when it comes to how we make sense of things.)

    I too am fond of modern conveniences, particularly flush toilets, mattresses, and toothbrushes. The natural alternatives to those things don’t strike me as being well thought out.

  4. Seth Finkelstein

    Nick, I was talking about the paragraph where you say:

    “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 “form of technological determinism” there, which I used “utopia or dystopia” as shorthand to illustrate the concept, is about does technology produce a social change like making dictatorships into democracy (or vice-versa). As in recently, there was a slogan roughly “If you want to free a country, given them the Internet” – i.e. Internet access would automatically produce freedom (meaning Western capitalism). It’s been noted that tech evangelists reject all technological determinism except for the good stuff.

    Switching from this meaning, then to mere existence, imports all the emotion of that debate, to something that well, I’d say just doesn’t deserve it for only “showing up” (i.e. “showing up” == a division isn’t profound just for being a division).

    So regarding:

    “But I do think that some of the kinds of before/after distinctions that I’m talking about end up altering our perceptions in important and even profound ways.”

    I’m highly skeptical of any particular assertion along these lines. I don’t doubt that some assertion somewhere is true. But I also think it’s a fertile field for fogeyness. Consider “evolutionary psychology”. There’s probably an insight somewhere. But a huge amount of it seems devoted to coming up with scientific-sounding ways to say that the status-quo is natural law and opponents of it are working against human nature.

  5. Nick Post author

    I’m suspicious of a lot of the claims of evolutionary psychology too (while accepting that evolution certainly influenced our mental makeup), but aren’t you contracting yourself? The less locked in we are by our genes, the more we’re shaped by our environment, broadly defined, and hence by technology, which is obviously an extremely important and extremely malleable part of that environment. (I’m only a moderate determinist, by the way, so I certainly believe that we shape the technology even as it also shapes us. The influence very much goes both ways.)

  6. Seth Finkelstein

    It comes down again to different senses of the word “determinism”. For example, I believe sexual orientation is extremely deterministic in that it’s fixed by genetics as much as anything can be – there’s pretty wide-ranging evidence for people being unable to change it even though they try drastically. However, whether homosexuality is a sin/crime/shame, or a completely normal part of society, seems utterly non-deterministic in another sense. Societies can be found at both extremes, and can change. The US moved dramatically from nearer the former position to nearer the latter position over the past 50 years or so.

    One could go on a tear about the very categorization of sexual orientation itself, what it says philosophically, etc. But that’s very different from whether gay marriage is illegal or celebrated.

    For another example, technologically, it’s deterministic that the Internet makes copying orders of magnitude easier. One faction says this tech determinism means a social determinism that copyright is dead, that the entire content industries should realize they need to pack up and disappear the sooner the better, in favor of being replaced by mammoth advertising and attention industries. An opposing faction says no, this is entirely under social determinism, and we can and should have wide-ranging laws and significant tech re-engineering to support a certain business model, and this will work.

    That battle – really quite profound, when one thinks about it – isn’t addressed by wondering what’s a “copy” in the abstract, and how does our brain react neurologically to the concept of same/different, etc – and what are the effects of more “same”-firings than might be done previously.

    So it’s important not to confuse these different concepts, as the “determinism[s]” at issue are quite distinct.

  7. Tom Lord

    Seth and Nick you are both having trouble because of how you are framing the discussion.

    Let’s start with “technology”:

    In some contexts, people use the word “technology” to mean “a kind of tool”. The ancients had the technology of the lever. In the 19th century the technology of the internal combustion was invented. Innovations in chip manufacturing technology allow more transistors to be packed into the same area. In this usage, a “technology” is a kind of artifact, or a kind of process, described by the particular technical principles that most generally describe its possible construction and operation. To build the technology of a lever, you need a fulcrum and a beam — that kind of thing.

    That sense of the word “technology” is inadequate to the topic here, I think.

    Consider a few sentences like: “Technology has transformed the auto industry. By the 1990s it was normal for engineers in one city to consult on-line and in real-time with manufacturing plant managers in another city and sales staff around the world. Never before could information be so richly and rapidly shared this way.”

    OK, now, what exactly does the word “technology” refer to in that (made up) quote?

    You could make a list: computer chips, TCP/IP, digital cameras, etc. but that isn’t a good answer. Those technologies (in that earlier sense of the word) didn’t transform the auto industry: they were used in the process of transforming the auto industry.

    I think it makes sense to recognize a broader sense of the word “technology” in that quoted example. “Technology” sometimes means the whole system of social and economic arrangements that deploy artifacts and processes in the world.

    Sense 1 of “technology” focuses on a technical essence: “a lever is a fulcrum and a beam, arranged in a certain way”. In sense 1, technologies are practically timeless things: a lever is a lever anywhere in the universe.

    Sense 2 of “technology” focuses on a historic specificity in time, place, and broader context. “With the spread of cell-phones in Africa, technology is once again disrupting long standing patterns of economic trade.”


    Sense 1: the internal combustion engine, transmissions, differentials, etc.
    Sense 2: passenger cars

    Sense 1: wired AM voice communication, automated switching
    Sense 2: telephone land lines

    Sense 1: audio transmission by frequency modulation
    Sense 2: public FM radio stations

    Sense 1: TCP/IP
    Sense 2: the Internet

    When we notice a historically new difference between being “online” and being “offline” — obviously this has something to do with the arrival of a new technology, but in which sense? I think it’s mainly the second sense: a “technology” understood not as an abstract technical essence, but in its historic specificity.

    A person might say “I can’t go 2 waking hours without checking my email! Technology is ruining my life!”

    If we assume that that person is using “technology” in sense 1 then it’s a pretty questionable statement. There is at least nothing obvious about the technical essence of computers and networks that would force a person to check their email every two hours. Someone might reply “Well, just stop using it!”

    If we assume that the person is using “technology” in the second sense, though, the meaning is clearer: The “technology” is not merely the nuts and bolts that allow the transmission of messages but, instead, is how these bits and pieces are deployed in their historic specificity.

    It’s not surprising that a person can’t stop checking their email if, for example, their job requires them to respond rapidly to changes in certain commodity prices — a rapid response required in turn because “technology” has sped up the commodity futures markets — markets that exist in their present form because of the historically specific deployment of new trading strategies….. etc. Meanwhile our poor over-worked friend is, like all his friends, over-worked and email one of the few ways he can maintain some semblance of human contact.

    The web of inter-relations in the (sense 2) technologies ensnare our poor email victim. Technology is, indeed, ruining his life.

    In this view the question of “determinism” becomes less plausible and less interesting, at least as stated here. What takes its place are questions about how that complex web of historically specific technologies works, how it changes, and what does and what can influence those changes.

  8. Tom Lord

    Continuing that a bit: What’s the relation between “sense 2” technology and the formation of the self?

    The technology called civilization gave us “nature” as its shadow; the technology called (let’s say) “the web” gave us “offline” as its shadow. Are we any closer to understanding this if we’re now using the word “technology” in sense 2?

    I think so: The factors that compel or entice our hapless victim to spend too much time “online” and to suddenly perceive “offline” for the first time in history aren’t so much features of the nuts and bolts of computing technology, but of the web of relations that effect the deployment and operation of those nuts and bolts: the “sense 2” technology.

    This is an old pre-Internet question concerning how power relations monitor, regulate, constrain, construct the self — usually in support of the perpetuation of standing power relations and all too often in ways that seem oppressive or otherwise damaging.

    “On-line” and “off-line” are relatively new features of the web of power relations that ensnare people. They are features that many can’t escape (hence that temptation to talk of “determinism”) but, because they are politically constructed, they are features that seem to lack necessity (hence the temptation to reject all talk of “determinism”).

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