In 2011, Nathan Jurgenson coined the phrase digital dualism in a post on the website Cyborgology. Here is an excerpt from the opening of that essay:
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. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.” [Emphasis in the original.]
Since then, the critique of digital dualism has been advanced by Jurgenson and the writers associated with Cyborgology with enough consistency and regularity that I think it fair to say it characterizes what could be called the Cyborgology school of digital criticism.
In the comments section of my previous post on the integrity of online practices, while discussing the value of activities that some might understand as “offline” (but characteristically wanting to guard against digital dualism), Jurgenson suggested a distinction between being explicitly and implicitly connected as a way of getting at how the online impinges upon the offline.
I thought this useful, but as I considered the dynamic, it seemed to me that it might be better to talk about two vectors or spectrums rather than one. My initial effort to describe these two vectors yielded a spectrum of material connectivity and one of psychic connectivity.
With material connectivity I had in mind access to the more straightforward ways we might be online: on a laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc. This spectrum then would run from a situation wherein we are without device and without signal to one in which we are actively engaging a device that is connected to the Internet.
With psychic connectivity I had in mind the degree to which we are conscious of the online experience. On one end of this spectrum, we are not at all conscious of the online and on the other it is at the forefront of our thinking.
I realize this was less elegant than the implicit/explicit dichotomy, but thinking in terms of two intersecting vertices offered a little more nuance. We may, for example, at any given moment, be materially connected (i.e., with easy and present access to the Internet), but psychically disconnected (i.e., not be thinking of it at all). Conversely, we may be materially disconnected (e.g., in the woods), but psychically connected (i.e., thinking of how we’ll tweet later about the experience). The other possibilities include being both materially and psychically connected, and, most importantly for my purposes, materially and psychically disconnected.
I’ve thought a little more about this schema and what it tries to capture, and I’ve realized that there’s a little more that it needs to include. This is still a work in progress, but here, as I presently see them, are the varieties of online experience that any such schema would want to encompass (including those explained above):
Material connectivity: As described above, this refers to our tangible connection through a device to the Internet. The spectrum would range from non-access to access to engagement. This kind of connectivity is, in fact, the material base of all the other forms.
Existential connectivity: This replaces “psychic” connectivity above (I think it sounds better). It refers to our conscious awareness of online realities and how that awareness shapes our thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions. The proposed spectrum here ranges from states of being in which the Internet plays no role whatsoever to those which are preoccupied with or focused on some aspect of it. It is here that we would register the possibility that, device in hand or not, our interpretation of experience is inflected by Facebook (or Instagram, or Twitter, etc.). Think here of Jurgenson’s “Facebook Eye.”
Residual connectivity: I’m thinking here of the way in which our habits may be formed by online experience so that the consequences of being connected stay with us even when we are not connected materially or even existentially. Consider, for example, the manner in which our attention may be conditioned by Internet use yielding something like the disordered states of attention that Nicholas Carr, Katherine Hayles, and Linda Stone have, each in their own way, addressed. Or, how the immediacy, convenience, and efficiency that drives online activity may render patience increasingly difficult to cultivate.
Iconic connectivity: Terminology is getting sketchy, I know, but stay with me. This category accounts for another sense in which we might be online without being materially connected to the Internet that arises from the presence of our data online. Our online profiles have a life of their own and constitute an online presence whether or not we are ourselves materially connected or existentially connected. This manner of being online may be best illustrated by the enduring online presence of those of have passed away (or, the enduring presence of their data if you prefer). Though dead, they remain, in some sense, online. Like religious icons, they are representations of a person that both are and are not the person. The spectrum here would range from having no self-created online presence, to forgotten and unmanaged profiles, to active profiles not at the moment in use, to presently acting through an online profile. We might say that, at the latter end, the icon and the person are most closely identified. I think my Facebook as Rear Window analogy works best here.
Ambient connectivity: With this category, I’m attempting to register the manner in which we may be online through activities that did not originate with us. So, for example, I may not be materially, existentially, or iconically connected, but I may still be mentioned online by a friend who is. Or, not being connected in any way, I might ask someone who is for directions to some place across town.
More generally, we might also consider the manner in which the world we live in is transformed by online reality, with real consequences for our lives, even if we remain disconnected. This may be as simple as the local Borders that I frequented closing down due to competition from online retailers. Or, it may be a more complicated dynamic, such as the way that a person with whom I seek to have a romantic relationship has had their understanding of relationships conditioned by habits formed through online realities. These more general effects of online realities on my life may not be best treated alongside the varieties of online experience above. In other words, to call these latter realities a form of being online may be pressing the language beyond its usefulness.
So what to make of these categories together? Being now five vertices, they can no longer be neatly tied together into four quadrants of possibilities. Looking at them together it strikes me that there is a phenomenological line separating material and existential connectivity on the one hand and iconic and ambient connectivity on the other with residual connectivity somewhere in-between.
I can theoretically monitor where I am on the spectrums of the former two. (Although the act of self-monitoring, in a Heisenberg sort of way, would create an interesting paradox on the existential spectrum. Am I existentially online if I am aware of myself not being online?) But I can’t do so in the same way with iconic and ambient connectivity. I have no way of knowing where my profiles have been and I may be forever blissfully unaware that someone, somewhere has said something about me online. I’m tempted to call iconic and ambient connectivity the unconscious online.
Residual connectivity may frequently be at work on me without my awareness, but I think it possible to become aware of it. Perhaps we might call residual connectivity the ordinarily unconscious online.
As it stands, this is already an overly long blog post, so I’m going to resist the temptation to keep parsing. I’ll let these categories sit for now and welcome observations and criticisms. I don’t exactly offer this as a companion to the recent efforts by a variety of writers at Cyborgology to advance the digital dualism critique (here and here, for example), but if it is of any value in that effort, I’d be glad for it.