Online/Offline/No Line

Nicholas Carr recently initiated a second round of discussion with Nathan Jurgenson over digital dualism and the IRL Festish, both terms coined by Jurgenson. Instead of rehashing the earlier debate, I’ll simply provide the links:

The IRL Fetish — Jurgenson

The Line Between Offline and Online — Carr

In response to Jurgenson, I wrote “In Search of the Real,” which was cited by Carr in his recent post. I also discussed the piece with Jurgenson in the comments.

This second round was kicked off by Carr in a post titled “Digital dualism denialism.” Jurgenson responded here. I also suggest reading Tyler Bickford’s take on the exchange in which he explains why he thinks Jurgenson does not go far enough.

I’ll enter the fray by way of Bickford’s analysis. He reckons that Jurgenson’s concession that “the digital and physical are not the same” gives away the game. Admitting such, in Bickford’s view, means that the critique of digital dualism does not quite manage to escape digital dualism. I think Bickford is right about this. He writes,

In fact Jurgenson builds this problem in from the beginning, posing in the place of digital dualism what he calls “augmented reality.” Unfortunately, Carr has him dead to rights when he concludes his post with

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.

Right! If you start with reality, and then you augment it, then you’ve got two distinct things that can always be distinguished. This is a dualist model! The solution here is to stop talking about “reality” altogether.

He is disappointed that Jurgenson fails to fully escape the dualist trap because he is, in fact, very sympathetic to Jurgenson’s critique.

Let me pause at this point to say that it is not clear that all the parties in this conversation, myself included, have reached what the rhetoricians call stasis — that is, it’s not evident that those involved in the debate know what exactly the debate is about. Jurgenson and Bickford both admit as much in their posts. As I was contemplating a response (indeed, even now as I write it), I was also plagued by the sense that I really didn’t have a handle on what the particular points of disagreement were in this case.

That said, here are some considerations that seem pertinent to me. I offer them in an effort to advance the discussion, certainly not as a final, conclusive word. Feedback welcome, especially if I’ve failed to understand or mischaracterized someone’s position.

First, there is the motif of boundaries and distinctions running through the discussion. Is it helpful to draw them at all? If so where ought they be drawn? I’m sympathetic to Bickford’s contention, following Evgeny Morozov, that the phenomena under consideration are too varied and complex to group neatly under categories such as online/offline, digital/physical, material/virtual, etc. I think this a reasonable point, but, of course, we can’t name every leaf, so we use categories for the sake of thought and communication. We should do so, however, with humility and circumspection. Not too long ago I attempted my own taxonomy of online experience from a phenomenological or experiential perspective: “Varieties of Online Experience.” You can judge for yourself whether or not it is helpful.

What is not helpful, in my view, is to deny all distinctions as inherently falsifying, oppressive, etc. Fuzzy and permeable boundaries do not invalidate the fact that reality is not an undifferentiated blob. Writing elsewhere about historical analogies, I made the following claim that I think applies here as well:

While it may be difficult or even impossible to pinpoint where one color turns into another on the spectrum, it is absurd to therefore maintain that red is the same as yellow, or white the same as orange. There is both continuity and discontinuity. This is true of historical change, and it is true of the categories we use to make sense of our experience.

I think this analogy applies to the online/offline debate. As concepts, the offline and the online are symbiotic. Experientially, they are often entwined and enmeshed, or however else one may put it. But under certain conditions, they are distinguishable. One may decide that neither ought to be privileged, but that is not the same thing as insisting that they are indistinguishable altogether.

Since Haraway is a key figure in this discussion, let me cite her as well. Writing in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, in which the Cyborg Manifesto is found, she says the following:

So, I think my problem and ‘our’ problem is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness.

Now, I suppose Bickford is well within his rights to argue that, in fact, Haraway does not go far enough and that she has an IRL fetish herself (although the quotation marks may save her of that charge). It seems to me, though, that this is quite right and well put.  There are realities against which our language, concepts, and knowledge claims rub and within this reality there are distinctions. It is left to us to find the most “faithful” account.

There is little use denying that there are a set of practices, however diverse and multifarious they may be, that correspond meaningfully to the concept of being “online” and, consequently, that in the absence of these practices there is something which it is meaningful to call “offline.”


Hypothetical question: Imagine someone dear to you — your spouse, an old friend, your brother, whoever. Now imagine that you are separated from that person for some non-trivial period of time. You are then given the choice, all things being equal, of either sending that person a letter, having a phone conversation, exchanging text messages, conversing over Skype, or meeting face-to-face. Which do you choose?

I have no interest in denying the reality of the letter, the text message, or the phone call, etc. They are real enough, but I choose the face-to-face encounter every time.

Is my preference, and I suspect your preference too, for a face-to-face meeting the product of a philosophically naive fetishizing of the offline?

Jurgenson seems to think so, if I read him fairly. He writes,

I have the audacity to suggest what people say isn’t the full story, arguing that this isn’t an infringement on the real but the creation of the myth of the virtual to simultaneously deploy “the real” that one can then have access to (and often looking down on others still caught up in the “virtual”).

Might I suggest that while such audacity is sometimes called for, it may sometimes be the expression of ideological closure. The even more audacious option may be to allow that sometimes there is no subtext.


If I were to attempt to explain why it is that I would choose the face-to-face encounter every time, I think I would have a hard time doing so. It is self-evident and self-evident things are sometimes hard to articulate. But if pressed, I would point to the fullness of embodied presence. It is odd that to avoid digital dualism it is sometimes necessary to tacitly endorse mind/body dualism. Only if the body is ignored does it make sense to say that the distinction between online experience and offline experience matters not at all. I don’t think this is what Jurgenson is saying. It does seem be an implication of Bickford’s post, but I grant that I may not being reading him rightly.

I do agree with Bickford, though, when he suggests we take the word real off the table in these discussion. It brings more confusion than clarity.

17 thoughts on “Online/Offline/No Line

  1. Michael, as a continued interested outsider, I will venture a further comment…

    I agree that its not so clear exactly what is even being talked about in this discussion/debate about digital dualism. It has a somewhat backwards feel to me, where theory is developed and then one searches around for something for it to apply to. I see a dangerous side to this, where those doing the theory can then use it to criticize authors or views they disagree with, and since there is an intrinsic vagueness, this theory can be adjusted at will to fit the purpose. In science, it is why a premium is put on making predictions. One should be able to clarify one’s theory well enough that one can say in advance what might happen in a given situation. If the theory can be adjusted at will, one can always do so and then claim to fit the data afterwards.

    As I wrote in reply to commenter Linda on Carr’s blog post, who suggested that the digital dualism discussion might be connected to the mind/body dualism, I’m not sure there is a philosophical problem of similar magnitude at the heart of digital dualism. On the other hand, just because it may not be of similar magnitude, doesn’t mean thinking through online vs. offline doesn’t merit some more theory. But it should be made more clear just what problems the theory is trying to solve.

    Regarding your last hypothetical question here, about why one usually prefers to meet with those we care about in person, this sounds like a useful concrete scenario to focus the digital dualism discussion. I’ve read in the past how face to face discussion is described as being “high bandwidth”, and for this reason it can be preferable to other modes of communication. I cringe at this characterization, at the same time, when forced into a certain narrow theoretical mindset, see this as the only thing left to say. One has been reduced to information and signal, and all that is left is the language of signal processing or the theory of channels and information.

    Perhaps your “fullness of embodied presence” is a little improved over the high bandwidth description. I would say its still not fully adequate as a defense, and is an indication of the narrowness of the terms that have been set within which one can describe one’s preference for meeting in person, versus communicating from a distance via some other interface.

    I suppose if one is forced to be explicit here, there are other dimensions one can pursue in describing one’s preference. One can take as a starting point the value of a given place. If one lives in a small city with a community of people taking care of that place and living together, then meeting with someone you care about in that city, the interaction is embedded within the meanings and connections implicit within that city. Or, to meet at someone’s home, for example, one becomes part of the daily routine of that person’s life in a richer way than would occur via skype or other distance communication. I suppose one needs to inject a logic and sense of value of place into the discussion. Of course there are also places that are not fit well for meeting, in which case perhaps the distance communication would even be preferable.

    One is being forced to articulate the obvious here. Why do we want to meet in person? On the one hand, this may be a valuable exercise. On the other, one may also refuse to articulate and ask as to why one is being forced to articulate such a view in the first place. Here, it is obviously because you raised it as a thought exercise, but in other circumstances, it may be because there is a threat of some sort. Like care about ecosystems and diversity of life within the context of economic systems, one may be put in the situation of being forced to describe the economic value of environmentalism or risk destruction of things we may depend on and care deeply about.

    Apologies for such a long comment…. I suppose I should really read Haraway one of these days, so I can get closer to where some of all this debate starts from.
    regards, Boaz

    1. Boaz, No need to apologize for the length of the comment. You made some excellent points. Certainly, this debate does not quite rise to the level of the mind/body problem, and it may indeed be helpful to ask what problem the theory seeks to solve, or at least what phenomenon it seeks to explain. I would say that both sides (or, however many sides there are) are seeking to advocate for realities or persons that they believe are in danger of being marginalized. This is my perception, and I may very well be wrong about that. So, for example, in your second to last paragraph I think you get at this. Is there a threat of some sort that is forcing people to define and defend something that seems self-evident? I think that is a good part of what is going on here. Awhile back I wrote a few posts on what motivates critics. In the case of technology, I think criticism (in the sense of analysis, not exclusively negative) I think there is a love of something more ultimate than technology at play? This discussion seems to bear this out to some extent, I think.

      Also, regarding your discussion of place, I could not agree more. I would say, though, that all of this is subsumed under the notion of embodied presence, it is through our bodily presence that we inhabit a place and that the place bears on us. This is why I continue to think that Merleau-Ponty is the theorist whose work needs to be brought to bear on these discussions more than it is (although N. Katherine Hayles does refer to him with some frequency).

      1. Thanks for the reply, Michael.
        Re: “I would say that both sides (or, however many sides there are) are seeking to advocate for realities or persons that they believe are in danger of being marginalized.”
        This sounds right to me (although with Jurgenson, I hear a little bit of happiness with theory(and his personal theory) for its own sake, rather than focus on larger issues). On my side, when I hear someone say that online and offline are the same, I do somehow feel that a defense of place is required. Living in France, and struggling with questions of lifestyle within a transient expat community, this has a personal element for me.

        But part of me worries that to even attempt the defense of place is to concede something at the start. I suppose its a worry that the theoretical apparatus will not be adequate, and one may lay out why one loves and depends on something, only to see these thoughts and analyses subsumed into someone else’s project, expropriated in some way. (assimilation by the borg?)

        I’ll try to read some Merleau-Ponty when I have time. I hadn’t encountered his writings before.

  2. I read the background essays with interest and when all is said and done I have to ask, what does all this accomplish? Jurgenson is spot on when he points out that we’ve gone too far with technology toys. The means has become the end. But that’s that all that needs to be said. “Fetishization of the real” is an academic concept more irrelevant than the most banal tweet. Or am I missing something?

  3. “The even more audacious option may be to allow that sometimes there is no subtext.”

    Nicely put, and I wholeheartedly agree. This is, it strikes me, one of the nubs of the issue, and it’s why I used the term “denialism” to characterize what I see as a misguided attempt to dismiss people’s concerns about the influence of the net (broadly defined) on their lives.

    Another issue goes beyond matters of definition and perspective. It’s more of an ethical issue. If Jurgenson had from the start said something like “I have this vague idea that I’m calling ‘digital dualism’ and I’m going to try to work out what I mean by it through a series of searching and tentative blog posts,” I would have applauded that effort. But, instead, he immediately used this vague term as a critical bludgeon against a variety of critical works about the net (including one by me), without bothering to actually point, with critical rigor, to how the works fit his definition of digital dualism. If he had actually made the critical effort to show us precisely how each of these works exhibited digital dualism, he would have gone a long way to giving some concreteness to the term. But that didn’t happen, and it still hasn’t happened. If anything, the definition of “digital dualism” has become steadily vaguer, to the point, in my view, of meaninglessness, at least as a valid critical term. Most recently, Jurgenson seems to be proposing that at the core of digital dualism lies a view of online time and offline time as a “zero sum” game. That’s fine, but nobody seriously holds that view, so we’re left with another empty category.

    One last thought: I would take “reality” out of the discussion, but I would be hesitant to remove “real” from the discussion. If someone said to me, “I sense that offline is more real than online,” I would be inclined to take them at their word. (And if they said the opposite, I should add, I would also be inclined to take them at their word.)

    1. I’d agree that the way forward may be by anchoring the discussion to specific cases to see how well the theory fits the phenomenon; it’s in part why I suggested that very specific hypothetical scenario above. I wouldn’t think Nathan or the other Cyborgology writers would be opposed to that. It may be that there’s been more of that than I realize (Nathan, remind me if there is), but just thinking about some of this discussion over the last year or so, it seems the Sherry Turkle op-ed is what gets cited more than anything along with the litany of other alleged offenders’ book titles. Perhaps some of the folks at Cyborgology could undertake a close reading of the digital dualist (book length) texts.

      Regarding that last thought, I wouldn’t disagree. There is an art (the art of theory?) to taking what people say seriously, particularly when they are talking about their experience, and then also trying to understand why they say what they do. Critical theory, which animates the work of the Cyborgology folks, can sometimes be helpful in this regard, but it has its limits in my view. But that, of course, would take much more space to discuss.

      1. I also agree that discussion of “reality” is a little too much in most of these discussions. If one of the elements of this discussion is a sort of attempt to define boundaries for different disciplines, one might say that philosophy and physics has traditionally been the place where reality is discussed. It just doesn’t seem like an appropriate topic for sociology or literary analysis or political discussion, etc.

        “Real” has some other connotations such as stability and robustness and doesn’t need to get into a description of the entire universe in order to do some work. One can talk about how music feels less real when accessing it through YouTube or Spotify than through a file on your computer, or a CD. The web-based music access could be lost much easier than the file or CD. And so one could reasonably feel that it is thus less real. I think Bill Wimsatt’s writings give some theoretical base for this use of the word “real”.

  4. “Might I suggest that while such audacity is sometimes called for, it may sometimes be the expression of ideological closure. The even more audacious option may be to allow that sometimes there is no subtext.”

    i can’t imagine a scenario lacking sub-text.

    “I do agree with Bickford, though, when he suggests we take the word real off the table in these discussion. It brings more confusion than clarity.”

    i think we are all in agreement here, in principle, though, throwing away that word might be practically difficult to enter into certain debates. i’d be happy granting equal “reality” to the facebook profile and the mountain, which might be that they are both “real” or not real, a separate question to which i haven’t even begun figuring out how to answer.

    1. “i can’t imagine a scenario lacking sub-text.”

      I would offer the scenario I mentioned above for starters: haven’t seen someone you care deeply about in a long time, you’re able either to speak with them via Skype (to take one of the options) or see them in person. Which do you choose? For me, it is the choice to see them in person. So, what’s the sub-text?

      And I should clarify that by “sub-text” I don’t mean “motives” such that the motive in this scenario is my love for that person. I mean it in the critical theory sense, wherein some unacknowledged psycho-analytic, economic, gendered, oppressively binary, etc. factor is the “real” cause that drives the action.

  5. I’m not sure whether we all agree here, Nathan. I think there are a number of different issues floating about.

    I guess I don’t quite see the drive behind a question about whether a mountain or a Facebook profile is more real. I didn’t see anyone else bring up this question. So I suppose it is an interesting question for you. If I were to try to analyze that question, I’d probably bring in things like stability over time, ability to see the thing from multiple angles or perspectives, some common understanding between multiple observers. Something along those lines, as I mentioned in a comment above. But I’d want a more concrete scenario in which one would be driven to ask the question in the first place.

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