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
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.