Waiting for Socrates … So We Can Kill Him Again and Post the Video on Youtube

It will come as no surprise, I’m sure, if I tell you that the wells of online discourse are poisoned. It will come as no surprise because critics have complained about the tone of online discourse for as long as people have interacted with one another online. In fact, we more or less take the toxic, volatile nature of online discourse for granted. “Don’t read the comments” is about as routine a piece of advice as “look both ways before crossing the street.” And, of course, it is also true that complaints about the coarsening of public discourse in general have been around for a lot longer than the Internet and digital media.

That said, I’ve been intrigued, heartened actually, by a recent round of posts bemoaning the state of online rhetoric from some of the most thoughtful people whose work I follow. Here is Freddie deBoer lamenting the rhetoric of the left, and here is Matthew Anderson noting much of the same on the right. Here is Alan Jacobs on why he’s stepping away from Twitter. Follow any of those links and you’ll find another series of links to thoughtful, articulate writers all telling us, more or less, that they’ve had enough. This piece urges civility and it suggests, hopefully (naively?), that the “Internet” will learn soon enough to police itself, but the evidence it cites along the way seems rather to undermine such hopefulness. I won’t bother to point you to some of the worst of what I’ve regrettably encountered online in recent weeks.

Why is this the case? Why, as David Sessions recently put it, is the state of the Internet awful?

Like everyone else, I have scattered thoughts about this. For one thing, the nature of the medium seems to encourage rancor, incivility, misunderstanding, and worse. Anonymity has something to do with this, and so does the abstraction of the body from the context of communication.

Along the same media-ecological lines, Walter Ong noted that oral discourse tends to be agonistic and literate discourse tends to be irenic. Online discourse tends to be conducted in writing, which might seem to challenge Ong’s characterization. But just as television and radio constituted what Ong called secondary orality, so might we say that social media is a form of secondary literacy, blurring the distinctions between orality and literacy. It is text based, but, like oral discourse, it brings people into a context of relative communicative immediacy. That is to say that through social media people are responding to one another in public and in short order, more as they would in a face-to-face encounter, for example, than in private letters exchanged over the course of months.

In theory, writing affords us the temporal space to be more thoughtful and precise in expressing our ideas, but, in practice, the expectations of immediacy in digital contexts collapse that space. So we lose the strengths of each medium: we get none of the meaning-making cues of face-to-face communication nor any of the time for reflection that written communication ordinarily grants. The media context, then, ends up being rife with misunderstanding and agonistic; it encourages performative pugilism.

Also, as the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out some time ago, we no longer operate with a set of broadly shared assumptions about what is good and what shape a good life should take. Our ethical reasoning tends not to be built on the same foundation. Because we are reasoning from incompatible moral premises, the conclusions reached by two opposing parties tend to be interpreted as sheer stupidity or moral obtuseness. In other words, because our arguments, proceeding as they do from such disparate moral frameworks, fail to convince and persuade, we begin to assume that those who will not yield to our moral vision must thus be fools or worse. Moreover, we conclude, fools and miscreants cannot be argued with; they can only be shamed, shouted down, or otherwise silenced.

Digital dualism is also to blame. Some people seem to operate under the assumption that they are not really racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, etc.–they just play one on Twitter. It really is much too late in the game to play that tired card.

Perhaps, too, we’ve conflated truth and identity in such a way that we cannot conceive of a challenge to our views as anything other than a challenge to our humanity. Conversely, it seems that in some highly-charged contexts being wrong can cost you the basic respect one might be owed as a fellow human being.

Finally, the Internet is awful because, frankly, people are awful. We all are; at least we all can be under the right circumstances. As Solzhenitsyn put it, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

To that list, I want to offer just one more consideration: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and there are few things the Internet does better than giving everyone a little knowledge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing because it is just enough to give us the illusion of mastery and a sense of authority. This illusion, encouraged by the myth of having all the world’s information at our finger tips, has encouraged us to believe that by skimming an article here or reading the summary of a book there we thus become experts who may now liberally pontificate about the most complex and divisive issues with unbounded moral and intellectual authority. This is the worst kind of insufferable foolishness, that which mistakes itself for wisdom without a hint of irony.

Real knowledge on the other hand is constantly aware of all that it does not know. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know, and the more hesitant you’ll be to speak as if you’ve got everything figured out. Getting past that threshold of “a little knowledge” tends to breed humility and create the conditions that make genuine dialogue possible. But that threshold will never be crossed if all we ever do is skim the surface of reality, and this seems to be the mode of engagement encouraged by the information ecosystem sustained by digital media.

We’re in need of another Socrates who will teach us once again that the way of wisdom starts with a deep awareness of our own ignorance. Of course, we’d kill him too, after a good skewering on Twitter, and probably without the dignity of hemlock. A posthumous skewering would follow, naturally, after the video of his death got passed around on Reddit and Youtube.

I don’t want to leave things on that cheery note, but the fact is that I don’t have a grand scheme for making online discourse civil, informed, and thoughtful. I’m pretty sure, though, that things will not simply work themselves out for the better without deliberate and sustained effort. Consider how W.H. Auden framed the difference between traditional cultures and modernity:

“The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.”

For better or worse, or more likely both, this is where we find ourselves–either we deploy deliberate effort of will and intelligence or face perpetual decay. Who knows, maybe the best we can do is to form and maintain enclaves of civility and thoughtfulness amid the rancor, communities of discourse where meaningful conversation can be cultivated. These would probably remain small communities, but their success would be no small thing.


Update: After publishing, I read Nick Carr’s post on the revival of blogs and the decline of Big Internet. “So, yeah, I’m down with this retro movement,” Carr writes, “Bring back personal blogs. Bring back RSS. Bring back the fun. Screw Big Internet.” I thought that was good news in light of my closing paragraph.

And, just in case you need more by way of diagnosis, there’s this: “A Second Look At The Giant Garbage Pile That Is Online Media, 2014.”

Being-With Technology

Carl Mitcham’s “Three Ways of Being-With Technology” opens with the following claim: “In any serious discussion of issues associated with technology and humanity there readily arises a general question about the primary member in this relationship.” A bit further on, he adds:

“This is, of course, a chicken-and-egg question, one not subject to any straightforward or unqualified answer. But it is not therefore insignificant, nor is it enough to propose as some kind of synthesis that there is simply a mutual relationship between the two, that humanity and technology are always found together. Mutual relationship is not some one thing; mutual relationships take many different forms. There are, for instance, mutualities of parent and child, of husband and wife, of citizens, and so forth. Humanity and technology can be found together in more than one way. Rather than argue the primacy of one or the other factor or the cliché of mutuality in the humanity-technology relationship, I propose to outline three forms the relationship itself can take, three ways of being-with technology.”

The first thing that came to mind when I read this paragraph was the digital dualism debate. One could, for instance, substitute the human-technology pair above with the online-offline pair and retain the sense of the paragraph. Once mutuality is established, the next, more interesting move is to explore the different forms this mutual relationship takes.

As far as the human-technology relationship is concerned, the three ways of being-with technology that Mitcham outlines are ancient skepticism, Renaissance/Enlightenment optimism, and Romantic uneasiness. I suspect you might already have a pretty good idea of how Mitcham fills out those categories. (The chart below gives a decent summary.) Perhaps this being-with model could also serve to illuminate the online-offline relationship. Might it be useful, in similar fashion, to outline the forms the online-offline relationship takes?

One other thought: It seems to me that what I’ve been describing as a “Borg Complex” could be understood as a being-with relationship of the sort that Mitcham describes. The “resistance is futile,” adapt or die rhetoric is what led me to identify this rhetoric as a Borg Complex, but the symptoms I’ve compiled also suggest something more expansive than this techno-fatalist attitude. They encompass an entire posture toward the human-technology relationship — one that has certain affinities with Mitcham’s Renaissance/Enlightenment optimism, but departs from it as well.

So, looking at this chart, I’m wondering if it might not be updated with a category that accounts for the Borg Complex and then also one that accounts for what Leo Marx has called postmodern pessimism.

I’ll leave these considerations with you this afternoon. More thoughts along these lines may be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future.


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.

Varieties of Online Experience

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.