Digital Dualism For Dummies: #1 Yo Dawg, I Herd U Like Theory…
This may come as a surprise to some, but it is not just metrosexuality that I spend my time thinking about. Recently I have been preoccupied by the ideas and theories currently being developed by Nathan Jurgenson and other writers at the brilliant cyborgology blog. One of the concepts put forward by Jurgenson and colleagues has particularly grabbed me. And I can’t explain the notion of digital dualism better than the original theorist so here is Nathan himself on the topic:
And some have a bias to see the digital and the physical as separate; what I am calling digital dualism. 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.
Recently, I have critiqued “cyborg anthropologist” Amber Case for her use of Turkle’s outdated term “second self” to describe our online presence. My critique was that conceptually splitting so-called “first” and “second” selves creates a “false binary” because “people are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction is becoming increasingly irrelevant.” [I'll offer my own take for what that digital presence should be called in a soon-to-come post.]
But the dualism keeps rolling in. There are the popular books that typically critique social media from the digital dualist perspective. Besides Turkle’s Alone Together, there is Carr’s The Shallows, Morozov’s The Net Delusion, Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, Siegel’s Against the Machine, Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and the list goes on (we can even include the implicit argument in the 2010 blockbuster movie The Social Network). All of these argue that the problem with social media is that people are trading the rich, physical and real nature of face-to face contact for the digital, virtual and trivial quality of Facebook. The critique stems from the systematic bias to see the digital and physical as separate; often as a zero-sum tradeoff where time and energy spent on one subtracts from the other. This is digital dualism par excellence. And it is a fallacy’.
Jurgenson has convinced me that one of the key ways in which people approach this digital age we live in, is to try and split it into two easy pieces, the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’. And in presenting this simplistic binary, they often then use it to make heavy handed value judgements, which tend to come down hard and negative against the ‘online’ side of their symbolic coin. One question that I don’t think has been answered yet, is why do people do this? And I don’t think I am going to try to answer it here. But I will leave that why? hanging, as I explore some other problems and loose ends I have come across when I wonder about this ‘digital dualist’ construct.
I shall start with this past week, and the events which gave me the impetus to write this. First, I read an interesting piece by one of the accomplished cyborgology authors, Jenny Davis. Her post was entitled ‘Pure Digitalism and Pure Integration: An Empirical Typology’. Now, there was something about the wording of that title that caused me to pause. It sounded a bit… well… positivist. This description of positivism sums up my reaction to Jenny’s title:
When most people in our society think about science, they think about some guy in a white lab coat working at a lab bench mixing up chemicals. They think of science as boring, cut-and-dry, and they think of the scientist as narrow-minded and esoteric (the ultimate nerd — think of the humorous but nonetheless mad scientist in the Back to the Future movies, for instance). A lot of our stereotypes about science come from a period where science was dominated by a particular philosophy – positivism – that tended to support some of these views. Here, I want to suggest (no matter what the movie industry may think) that science has moved on in its thinkin into an era of post-positivism where many of those stereotypes of the scientist no longer hold up.
Let’s begin by considering what positivism is. In its broadest sense, positivism is a rejection of metaphysics (I leave it you to look up that term if you’re not familiar with it). It is a position that holds that the goal of knowledge is simply to describe the phenomena that we experience. The purpose of science is simply to stick to what we can observe and measure. Knowledge of anything beyond that, a positivist would hold, is impossible. When I think of positivism (and the related philosophy of logical positivism) I think of the behaviorists in mid-20th Century psychology. These were the mythical ‘rat runners’ who believed that psychology could only study what could be directly observed and measured. Since we can’t directly observe emotions, thoughts, etc. (although we may be able to measure some of the physical and physiological accompaniments), these were not legitimate topics for a scientific psychology’.
The key phrase in Jenny’s essay that caused me to picture a positivist scientist in a white coat was ‘empirical reality‘ I was surprised to see it used, because up until now, I had thought the work going on at cyborgology HQ was a direct challenge to positivist ‘science’ and its clinging to the notion that there is a ‘real’ world out there which can be studied, observed, measured and known. A world that is somehow separate from the process of studying, observing, measuring and knowing. I thought that the cyborgology writers agreed with a blog comment by JeremyAntley ( @jsantley ) :
‘the digital is not the only dualist position that can exist’.
Exactly! As I tried, and probably failed to say in some twitter conversations following Jenny’s post, I was first drawn to the work of Jurgenson and co, and in particular the concept of ‘digital dualism’, because it seemed to imply a challenge to all forms of ‘dualism’, not just the digital type. I liked the notion of digital dualism because it echoed my previous adventures questioning dualisms such as, yes, the positivist binary of ‘reality’ v ‘theory/science’, but also the gender binary, the gay v straight binary, the atheism v religion binary, the dream v waking binary, the black v white binary, the me v you binary. And many others besides.
So now I see that cyborgology theory and the study of digital dualism isn’t necessarily a rejection of dualisms in the plural. And once I have got over that sense of sea-sickness that comes with a destabilising of what I thought I knew I am going to argue, from my ‘digital dualism dummy’ position, why I think the critique of digital dualism should be a critique of all forms of dualism. Bear with me.
If I had to identify with any ‘ism’, and go so far as to call myself an ‘ist’, which I am glad I don’t have to do, in addition to identifying as a silly-sounding ‘metrosexualist’, I think I’d also, reluctantly, call myself a post-structuralist.
The reason I am prepared to tie my flag to the post-structuralist mast, relates to epistemology. Simply expressed as ‘the philosophy of how we know what he know’ my engagement with epistemology has left me unable to agree with any other positions about those thorny subjects of ‘knowledge’, and ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ as much as I agree with post-structuralist positions. Post-structuralism rejects a distinction between theory and ‘empirical reality‘. It cuts through the Either/Or dichotomy, and, in the words of one of the late, great, post-structuralist thinkers, Derrida, it ends up proclaiming, albeit quietly, and with plenty of provisos, but proclaiming all the same:
Post-structuralist epistemology identifies and emphasises ‘the absence of a break between discourse and the objects of discourse. It implies that theory is not separate from reality nor is reality separate from theory’.
Sometimes critics of this perspective argue that it is ‘relativist’. That once we have taken the post-structuralist epistemology to heart, we may as well all pack up and go home. Because if there is ‘nothing outside the text’, our studies and investigations of ‘reality’ become nothing more than our individual subjective responses to words, language and representation. ‘Truth’ can be anything we want it to be! Well, as a fiction writer as well as some sort of social scientist, I might reply, ‘And?’ ‘So What?’ I could fill more than one lifetime with the study of and the production and consumption of words and language and representation. But, I know what these critics mean.
And I have a better answer to them than ‘so what?’ Because if you read post-structuralist writers, you will realise that Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Lacan and co did not abandon all belief in some sort of ‘reality’. It’s just they were very, very sceptical about making any claims about how exactly we can ‘know’ or understand, or analyse that reality. This is summed up by Derrida’s alternative to the phrase ‘there is nothing outside the text’. He said one might also say ‘there is nothing outside the context’. So rather than texts being empty vessels upon which we can impose any meaning we want, they (and ‘text’ is a loose term for various forms of representation) are actually full to bursting with all the ‘reality’ and ‘history’ and ‘truth’ that led to their existence, and that leads from their existence and ‘consumption’ or reading, or seeing.
A good example, in my view, of the value of poststructuralism for knowing something about ‘reality’, that also helps us shift our perception of what constitutes reality, I think, is the work of Judith Butler.
‘Doing Gender’ the phrase, is well known now. As is its assertion that it is in the performance of gendered acts, the wearing of gendered costumes, and the construction of gendered identities that we make ourselves into what we think of as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ or an ‘other’. But maybe it is less well known that Butler’s approach to gender is also a general, post-structuralist approach to the concept of ‘reality’ and the epistemological question ‘how do we know what we know?’ Reading Butler’s Gender Trouble is an experience I will never forget. Because it contributed to my ‘sea sickness’ about what I thought I knew in a profound way. Going back to Jenny Davis’ post (which I haven’t done justice to here as I’ve picked on one small part of it, and she says some good stuff), using Butler’s ideas, where is the ‘empirical reality’ when it comes to gender identities? Is it in our bodies? Our minds? Our clothes? Our novels? Our blogs? Our theories? I’d say it is in all those things, because there is nothing outside the context.
Another good example – our maybe just another of my favourites – of the value of post-structuralism to enhancing our understanding of how we make the ‘real’ real, is of course, the work of Roland Barthes. And again, reading Barthes has had a profound effect on me. On my sense of self, and on my sense of how I make sense of the world. The book by Barthes I read the most recently, A Lover’s Discourse, makes language into flesh, asserts over and over again, the vitality and ‘empirical reality’ of not only the text, but also of our feelings, desires, thoughts. Which in Barthes’ book become the text. Bring it to life:
“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure. ”
I said at the beginning of this post, that I don’t just think about metrosexuality. I am not sure if that is entirely true. Because I now realise, from feeling uncomfortable about the terms ‘empirical reality’ and ‘digital dualism’ being mentioned in the same breath, that metrosexuality is another example of a critique of ‘dualism’. Just as metrosexuality is continuously blurring the lines between femininity and masculinity, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘mediated’ and ‘real’ gender identities, so is the concept of ‘digital dualism’ and its implications blurring the lines between the ‘online’ and ‘offline’ world. And, in my way of seeing at least, it refers to a further blurring of the lines between what we think of as ‘reality’ and how we come to know it, using the imperfect and frustrating term, ‘theory’.
I am afraid I haven’t finished. But I will give the last word of this ‘fragment‘ of text to someone who was much better with words than me. Allen Ginsberg told us, quite a long time ago, before twitter, tumblr, facebook and ‘digital dualism’, that:
Reality is a question
of realizing how real
the world is already.