More digital dualism: we should stop talking about metaphysics and start talking about people

Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) has a post up at Cyborology continuing the “digital dualism” discussion, which is partially a response to my post from earlier this month. I started to post a comment in response but that got long fast, so I’m posting my response here. Boesel’s new post is great, and it addresses what I think are the core issues. (It’s also worth noting that it was originally Boesel whose writing on digital dualism got me started thinking about my disagreements with the anti-digital dualism position in the first place, and my earlier post would have been more appropriately framed as a response to her than the Nathan Jurgenson.)

Also Boesel says this is only the first of two or three posts on the subject, and clearly she will elaborate in later posts. But I think what’s here is already clarifying and helpful, so I’ll post this now and look forward to her additional thoughts as they come. (This post is going up obnoxiously quickly, as though I’ve been sitting around waiting to pounce. Ugh. In fact it is spring break at Columbia and I’m procrastinating working on a conference paper about Justin Bieber for PCA/ACA next week, so as I avoided editing clips out of Never Say Never, what should have been a short comment on Boesel’s post easily ballooned into this horrible thing, which I must now put online so that I have something to show for this morning.)

Boesel points to three binaries in circulation (atoms/bits, digital/physical, and online/offline) and argues that online/offline is the category to get rid of, while digital/physical and atoms/bits are problematic but useful:

augmented reality, as a theory, rejects all three of these dualisms: that it recognizes Online/Offline as a spurious distinction (and throws out both categories), and that it recognizes differences between atoms and bits (or between the physical and the digital) without conceptualizing either pair as a dualism or an oppositional binary.

Ironically, perhaps, I tend to think offline/online is actually the most useful of the proposed binaries, and it’s the others that are spurious and unhelpful (at least with regard to sociological questions). Categories like atoms/bits and digital/physical seem to me to have the most potential for slipping into ontological fundamentalism, whereas online/offline doesn’t explicitly refer to deep metaphysical questions and may usefully describe actual people’s lived experiences. That is, offline/online seems like an analytically fuzzy but pragmatically useful category (that actual people use to understand their own practices), and the specific problem with online/offline is when it gets mapped onto the ontological binaries like atoms/bits and digital/physical. That move has the tendency to reify and reduce human activity to stable prior ontologies. (Like reducing gender to prior biological sex, as though that weren’t itself always already ideological.) This is what Carr is doing with “wilderness” and Turkle does with her concern trolling about mothers. But if that’s the case it seems like the thing to do is to avoid the naturalized categories of that slippage.

By contrast with offline/online, which can sometimes slip into atoms/bits but can also just be sui generis, the atoms/bits and digital/physical binaries seem like they’re always on the cusp of naturalizing themselves. Boesel makes the same point:

importantly, this dualism [online/offline] has the lowest chance of slipping unexpectedly into an ontological conundrum: “online” and “offline” are entirely conceptual, and don’t attempt to map onto anything in objective reality (the way that, say, the human concept of “nature” tries to map onto rocks and trees and other things that exist without people).

Isn’t this a virtue of online/offline rather than a bug? Since online/offline directly focuses on humans and things they do rather than metaphysics, the question of their spuriousness is an empirical/sociological one: do people organize their lives along these lines? If so, then those categories are not spurious but interesting. On the other hand, atoms/bits and digital/physical don’t refer to people at all, so they’re either only relevant to some very esoteric metaphysical questions about substances (and therefore irrelevant to sociological questions) or to the extent that they are applied to sociological questions they always run the risk of slipping into explaining/reducing human practices to prior metaphysical categories. And that’s just the thing I think we should avoid.

So for instance we can do a sociology of gender that acknowledges the importance of gender categories to lived human experience without ever talking about biological sex except to the extent that people themselves talk about biological sex in their gender performances. We might similarly do a sociology of technology that is interested in the social/discursive categories that structure people’s lived experience without every having to concern ourselves with true nature of the underlying substances. (It’s worth noting that atoms/bits and digital/physical really implicate much more fundamental metaphysical concepts than even biological sex does — we’re not just referring to some prior constraint particular to human organisms but rather to the basic physical structures of the universe itself! I honestly can’t understand why we need to make such reference to do good sociology of technology.)

So maybe it still feels to me like the concession that there are atoms/bits but they are intermeshed and bear no relationship to online/offline (i.e., the human practices) looks a lot like a gender theory that distinguishes gender from sex, conceding that biological sex is real but arguing that gender is always socially constructed. The traditional coming out of Butler shows how that concession itself basically gives away the game. Also to say gender is socially constructed may be different than to say it’s “spurious.” It is spurious in the sense that the grounds it claims for itself don’t hold up, but it is clearly not spurious in the sense that it is pragmatically powerful in structuring human experience.

So then to the extent that atoms/bits are the ground that online/offline claims to justify itself, pointing to the actual enmeshment of atoms/bits in all areas of lived human experience is a useful critique. (I.e., “look, online/offline doesn’t map onto the metaphysical categories you think it does” is equivalent to “look, gender performances don’t map onto bodies the way you think they do.”) But if it requires continually reasserting the reality of the atoms/bits distinction, then I still think it comes close to giving away the game. I.e., what is gained by constantly asserting that we “recognize the difference between atoms and bits”? I’m pushing this analogy way to far, but getting rid of online/offline while keeping digital/physical seems like responding to the sex/gender distinction by throwing out gender but keeping biological sex. Which sucks. Instead, can’t we just ignore the question of the underlying physical reality altogether and get on with the work of studying how people use technology?

Part of this is that I clearly have a very different intuition about the connotations of all these categories than Boesel does. She writes:

Granted, that Atoms/Bits and Physical/Digital are (ontologically) false dualisms doesn’t mean that digital dualists—and other people who are wrong—don’t invoke them as dualisms anyway (e.g., as if “the physical” and “the digital” would somehow have beef with each other if suddenly all the people disappeared and there was no one left to imagine it that way), but the important point here is: these two are slippery dualisms. [. . .] it’s important that we call attention to when these pairs are being invoked as oppositional binaries without ourselves reinforcing the idea that there’s anything zero-sum about them. There are lots of things which are not physical, for example, but also not digital; “digital” and “not physical” should not be used interchangeably.

The Online/Offline dualism, however, is a bit different. For starters, it’s a genuine oppositional binary: though proponents of augmented reality argue otherwise, in its original (or typical) framing, “online” and “offline” are mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed. Notably, where both the Atoms/Bits and Physical/Digital dualisms take two preexisting concepts and pair them in a newer oppositional relationship, the “online” and “offline” concepts were from their first use co-produced as a zero-sum pair.

Perhaps it’s precisely the fact that both terms of online/offline are new and obviously constructed by humans to describe humans that makes it seem much less of a problem to me. Right, digital/physical and atoms/bits are putting one new thing in binary relation to one preexisting—but also ahistorical, fundamental, natural, metaphysically prior—thing. Isn’t that necessarily to inflect “bits” and “digital” with huge implications for questions about eternal, fundamental, natural, metaphysical issues? Online/offline is just some complicated, messy stuff that people do; atoms and physicality are all the things ever. So Boesel’s recommendations (“it’s important that we call attention […] without ourselves reinforcing the idea that there’s anything zero-sum about them”; “’digital’ and ‘not physical’ should not be used interchangeably”) seem to me to be actually much harder to follow than their framing imply. Whereas pointing out how people actually engage with (perform) online/offline in their lived experience seems relatively straightforward, since we never have to account for the fundamental material construction of the universe. And then whether online/offline is zero-sum is an empirical question about how people actually live those categories, rather than something that is analytically implied by the categories themselves. By contrast, while “digital” and “not-physical” may not be the same, opposing digital to physical does seem to imply that all the matter in the world is not digital.

One of the virtues of online/offline is that it’s only as important as it ends up being. That is, it’s very possible that research will show (has shown, I think pretty clearly) that online/offline really aren’t all that important to people’s lived experiences. In my previous post I listed a bunch of other possible categories for conceptualizing people’s activities, among them intimate/instrumental, public/private, work/leisure. I expect that these in particular are much more important to people’s actual uses of technology than online/offline is. And that’s what’s great about online/offline: we can reject it if we want to. But if we’ve already opposed the digital to all the matter in the universe, then I feel like we’re kind of stuck working at that scale, and all human uses of technology must constantly be evaluated in light of fundamental metaphysical questions. Boesel frames her post with the question “Is there a reality outside of human experiences?” I agree that this is the question that’s been raised, but I think the fact that this is the question is itself the problem. Other questions are possible!

The problem with digital dualists isn’t that their metaphysics are bad. That concedes way too much. Their problem is a poor moral and sociological imagination, which is not resolvable by making increasingly precise statements about the nature of reality. If in responding to digital dualist ideologues who are concern trolling the world by telling all of us that our ubiquitous and mundane uses of technology somehow represent our profound failure as human beings—if in response to these moralizing creeps we’re forced to reaffirm that “human experiences are real, but they are not themselves the whole of reality,” then it seems to me like the sociology of technology is fated to become just one more horrible version of the realism/correlationism debate. But let’s please not be OOO.

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