Giorgio Fontana (1981) is an Italian writer, freelance contributor and editor of Web Target (http://www.web-target.com/en/). His personal website is www.giorgiofontana.com. On Twitter: https://twitter.com/giorgiofontana.

In some very stimulating articles – mainly this one – Nathan Jurgenson has convincingly argued against what he calls digital dualism: that is, to think that “the digital world is virtual and the physical world real”:

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.

I’m with him: this is one of the most productive critiques I’ve read about the way we look at the digital, and I also consider this dualism untenable. But the more I focused on the issue, the more I heard an alarm bell ringing: what is exactly Jurgenson suggesting here? Is he speaking from an ontological point of view or a sociological one? What exactly does he mean by considering atoms and bits meshed together to “create reality”? Etc.

In a recent post, Whitney Erin Boesel did a kind of mind reading, summing up very nicely all my perplexities. That is, she asked everybody to stop a moment and reflect on a serious hole in the whole program:

while Team Augmented Reality does a great job of explaining the enmeshment of ‘online’ and ‘offline’, and what the difference between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ isn’t, we need to do a much better job of explaining clearly what the difference between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ actually is. While the precise nature of the difference may not need to be spelled out for those of us who already embrace an augmented reality framework, not spelling it out leaves too much room for misreadings and misinterpretations of our work. If we want to make a dent in pervasive digital dualism, we need to address this theoretical hole.

I very much agree: this is a crucial step. Luckily, I think the confusion is mainly terminological, and it just requires a closer examination of what is generally left as “understood” – but it’s not, as Boesel states. And my aim here will be exactly to make a first step in this direction.

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The main problem, as noticed, is that in this discussion we lack a settled definition of both digital and online. Let’s begin with the first. Again with Jurgenson, the counterpart of “digital” is not “real” (they’re not opposed, as reality includes what’s digital). So, it will probably be “analogue”. But what do we mean exactly with the digital/analogue dichotomy? In my opinion, the first step is to carefully distinguish the ontological stance from the phenomenological and sociological one.

We – human, epistemic agents – experience the world as analogue. We do not perceive an array of numbered colors, but an indefinite set of shades: in our Lebenswelt there’s no place for discrete units but for continuous things and actions. But that’s a phenomenological level: what reality is in itself is rather a different question.

According to Ed Fredkin’s digital philosophy, for instance, the ultimate nature of reality is actually made of bits (and John Wheeler once summed this vision up with a very nice claim: “It from bit”). Everything in the world derives or is made by bits – a binary choice between this or that, 0 or 1, black or white. However, Luciano Floridi (whose work on information I highly suggest to read, perhaps starting from this short introduction) argues that it’s impossible to decide whether reality is ultimately digital or analogue. In his opinion with which I agree this is nothing but a new edition of the old Kantian discrete/continuous antinomy of Reason: the answer just depends on the level of abstraction from which we look at it.

Thus we can leave aside the ontological issue, and concentrate more on the sociological one. I am going to propose two working definitions for the two hottest terms.

Online is the less problematic. It refers to any activity or entity that needs a connection to internet to exist. A tree can exist without the net; a tweet simply can’t.

Digital is a bit more complicated. From a technical point of view, “digital” describes a data-based system – that is, a system whose basic level is discrete (made by single units that one cannot divide anymore). According to the classical theory of information, this basic level is a difference between 0 and 1, with nothing in between: bits. (Or informational atoms, if you like). For digital ontologists, this is the basic core of reality. But from a sociological point of view, “digital” is generally considered as related to an activity, or a part of reality, which is directly connected to some digital device. I acknowledge that it’s a very loose and broad-brush definition, but it may work as a starting point for further refinements.

In general, it’s crucial to understand that “digital” – and “online” as well – are not opposed to “real” in an ontological sense, and not opposed either to “real” in an axiological sense – “digital/online relationships are less real” – that is, less authentic.

But now I want to focus on an aspect that perhaps has been a bit underestimated: surely the distinctions online/offline and digital/analogue are getting very blurry, and they will be even more in the future, as our technology carries on pervading the world at an astounding pace. But, in my opinion, it is very important to keep these distinctions – and, most of all, to make crystal-clear the way and the standpoint (sociological, ontological etc.) from which we’re studying them. Why?

Luciano Floridi

Kill Digital Dualism, But Don’t Erase Differences

Well, at least for a methodological purpose, we may risk, in being so concentrated in demolishing digital dualism, overestimating just how enmeshed the digital and analogue are, assuming uncritically that this dichotomy is already over.

But it’s not.

There are still things which are only analogue – a flower, a death, a book, a night with a friend are analogue by themselves. And there are things which are only offline: a person who’s never entered the web, or a text that has never been transmitted by the internet. Sure, these kinds of things can encounter the digital world – for example, they can easily be narrated or augmented: a video about the night with my friend, a blog post about that sad death, a status about the book I’m reading, etc.

And maybe in the future it will harder to distinguish analogue origin from digital augmentation; with time, we may gradually and happily dismiss the distinction. But this is not a good reason to think that all things are already digital. The very copy of Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge owned by my grandfather and published in 1940 is not digital. And my grandfather himself is not digital as well. (Sure, you can observe that the fact that I’m nominating them here makes them somehow digital or online, but that sounds very tricky in my opinion).

Jurgenson is well aware of this point (see his rejoinder to Alessandro Caliandro, for instance): so this is not a critique, rather an advice to keep this difference right in mind in order not to be slaves of a brand new prejudice. (According to Luciano Floridi again, “we are probably the last generation to experience a clear difference between offline and online”. I agree. But it will take a little more time, and while we’re waiting for a complete entwining of digital and analogue, we should always try to keep them separate).

Digital, from a looser point of view, may mean all the activities and parts of one’s own identity which are primarily based on some silicon resource: computers, tablets, internet, etc. Yes, it’s increasingly difficult to make a clear distinction between what’s digital and what’s not in our daily life (especially for the younger generations) but it’s still important to do so; if for no other reason than to clarify what dichotomy we’re rejecting.

Digital and analogue, online and offline, are only going to be more and more entwined. But let’s remember that a lot of people in the world don’t even own a computer or any other digital device. Many cannot access to the internet. A proper theory of the interaction between online/offline and digital/analogue shouldn’t be so Western-centric and naive, but instead work as well in some remote village of Nigeria (or Italy as well).

 

Augmented Reality?

Finally, a word about the term “augmented reality”. I think it can be a very good label if used to reject digital dualism, making clear that digital and physical can be enmeshed to create a different and more powerful narration. But I also suggest to go a bit further: reality is reality it’s just one, and maybe the adjective augmented can be considered just as a temporary placeholder. In fact, some misunderstanding can rise if we focus on the name+adjective construction of the term: it looks like there’s “the real reality” and then we somehow “augment” or “enhance” it with digital stuff. A digital dualist would definitely agree!

Actually, Jurgenson has already faced and responded to this kind of criticism, answering to Sang-Hyoun Pahk:

we will continue to describe how reality is differently augmented by digital social media than by other technologies. This does not create a dualism of reality versus augmented reality, but instead a view of reality as always a multiplicity of augmented realities coming in many flavors. The important task is not describing if, but instead how and why augmentation occurs the way it does.

Again, I agree with him. But I still think that the term “augmented reality” may convey a kind of semantic discomfort: in my opinion, with time, we will need a new vocabulary able to preserve the uniqueness of reality and the variety of its representations and augmentations. Or at least, to ease this discomfort we could make a little bit clearer the methodology we’re using to analyze reality – which is, as I think we all agree, one and “external” to us, but also depends on our conceptual schemes – and the most of all the kind of question we’re answering when we talk of “bits vs. atoms” or “augmentation”: ontological, phenomenological, or sociological. (Again, in my opinion we can profitably use Floridi’s method of levels of abstraction here).

 

Open Problems

To sum up: while the distinction between “digital” and “real” is wrong – and Jurgenson has excellent arguments against it – I think that the dichotomy between “digital” and “analogue”, as well as the one between “online” and  “offline”, is tenable, granted that we take it as an epistemological one. ”Real” can mean “belonging to reality” (ontology) but also “authentic” (a real friend – sociology, folk psychology, etc.). Jurgenson is right when he says that digital is not opposed to real in both senses: a conversation on Facebook or on Skype is not less real neither less authentic than a face-to-face one. It’s just different; really different: while rejecting the naive idea of it being inauthentic or unreal, we should also consider carefully what changes between these two ways of interacting.

The exciting thing is that this implies a wide range of open problems: philosophical (what is the epistemic status of search engines? how would be a web-extended mind?), psychological (are we sure that being hyper-connected does not affect our attention or creates a culture of distraction?), sociological (what kind of aggregation are social networks?), cultural (the new Kindle serialized fiction is “part Dickens, part TV”: what’s at stake?), political (I myself argued against the ideal of a “digital democracy” starting from the idea that blog comments are an imperfect design to fuel a good conversation). Etc.

It’s a great time to be a thinker.