The power of social media to burrow dramatically into our everyday lives as well as the near ubiquity of new technologies such as mobile phones has forced us all to conceptualize the digital and the physical; the on- and off-line.
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.
In a 2009 post titled “Towards Theorizing An Augmented Reality,” I discussed geo-tagging (think Foursquare or Facebook Places), street view, face recognition, the Wii controller and the fact that sites like Facebook both impact and are impacted by the physical world to argue that “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.” This is opposed to the notion that the Internet is like the Matrix, where there is a “real” (Zion) that you leave when you enter the virtual space (the Matrix) -an outdated perspective as Facebook is increasingly real and our physical world increasingly digital.
I have used this perspective of augmentation to critque dualism when I see it. For instance, last year I posted a rebuttal to the digital-dualist critique of so-called “slacktivism” that claimed “real” activism is being traded for a cyber-based slacker activism. No, cyber-activism should be seen in context with physical world activism and how they interact. Taken alone, yes, much of the cyber-activism would not amount to much. But used in conjunction with offline efforts, it can be powerful. And, of course, my point is much, much easier to make with the subsequent uprisings in the Arab world that utilize both digital and physical organizing. This augmented dissent will be a topic for another post.
Recently, I have critiqued “cyborg anthropologist” Amber Case for her use of Turkle’s outdated term “second self” to describe our online presence.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.
I am proposing an alternative view that states that our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once. We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities, ala The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits. And our selves are not separated across these two spheres as some dualistic “first” and “second” self, but is instead an augmented self. A Haraway-like cyborg self comprised of a physical body as well as our digital Profile, acting in constant dialogue. Our Facebook profiles reflect who we know and what we do offline, and our offline lives are impacted by what happens on Facebook (e.g., how we might change our behaviors in order to create a more ideal documentation).
Most importantly, research demonstrates what social media users already know: we are not trading one reality for another at all, but, instead, using sites like Facebook and others actually increase offline interaction. This is not zero-sum dualism. As the famous Network Society theorist Manuel Castells stated earlier this month,
Nobody who is on social networks everyday (and this is true for some 700 million of the 1,200 million social network users) is still the same person. It’s an online/offline interaction, not an esoteric virtual world.
None of this is to say that social media and the web should not be critiqued. Indeed, it should be, and I hope to do that work myself. However, critiques of social media should begin with the idea of augmented reality. Is a reality augmented by digitality a good thing? My job with this post is not to answer that question, but to help make it possible.