by Space Invaders

Last week, fellow editor Nathan Jurgenson made a post entitled “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality” with a call for more concept work surrounding this topic.  I hope to make a contribution to that effort by discussion three competing theoretical paradigms of Internet research.  These three distinct perspectives perceive the Internet as either virtual reality, mediated reality, or augmented reality.  I argue (in the spirit of Saussure) that these three perspectives are only fully comprehensible defined in relation to one another.

Let’s start with the definition of “augmented reality” found in Wikipedia, society’s great font of prosumptive wisdom:

Augmented reality (AR) is a term for a live direct or a [sic… I fixed it] indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound or graphics. It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified (possibly even diminished rather than augmented) by a computer. As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. By contrast, virtual reality replaces the real-world with a simulated one.

This is an unsatisfying definition.  While it does contrast augment reality and mediated reality to virtual reality (mediated and augmented reality describe relationships between the online and offline worlds, while virtual reality describes their separation), it (self-admittedly) fails to distinguish between mediated and augmented reality.  As presented in this definition, mediated and augmented reality are basically synonyms.

The failure to distinguish augmented and mediated reality betrays a widely held assumption that causality between the online and offline worlds is uni-directional; that is, it only considers how the material is altered by the digital.  However, augmented reality is bigger than just holding a smartphone screen in front of your face to see information superimposed on the landscape in front of you.  Using this kind of program as the paradigmatic example of augmented reality obscures the recursivity between the online and offline world.  Almost every aspect of online networks and their content are determined by the same social structures (e.g., race, class, gender, etc.)  that have long determined offline networks and their content.  Augmented reality does not just alter our social and material reality, it also reproduces and reifies it. (Bonnie Stewart, recently, made some comments to this effect).

What distinguishes a mediated-reality perspective from an augmented-reality perspective is, precisely, that it fails to capture the recursivity of  the online and offline.  In fact, it generally examines the way in which the online alters the offline at the expense of recognizing the ways in which the offline has always been reproduced through the online.  For this reason, the mediated-reality perspective distorts the social world.  It tends to reinforce digital dualism even as it attacks it, by assuming that that online networks and their content emerged ex nihlio.  Thus, I generally view “mediated reality” as a pejorative descriptor.  Nevertheless, mediate reality was the predominant ideology informing Internet research in the 2000s.

If mediated-reality is problematic, virtual reality is more problematic.  Not only does virtual reality assume that the origins of the online world are independent of the offline world, it also assume that the online world has no bearing on the offline world – the online is assumed to be completely isolated from and to actually “displace” the offline world.  The concept of virtual reality is digital dualism par excellance.  Early (1990s) Internet literature is widely characterized by the virtual reality perspective of the Internet.  For this reason, it was filled with skepticism and concern that our healthy social interaction was giving way to unhealthy simulated social interaction.  Despite the fact that a number of studies (e.g., Wellman, 2001) that demonstrate the coextensive nature of online and offline social interaction, many theorists discussing social media tend to continue reify this supposed dichotomy.

In the tradition of much post-Modern theorizing, “augmented reality” offers a new conceptual paradigm, seeking to implode/queer/do category work on the real/virtual dichotomy and make room for a more flexible understanding of social media that allows for recursivity between these two concepts.  A person embedded in augmented reality is a cyborg in the Harawaysian sense.  For this reason, the editors of this blog have proposed – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that our research is best understood as “cyborgology.”  In augmented reality, the culture is hyper-literally super-imposed on the material.  Our bodies and all other objects in the world become canvases for the digital and its rapid circulation of signs and symbols.  In Bauman’s term, everything becomes a conduit of Liquid (post-)Modernity.  However, the symbolic order expressed through the digital does not emerge out of nothing; it is a reproduction or extension of what has always existed.  The digital and material are always in circulation and neither can be abstracted from the new order of social relations.  That is to say, society is neither online or offline; it is augmented.  Thus, augmented reality and the cyborgs who populate it are now the proper objects of sociological inquiry.