This brief essay attempts to link two conceptualizations of the important relationship of the on and offline. I will connect (1) my argument that we should abandon the digital dualist assumption that the on and offline are separate in favor of the view that they enmesh into an augmented reality and (2) the problematic view that the Internet transcends social structures to produce something “objective” (or “flat” to use Thomas Friedman’s term).
Instead, recognizing that code has always been embedded in social structures allows persistent inequalities enacted in the name of computational objectivity to be identified (e.g., the hidden hierarchies of Wikipedia, the hidden profit-motive behind open-source, the hidden gendered standpoint of computer code, and so on). I will argue that the fallacy of web objectivity is driven fundamentally by digital dualism, providing further evidence that this dualism is at once conceptually false, and, most importantly, morally problematic. Simply, this specific form of digital dualism perpetuates structural inequalities by masking their very existence.
Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality
Perhaps the central theoretical insight that characterizes my work thus far is the concept of augmented reality. I develop the term here and provide a bit more detail here; simply, this perspective rejects the digital dualist position that the digital and physical are separate spheres and instead promotes the idea that atoms and bits enmesh to create our augmented reality.
Digital dualism is a fallacy, and it seems to be pervasive: from academics like Sherry Turkle operating with the assumption of a digital “second self” to mainstream conceptualizations like the The Social Network film arguing that Facebook users are trading “real life” connections for a something digital. While many more examples can be listed (and many have been on this blog by myself and others), what research as well as those who actually use social media tell us is that social media has everything to do with the physical world and our offline lives are increasingly influenced by social media, even when logged off. We need to shed the digital dualist bias because our Facebook pages are indeed “real life” and our offline existence is increasingly virtual. I have made these points many times on this blog so let me discuss the specific form of digital dualism that is perhaps the most dangerous.
Code is Social
The digital dualism versus augmented reality debate relates to another outmoded conceptualization that argues the Internet has the power to transcend and remove social locatedness. At its onset, the Internet seemed to promise the possible deconstruction of dominant and oppressive social categorizations such as gender, race, age and even species; as the cartoon goes, “online, no one knows you’re a dog”. We can trace this line of thought through the classic Hacker ethic that ‘all information should be free’ through the open-source movement behind Linux and in the philosophy of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.
Essential to these projects was the idea that the Internet can be created as a sphere separate from (perhaps even better than) the offline world. Digitality promised a Wild-West frontier built without replicating the problems of our offline reality, fixing the its oppressive realities such as skin color, physical ability, resource scarcity as well as time and space constraints. The new digital frontier was a space where information could flow freely, national boundaries could be overcome, expertism and authority could be upended; those old structures would be wiped away in the name of a utopian and revolutionary cyber-libertarian path blazed by our heroic cyber-punk and hacker digital cowboys (indeed, those were boy’s clubs).
This dream could only be maintained by holding the digital as conceptually distinct from the physical. Perhaps this is understandable given this new space was literally being invented. However, the novelty of the new digital reality betrayed the ultimate reality that none of this digitality really existed outside of long-standing social constructions, institutions and inequalities.
This digital dualist utopianism was in reality always deeply embedded in (or augmented by) offline social structures. For instance, Barry Wellman argued in 2001 that “computer networks are social,” which still serves as an important reminder that this point indeed needed to be made. Fred Turner [.pdf] has done an especially good job revealing the hidden profit motive behind the open-source movement. Others have shown how the supposedly revolutionary Wikipedia project has only shifted knowledge-creation from the hands of a few white men to now being produced by a few more white men (revolutionary this in not). Lawrence Lessig, Saskia Sassen and many others have demonstrated that computer code itself, that ultimate symbol of inhuman, logical neutrality, is embodied, social, historical, and reflects specific value judgments. Danah boyd has been especially persuasive in describing how coding decisions on social network sites are the result of specific biases on the part of website engineers, often to the detriment of those less powerful and more vulnerable. And, as Jessie Daniels discusses in the fourth chapter of her book Cyber Racism, sometimes even those interested in inequalities wrongly begin with digital dualist assumptions, for example, Daniels discusses people worrying about white supremacist websites using the Web to recruit people opposed to the sites being an outlet for those who import their racism to the Web.
We could list many, many more examples about how supposedly-objective systems are instead embedded in the messiness of offline social structures and inequalities. Others have gone over this territory in much more detail and make this case better than I. All I am attempting to do in this essay is situate the fallacy of web objectivity within the underlying digital dualist fallacy that the digital and physical are separate.
Digital Dualism as Morally Problematic
Much of my previous work on digital dualism has focused on the perspective being false, but linking it to those that claim the Internet transcends the social demonstrates the moral problem of maintaining this specific dualist perspective.
Masking the deeply embedded political motives that undergird computer code with claims of “objectivity” serve to make more invisible those very motives. Technology never removes humanity from itself, it never creates a space outside of fundamental social structures, and the notion that digitality was ever somehow a new space that transcends basic facts of social life is the height of digital dualism.
To conclude, what this analysis suggests is a traceable path from a conceptual fallacy that predates the Internet and became realized online with the dangerous result of disappearing the visibility of certain forms of social inequalities. It is not surprising that a bunch of (mostly) white males claimed to create a digital space somehow separate from their own socialization (i.e., the intersection of their specific race, gender, class, etc. standpoints). There is a long history of those from dominant groups thinking of themselves as the “neutral” or “natural’ human being. And it is precisely this fallacy that allowed the Internet to be conceptualized by some as a sphere outside of socialization, of the digital being somehow separate from the physical.
It is my hope that identifying this digital dualism and calling for an augmented perspective that always situates digitality and physicality as mutually constitutive can be one more small step towards shedding conceptualizations that mask social inequalities. Our augmented reality is one where the politics, structures and inequalities of the physical world are part of the very essence of the digital domain; a domain built by human beings with histories, standpoints, interests, morals and biases.
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