I’ve been thinking on and off since mid-summer about a hole I’ve identified in our collective theorizing of augmented reality. To illustrate it, imagine the following conversation:

Digital Dualist: ‘Online’ and ‘offline’ are two distinct, separate worlds!
Me: That’s not true. ‘Online’ and ‘offline’ are part of the same augmented reality.
Digital Dualist: Are you saying that ‘online’ and ‘offline’ are the same thing?
Me: No, of course not. Atoms and bits have different properties, but both are still part of the same world.
Digital Dualist: So ‘online’ and ‘offline’ are different, but not different worlds?
Me: Correct.
Digital Dualist: But if they’re not different worlds, then what kind of different thing are they?

I don’t know about you, but this is where I get stuck.

My thinking along these lines was first sparked by a tweet in which Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) reported that Rian van der Merwe (@RianVDM) had misread his IRL Fetish piece, and come away with the idea that Jurgenson “think[s] on/offline are the same.” That wasn’t my reading of the IRL Fetish essay, but I realized it wasn’t hard to see where van der Merwe might have gotten that impression if he wasn’t already coming from an augmented reality perspective.

I’ve since gone back through a lot of writing on digital dualism and augmented reality (both on Cyborgology and elsewhere), and come to the conclusion that 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.

Below, I review some of what’s been written about digital dualism and augmented reality, as well as what’s been written about the differences between ‘online’ and ‘offline’; I then pose some of my lingering questions. It’s my hope that this post will start a conversation that will strengthen all of our work within the ‘augmented reality’ framework by helping to clarify our terminology.

A beginning.

Jurgenson first coined this usage of the term “augmented reality” in 2009, but most of us at Cyborgology tend to reference this 2011 post in which Jurgenson states,

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, a la The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits.

Pj Rey (@pjrey) offers a more intensely theoretical explanation of augmented reality, in which he states,

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. …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.

Alternatively, as Jenny Davis (@Jup83) put it most recently,

Reality is augmented—characterized by the entwinement of human and technologies rather than their categorical separation.  Digital and physical, online and offline are false dichotomies that the bloggers here at Cyborgology actively work to blur.

As Davis correctly points out, Cyborgologists (and others!) have indeed worked hard to blur those false dichotomies. I think it’s safe to say we’ve produced some great work illustrating the co-constitutive enmeshment of the physical and the digital, especially in tracing flows of impacts and information back and forth across the supposed border between ‘online’ and ‘offline’, or between ‘the physical’ and ‘the digital’. A small sampling of my favorite pieces that touch on these points include Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc) on friendship and interaction and on activists’ use of social media, Sarah Wanenchak (@dynamicsymmetry) on augmented libraries and on  narrative structure, David Banks (@DA_Banks) on why rejecting digital dualism is important, Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart) on Klout, Rey on the myth of cyberspace, Davis on reality curation and on CITASA, and Jurgenson on both faux-vintage photography and the fallacy of web objectivity.

The digital and the physical are thoroughly and inextricably enmeshed.

But now that we’ve made the case for the inseparability of ‘online’ and ‘offline,’ how do we describe the ways in which the two remain different, if not entirely distinct from each other? If the two aren’t different realities, and aren’t different worlds, what sort of different things are they?

Discussion of the ‘difference’ within augmented reality has most often focused not on differences between online and offline, but on differences between “the digital” and “the physical” (which I see as a closely related set of differences, but not the same set of differences). These differences are most often boiled down to the differences between ‘atoms’ and ‘bits,’ which in Jurgenson’s words “have different properties, influence each other, and together create reality.” He has also recently clarified that,

[T]he digital and physical are not the same, but we should aim to better understand the relationship of different combinations of information, be they analog or digital, whether using the technologies of stones, transistors, or flesh and blood. Also, technically, bits are atoms, but the language can still be conceptually useful.

Tufekci elaborates on this point by arguing that,

Bits are easy to copy while preserving their full organization, atoms are not (in other words, in the online world we have whatever Scotty in Star Trek used to beam people up by deconstituting them molecule by molecule and reassembling them someplace else. (Oops, if you are in an industry where your product is in bit form). Bits travel much easier than atoms, making bits much harder to censor and isolate (I’m looking at you, Mubarak). The architecture in the online world depends on the underlying code while the architecture of the offline world depends on laws of physics. Hence, online, we don’t have the same balance of privacy and visibility that come from the physical properties of space and time: that offline speech disappears after it is uttered; that, offline, we can usually see who is looking at us; offline walls, doors, locks and windows operate in a predictable manner. (That is why Facebook can be so jarring at times: it often ignores deeply ingrained cultural conventions based on laws of physics. It puts all your friends in the same room, by default–and its new timeline defies rules of flow of time as we knew it).

…There is certainly a difference between emailing someone and, say, sitting in a cafe by the Bosphorus; however, I am not able to categorize it merely as one is good/the other is bad. Each form has strengths and weaknesses depending on the topic, person, location, moment… Some things are better discussed over email. But sometimes you need to be able to hold out a hand.

Jurgenson too emphasizes that,

[T]he term augmented reality does not need to imply that the differences between atoms and bits does not matter. Quite the opposite because we cannot begin to describe these differences until we start with the assumption of augmented reality. We cannot adequately discuss one without taking into account the other’s at least partial influence. Simply put, the assumption of augmented reality makes possible the very discussion about the relevant differences between atoms and bits that Sang (and myself) wants to have. [emphasis mine]

Perhaps this, then, is the problem. As we’ve worked to establish augmented reality as a theoretical paradigm, we’ve argued: 1) that the physical and the digital are different because atoms and bits are different; 2) that the atoms/bits difference is important; 3) that the atoms/bits difference is not one of good vs. bad. We’ve stopped short, however, of theorizing these admittedly important differences, and instead cited the undertheorized differences between atoms and bits as evidence for why the augmented reality perspective is necessary. This is a valid point; we do need to understand augmented reality in order to understand the relationships between atoms and bits, between ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical,’ between ‘online’ and ‘offline’. What remains now is for those of us who have adopted the augmented reality framework to start “the very discussion” about what those differences are.

We still have work to do…but that’s why we do this, right?

If we start by more extensively theorizing the differences between atoms and bits, what will that tell us about the differences between ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’? Will that shed light on the differences between ‘online’ and ‘offline’? What kinds of differences are these? And while we’re at it, what kinds of things are these (for lack of a better term)?

In my (probably incomplete) survey of writing on augmented reality and digital dualism, the word most frequently used to describe ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’ is spheres. These spheres are “very different,” but absolutely “not separate [.pdf],” and thoroughly “enmeshed”—but if we’re going to be concrete about it, what exactly is a ‘sphere’? What’s that supposed to mean, and how do you explain it to the hypothetical Digital Dualist in my opening dialogue? [Full disclosure: I use ‘sphere’ terminology all over my own work, and—though I have a footnote definition I use in papers—I often use ‘sphere’ terms without explanation when I talk about my work; I’m as guilty of this as anyone.] ‘Sphere’ may mean something self-evident to a bunch of theorists, but it isn’t going to make much headway in countering popular digital-dualist conceptions of the world.

“Space” and “environment” have also been used (the former perhaps more metaphorically than the latter), but spatial metaphors can be a slippery slope; how clear are the lines between ‘a space’, ‘a place’, and ‘a world’? Relatedly, Malcolm Harris (@BigMeanInternet) recently described Twitter as “a territory… a global city” that he named Twitterland; Jurgenson countered that Twitter is not a new city, but rather a part of the same cities that we’ve had since before we had Twitter. “The power of new technologies Harris is describing are precisely born of the fact that they are not, as the title of the story suggests, of a ‘Twitterland,’” Jurgenson argues; rather, “[t]he power-grabs in play are those of one reality, one of physical space, material inequalities, bodies that hurt, people with histories, pains, pleasures, re-networked together.” While this poetic description illustrates why Twitter (and by extension, ‘the digital’ or ‘the online’) isn’t a new or separate place, again we have to ask the question: when we consider these great unwieldy assemblages of people and power and politics, of technology and information and affect, of everything else that makes up an augmented world, what is it that we’re looking at?

If ‘digital’ isn’t a place or a world or a reality, can it be a practice? A mode of engagement? A way of being, or an orientation? Can ‘physical’ be each or any of these things? What are the stakes and implications for each possibility? What does it mean if we agree ‘digital’ can fall into a category that ‘physical’ cannot, or vice versa? And critically, why are we limiting ourselves with dualist framings by implicitly accepting that whatever the applicable categories are, there are only two designations: “digital” and “physical”? What happens if we push past binary logic in our critiques of digital dualism?

It also seems clear that ‘digital’ is the marked category, and that whatever kind of thing it is, ‘not digital’ is such only by implication or association; ‘online’ is the Other without which the Subject (the dualists’ supposed ‘offline world’) cannot define itself. This highlights an additional problem (one among many, really), which is the way the term ‘physical’ implicitly becomes a catchall for all the things and kinds of things that are not already marked as ‘digital’. Some things are neither digital nor physical; thoughts, sensations, power dynamics, *-isms (to name just a few) may have both physical and digital manifestations, but don’t fit neatly into either designation. If our goal is to understand our (augmented) world, we do ourselves a disservice by lumping all of its non-digital aspects under ‘physical’. As we work to better theorize the differences between atoms and bits, can we consider as well the differences between those things that are neither? Or those things that might be both?

Let’s think even further outside the box.

As I’ve said, these are just some preliminary thoughts—but I hope to stir up more conversation on these topics, and to push more of us into taking on the task of theorizing categorical difference within the augmented reality framework.


Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) will theorize with you on Twitter if you *ping* in her direction.


Hole in web photo from http://www.rogue-penguin.com/wp/2010/05/if-spider-and-web-andrew-plotkin/
Spider beginning web photo from http://www.pbase.com/image/82091047
Enmeshed webs photo from http://www.fragmentsfromfloyd.com/fragments/2004/04/
Working spider photo from http://blog.seattlepi.com/kitsapandbeyond/2007/08/
Heart-shaped web photo Dominique Piccinato from http://parisapartment.wordpress.com/page/7/