Back in October, Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) created a typology of digital dualism, which I followed by mapping this typology onto material conditions that vary in terms of physical-digital enmeshment. Today, I want to apply this typology and its material-mapping to discourses and conditions of embodiment in light of technological advancements. If you have been following the blog and are up-to-date with this line of discussion, feel free to scroll down past the review.
Jurgenson’s Typology of Digital Dualism
Strong Digital Dualism: The digital and the physical are different realities, have different properties, and do not interact.
Mild Digital Dualism: The digital and physical are different realities, have different properties, and do interact.
Mild Augmented Reality: The digital and physical are part of one reality, have different
properties, and interact.
Strong Augmented Reality: The digital and physical are part of one reality and have the same properties.
Jurgenson’s typology preferences Mild Augmented Reality, and problematizes the remaining categories.
Mapping the Dualism Typology Onto Materiality
I mapped Jurgenson’s critique onto material conditions, arguing that theoretical movement between typological categories can be largely explained by material variations in the degree of integration between physical and digital. This mapping is pictured below:
Pure Digital Dualism: This is an Ideal Type in which digital and physical are fully separate, share no properties, and do not interact
Mild Augmentated Reality: Highly digital or highly physical, with small amounts of digtal/physical interaction
Augmented Reality: Physical and digital are explicitly intertwined and mutually constitutive, but maintain unique properties
Strong Augmented Reality: Physical and digital, though maintaining separate properties, are deeply intertwined, mutually constitutive, and inseparable
Pure Integration: An Ideal Type in which the physical and digital are one in the same.
Embodiment and Digital-Physical Integration
To be human is to be a bodied being. We do not have bodies, we are bodies. Bodies are simultaneously experienced, felt, imagined, represented, acted with, and inscribed upon. Technologies of the time can affect both how people think about bodies (their own, and bodies in general), and how people experience embodiment. New technological advancements have resulted in two extreme embodiment discourses, rooted in particular material conditions. These discourses, and their conditions, can be theorized using the typologies discussed above.
The first discourse is that of disembodiment. This was common in early computer-mediated-communication research, as the internet was viewed as a separate space in which the actor could leave hir body behind, divorcing hir from the constraints of race, gender, and physical ability. More recently, the Foresight Project—government commissioned research on the effects of changing science and technology in the UK, issued a report which argues that “hyper-connectivity” enables social actors to connect based on shared interest, relegating physical demarcations (race, gender, class, physical ability, physical attractiveness etc.) to the margins. Because of this, report author Prof Sir John Beddington argues that people may be better able to access and enact their “true selves.” Referencing role-playing games, for example, the report states:
One of the most significant observations of the impact of online identities is that some individuals feel they have only achieved their ‘true’ identity for first time online. For example, for individuals with various forms of disability, such as autism and muscular dystrophy, being online or having an avatar can be the first time the person feels they are seen by others as a ‘normal’ human being.
*Let me to take a moment and cringe at the use of “’normal’ human being” in juxtaposition to a person with physical impairments*
Theoretically, what we see here is a case of Strong Digital Dualism. The physical (i.e. the body) is problematically left behind, as the actor—presumably yet inexplicably separated from hir body—enters the digital realm. Interestingly, the digital here is privileged as more real than the physical. Yet non-the-less, the physical and digital are understood as wholly separate entities.
Materially, this Strong Digital Dualism is rooted in Mild Augmented Reality, in which the physical and digital, though connected, play differentially salient parts. In role-playing games, although certainly users do not leave their bodies behind, the digital becomes the preferenced realm. The avatar becomes the visible signifier, and engagement takes place largely through the digital space.
A second discourse is that of hyper-embodiment. Here, the self is constituted through the body, and new technologies are employed as the authoritative means of knowing, constructing, and articulating the body. This is largely seen in the biomedical model of physical health and wellness. New technologies that enable increasingly detailed information about the body become the exclusive tools with which one can legitimately make sense of the body. We see this in contested illnesses, in which bodily suffering is medically dismissed due to the seeming lack of physiological abnormality. Similarly, a recent article in Media, Culture & Society discusses the field of biometrics, in which identities are authoritatively fixed through genetic makeup, facial recognition, iris scans, and fingerprinting.
Theoretically, these are clear cases of Strong Augmented Reality. The body and technology are not just mutually constitutive within this discourse, but inseparable, and without distinct properties. The human being is hir genetic makeup, physiological abnormality, and synaptic structure. S/he cannot be anything outside of this.
Materially, this is also rooted in Strong Augmented Reality[i]—or the deep entwinement of digital and physical, with each maintaining separate properties. Keep in mind here that Pure Integration—which fits most closely with the discourse of hyper-embodiment, is an Ideal Type, empirically unreachable. As such, the discourse is problematic in its lack of digital/physical separation, but understandable in light of the deep connection between bodies and the technologies with which they are integrated.
Of course, hyper and dis-embodiment discourses live at the ends of a vast continuum, with far more nuanced views peppering the space in between. These extreme discourses, and the material conditions form which they stem, however, offer an illustrative example of the ways in which the theories of Digital-Dualism/Augmented Reality can be applied.