image by chripell

Okay, so let’s get it out front that we all have a lot of feelings about stuff.

Proceeding from there.

Nathan Jurgenson and David Banks have already writted excellent responses to Nicholas Carr’s very thorough and interesting critique of Cyborgology’s own criticisms of the concept of digital dualism – and all are well worth reading (there are additional links to more great responses here as well). What I want to offer here is my own take on a couple of the criticisms Carr offers, as well as an apparently-needed clarification to some of what I’ve said in the past. And, again, what it really comes down to for me is feelings.

One of the issues Carr takes with his understanding of a lot of what we’ve written is that – he feels – we don’t take seriously enough the persistent digital-dualist assumptions of many people. That, content to call digital dualism a “fallacy”, we write off or otherwise dismiss it when, time and time again, people think and speak and behave in ways that indicate digital-dualist understandings of how reality looks and works. People, Carr argues, hold to these ideas because they feel, on a very fundamental level, that they are correct – more than correct, in fact: they feel that these ideas are true. And Carr takes Nathan to task for assuming that this is all a self-aware pose:

[P]eople really do feel a difference and even a conflict between their online experience and their offline experience. They’re not just engaged in posing or fetishization or valorization or some kind of contrived identity game. They’re not faking it. They’re expressing something important about themselves and their lives—something real. Jurgenson doesn’t want to admit that possibility.

Carr is right to argue that the feelings of many people regarding digital dualism are worth taking seriously. But I don’t think anyone at any point has tried to suggest that most people are engaged in any form of fakery. In fact, I’d argue that it’s because these feelings are so deep and fundamental and visceral – in the guts, in the flesh, because bodies matter – and therefore so persistent, that they’re worth serious question and criticism. Why would we expend so much time and energy writing about something that we could easily dismiss as false?

When we talk about digital dualism, when we engage in a debate about what augmented reality is and means, what we’re dealing with is not abstract, nor should we view it that way. We’re dealing with the stuff of reality, or at least of reality as we experience and understand it, which is the only kind of reality with which we can meaningfully deal. What we’re arguing about goes beyond semantics or phraseology and to the core of how we make sense of who and what we are. What we need to ask is whether or not digital dualism is a useful conceptual framework with which to engage reality. Does it bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our lives? Or does it obscure important truths?

Clearly we Cyborgologists come down in a particular place there.

Carr goes on to write that the persistence of these feelings – deep convictions that not only is there something deeply different about the digital and the physical, but that one realm is actually invading another – can be explained by recognizing that this invasion is actually happening, that people are sensing that the enmeshed nature of the digital and the physical is costing them something:

The reason people struggle with the tension between online experience and offline experience is because there is a tension between online experience and offline experience, and people are smart enough to understand, to feel, that the tension does not evaporate as the online intrudes ever further into the offline. In fact, the growing interpenetration between the two modes of experience—the two states of being—actually ratchets up the tension. We sense a threat in the hegemony of the online because there’s something in the offline that we’re not eager to sacrifice.

First of all, I think pretty much everyone on this blog would hold that viewing the relationship between the digital and physical in hegemonic terms is a problem in itself; it implies a kind of zero-sum conceptualization of the two, that more of one is less of the other, or at the very least that more of one subsumes the other, which is one of the defining features of the digital dualist thinking with which we disagree. But further, I want to point out that the tension Carr is describing isn’t new – and isn’t necessarily what he thinks it is.

We’ve been thrown into precisely these kinds of crises before whenever something comes along that requires us to reorder our thinking about our lived reality, about how we navigate it and what it all means. The fact is that we as thinking, storytelling creatures have a long history of anxiety around what’s true and real and an equally long history of instinctively trying to protect those categories. We want what we know to be what we know, and when what we understand as legitimate and real falls into flux, we react with instinctive and mostly unexamined panic, circling our epistemological wagons. Just because there’s tension now over us having to redefine the categories by which we understand reality doesn’t mean that the need to redefine isn’t there.

Finally, I want to end with a specific mention Carr makes (in the comments section of his essay) of a post of mine on my own gut-level digital dualist feelings regarding print books versus ebooks. Carr congratulates me for having the self-awareness to write the post to begin with, but criticizes me (and the rest of us) for not going far enough:

At least they’re consistent in applying their theory to themselves, but it would be nice if they interrogated their own reactions and feelings a little more deeply before dismissing them because they don’t fit the theory.

I appreciate that Carr wants us to interrogate ourselves deeply – he and I are in complete agreement on this point. But I take issue with the suggestion that I wasn’t doing exactly that, or that I was “dismissing” anything (and dude, do you really want more navel-gazing from me? There was that time I made a very pretentious post entirely about Livejournal). What I was exploring in that piece was why these ideas are so persistent and so visceral, and what the challenges inherent in dealing with them are, with myself as case study. What I was saying was that in order to engage with digital dualism, we need to understand the deep, intuitive ways in which people experience it. We need to recognize that their understanding of their experience is legitimate to them, even if we don’t think it’s a useful one at the end of the day. Carr is correct: Only when we do that can we start to have a productive discussion about why it might not be useful, and why it may be important to take a different approach. I meant that post to be the start of a much larger discussion. So let’s discuss.

Let’s talk about all our feelings.