I’m having a blast reading all of the recent posts about digital dualism. I (or someone else) will collect these all into a list and I’m sure I’ll write a response to them en masse, but here I’d like to point everyone to one particular response that is important and unique in its orientation. When Nicholas Carr set off this brouhaha (or is it brouLOL?) with a post on his blog, the responses came from many directions. I’m used to fielding critiques from the right, from the dualists, but what I found especially exciting was getting a response from the left, where Tyler Bickford argues that reality is more augmented than what I argue, that I do not go far enough in my critique of dualism and thereby reify the dualism I question. To conceptually situate his and my critiques, let me restate a theoretical mapping I produced last year:
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.
To be very brief, I argue that Carr, Turkle and many others (1) problematically waffle between categories and (2) they primarily fall within the mild digital dualism category, which I think leads to inaccurate conclusions. I created the “strong augmented reality” category to carve out a straw-position and did not have any contemporary writers to name as exemplars. Tyler Bickford will very much disagree with the label of this category, more on that in a bit, but I think he has articulated an argument from within this category.
One of the difficulties I have in these debates is articulating that the digital is really different, but still always part of one reality. After reading Bickford’s critique, I now think I have to articulate that point differently. Bickford is asking me to stop making such a big deal about how different the digital is because it recreates a dualism between that which is supposedly “digital” or not. And Bickford is absolutely correct when he states how high the stakes are on this point,
as Haraway, among others, has shown at length, the fantasy of “nature” is all tied up with fantasies of unitary subjectivity, of authentic personhood, of mastery, that are themselves pillars of some pretty terrible politics.
The organic unity of offline reality that the Sherry Turkles of the world are pursuing is a masculinist Western fantasy of mastery through domination, in which “nature” is posited in order to be transcended.
While Bickford of course agrees that Facebook is different than a coffee shop, he does not take a position on whether the digital and physical are the same or different because he does not view those as stable or useful categories in the first place. Further, Bickford says of the term “augmented reality”,
If you start with reality, and then you augment it, then you’ve got two distinct things that can always be distinguished. This is a dualist model!
Here, I’ll have to disagree, but take fault in the confusion. My point, following Hayles, is that materiality and the many different flavors of information always interpenetrate. Different experiences are, in part, a byproduct of different arrangements of these patterns of information. This is not a “dualism.” It would only be a dualism if I were to carve the world into digital versus not-digital. Instead, I think it is important to recognize that the world is mediated by many patterns/flows/whatever, be they atoms, language, voice, text, digital, etc. I hold that these things are part of one reality, but, importantly, have different properties.
At some level, yes, the boarders of these different properties are blurry, and it’s a good idea to never treat any categories hegemonically, but an email and a paper letter are the result of those different properties, different affordances, and I wouldn’t want to forfeit being able to talk about that. So I’ll concede that “digital” and “physical” and “online” and “offline” are all problematic categories and will instead insist that they can be salvaged by treating them as what Max Weber called “ideal types”, conceptual categories that are useful to think with, even if they are never perfectly realized in practice.
But this critique does force me to cringe at some of my past articulations and forces me to make future ones better. When I say that the digital and physical are different, I should be instead saying that there is no such thing as the purely digital, or the purely physical, but that everything is the product of various mediators, including atoms, bits, text, language, and much else.
Some of Bickford’s critique also stems from the baggage of the term “augmented reality”, which he takes to mean that there was once reality, and then something came in and augmented it. That’s not how I posit the term, but I get why one might read it as such. In fact, if one can make a convincing case that the term necessarily needs to be read as such, I’ll throw the term out. When I say augmented reality, I just mean reality. However, Bickford states,
why do we need to use “real” or “reality” at all? At best it grants the possibility that there might be phenomena in this world that are not “real,” which is nonsensical; at worst it reaffirms this fantasy of original unity that presupposes a deeply hierarchical politics.
I do not say “reality” to mean that anything is or is not real, but just as a commonly-used catch all for the various unit-of-analysis that people take on. Here, Bickford states that,
Rather than “the digital” and “the physical,” can’t we just have “lots of different stuff”?
While I still maintain that the very different properties of say a light photon and an atom are important, Bickford is persuasive that many people, myself included, use the term “digital” too quickly as a catch-all for very different things. I’ll concede this point, and, again, am already thinking of how I’ll differently articulate my position in the future. By saying “the digital is different than the physical”, I am not making clear that nothing is entirely digital or physical, and one can never talk about one without making reference to the other. Though, again, I do not want to throw away the words, but rather consider them as useful “ideal types.”
Michael Sacacas agrees with me, I think, when he states,
I think this analogy applies to the online/offline debate. As concepts, the offline and the online are symbiotic. Experientially, they are often entwined and enmeshed, or however else one may put it. But under certain conditions, they are distinguishable. One may decide that neither ought to be privileged, but that is not the same thing as denying that they are indistinguishable altogether.
All this said, I think the idea that there is no such thing as “digital” is an interesting one, but not something I’m ready to commit to. My two reasons listed above are (1) I do think there are different flavors of information, even if their boarders are a bit blurry and (2) if you disagree with 1 and think various “digital” things may not be inherently linked, practically, I’d like to be able to enter into discourses that see Facebook and Twitter as of a type and coffee shops and living rooms as a type. But I remain open to entering into that conversation differently than I currently do. I’m still trying to absorb this critique. My intuition is that after further discussions, I’m going to have to concede more than I have here.