realityAlright, pop quiz: Is there a reality outside of human experiences? Please circle YES or NO.

Chances are you find this question either very silly or very complicated, possibly both. But I argue that this question is actually lurking in the background of much this month’s earlier digital dualism debate, and that giving it some attention straightens a lot of things out—especially the compelling (but ultimately incorrect, I argue) charge that augmented reality is itself a dualist framing.

To illustrate why this question matters, consider the following fictional (but not entirely unlikely) scenario, in which I either am or am not a jerk:

say PJ (@pjrey) and I are working on a paper draft late into the night. I go to read a paragraph PJ’s just added and disagree with how he’s put something, so I add a comment in the margin with my critique. PJ reads my comment and responds that, okay, he can see my point, but he also feels I’ve been unnecessarily harsh in how I’ve made it. I, on the other hand, feel that my phrasing is perfectly reasonable. Recall that it’s late, so we’ve probably been at this for a while and we’re both probably tired; it’s entirely likely both that I’ve been careless with my words and that PJ is feeling more sensitive to critique than usual. But the question remains: have I been a jerk co-author and a bad friend, or haven’t I?

If you believe that human experiences determine reality, you’ve got a bit of a problem. On the one hand, PJ very much experienced my comment to be out of line; therefore, the reality of the situation is that I have been mean, and I am a jerk. On the other hand, I very much experienced my comment to be acceptable, so the reality of the situation is that I have not been mean, and I am not a jerk. How can we resolve the tension of these two mutually exclusive versions of reality existing at the same time? There are two easy moves here:

1)   Multiple realities. PJ’s human experience and my human experience each inform one of two separate realities (that happen to interact some). PJ lives in his reality, and I live in mine; in PJ’s reality I am a mean jerk, and in my own reality I am not a mean jerk. Since we need to finish that paper though, probably the best thing for me to do is apologize for the fact that I did something (whether right or wrong) that has made PJ upset—after all, that PJ is upset with me is real in both of our realities.

2)   Varying degrees of humanness. If human experience determines reality, then perhaps one of us is less human than the other—probably me, given that I’m a woman and PJ’s a man and that’s just how these things tend to go. In this case, PJ’s human experience determines reality, and I am a mean jerk; since I am less fully human, my own experience of not being a mean jerk is less fully real. Again, I should probably apologize—but for my comment itself, in addition to the fact that it hurt PJ’s feelings.

no-more-realityNow as far as the fictional example itself goes, this isn’t so bad. After all, nature of “truth” or “reality” aside, it’s always a good idea to honor your friends by taking their feelings seriously—so who really cares why I’ve apologized so long as PJ and I get our paper done and still like each other at the end of it. But if something about the above is ringing a bell—perhaps something about “separate realities” and “less human”—then you see where I’m going with this: I’m arguing that a fundamental confusion about the relationships between “realness,” “reality,” and human experiences underlies both what Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) recently categorized as ontological digital dualism and the as-yet-unnamed strains of digital dualism theory that deal with degrees of enmeshment and evaluations of what is “more real, deep, human, and true.” My goals in this essay are pretty big: by the time it’s done, I’m going to attempt to straighten out digital dualism’s ontological confusion, clarify some things about augmented reality to show why it’s not a dualist position, propose important refinements to theories of both digital dualism and augmented reality, and see if I can’t make some of my points about that Nicholas Carr piece along the way. (Good thing I’ve got all day.)

Let’s go back to that question: Have I been a jerk co-author and a bad friend, or haven’t I? But this time, let’s think differently about the relationships between human experiences and reality: suppose that there’s one singular reality, but that it exists independent of human experiences (see David Banks’s [@DA_Banks] introduction here for an illustrative story). Human experiences exist inside this reality—they are themselves “real”—but they neither determine reality nor necessarily reflect it. This means that PJ’s experience of me as a mean jerk is real, and my experience of myself as not-a-mean-jerk is equally real, but that neither of our experiences determines (or potentially even reflects) the underlying objective reality of “what happened” when I made that comment. We can argue and attempt to persuade each other as to the nature of that underlying objective reality if we really want to, and either come to an agreement about how we will determine what is “true” or not, but the fact remains: human experiences are real, but they are not themselves the whole of reality. (Besides, I’d rather apologize and spend the last of the night’s waning collective brainpower tromping through ‘the ontological weeds’ than role-play Boyle and Hobbes anyway.)

Here’s augmented reality in a nutshell: There is but one objective reality, and it exists both outside of and prior to human experiences. This reality contains all sorts of stuff, and all that stuff is real: stuff comprised of atoms (ex: my body), stuff comprised of bits (ex: my online presences), stuff comprised of both (ex: my self), and stuff comprised of neither (ex: my feelings and experiences, social forces, discrimination, love, hate, power, the lot of it). All of these things interact and affect each other in a huge multitude of ways, and again: they are all equally real. There you go: there’s our world. There’s augmented reality. It’s not hard.

So what’s up with digital dualism?

reality-check-1The first mistake that digital dualism (broadly speaking) makes is in the dualism part. (Recall that the definition of dualism is, “the division of something conceptually into two opposed or contrasted aspects, or the state of being so divided.”) We at Cyborgology haven’t always been super-consistent or clear about what that dualism actually is, so I’m going to look at the three big ones: Atoms/Bits, Physical/Digital, and Online/Offline. We’ve tended to use these three interchangeably—or to treat them as analogous to each other—but I think that, overall, doing so has created more confusion than clarity. I’m going to start trying to untangle them below.

On a conceptual level, all three pairs are co-produced—meaning that for each pair, our conceptualization of each-as-such also shapes and creates our conceptualization of the other, because the two concepts come into being simultaneously as the result of drawing a single conceptual boundary. We didn’t think about “atoms” the way that we do now until we were also thinking about “bits,” for instance, and we didn’t think about “the physical” in the way that we do now until we were also thinking about “the digital” in the way that we do now (remember that “digital” used to mean something physical: “of or pertaining to fingers”); there was simply no such thing as “offline” before we started thinking about “online.” [If you’re new to co-production [pdf], it’s a particularly useful way to think about these supposed binaries because it rejects a priori demarcations (such as those that define any of these pairs) and “sweeps back into the analyst’s field of vision connections between natural and social orders that disciplinary conventions often seek to obliterate, thereby doing injustice to the complexity as well as the strangeness of human experience.” In other words: when you’re thinking about “the physical” and “the digital” (for example) as being co-produced, you’re inherently recognizing that “physical” and “digital” are not rigid or stable categories, and that there’s nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about them.]

Ontologically speaking, however, neither Atoms/Bits nor Physical/Digital is truly a dualism. Neither pair includes two things that are mutually exclusive; neither pair represents stuff that forms an oppositional binary in that one reality outside of human social experience. Even if we’re looking for a contrast dualism rather than an oppositional dualism, neither pair comprises the whole of reality: reality includes more than atoms and bits, and more than things that are physical or digital. Granted, that Atoms/Bits and Physical/Digital are (ontologically) false dualisms doesn’t mean that digital dualists—and other people who are wrong—don’t invoke them as dualisms anyway (e.g., as if “the physical” and “the digital” would somehow have beef with each other if suddenly all the people disappeared and there was no one left to imagine it that way), but the important point here is: these two are slippery dualisms.

funny-reality-checkBoth (at least in part) represent concepts that attempt to map onto stuff that exists whether there are human beings around to think about conceptual categories or not. Engaging with these pairs (or critiquing others who have done so) requires careful attention to the level of discussion: are we working on the conceptual, “ideas that some people have” level, or on the ontological, “statements about the nature of our one reality” level? Lack of consistently explicit clarity here is one reason some critics can claim we think all digital dualists are strong digital dualists—and in either case, it’s important that we call attention to when these pairs are being invoked as oppositional binaries without ourselves reinforcing the idea that there’s anything zero-sum about them. There are lots of things which are not physical, for example, but also not digital; “digital” and “not physical” should not be used interchangeably.

The Online/Offline dualism, however, is a bit different. For starters, it’s a genuine oppositional binary: though proponents of augmented reality argue otherwise, in its original (or typical) framing, “online” and “offline” are mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed. Notably, where both the Atoms/Bits and Physical/Digital dualisms take two preexisting concepts and pair them in a newer oppositional relationship, the “online” and “offline” concepts were from their first use co-produced as a zero-sum pair. And importantly, this dualism has the lowest chance of slipping unexpectedly into an ontological conundrum: “online” and “offline” are entirely conceptual, and don’t attempt to map onto anything in objective reality (the way that, say, the human concept of “nature” tries to map onto rocks and trees and other things that exist without people[i]). Of course, Online/Offline is a spurious distinction; as we’ve argued over and over again, the nature of augmented reality is that atoms, bits, and everything else are thoroughly and inextricably enmeshed, which makes augmented reality a non-optional system, so no you simply cannot “log off” or “disconnect.” The impossibility of escaping the influence of digitally-mediated interaction means that there is simply no “offline” (and since there is no cyberspace, there’s no pure “online” either); there are only varying degrees and types of engagement or connectivity.

I was originally going to propose Online/Offline as the defining dualism of digital dualism writ large, largely because it’s a less slippery and more clear-cut dualism than the other two. Upon further consideration however, I think these dualisms map fairly well onto Jurgenson’s three strands of digital dualism critique, so instead I propose the following:

  • Atoms/Bits is the defining dualism of ontological digital dualism
  • Online/Offline is the defining dualism of digital dualism that ignores or underestimates enmeshment (“divisive” or “partitioning” digital dualism?)
  • Physical/Digital is the defining dualism of digital dualism that judges and assigns value (“evaluative” or “executive” digital dualism…or perhaps “moralizing” digital dualism?)

Why does any of this matter? Because I really want to address two points: Carr’s argument that augmented reality does not take into account human experience or how people feel, and Bickford’s argument that augmented reality is inherently dualist. In the rest of this essay, I’m going to argue that augmented reality, as a theory, does treat human experiences as real (and that Cyborgologists have done a great job of doing so), even if we don’t take the position that human experiences determine or reflect reality. I’m also going to argue that augmented reality, as a theory, rejects all three of these dualisms: that it recognizes Online/Offline as a spurious distinction (and throws out both categories), and that it recognizes differences between atoms and bits (or between the physical and the digital) without conceptualizing either pair as a dualism or an oppositional binary.


Whitney Erin Boesel has no idea if this essay will ultimately get posted in two parts or three, but she’ll let you know about each part on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

Reality check image from here; No Reality image from here; Michelle Bachmann reality check image from here; Stop payment image from here.

[i] I’m aware that Carr made precisely this argument, that “offline existed before online gave us the idea of offline”—but put quite simply: this is not correct. Carr makes an analogous statement that “nature existed before technology gave us the idea of nature,” but as Bruno Latour (and a bunch of other people) have painstakingly elaborated: no, actually it didn’t. Nothing was “offline” before the advent of the “online”; it was simply not-online. See? This is the danger of dualist thinking: it leads you to neglect important categories like “not-online” by trying to make everything zero-sum.