A distinct feature of academically oriented blogs like Cyborgology is that these are spaces in which theories take shape over time through conversation, contradiction, progression, and stumbles. Rather than a finished product, readers find here a theoretical process, one that is far from linear and often fraught. It is in this messy and fractured way that theories of digital dualism and augmented reality continue to develop here at Cyborgology and connected sites. In this spirit of processual-theorizing, I want to further refine my material mapping of digital dualism for yet a third time*. With the ongoing dualism debates, the time is ripe for theoretical rethinking and adjustments.
Before going further, I want to clarify what I mean by “material conditions.” I do not refer here to an inherent or essential component of an artifact, space, or place, or to atoms as opposed to bits. Rather, because technology is always intertwined with human users and creators, the material conditions of which I speak stem from human-infused architectures of both brick and code, usage patterns, public discourses, and personal narratives.
Nathan Jurgenson first typologized digital dualism and augmented reality into increments between Ideal Type poles of strong and mild. He lamented the messy theorizing that slipped, in sometimes indiscriminate ways, along this continuum even within a single argument. In curbing his critique, I argued that such slippery theorizing is largely a product of variation in material conditions, and in particular, variations in the physicality and digitality of particular artifacts, spaces and places (for purposes of clarity: original Jurgenson post, original material mapping post, adjustment to material mapping post, application of material mapping post).
In mapping the material conditions of digitality and physicality, I set up integration and dualism as Ideal Type poles between which objects of study vary. At one pole rested the purely digital or purely physical, at the other the purely enmeshed physical and digital. Each of these poles are empirically unreachable but act as extreme cases against which all else can be compared (i.e. they are Ideal Types). The gist here is that although digital and physical are always intertwined, they do not always hold the same degree of presence. Rather, some things are more integrated, others more separate. This formulation, however, ignores the ways in which seemingly “pure” technologies are, in fact, not so pure. It concedes to discourses of separation in a way that enables the obscuring of digital-physical relations.
In particular, I think the pole of material dualism or separation can more accurately be replaced with juxtaposition. I argue that a formulation of the material conditions of physicality and digitality should be relational rather than oppositional. That is, if we understand the physical and digital to be always co-present, the question is how physical and digital relate to one another within an artifact, space, place etc. I therefore argue that we can understand these relations in terms of integration and juxtaposition.
By integration, I refer to a strong and at times explicit enmeshment of digital with physical. Facebook here is a useful example. Facebook is a digital platform on and through which bodied and named persons perform and negotiate identity, community, and relationships. Facebook’s Terms of Service require users to identify with their “real names”; mobile applications enable Facebook interaction within an array of physical spaces, often in conjunction with Face-to-Face interaction; the architecture of the site promotes biographical sharing through both text and images; and the normative structure surrounding Facebook use maintains a strong ethic of honesty and authenticity. MySpace, on the other hand, though sitting close to the integration pole, is less integrative than Facebook due to the formally and informally accepted use of aliases instead of given names. That is, MySpace, while highly integrative, is more juxtapositional than Facebook.
By juxtaposition I refer to a supposed defining-against, through which digital or physical appear purely such due to their oppositional relation with the other. For example, “the wilderness,” a space without wifi or possibly even cell phone connection, is set up not only as physical, but as explicitly not digital. It is, in short, offline, a location that makes sense only in relation to what it is not (i.e. online). Similarly, MMORPGs, in which players inhabit alien digitized bodies, take on new names and labels disconnected from Face-to-Face identity signifiers, and engage in fantasy play, are defined against, or in juxtaposition to, the physical.
The major poles then in this new schema are juxtaposition and integration, and refer to the relationship between digital and physical, recognizing that both are always co-present. The simple model looks like this:
I am hesitant here to name categories between these poles, as I think a more open formulation lets us move more fluidly, theoretically speaking, between juxtaposition and integration in thinking about material conditions. I do, however, think that this continuum will be improved through multidimensionality. In particular, as an object moves between juxtaposition and integration, there may also be movement between an emphasis on digital or physical. For instance, the wilderness is physicality defined against digitality, while MMORPGs are digitality defined against physicality. MySpace is largely integrationist, but arguably slightly more digital than physical. The multidimensional formulation can be depicted as follows:
The key here is to remember that physical and digital are both always around, be it through explicit co-presence or conspicuous absence.
Jenny Davis is a weekly contributor to Cyborgology and continues to fumble through this collective theoretical project. Follow her fumblings on Twitter @Jup83
*This third round of theorizing is largely i indebted to insightful comments let by Nathan Jurgenson on my second attempt to map the material conditions of digital dualism