Photo credit: Evan Ludes
Photo credit: Evan Ludes

Last week, I started a somewhat ridiculously ambitious post wherein, by way of making a whole bunch of points I’ve been wanting to make anyway, I intended to push us all toward strengthening and clarifying our ideas around both digital dualism and augmented reality. In light of some really excellent work by Jenny Davis (@Jup83), PJ Rey (@pjrey), and Tyler Bickford (@tylerbickford), in addition to some old-fashioned conversation on these topics with PJ and Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson), I’m now going to change course a bit. In this middle installment, I’m going to revisit the three problematic dualisms of digital dualism (Atoms/Bits, Physical/Digital, and Offline/Online), take up the two recent major critiques of the digital dualism framework, advance a few provocations in the service of breaking dualisms and promoting clarity, and then finally conclude for this week with a preview of this essay’s final destination.

In Part I, I identified what I see as the three major dualisms of digital dualism: Atoms/Bits, Physical/Digital, and Offline/Online. My original intent in doing so was to identify Offline/Online as the defining dualism of digital dualism writ large, mainly because of the three it’s the only true binary, but also because if we as augmented reality theorists focus in on this one, we stand the least chance of unintentionally winding up in ‘the ontological weeds’ when that’s not where we intend to go. (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy tromping around in the ontological weeds—but sometimes it’s time to tromp around in the weeds, and sometimes it’s time to tromp through them to get somewhere else.) On my way to making that point, however, I noticed that I had a triptych of dualisms, and I remembered that Nathan had recently identified three strains of digital dualism, and I thought, “Huh, can I match one dualism per strain of digital dualism?” I’m still not sure the pairings I came up with work exactly, but I do think teasing out the various conceptual fallacies of (and other problems with) digital dualism can be a useful exercise. (If nothing else, disentangling the various problems with digital dualism makes it clear that talking about metaphysics and talking about sociology (for example) are not a zero-sum binary, either: there are more critiques of digital dualism than just these two, and right now all of them are needed!)

Here’s what I’m after with calling attention to the binaries: I don’t believe augmented reality to be a dualist framework, but I readily acknowledge that those of us who espouse it (and/or those of us who call out digital dualism) have not always framed our arguments in ways that have made that fact abundantly clear. At least one thing, however, should be clear from the title of this essay/exercise: whether as a framework for analysis or as a theory of the world, I am arguing that it is imperative for augmented reality to acknowledge differences without falling into dualisms. And indeed, the two most noteworthy critiques recently have been along these lines: one claimed that augmented reality theorists/digital dualism critics fail to see and to honor people’s different experiences, and another claimed that we fail to escape the trap of dualism in our critiques. The first of these is a non-issue, however, and I believe the second can be addressed by starting to put as much work into clarifying and solidifying our own positions as “augmented reality theorists” as we are now putting into clarifying and solidifying theories of digital dualism. It’s one thing to know what we’re against, or to say what isn’t or shouldn’t be; it’s another to be able to say we’re for, what is, or what should be.

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“Things that are not CAN’T BE!!” (Note: audio NSFW)

As you’ve probably heard by now, Nicholas Carr put up a blog post earlier this month in which he basically claimed that we Cyborgologists (well, primarily Nathan, but still) are in active denial of the fact that people experience different forms of interaction in different ways, and are instead advancing the view that a) all forms of interaction are exactly the same, and also b) anyone whose experiences don’t match this view is stupid. But if you’ve ever spent a week or two actually reading Cyborgology, you’ve probably noticed that we spend a lot of time thinking and writing about people’s emotions and experiences as they relate to different forms of interaction. Jenny Davis (@Jup83) and Sarah Wanenchak (@dynamicsymmetry) in particular have done great work here, and what follows is by no means an exhaustive listing. Jenny’s looked at embodiment, at why digital gestures might sometimes feel less meaningful than other kinds of gestures, why the emotional impact of social media isn’t predetermined, why we might feel distressed when cut off from digital interaction, and—importantly—how we can not only come to know but also come to become ourselves through digitally-mediated interaction. Sarah’s considered the possible pain of encountering a past self through social media, why print books can feel more “real” than e-books, and how feelings themselves are real in the first place, as well as produced some really wonderful writing on the subjective experiences of creating digital text. I’ve even taken a few stabs at feelings and subjective experiences myself; I’ve written on how we might feel about the perpetual possibility of being documented, on how social media might affect how we understand friendship or how we feel about our own past selves, and about the complex relationships between technology and subjective experience within the Quantified Self.

tl;dr: Despite being a dedicated bunch of augmented reality theorists, Cyborgology (et al) have no shortage of “feels,” and are in no danger of ignoring that there are subjective differences between forms of experience and interaction. As I argued last week, the problem here is that Carr is treating human experiences as if they are direct correlates with objective reality, whereas we have treated human experiences as real things that don’t necessarily reflect the nature of the world. More succinctly, in the words of Jeremy Antley (@jsantley), we recognize that “perception of the world (epistemology) isn’t necessarily a sure fire way to evaluate the reality of the world (ontology).” Ok: Moving on.

Tyler Bickford’s critique is, as I believe most of us on the blog agree, the more interesting one. Bickford argues that by emphasizing that, “digital and physical are not the same,” for example, we’ve conceded digital/physical as a dualist binary and ourselves failed to escape dualism. His position is basically that we need to throw out these terms in favor of something like “lots of different stuff,” since “digital” and “physical” aren’t especially useful for describing what it is that people do or how they go about doing it. Whether one agrees with Bickford’s assessment of utility or not, the fact remains that it presumes a more narrow range of inquiry than augmented reality theorists have embraced at this point: we spend a lot of time thinking not just about how and why people do things, but also about people’s experiences of being and about the nature of the world itself. Whether the terms are useful therefore depends on what it is one aims to describe or deconstruct: Should one head off into the ontological weeds, for example, one will be hard-pressed to cut a path out without once using the word “digital” or “physical.”

(These are not the ontological weeds.)
(These are not the ontological weeds.)

Overall, however, I suspect Bickford and I probably agree more than we disagree. One issue for which he provides ample illustration (though he never exactly spells it out) is the question of “What are we neglecting or failing to consider when we focus on Digital/Physical as a meaningful distinction?” This is a critically important question, not just for Digital/Physical, but also for any of the digital dualist binaries—indeed, for pretty much any unit of analysis ever.  Bickford and I also agree, for example, that Digital/Physical is one deeply problematic binary; where we diverge is that Bickford is saying, “Throw the terms out,” while I’m arguing (somewhat clumsily, last week) that what we need to do in our own work, as augmented reality theorists, is not to throw out the words or concepts themselves, but rather to trouble their conceptual boundaries and to dismantle the supposed binary relationships between them. To that end, I offer the following provocations for augmented reality theorists, digital dualism critics, Cyborgology community members, and assorted others sympathetic to our ‘agenda’:

Digital Dualisms







To start, let’s read this chart as two vertical columns. We have two sides: Side A (Atoms, Physical, Offline) and Side B (Bits, Digital, Online). For a moment, forget everything you think you know about records: Side B is neither inherently nor objectively any worse (or better) than Side A. The two sides are different, and each may be more or less suited to different situations (perhaps Side B is having a friend over to listen to music, while Side A is inviting a date up to listen to music), but neither one is necessarily superior to the other. (Yes, I’ll be talking some about affordances and co-affordances next week.)

mbvNow that we’ve dispensed with your evaluative impulse, however, let’s pretend that this is a record: the Side A tracks all have some kind of way they fit together, and the Side B tracks all have some kind way they fit together, but neither group of songs is interchangeable. If I play this year’s new My Bloody Valentine album, for instance, “wonder 2” is clearly not the same thing as “in another way”; if I go back almost 50 years and throw on The Velvet Underground & Nico, there’s no way you’re going to confuse “All Tomorrow’s Parties” with “Femme Fatale.” That’s because (on any halfway decent album, at least) the songs are not indistinguishable—and so it is with the terms I’ve put on Side A and Side B of this chart. The Line 1 item on each side (Atoms, Bits) is a material[ii]; it is something that has properties, and that can constitute stuff. The Line 2 item on each side (Physical, Digital) is an adjective, a descriptor; it can be used to characterize objects and interfaces (among many other things) that have varying affordances. The Line 3 item on each side (Offline, Online) is a conceptual term; it says something about how directly connected we think something is to the Web. I’m throwing these distinctions out as suggestions, and I welcome feedback as to what the best way to define each distinction might be. The important point here is that, however we want to make our distinctions, the fact remains that we can’t read either chart-side as if it were a unified category: were we to add down each side, Side A and Side B would each total three, not one.

Now that we’ve broken the chart up vertically along the columns, let’s take a look at breaking it up horizontally along the lines. We have Line 1 (Atoms, Bits), Line 2 (Physical, Digital), and Line 3 (Offline, Online)—and just as neither column adds to one, none of these lines adds to zero. Atoms and Bits are not zero-sum; not-atoms does not automatically mean bits, and not-bits does not automatically mean atoms. Similarly, Physical and Digital are not zero-sum; neither does not-physical necessarily mean digital nor not-digital necessarily mean physical. These are pretty straightforward ideas: metaphor or not, if you use “physical” to mean “not digital” (for instance), you’re further muddying the conceptual waters in the service of digital dualism.

For Line 3, I’m going tweak my position a bit from last time and argue that Offline and Online are not zero-sum either: because neither can escape the influence of the other, and because we can only understand each in terms of the other, I argue that Online and Offline are most accurately conceptualized as a co-produced dialectic rather than as a dualism. My major reservation with the “online” and “offline” terms has been that they too easily lend themselves to the supposition that anything can ever be online-only (therefore free of influence from the offline) or offline-only (therefore free of influence from the online), and that all sorts of nasty problems stem from conceptualizing “online” as somehow separate from the rest of human life and interaction. Both Tyler Bickford (in this post) and Nathan Jurgenson (in an “offline” conversation) have recently made persuasive cases, however, for why Online/Offline is ultimately more useful than it is dangerous, and I’m finding that I reluctantly agree with them. As a result, I’m now thinking about ways to reframe the Online and Offline concepts in ways that would drop the dualism but preserve a way to talk about meaningful distinctions with respect to access and connectivity; proposing Online/Offline as a co-produced dialectic is my first attempt.

RECORDS: analogue media, but still kind of like digital dualist binaries. Sort of.
RECORDS: analog media, but still kind of like digital dualist binaries…sort of.

One of the interesting things about all the work being done to define and clarify digital dualism is that most of this work is being done by people who believe that digital dualism is a fallacy. Though digital dualism itself abounds, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone working to strengthen a theory of digital dualism itself from a digital dualist perspective. This may seem like a no-brainer (as the term was arguably coined in a somewhat pejorative sense), but I think this is an important point: as much as we can’t open a newspaper or click on an op-ed without encountering digital dualism, we encounter it primarily in sets of assumptions. Digital dualism itself is a latent framework, a theory (“theory”) even more ‘half-baked’ than augmented reality, and yet it is utterly pervasive. This means a lot more work for those of us who want to call out digital dualism when we see it: before we can argue against digital dualism, we have to clarify and solidify what “digital dualism” itself actually is.

From a critical theory perspective, this is nothing new: after all, haven’t critics of racism, sexism, ableism, and other *-isms all had to do the same? But from a different theoretical perspective, this does strike me as interesting: a lot of academic theory, even theory that comes with associated *-isms (Marxism, nihilism, existentialism, to name just a few), was first defined mostly by people who espoused those sets of ideas (or at least, those labels) rather than by people who sought to identify those ideas as problematic. So what kind of an *-ism is digital dualism, anyway? Is it more like a theoretical *-ism, or the kind of *-ism at which critical theory takes aim? Should we be putting more effort into figuring out how it works, or calling it out (and calling attention to its harms), or both, or neither?

Next week, in the final installment of this essay cum thought experiment, I intend—in the spirit of Jenny’s categorization of augmented reality theory as queer theory—to further explore augmented reality as synthetic thinking by drawing on intersectionality as a model for what difference without dualism might look like. I’m enjoying this discussion, and look forward to its continuing!


Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

 Marijuana field image from here; MBV album art from here; records image from here.

[i] Yes, clearly it’s time for a book. Or at least a Harawasian manifesto.

[ii] I am the first person to admit that I don’t actually know how “safe” it is to argue that bits are a material.