Digital dualism is pervasive, and the understandings that it informs—of ourselves, of our experiences, and of our very world—are a mess. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the fact that digital dualism arises from varying sets of flawed assumptions, and was never purposefully assembled as such by the people who embrace it. But guess what? As theorists, we have the opportunity not only to build new frameworks for understanding, but also to assemble those frameworks with both consciousness and intentionality. So with that in mind, what should a theory of augmented reality look like? What would we do differently from digital dualists?
It is of paramount importance that theories of augmented reality acknowledge complexities and differences—whether between materials, media, degrees of access, or subjective experiences—without falling into dualisms. Toward this end, I’ve spent the past few weeks engaged in an activity somewhere between “essay writing” and “a thought experiment” geared around pushing my fellow augmented reality theorists and digital dualism critics (especially, but not exclusively) to strengthen our collective work through clarifying both our language and our theoretical frameworks. In Part I, I identified the three major dualisms of digital dualism: Atoms/Bits, Physical/Digital, and Offline/Online. In Part II, I broke all three dualisms apart to argue that none of them are zero-sum, and that furthermore, none of the six terms involved are interchangeable. But saying how a bunch of terms aren’t related is one thing; saying how they are related is another. In this third and final installment, I offer a rough draft of one way we might start to reorganize these terms within an augmented reality framework.
First, let’s get some objectives (alt: “lofty aspirations”) on the table. My thoughts include the following: As a theoretical framework, augmented reality must simultaneously reject binaries yet also articulate connections. It must reject strictly bounded categories generally, and it must recognize that both categories and terminologies are always historically and culturally contingent. It must emphasize that societies and technologies are co-produced, that technologies are not neutral, and that neither the meanings nor the impacts of technologies are intrinsically determined. It must account for complex differences between individuals’ experiences without resorting either to hierarchical ordering or implicit valuation, whether of the experiences themselves or of the people who have them. And it must do all of these things without erasing, ignoring, or neglecting critical issues of power and inequality.
No small task, so good thing this is a collective enterprise.
Over the past month or so, I’ve been thinking about whether intersectionality might not have something useful to teach us here. The term was initially coined by Kimberle Crenshaw [pdf] and then elaborated by Patricia Hill Collins, both of whom I highly recommend reading directly if you haven’t already. For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll offer a very (very) simplified synopsis: People like to think about stuff in binary terms, and they virtually never do this in a way that presumes two equal categories; rather, one category is privileged while the other category is denigrated (or “othered”). As much as people like thinking in binaries, however, they don’t tend to like thinking about more than one binary at a time. This is problematic just in general, but it is especially problematic when we start talking about identities and experiences of oppression.
For instance: consider the 1976 court case that led Crenshaw to begin theorizing intersectionality [pdf], Degraffenreid v. General Motors. The gist here is that General Motors had been hiring white women to work in administrative positions, and hiring Black men to work in industrial positions, but not hiring Black women at all. A group of Black women sued General Motors under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, alleging that they had been discriminated against on the basis of race and gender—which seems like a no-brainer, right? But incredibly, they lost the case: the US District Court found that, because General Motors had hired (white) women, the company wasn’t discriminating on the basis of gender, and that because General Motors had hired Black people (who were men), the company wasn’t discriminating on the basis of race. This might be one of the Top Ten Most Facepalm-Worthy Rulings of the last 50 years, but that’s seriously how it played out: the court simply refused to wrap its collective head around the fact that neither “women” nor “Black people” is a uniform group with uniform experiences.
Clearly, a new approach to thinking about identity categories—one that could actually handle the complexity of our social world—was in order.
Intersectionality starts by saying that, yes, people tend to think in binaries, and that yes, such binary thinking does have real effects in the world—but intersectionality also states loudly and clearly that boxing people up into binary categories is a gross oversimplification of reality. The experiences of all women, for example, are not interchangeable; moreover, the category “women” is neither determined nor strictly bounded in the first place. The same goes for categories based on race, class, sexual orientation, or type of embodiment (etc.). If we want to understand people’s lived experiences, the best way to go about that is a) to ask them, and then b) not to assume that those people speak for everyone who happens to share membership in one (or even several) of their demographic groups. To use myself as an example: I may be a white cisgender woman, but if you want to know about my experience of being in the world, Ann Coulter (for instance) is probably not the best person to ask.
If we can’t understand people’s experiences based on oversimplified binary categories, then what? Intersectionality takes identity variables (such as race, class, sex, gender, embodiment, ability, sexual orientation, and nationality) and treats them not as determined, oppositional binary categories, but as intersecting axes of oppression. These axes of oppression form what Collins calls a matrix of domination, which people both experience and resist at three different levels: the personal level, the community level, and the institutional level. Importantly, intersectionality also rejects hierarchies: “white” is not any better than “not white” just because “white” is privileged along an axis of racial oppression, and oppressions are not additive. To use me again, I’m neither more oppressed than a cisgender white woman rolling in money, nor less oppressed than a transgender Black woman who is homeless; rather, all three of us have different experiences of both privilege and oppression in different contexts. This doesn’t give me the right to think that my experiences of oppression are central or most important—because holy crap, they are not—but critically, it does preempt any debates about which forms of oppression are primary to, or more important than, others. Intersectionality is called what it is for a reason: it refocuses attention from predefined groups (and all the problems with hierarchies and boundaries that those bring with them) to specific intersections of interlocking oppression.
So what’s all this got to do with avoiding or combating digital dualism? Hopefully it doesn’t need to be said, but no: I am not arguing that digital dualism is exactly the same thing as racism or sexism, or even that it’s equally harmful (though I will take this moment to restate that digital dualism often operates in the service of camouflaging or dismissing racism, sexism, and other *-isms when they manifest in digitally-mediated interaction). One theoretical framework to another, however, intersectionality has a lot to teach augmented reality. Intersectionality does a great job of handling complexity, of rejecting binaries, of recognizing differences within broad categories, of accounting for interrelationships, of valuing varying subjective experiences, of keeping an eye on both power and resistance, and of doing exactly what I argue we must do with augmented reality: acknowledge and highlight differences without falling into dualisms.
The question is what an intersectionality-inspired framing of augmented reality would look like. If we use intersectionality’s structural framework to order the concepts associated with augmented reality (and digital dualism critique), what goes where? We’ve got three subtypes of digital dualism identified; might it make sense to think of each occurring on a different level—say the ontological, the experiential, and the moral—the way Collins thinks of people’s experiences of and resistance to domination on the personal, community, and institutional levels? What would happen if we think about people’s experiences of differently mediated interaction not as “more or less real,” but as occurring at the intersections of different affordances? What about conceptualizing presence at the intersections of different awarenesses—eg, I am not “absent,” I am in this moment present at the intersection of a physically co-present party, an SMS-mediated conversation, and ten seconds of a show shared through Snapchat? What other ways are there to build out augmented reality as an analytical framework if we use the structure of intersectionality as a starting point? What other analytical frameworks offer useful inspiration?
I’m particularly interested in the idea of intersecting affordances, especially as might relate to co-affordances (a concept on which I want to elaborate next week); I’m also interested in feedback about the intersectionality/augmented reality combination generally. What do you all think?
Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.