Scientific Dualism

In a recent post for Cyborgology, I attempted to both refine the concept of digital dualism and explain its connection to the set of arguments that constitute conservative thought. With respect to the former, I argued that “digital dualism” should refer strictly to those instances where a person attempts to establish a normatively-charged ontology based upon some technological category. Thus, a digital dualist might first posit that the world is divided between the “real” and the “virtual” (or perhaps the “offline” and the “online”) and then imbue these categories with normative value by judging the former to be superior to the latter (or vice versa).

Having laid out this account, I then attempted to show the extent to which such digital dualism is bound up with conservatism. First, I argued that “conservatism” should be understood as including any view “that serves to either justify existing social hierarchies (and delegitimize efforts to subvert or undermine those hierarchies) or to establish new ones.” I then presented a few paradigmatic examples of such views to show how the same sort of hierarchical ontology that characterizes digital dualism—albeit without the technological aspect—seems to also underlie these instances of conservatism.

Finally, I argued that digital dualism is, itself often conservative, as it is frequently deployed to justify a social hierarchy where a technophobic elite is deemed ontologically superior to the technophilic masses. Thus, “those who see, and promote, their devotion to the offline as a sign of their superiority,” as Nick Carr has so nicely put it, can be understood as conservative digital dualists—a label that can then be used to locate them within a broader context of political disagreement and struggle.

In laying out this analysis, however, I neglected to discuss another intimately-related branch of thought, which, despite its close association with conservative digital dualism, falls slightly outside of the concept’s bounds. I call it “scientific digital dualism,” and define it as the set of all views whose contention is that there is some normatively-charged consequence to embracing the technological. Thus, the ubiquitous claims that the Internet/use of smartphones/Facebook is making us stupid/shortening our attention spans/undermining our social relationships would all fall under the banner of scientific digital dualism.

Note that, unlike digital dualist views, instances of scientific digital dualism not posit that the technological itself is somehow “bad” or “inferior” but, rather, that the empirical effects of the technological are bad in a normative sense. Yet despite this dissimilarity, scientific digital dualism is akin to its non-scientific counterpart in its tendency towards conservatism. To see this connection, it is helpful briefly set aside scientific digital dualism so as to further explicate the relationship between standard (i.e., non-scientific) digital dualism and conservatism.

If an instance of standard digital dualism is to qualify as conservative, the ontological hierarchy it establishes must be somehow converted into a social one—a move that is achieved through the mediating factor of personal preferences. If one’s starting premise is that the “online” is ontologically inferior to the “offline,” then it seemingly follows that a preference for the former must reflect some personal flaw or deficiency. Indeed, why else would a person prefer the inferior unless they were somehow damaged or lacking?

Consider Ortega y Gasset’s parallel conservatism grounded in artistic hierarchy. In order to explain why some people like “low” art as opposed to “high” art, Ortega posits “that some possess an organ of understanding which others have been denied; that these are two distinct varieties of the human species”—the former of which Ortega unsurprisingly considers ontologically superior to the latter.1 In this way, the notion of artistic hierarchy is transformed into a pseudo-biological social hierarchy by way of human preferences. It is this same move that can be used to transform digital dualist views into conservative ones.

By contrast, conservative scientific digital dualism reaches the same conclusion while avoiding the ontological question. Rather than suggest that a preference for the technological reflects some inherent deficiency, scientific digital dualism claims that such a preference causes the deficiency. Thus, even if a person was once fully capable, the scientific digital dualist contends that her indulgence in the online has damaged the literal “organ of understanding” that is her brain. Through such claims, scientific digital dualism manages to establish the same two classes posited by the conservative digital dualist: the technophobic few who are complete and whole and the technophilic masses who are damaged and disfigured.

This is not to suggest that every scientific concern about the consequences of technology is conservative. Indeed, we all have a vested interest in ensuring that our cognitive well-being is not endangered by our new devices and technologies. It is therefore important to not lump good-faith efforts to ensure public safety in with conservative scientific digital dualism. Rather, one must parse the two apart by considering the intent and ideology underlying the scientific claims.

In a parable often attributed to Jacques Lacan, a jealous husband, through dogged investigation, uncovers evidence that his wife has been cheating on him. Lacan reportedly argues that, despite being vindicated by the facts, the husband’s behavior is still pathological because, even were his wife perfectly faithful, he still would have believed her to be cheating and hunted for evidence to confirm his suspicions. It is his psychology and pre-held convictions that drive him, as opposed to a desire to uncover empirical facts. Likewise, the conservative scientific digital dualist engages in scientific inquiry not out of intellectual curiosity but to vindicate their underlying (dualist) ideology. She presents her studies and anecdotes purely to support her supposition that there is something inferior about both the technological and those who prefer it.

The challenge for anti-conservatives, then, is to differentiate between scientific digital dualism that is in the public interest and that which is deployed for conservative ends. Unfortunately, it is impossible to definitively prove intent, and, thus, scientific digital dualists will always be able to fall back on the defense that they are concerned only with health and safety. However, there are few of indicators that are strongly suggestive of a conservative scientific agenda.

The most obvious sign of conservative scientific digital dualism is when empirical research is coupled with explicit hierarchical language. For example, in worrying about the effects technology is having on us, one theorist often uses the words “depleted” and “flattened” to describe her subjects,2 while another suggests that time spent online makes people less “human.”3 In both cases, there is a telling departure from scientific language. It is not that the technological “reduces working memory capacity” or some similar trait that can be measured via the tools of psychology or neurobiology. Instead, the language used is both metaphorical and normatively-loaded, suggesting that the research subjects have been left diminished and inferior to their peers in some crucial respect.

A second sign of conservatism is a general lack of scientific rigor. Does a theorist, for example, rely heavily upon confirmation-bias riddled anecdotes to support her contention that some harm is being done to our brains? Does she try to shoehorn in studies that don’t quite fit with the subject at hand (e.g., by implying that “multitasking” is somehow a technological phenomenon when it equally includes splitting attention between non-technological activities)? In judging the effects of technology, does she only emphasize potential harms without mentioning possible benefits or tradeoffs? Does she suggest the harms are inherent to technology when they long predate the technology in question? Are her speculative theoretical claims frequently contested by empirical research? Such bad science suggests that the theorist—like the jealous husband—is seeking to bolster her underlying conservative suppositions with whatever evidence can be mustered, regardless of empirical realities.

By recognizing these signs, we can push back against such conservative scientific digital dualism. Though it is important to understand how changing technology affects us, we must not allow the empirical to be coopted by those who wish to establish social relations grounded in domination and hierarchy. By labeling this perversion of scientific inquiry, my hope is to provide egalitarians and anti-conservatives with the analytical tools necessary to fend off such hierarchical encroachment.

Jesse Elias Spafford (@jessespafford) enjoys reading the Internet and writing about power, politics, and culture.

Lead Photo created by Jesse Elias Spafford from Wikipedia and The Daily Nebraskan source images.