A digital heap.
A digital heap.

In a previous post for Cyborgology, I attempted to take what has been called “digital dualism” and repackage it into a slightly new shape—one that would bring into focus what I considered to be the concept’s most significant features. Specifically, I posited that digital dualism should be understood to include—and be limited to—any instance where a speaker establishes a normatively-charged hierarchy of ontological categories, at least one of which is technological. Thus, were a speaker to carve up the world into the “digital” and the “physical” while suggesting the former is somehow ontologically inferior to the latter (or vice versa), she would be instantiating digital dualism, as I defined it.

I next sought to situate digital dualism within a broader set of views that I characterized as “conservative.” Conservatism, I argued, is a cluster of ideologies unified by an effort to justify and further social hierarchy. I argued that ontological hierarchy of the sort that characterizes digital dualism often plays an instrumental role in the conservative project, as it serves to legitimate perceived differences in status. (For more exposition of this point, see my previous Cyborgology post). Indeed, I contend that digital dualism is very often deployed for conservative ends by those who seek to elevate themselves above technophillic masses.

If one accepts these premises, it becomes possible to formulate generalized strategies for critique, beginning with contestations of (conservative) digital dualism and then abstracting to arguments that might be directed against other conservative ideologies that rest upon hierarchical ontologies.

One strategy is to contest the digital dualist’s ontological distinction. Objections of this kind would set aside the normative debate and focus, instead, on poking holes in the dualists’ ontological schemas. For example, in responding to the digital dualist who worries that “virtual friendships” are “flattening” or “impoverishing” human social relations, the critic might attempt to destabilize the notion of the “virtual.” Does it, for example, include all mediated communication, and, if so, would hand-written letters qualify? What about a letter typed on a laptop and printed? Or, perhaps “virtual” interaction is limited to electronic communication? But, if this is the case, would the “virtual” then include phone calls and telegraphs? What about speaking through a megaphone at a rally? In asking these questions, the critic directs us towards the conclusion that there may well be no set of criteria for a thing being “virtual” that avoids also roping in (or limiting out) some paradigmatic instance of the non-virtual (or virtual). Through such critical analysis of the (conservative) digital dualist’s proposed ontology, one might cut the legs out from under her, effectively showing her position to be built on a mistake or conceptual confusion.

However, this ontological strategy seems ultimately untenable for anti-dualists. The problem is that, in the face of such objections, the digital dualist can simply refine her categories to dodge whatever criticism is directed at her. While she might be forced to concede that terms like “virtual” run into trouble when it comes into neatly carving up human activity, she will—through careful culling and specification—be eventually able to settle on a stable referent amounting to some list of activities that will include using Facebook and texting and but not hiking in the woods or talking to a friend in a coffee shop.[1]

As an analogy, consider the philosophical “problem of the heap.” Here, an analog to the digital dualist might posit an ontological distinction that divides all groups of sand into one of two categories: heaps and non-heaps. In objecting to such a division, a critic might seek to destabilize this dichotomy by arguing as follows: the subtraction of a single grain of sand from a pile cannot make the difference between a heap and a non-heap—yet, by this logic, one could start with a heap and iteratively remove a single grain of sand, each subtraction leaving a slightly-smaller “heap” until one is left with a one-grain “heap.” However, a single grain of sand seems to be the paradigmatic “non-heap”—a seeming contradiction that the critic could allege collapses the heap/non-heap dichotomy.

The problem for the critic is that the heapist can dodge this objection through additional specification (just as the digital dualist might further specify the referents of her categories.). Thus, the heapist might specify that there is a cutoff (perhaps difficult to determine, or perhaps seemingly arbitrary) where the removal of a single grain of sand renders a “heap” a “non-heap.” Maybe a “heap” is any pile of 7,342-or-more grains and anything under is a non-heap. Maybe there are additional conditions that must be satisfied for that pile of sand to count as a “heap.” Regardless of the specifics, the heapist will be able to fend off seemingly any ontological trouble one might throw at her.

Similarly, the digital dualist can use further specification to slip out of ontological criticism. Just as the heapist specifies a sharp cutoff below which piles of sand are no longer “heaps,” the digital dualist who finds her notion of “virtual friendships” under threat can specify the exact set of activities that count as “virtual” without having to posit any specific criteria. Thus, she might simply stipulate that using Facebook, texting, and talking on a cellphone are all instances of the “virtual,” while the use of landlines, megaphones, and typed-and-printed letters are not. From this ontologically-stable position, she might then reaffirm her claim that impoverished and flattened friendship based upon her list of “virtual” activities is replacing “real” friendships.

In response, critics of the heapist and/or dualist might raise the charge that such additional specification is ad hoc and arbitrary given the apparent lack of any sort of principled reason for drawing the concept-demarcating line at the point chosen. Indeed, such a description certainly seems to apply the heapist who squirms out of ontological objections by declaring a “heap” to be any pile that has least 7,342 grains (and no fewer!). Similarly, the dualist who resorts to a laundry list of objects and experiences to define what she means by “virtual” (iPhones but not landlines! Texting but not printed letters!) appears guilty of arbitrary patching.

Yet, on strictly ontological grounds, it seems hard to declare such patching illegitimate. Yes, it seems rather absurd that the heapist declares a 7,341-grain pile a non-heap just to duck an ontological criticism, but she is the one doing the referencing, after all! Why can she not demarcate a “heap” in whatever way she chooses? The same is true of the dualist: even if she arbitrarily specifies what she means to avoid criticism, it’s not clear on what grounds we might object.

Given the difficulties of undermining the dualist strictly on ontological grounds, anti-dualists must identify an alternative argumentative strategy if they want to fend off (conservative) digital dualism. Fortunately, such a strategy emerges out of the digital dualists’ insistence upon attaching normative value to their posited categories. For, although they may be able to slip out of ontological criticisms through further specification, they can do so only by sacrificing the plausibility of their normative claims.

Consider, for example, the heapist who asserts that, not only are piles of sand divided into “heaps” and “non-heaps,” but that the former are beautiful/meaningful/valuable in a way that the latter are not. (Admittedly, such a normative hierarchy seems rather silly in the context of heaps of sand, but imagine that the heapist has some sort of explanation for why this might be the case). However, now return to the ontological trouble facing “heaps” and the seemingly arbitrary patching needed to avoid such trouble. As discussed above, on strictly ontological grounds it isn’t obvious why arbitrariness poses a problem. Yet, with normative claims now added to the mix, charges of ad hoc patching seem to stick. For, while the heapist might conceivably demarcate 7,342+ piles of sand from 7,341- piles of sand, it is hard to see how her posited normative values will continue to track this distinction. Though the removal of one grain of sand might—in accordance with ad hoc stipulation—turn a “heap” into a “non-heap,” it seems untenable to maintain that such a removal will also deprive the pile of whatever beauty/meaning/value the heapist ascribes to “heaps.”

Though one is free to demarcate categories at will, one cannot do so and maintain an intact set of statements that are true within one’s ontological scheme. For example, I might declare that my referent for “birds” now includes my pet cat, but cannot do so and have it still be true when I say that “birds” have feathers. Likewise, one might select whatever referent one desires for terms like “heap” or “virtual,” but only at the expense of calling into question the normative claims one has previously made about these categories. Thus, one might preserve the notion of “virtual friendships” through further specification, but, in doing so, one jeopardizes any claims regarding the impoverished nature of such friendships. For, why does texting “flatten” human relations when postcards do not? Why do some electronic communications cheapen while others enrich? Absent any principled demarcation of the “virtual” and the “real,” it is hard to see why any normative claims would track the posited ontological distinction.

It is this line of argumentation—wherein the focus is on the intersection of ontological and normative claims—that should be deployed against digital dualists with unstable ontologies (as well conservatives who rely upon similarly-troubled hierarchical categories). It is not that their posited categories are irredeemably flawed; rather, it is that the categories are not stable enough to carry the normative weight that has been attached to them.

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

Lead Photo courtesy of Jason Rogers.

[1] As it turns out, Cyborgology’s own Jenny Davis has already made some moves in this general direction, albeit in a different context and for very different purposes.