A recent Atlantic article introduced readers to Emma, a 28 year old woman who lives in a Dallas suburb, wears brightly colored blouses, sports a ‘blinged out’ case for her iPhone 6, and even met her boyfriend on the dating website, Plenty of Fish. She also grew up without light bulbs and by age 18 had, just an 8th grade education. Emma, you see, grew up in an Amish community near Eagleville, Missouri and left her German-speaking religious community at the age when American youth acquire the right to vote, telling her parents in a note that she was “sorry to do this…but I need to try a different life.” Her story is the topic of an interview conducted by Olga Khazan titled, Escaping the Amish for a Connected World, a piece that uses Emma’s status as an Amish outsider to offer “a fresh perspective on how our lives have changed since the digital revolution- for the better, and for the worse.”
While Emma’s personal story is compelling, the perspective offered by Khazan in The Atlantic is anything but fresh. Instead, Khazan falls squarely into the modernist trope of constructing and critiquing contemporary identity through analyses of a “traditional” subject. Several quotes, not to mention the headline, tagline, and header image from the article, demonstrate this modernist trope in action. To begin, detailing Emma’s upbringing in an Amish community conjures for the average reader images of a traditional, pastoral lifestyle that is distinctly outside the contemporary scene. Khazan’s very first question, “What technology were you already using when you left?” reinforces, up front, the notion that Emma is distanced from the modern, where such questions of technology use would appear banal or puzzling. Impressions of the connected world are also prominent, such as when Khazan asks Emma, “Do you remember the first time you went on the Internet?” or, “Do Amish people know about the Internet?” or, “What did you think of it when your GED program first said, ‘here’s this system of web pages where you can look up anything’?”
All of this framing serves to give later questions in the interview greater argumentative impact. “What do people who didn’t grow up Amish not appreciate enough, in your view?” asks Khazan, who immediately follows with, “What tech things do typical Americans think are very cool, but aren’t that cool in the grand scheme of things?” and, “Has technology ever failed you in a certain way?” Khazan even throws out an observation that could have been lifted straight out of a Sherry Turkle book: “Some people think social media is making us lonely,” Khazan observes before asking, “Do you agree with that?” The last question hits upon a distinctive disconnectionist vibe, critiqued most recently by Nathan Jurgenson and Jenny Davis, that frets over the decline of phone calls and the rise of texting, which is implied to be an example of people not engaging in authentic communication. Emma, already established as a traditionalist figure that is distanced from the modern, becomes the latest privileged person to offer their opinion on this trendy post-modern moral panic.
But the Atlantic interview does more than explore current anxieties related to the Internet; it taps into older conceptions of modern identity even as it subtly alters these conceptions for its own post-modern use. By suggesting that Emma’s perspective allows us to better evaluate our condition in the ‘connected world’, the Atlantic interview reveals its own indebtedness to turn of the century modernist projects that favor ahistorical identities and introduce anxieties tied to the production of modern citizens.
Allure of the modernist trope utilized in the Atlantic interview draws strength from two intersecting discourses; one concerned with the changing conception of modernity and the other concerned with rhetoric of character. Carl Schorske, in Thinking with History: Exploration in the Passage to Modernism, explored two conceptions of modernity: historical and ahistorical. Conceptions of modernity sourced in historical thinking emerged in the first half of the 19th century and continued traditions established in the Renaissance and Enlightenment of using the past for inspiration on how to build the present and plan for the future. Celebration of History became a cornerstone for several cultural advancements of this period and established for newly formed civic governments or nation-states a sense of identity and belonging. The second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to a reactionary modernism that sourced its identity in ahistorical conceptions. This is the modernism that is most familiar to people today, because it established the notion of exceptionalism modernity embodies. “Modern architecture, modern music, modern science,” Schorske noted, “all these have defined themselves not so much out of the past, indeed scarcely against the past, but detached from it in a new, autonomous cultural space.” Historical thinking possessed little value in such detached, autonomous space, especially for the transformative aspects of modernist projects that involved creating new public works or, more importantly, public citizens.
Historical and ahistorical conceptions of modernity are not simply antitheses of each other, but rather, according to Schorske, “successive phases in the same effort to give shape and meaning to European civilization in the era of industrial capitalism and the rise of democratic politics.” That last part is particularly important. Industrial capitalism and the rise of immigrant-fueled democratic politics brought new questions and concerns with regards to turn-of-the-century constructions of American identity. This leads to the second discourse involved: rhetoric of character.
James Salazar’s Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America dwells in this turn-of-the-century period and his analysis links Schorske’s work to the modernist trope employed in the Atlantic interview. Salazar argued that pressures of industrialization and concerns over transformation of individuals into model, modern citizens gave rise to rhetoric of character that contributed to Gilded Age constructions of identity. Character building became a means by which a rapidly industrializing America could resolve, according to Salazar, “the problem of ‘self-governance’ that plagued both the citizen and the state in liberal democracy- the problem of how to maximize liberty while also maintaining the social order- by internalizing the regulatory function of state institutions so that, as Christopher Castiglia concisely puts it, ‘citizens became administrators…of themselves.'” (14-15)
Dependence on character building for the creation of model citizens, however, was fraught with difficulty. “Because character was ultimately knowable only through manners, behavior, and bodily indicators through which it appeared,” Salazar wrote, “it was vulnerable not only to errors of interpretation but also to the misrepresentations of the skilled manipulator of signs, making character into the site of profound hermeneutic anxiety.” (18) Even though character building instilled normative values for a rapidly industrializing and increasingly diverse population, the inability to authenticate self-governing habits and behaviors produced tremendous anxiety for ahistorical modernist projects concerned with the construction of modern citizens.
Those citizens whose pre-transformation identity deeply intertwined with historical thinking, like the Amish, took on paradoxical importance; ahistorical modernity possessed little use for those who clung to history as the foundation of their identity and yet the ultimate allure of modernity could not be confirmed unless its persuasive power proved superior to historical conceptions. Transformation of the traditional subject thus became a sort of ‘Holy Grail’ for turn-of-the-century modernists, even as it revealed cracks and fissures of the ahistorical modernist project because verification of transformation, in the case of character building, could never be truly be ascertained.
Post-modernity didn’t entirely abandon the historical/ahistorical debate but, instead, made selective use of both to construct or deconstruct its own notion of identity. That is why one can read the Atlantic interview with Emma and detect themes of traditionalism versus modernism even as the anxiety of becoming modern shifts from Emma’s transformation to the inherent issues of living in our ‘connected world’. Handwringing over character building is no longer sourced directly to Emma but rather to our own habits and behaviors. But even as this postmodern shift occurs it still maintains some of the older anxieties involved in Salazar’s rhetoric of character, placing Emma as an outsider on the path to modernity whose perspective becomes valuable only in relation to its distance from the scene she describes. In the Atlantic interview Emma embodies many conspicuous aspects of contemporary modernity with her brightly colored skirts and blinged out iPhone case, but there is also a separation involved in the framing of her traditional experience as authentic that calls into question both the value of our postmodern, connected reality and her ability to fully become a member of that reality.
Take, for example, the question where Khazan asks Emma, “What did you think of it when your GED program first said, here’s this system of web pages where you can look up anything?” In the very same phrase where Emma is described as getting her GED she is also treated as someone who possesses a childlike naiveté with regards to the cultural force that is the Internet. Her ‘fresh’ perspective is validated even as it calls into question the ultimate compatibility of Emma to fully mesh with American modernity.
This clever twist ensures widespread interest because it parlays anxieties associated with familiar ahistorical modernist tropes into fears of the post-modern project itself, all while maintaining comfortable distancing that ensures the post-modern reader is never invalidated for having such anxiety. Emma wants to participate in the connected world, after all, and the entire interview celebrates that fact even as it suggests that aspects of that world are less than desirable.
None of the analysis above is meant to discount the experience of Emma, nor is it meant to suggest that Khazan implicitly attempted to portray Emma as a distanced figure. What it does suggest is that post-modern constructions of identity are filled with narrative tropes that source themselves in turn-of-the-century ideals. When Khazan questions Emma about how weird it was to use a website to find a boyfriend she does so because of the perception that intimate relations formed via online connections are somehow suspect or worrying to the contemporary reader. That such a question also served to mark Emma as a distinct other and distance her participation in the post-modern construction of identity is a byproduct of framing her traditionalist viewpoint as authentic commentary on the issues of the connected world.
Jeremy Antley is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas whose research focuses on the immigration and settlement of Russian Old Believers to Oregon in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He occasionally posts thoughts on his personal site, Peasant Muse, and can be found ranting about wargames and Royals baseball on Twitter under the handle @jsantley.
(This post originally appeared at Peasant Muse on 17 October 2012)
Alexis Madrigal has a very interesting article over at The Atlantic on a topic he calls dark social, or web traffic driven by non-referred sources outside of those generated on traditional social platforms. Even though the dominant narrative places the innovative crown of web-connection on sites like Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, and so on, the article provides undeniable proof that so-called ‘dark social’ forces- links shared over gchat, email or personal connection- actually drive the majority of web traffic.
Madrigal interlaces his data-backed revelations with anecdotal tales on his use of 90’s era communicative platforms like ICQ and USENET to share links with his friends, the contrasting effect meant to convey a sense of experiential validation on the larger thesis of the piece. If almost 70% of traffic occurs through means outside of those facilitated by, say, ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ something on Facebook or retweeting an interesting link shared on Twitter, then what does that say about the narratives telling us how we use the web? On a larger level, what does inclusion of this ‘dark social’ data say about our levels of perception and the limits circumscribed therein?
I think it says that we are just beginning to understand how our constant activity of being social in existence- not just on a platform- shapes and drives our measurable presence on the web. I also think Madrigal is correct in his stylistic choice and logical juxtaposition of narratives driven by data and experience because it is easy to conflate the two in our digital world, even though the first is limited by our perception of what counts as web traffic and the second is a more authentic description of the lived reality behind the web traffic. One has to describe their anecdotal experience of link sharing precisely because this ‘through a social, darkly’ behavior is not actively measured by our current generation of analytic tools.
What this suggests to me is that we need to engage in far more ethnography of the link. The bits of data, the shared cultural units, are not ends unto themselves. The rituals behind those acts of sharing- the reading of email, the dialogue of gchat- all require a larger presence in our analyses if we are to understand this ‘dark’ behavior. But that’s not all. What occurred to me while reading this piece is how the core issue exposed, that our sweeping range of quantifiable social perception is limited to such a degree so as to render entire behaviors ‘dark’, has much in common with the ongoing debate surrounding the role and purpose of the Digital Humanities. There is a lot of talk about what the digital humanities are and what defines their use, but I think these are misleading questions that are both unproductive and illusionary in their symphonic promise of clarity. Much like Madrigal’s discovery of ‘dark social’, the key thing we need to keep in mind when discussing the digital humanities is that our understanding of what the field means and sources for its definition are chiefly limited by perceptional capacity or measured results. Knowing this, we should take a cue from Madrigal’s piece above and instead devote a portion of our analytic inquiry towards pursuing ethnography of the digital humanities act itself.
I want to take a moment and explain what I mean by briefly examining the relationship between game studies and the digital humanities.
Stephen Ramsay famously stated that building and making were the hallmarks of digital humanities work, and while he included a place of respect for the field of game studies in the pursuit of humanistic inquiry, he regarded it more as an inquiry on reading and less than an inquiry on making. Some might find this a convincing narrative. Regardless of that fact, it is nonetheless an incorrect narrative that ignores a fundamental quality of game studies- studying the act of play.
Earlier, on Twitter, I was included on a discussion about the idea of perma-death (permanent death) in game design and how the mud-dev forums contained an epic thread on the issue.
Nick LaLone replied that he wanted to put together research “that re-publishes a lot of the ‘lost’ early/mid 90’s game studies’, the implication being that our current critiques are lacking in recognition of earlier efforts, the ‘dark’ 90’s being the example displayed here. Our vision, our perception of the game studies field, is necessarily lacking until we at least uncover these lost sources. But there is something deeper here- the idea that these sources might speak to the act of play and in doing so become far more valuable in this role than they could as just simple, dated observations. Game studies inherently understands the need for good ethnography, because good ethnography is at the heart of understanding play.
In my own research with board games, I’ve found user created forums to be invaluable portals into the motivations behind creation of game modifications or debates on the alignment of design mechanics and theme. What gives these sometimes-odd assortments of messages and debates credibility are their linkages to the active process of play. Players create from their ludic experiences narratives that, in turn, inspire the creation or analysis on game-effects generated through play. This is far more active process than that required of simply reading the rules and inferring the intent of design mechanics, or ‘surveying the data’ if you will. It is also a process filled with potential ethnographic insights into cultural perspective and the larger workings behind integrating symbols and meanings into a coherent experience.
By performing ethnographic analysis of the play act itself, this ‘dark’ ludic experience can increasingly become revealed. Analyzing player written After Action Reports (AAR’s), or reviews of game sessions, can yield fascinating insight into how play connects embedded cultural narratives to historical interpretations. Player created modifications, such as translating game materials into another language or introducing new materials or rules, and their dependency on digital networks of today is yet another avenue where one can analyze the bulding/sharing/deforming process tied to games as cultural artifacts. Where Ramsay saw reading, I see more. But, again, we return to questions centered on levels of perception and the limits circumscribed within.
Now Ramsay equated game studies as directed more towards humanistic reading and less towards humanistic building at his ‘own peril’. I suspect he included the caveat because he understood that by endorsing building over reading there was an implicit acknowledgment that something new always lay over the horizon. Mark Sample goes so far as to say that digital humanities isn’t about making or building at all; it’s about sharing- maybe even breaking or deforming– what we study. “When something breaks, it makes a beautiful sound,” read the lyrics of ‘Blue Arrangements’ by the Silver Jews, and I can’t help but think Sample would agree.
This optimistic note sounded by Ramsay and Sample in the pursuit of a productive digital humanities definition finds resonance in the tone of Madrigal’s piece, especially when he includes personal details associated with his nerdish delight upon discovering the degree of influence ‘dark social’ wields. It’s the same feeling I get when studying how the active process of play shapes someone’s conception and reflection of the past. It is never a question of how good your data is, although good data is essential to good analysis. It is always a question of how good your questions are, and whether those questions will probe and ply your data to not only reveal new insights, but perhaps also demonstrate the limit of what insights your data can provide
Underlying each of these positions is the discovery that our process- in creating social acts or building/breaking/sharing digital humanities projects- is more important and more informative when we take into account the experience and not just the data. Defining and measuring data might sound active, but it’s really static. Doing is active. Sharing is active. Building and breaking are active. And to understand both the digital humanities and social behavior better, we need a wider perspective that includes an ethnographic approach at its core.
What does the term ‘cyberspace’ mean? Does this Gibsonian construct adequately fulfill the task, currently asked of it by many, of defining the digital/physical realm interaction in terms of its scope and function?
Attempts to frame new social interactions spurred by digital innovations in communication, documentation and self-actualization (just to name a few) generally encounter problems of word choice when describing the effects these advancements bring to our growing conceptions of reality. Literary terminology, often built upon antiquated notions reconfigured to suggest a potential or future state of being, sometimes suits the purpose of analogy when looking at these phenomena. Yet there always comes a time when our understanding of an event or construction of reality demands that we re-evaluate our word choice, lest our future analytical efforts be hindered by its, perhaps, outmoded or misleading operation. PJ Rey and the internet persona known as Mr. Teacup produced just this sort of re-evalutation of the term mentioned above, cyberspace, through two excellent pieces titled ‘There is no Cyberspace‘ and ‘There is Only Cyberspace’, respectively written.
PJ Rey argued that the term cyberspace, first coined by William Gibson in the short story ‘Burning Chrome’ and defined as a ‘consensual hallucination’, is deeply problematic in describing our contemporary social web because the web is neither consensual nor a hallucination. Thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones, pervasive documentary practices (something Nathan Jurgenson calls the ‘Facebook Eye‘) mean that even if someone does not participate in the social web their actions are nonetheless captured by it to some degree, thus shaping our actions on the individual and societal level. Many of us cannot control the degree to which this ‘Facebook Eye’ documents our actions (Could you stop every friend from making comments or posting pictures of your embarrassing moment from last week’s party? What about last year’s party?) making the web far from a consensual space. In many ways, because the web is not consensual it is also not a fantastical or a hallucinatory space either. It is a part of reality- the web is as real as reality itself. Actions taken offline impact online relations and vice-versa, allowing Rey to state that, “causality is bi-directional. We are all part of the same human-computer system.”
For Rey, ‘cyberspace’ is merely the continuation of dualist thinking inherited from the Western philosophical conception of the mind-body separation. Because the web always held a dialectal relationship with the physical world, Rey suggests that new vocabulary be created to more accurately explain the web/reality interplay, the augmented reality encompassing it all.
Affirming several of Rey’s assertions through a decidedly different analytical embrace, Mr. Teacup first dissects what he calls ‘augmentism’, a view attributed to the stance taken by Rey and others who write on the Cyborgology blog, before tackling the main issue at stake in the piece; what if there is no reality and only cyberspace? Teacup expresses a very nuanced critique in both sections of his response, one that makes a compelling yet, ultimately, flawed case for why augmentism and augmented reality claims fall flat.
Let’s begin with the presentation of augmentism. Teacup states that, “One thing that seems to be often implied is that digital dualism leads to exaggerated fears and anxieties, and augmented reality does not…augmentism effects a kind of naturalization or even domestication of technology.” He goes on to bring up the example of parents concerned with their child spending too much time playing World of Warcraft. While on face, the concern expressed by the parents would appear to enforce a digital dualist perspective of reality (Our son is spending too much time in the virtual world and ignoring the real world), Teacup accurately demonstrates that an ‘augmented’ perspective is actually at work as the parents are essentially stating that while the son may only feel like he’s in a virtual world, he is, in fact, very much a part of the real world and that ignoring real world concerns to play immersive games has impact. The parents concern reflects a belief in the dialectal relationship between the web and reality- a conception Rey argues for in his piece.
“Many moral panics are centrally concerned with the threat of confusing fantasy for reality,” writes Teacup, who later adds, “by this definition, the criticism of moral panics is itself a moral panic.” When Rey criticizes conceptions of reality rooted in a digital dualist discourse (like those espoused by the media concerning issues of internet addiction, violence in video games, etc…) he is engaging in a moral panic that is similar to the moral panics criticized in the first place. Yet Rey plays the trump card in asserting that there is no other space, no other fantasy world or virtual reality, for a digital dualist moral panic to build upon- there is no ‘alternate world’ that can be confused for reality because the web is as real as reality itself. The augmentist perspective, with its soothing naturalization of technology, presents a conception of reality in which the web seamlessly integrates and becomes a part of the everyday. One can’t have panic over frictional issues between the web and the real- the web is real so there is no friction and thus no panic.
Why? Because, as Teacup asserts in the second-half of his argument, there is an alternative between a dualist construction of reality, embodied by the mind-body debates, and an ‘augmented’ perspective of reality (Teacup calls this an ’embodied cognition’); there is the Lacan inspired ‘antagonistic opposition’ perspective. He writes, “to put it another way, our subjective self-consciousness feels like it has been grafted on, and sits in an uneasy relationship with the body.” As such the self exists in some degree of friction with the body, making augmentist claims impossible to assert. In denying the hybridity involved in ‘antagonistic opposition’, Rey ignores what Teacup labels the “simultaneously horrifying and compelling” nature of the modern cyborg. This is why Rey must refute the term ‘cyberspace’- to accept its existence would be to face the traumatic reality head on.
The reason Teacup makes such a compelling argument is that he attacks Rey’s ‘augmented reality’ conception at its assumed weakest point; the idea that web/reality dialectal relationships, through their interplay, are devoid of friction that could lead to panic. Yet I’m not sure that is an accurate assessment on the workings of an augmentist perspective. For example, there are questions related to the degree of permeation the digital wave of augmentation holds on any given space or situation. I live in Oregon and it is entirely possible for me to drive into a vast forest and lose all cellular connection, making my Galaxy S phone (my personal connector to the ‘Facebook Eye’) useless in documenting my experience. Say I go on a hike and see an amazing waterfall. When I return home, reentering the potential gaze of the ‘Facebook Eye’, the composition of my self is asynchronous to the self connected to and expressed through the web. I could remedy this asyncronicity by posting an update, or perhaps uploading and posting photos I took of the hike with my old point-and-shoot camera. But, I may choose not to post an update or upload photos. If I never tell a single person about my hike, then no matter how good the ‘Facebook Eye’ becomes it will always possess an asynchronous composition of my identity as compared to the lived experience. Smart phones and digital platforms make documenting life very easy (even non-consensual, as Rey observes), but in this ease I am reminded of the Philip K. Dick quote from ‘A Scanner Darkly’:
“What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me—into us—clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.” (185)
This, to me, is the main conundrum in trying to assert that the web is reality. We must address this issue of whether or not the ‘Facebook Eye’ operates as a scanner darkly or a scanner clearly when engaging in pervasive documentation. If it indeed operates as a scanner darkly, then there can be no denying the presence of friction in the web/reality interplay found in an augmented reality.
There is also the question regarding the order, or level, of augmented documentation. I’m not on Facebook but it is still possible for my life to be documented there through discussions people have about me, pictures taken with me in them that are then posted, etc… Yet, I would generally have no knowledge of this documentation unless those who saw the post or produced it informed me of its existence. In a strange way, the web connected self, in this case, would be asynchronous to the self of lived experience, but only when the two are conflated. Also, because I’m not registered as an official entity on Facebook there is no publicly available collected ‘timeline’ through which to view my web connected self. I have become a ghost, one that is asynchronous to the lived self. In the pre-digital era, such asynchronous meetings of one’s self occurred with the spread of rumors or reputation (I am reminded of that classic phrase by Twain, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated), yet the limits of communicative speed provided some measure of delay for the impact of their effects. Today, thanks to nearly instantaneous communication platforms available to an increasing number of people, rumors or reputation can spread quickly and in a very organized fashion. Unless one dedicates a great deal of time to managing their Web-connected self, there will always be moments of asynchronicity when the lived self and the web-connected self are called upon to account for each other.
This is not to say that a dualist conception arises between the lived self and the web-connected self, merely that augmentation of our reality is limited to permeation and penetration of its augmented effects. If we accept the premise that the Web is reality, then we must also accept that primary loss of connection to the web will create asynchronous gaps between our experience and the experience pervasively documented on the web. Even if others note our absence through Web platforms like Facebook or Twitter, this documentation is on a secondary order (sometimes bordering on speculation) from that attained by the primary view of documentation. In short, even an augmentist perspective contains elements of friction that can lead to panic, but more accurately asynchronicity. With this viewpoint, debates over the alien nature of the self to the body become largely moot, as they, too, primarily deal with asynchronous concepts. However, Teacup is right to question the ‘naturalization of technology’ perhaps glossed over in current augmentist conceptions, as there is much ground to explore on the nature of the web/reality interplay. And, of course, while Rey dismisses and Teacup only obliquely mentions it, the fact that a digital dualist conception can still be used in contemporary discourse at all needs to be more fully investigated. As I’ve noted with Russian peasants during the late 19th century, the era of textual augmented reality, there were situations when an augmentist perspective proved most effective (i.e. using concepts of Justice found in folktales to challenge the law or treatment under a landowner) and other situations when a dualist construction (eschewing traditional rights in a court proceeding in favor of written statutes) suited needs better. As Rey states in his post, the durability of the term ‘cyberspace’ to describe the web clearly indicates that a digital dualist discourse continues to hold sway. This strategic selection of dualist vs. augmentist perspective demands further investigation if we are to better understand the relation of the self to the larger augmented reality.
Just like Mr. Teacup, I agree with Rey’s argument that the web is reality and not a separate sphere of activity. However, just as I cannot accept Teacup’s view that ‘augmentism’ equates to a frictionless, panic-less, ‘naturalization of technology’, I also cannot put full faith in a conception of augmented reality that does not account for the asynchronicities inherent in documentation, which is something Rey’s ‘augmentist’ position does not address. To be fair, elaborating the workings and composition of relations that go into an augmented reality is still in its infancy, and posts like those written by PJ Rey and Mr. Teacup do a great service in deepening our understanding of this phenomena. As I have tried to demonstrate above, there are many aspects of this conception of reality that need to be explored. Ultimately, Rey is correct when he calls for a new vocabulary to explicitly describe our affirmation that the Web is not a separated sphere from our reality- our current terminology is too vague.
Jeremy Antley is a writer/student/gamer who currently lives in Portland, OR and writes on all sorts of interests on his blog, Peasant Muse. Follow Jeremy on Twitter- @jsantley.
Editor’s Note: This pieces is a modified repost from Peasant Muse.
Author’s Note: In the original post I used the term ‘analog dualism’, which has been replaced in the version below with ‘textual dualism’. The sentiment and argument remain the same, as the shift from ‘analog’ to ‘textual’ more precisely describes the phenomena I am trying to uncover.
It is often the case with new technology that the promise of change it brings often outstrips its capacity to actually enact that change. This is certainly true with several digital constructs that emerged over the past decade, like Wikipedia or the Open-Source movement, that are increasingly becoming obsessed with the promise and potential ‘social’ can bring to the issue of user equality. Free from the constraints once imposed by more traditional analog methods, digital means of knowledge production and creation offer the promise of true independence and interdependence- yet often these new methods fall prey to (con)structural weaknesses that do little more than perpetuate the previous modes of inequality found in their analog ancestors, albeit in digital terms and conceptions that mask the true nature of their operation in the combined realms of both online and offline activity.
The argument presented above largely comes from a very cogent essay written by Nathan Jurgenson on the blog, Cyborgology. Titled ‘Digital Dualism and the Fallacy of Web Objectivity‘, Jurgenson argues for abandonment of what he terms a ‘digital dualist’ perspective in favor a conception he calls ‘augmented reality’, defined in the quoted sections below:
…recognizing that code has always been embedded in social structures allows persistent inequalities enacted in the name of computational objectivity to be identified (e.g., the hidden hierarchies of Wikipedia, the hidden profit-motive behind open-source, the hidden gendered standpoint of computer code, and so on). I will argue that the fallacy of web objectivity is driven fundamentally by digital dualism providing further evidence that this dualism is at once conceptually false, and, most importantly, morally problematic. Simply, this specific form of digital dualism perpetuates structural inequalities by masking their very existence.
…Perhaps the central theoretical insight that characterizes my work thus far is the concept of augmented reality…simply, this perspective rejects the digital dualist position that the digital and physical are separate spheres and instead promotes the idea that atoms and bits enmesh to create our augmented reality. (Emphasis in the original)
Jurgenson expands on the implications of digital dualist thinking by stating that many digital projects, conceived in this mindset, are imbedded with the notion that they are capable of creating a sphere of activity that is separate and, perhaps, better than similar spaces found in the offline world. The utopianism inherent in this perspective, however, “betrayed the ultimate reality that none of this digitality really existed outside of long-standing social constructions, institutions and inequalities.”
Jurgenson, in my opinion, is absolutely correct- but his insights don’t stop there. Take this quote, found later in the piece:
We could list many, many more examples about how supposedly-objective systems are instead embedded in the messiness of offline social structures and inequalities.
…what this analysis suggests is a traceable path from a conceptual fallacy that predates the Internet and became realized online with the dangerous result of disappearing the visibility of certain forms of social inequalities.
While I agree with most of what Jurgenson states above, I would posit that the ‘dangerous result’ inherent in digital dualism did not come about solely with the advent of the Internet- it has existed and been realized for quite some time in another construct many would consider mundane; the written word. In this post, I would like to expand on the thoughts articulated above and demonstrate how Russian peasants, upon encountering the construct of Imperial ‘written space’, sought to pursue the concept of ‘augmented reality’ by challenging the ‘utopian’ ideal assumed inherent in the use of the written word.
Beginning with a short analysis of how written space came to embrace this mantle of ‘utopian’ ambition and creation of a ‘separate’ equality driven space through the introduction of Liberalistic ideals, notably marked by the reconfiguration of the state/society relationship found in the shift of subject to citizen, I then want to analyze two distinct examples of how Russian peasants challenged the idea of the written word. The first focuses on reaction to the 1848 Inventory Reform in the Right-Bank Ukrainian provinces before shifting to the second, a look at peasant appeals of Volost court rulings as discussed in Gareth Popkins insightful article ‘Code vs. Custom’. My goal is to provide empirical evidence in support Jurgenson’s claim, above, that digital dualism originates in a conceptual fallacy that predates the Internet, by analyzing how the written word, in part, helped shape this fallacy in forming the analog dualist ideal.
Up front, I should state that while the examples discussed below bring empirical perspective of the processes described by Jurgenson in his conception of ‘digital dualism’, the two situations have characteristics unique to their temporal locations. This is not a ‘one-to-one’ correlative exercise- it should be viewed, instead, as an attempt to bring historical context to the issues raised by Jurgenson in his essay.
Liberalism and the ‘Equality’ of the Written Word
The question of liberalism…has been one of the constant dimensions of that recent European phenomenon which seems to have emerged first of all in England, namely: ‘political life.’ -Michel Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics
Michel Foucault delivered a series of lectures during the 1978-79 term at the College de France devoted to furthering study on the art of government by way of examining the question ‘liberalism’ asks of governing practice; that being, what is the self-limitation of governmental reason? The idea that government could possess limits on its power was a radical shift from the stance taken by Western pre-modern societies that based their rule more upon coercion rather than regulation. (This is a gross simplification, but for the sake of brevity I will indulge in such means) The ideals of Liberalism promised to bring a greater capacity to unleash the latent forces of a nation’s citizenry (not subjects- a crucial differentiation that helped give liberalistic norms the air of greater equality) by using a system of discipline through regulation, rather than submission through coercion. This shift from seeing population as a group of citizens, rather than subjects, possessed profound consequences. The ‘equality’ implied in being a citizen meant that the state itself operated within disciplinary bounds, best expressed in what the West called ‘rule of law’. Only by putting all citizens, including the rulers of the state, on equal terms in a juridical conception could the once oppressive forms of control, associated with feudal or medieval systems of rule, be transformed into a limited, reasonable exercise of power capable of spurring growth and the development of knowledge/professions then associated with the increasingly growing power of states like England.
Of course, not all states were interested in engaging in the self-limitation of power liberalism demanded. Absolutist regimes, embodied by the rule of Hapsburg and Romanov dynasties, instead sought to embrace aspects of liberalism that could help them develop while still maintaing hold on the reigns of power the ‘rule of law’ was supposed to self-limit. This created a contradiction among the subjects ruled in both empires- while the new laws were meant to inspire a sense of greater equality among the varied classes, the written words located in books or edicts did little but provide a thin veneer to justify the gross inequalities still in existence. As I discussed in my post on high/low mobility constructs, the asynchronicity created by what the laws espoused and the lived reality on the ground created potential for backlash that manifested itself in use of rumors, ‘everyday resistance’ and even outright revolt by those who saw themselves as positioned in decidedly unequal positions with regards to the lawmakers.
Peasant/Serf behavior towards, and use of, the written word and the supposedly ‘equal’ space it created in modern Imperial Russia provides a perfect vehicle through which to explore the issue of ‘textual dualism’, and allows one to see empirical link between issues raised by Jurgenson above and the past examined below.
Inventory Reform of 1848: The First Example
But what exactly is this state of war? Even the weak man knows- or at least thinks- that he is not far from being as strong as his neighbor. And so he does not abandon all thought of war. But the stronger man- or at least the man who is a little stronger than the others- knows, despite it all, that he may be weaker than the other, especially if the other uses wiles, surprise, or an alliance. –Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended
“То-то, толкуешь, а мы закон знаем.” “That is what you discuss, but we know the law.” Parish Clergyman to Soldiers sent to enforce the Inventory Reform in the Volhynia Province
Over the course of the first-half of the nineteenth century, as Imperial Russia watched its relative power decline in the face of a growing industrial England and Western Europe in general, several intellectuals and bureaucrats alike began to realize the necessity of bringing reform to a institution that served as the backbone of economic production for the state in the past two centuries- serfdom. Before granting emancipation in 1861, there were several limited attempts at reform made in smaller sections of the empire. The Inventory Reform of 1848, carried out in the Right Bank Ukrainian provinces of Kiev, Podolia and Volhynia, sought to reign in the landowning nobles power over their serf populations. Inventories were documents that stipulated the amount of land serf families were given to farm and also set the terms for the amount of dues they paid to their landowner or the total number of labor days (known as corvee labor) a landowner could demand from their serfs each week. It was a limited, yet ambitious, plan to use top-down reform methods in an effort to improve the living conditions of serfs lives while also keeping the mainly Polish landowners in check.
Due to the sensitive nature of bringing this kind of reform to serf populations, measures were taken to ensure limited ‘misunderstanding’ of the comprehensive laws to be enacted. Promulgated between November 1847 and March 1848, the Inventory Laws were to be delivered by the Marshall of the Nobility and district police officials to each individual estate. Upon arriving, serfs gathered for a special service in the village church where the Marshall would read aloud the regulations to all assembled, taking special care to note how the new laws were conceived of as a special favor from the tsar. The local village priest was tasked with providing answers ‘without any kind of interpretation’ to questions serfs possessed. Almost immediately, serfs challenged the interpretation and implementation of the new laws.
Of central concern for serfs was filling out the written contracts or record books that established the new land boundaries and labor obligations. While reactions were diverse, complaints generally fell into the following categories:
The ‘books’ were written in hand, rather than printed.
The ‘books’ used the crest of the landowner, rather than that of the tsar.
The ‘books’ mandated a higher number of labor days than the inventory laws stipulated.
The ‘books’ were not issued in other villages.
Neighboring serf villages were not accepting the new ‘books’.
Many expressed fears that if they signed the new ‘books’, they would remain serfs forever.
There were a few reasons why Serfs felt justified making these complaints. First, the Inventory Reform sought to implement a standardized model that was based on a single estate located in the northern portion of the Right-Bank Ukrainian provinces. Since every estate possessed varying levels of serf population and composition of land types, the use of a single model simply did not make sense for the majority of estates under the jurisdiction of the new laws. Second, the rigid impracticality of the written code ran roughshod over the established notion of community, informed by local customs and traditions held by the often distinct villages, that serfs worked communally to uphold. The reasons for refusing to sign the new Inventory ‘books’, provided above, reflect the sense of disconnect between the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model imposed and the reality of the estate in question.
In general, serfs resisted engaging solely with the written word because it represented a ‘space’ dictated not by the traditions and customs held by the local populace but, instead, the rules and regulations of the higher authorities; the laws did not embrace the ‘augmented reality’ serfs desired. For the authorities, this seeming separation of space created by the written word was advantageous and allowed for greater levels of purported ‘equality’ to be applied to the whole of society. Serfs, often illiterate and weary of ‘outside’ intrusion, understandably felt differently. The conflict between traditional values and the norms expressed in the Inventory Laws is pithily summed up by the quote of the parish clergyman provided above. While the authorities, represented by the soldiers, discussed what the new reform meant (advocating ‘textual dualism’), the local serf population, represented by the local clergyman, provided an alternative view based on their interpretation of the ‘true’ meaning of the law (advocating their version of ‘augmented reality’).
Because the laws were written in a particularly dense form of legalese, it proved easy for serfs to base complaints on circulating rumors and differing interpretations of the Inventory reforms. (Another example of the interaction between high/low mobility constructs) These tactics were not without merit- the level of unrest created by initial implementation of the laws caused authorities to rethink their initial proposals. While this behavior did not keep the laws from being enacted, they did force change that often accepted, albeit to a limited degree, the desires and issues raised by serf populations.
Peasant Appeals to Volost Court Decisions: The Second Example
…peasant petitions were considerably more sophisticated than earlier; no longer content with traditional appeals for justice or compassion, they offered more complex arguments to establish their legal and moral claims. –Gregory Freeze,From Supplication to Revolution
…villagers showed themselves to be skilled at exploiting the contingencies inherent in the customary law situation itself. -Gareth Popkins, “Code versus Custom”
Emancipation of the serfs in 1861 meant a radical reshaping of a large section of Russian society. No longer directly relying upon landowners to regulate and ensure the production of resources on peasant lands, in addition to maintaining law and order, the Imperial Russian government reluctantly endorsed another governing model inspired by the liberalistic quest to produce citizens instead of subjects- the volost court system. A volost was a unit of land-area measurement, roughly equivalent to a county in the American system. The volost court was another attempt to cede some measure of authority away from the absolutist government and more into the hands of locals- although, again, in very limited terms and always under the supervision of central authorities. As Gareth Popkins states in his article, “Code versus Custom? Norms and Tactics in Peasant Volost Court Appeals, 1889-1917“, this attempt at self-rule reflected an understanding that local volost judges held a much clearer view of both unwritten local peasant customs, then still very much alive and influencing conceptions of legality and morality, in addition to written legal statues (despite the fact that many volost judges were illiterate). Popkins focused his article on appeals to the higher court authorities concerning matters of inheritance and family property disputes, as these areas relied heavily upon local customs for implementation.
In the examples provided below, there is an increased sophistication of peasant use in both their local customs and the written legal codes. While it can be argued that the Imperial Russian state accepted the use of local custom in legal proceedings in order to build up a legal tradition from the ground up (this is the position Popkins takes in his article), I would suggest that peasants were, instead, attempting to bring the separate written space of legal codes into alignment with their concept of ‘augmented reality’. This is not to say that they always sought this incorporation, as sometimes peasants would insist on utilizing the written legal code if it worked to their benefit. However, it should be noted that peasant attempts to justify the use and existence of local, unwritten customs into the larger juridical apparatus demonstrates that many felt the supposed equal and separate space created by legal codes did not always foster an equal treatment for the peasant class. In a real sense, the cases described below point to an evolutionary understanding of how to blend the lived experience with the space created by the written word.
Although Popkins analyzes several examples of peasant appeals, I selected just two cases for this essay- one, the Egorova case, in which the written law code trumped the presence of traditional custom and another, the Shelokov case, where custom managed to push back the boundaries of codified laws.
Sevost’ianovye Brothers vs. Egorova-1910
The crux of this case centered on whether Egorova could receive a widow’s share of her dead husband’s property as stipulated under the written civil laws. The husband’s sons, the Sevost’ianovye Brothers, appealed to higher authorities claiming the Volost court decision ignored local customs that made a distinction between young, childless widows and aged widows. The higher courts rejected the appeal by the brothers on the grounds that no custom had been quoted by either party in the initial Volost court case and that the use of civil laws, in this case, was appropriate.
What makes this case interesting is that both Egorova and the Sevost’ianovye brothers were aware of the local customs in use- yet both parties clearly hoped that exclusive use of civil laws would prove beneficial to their cases. When denied what they felt was a fair settlement, the brothers then turned to local custom as a means of overturning the established written space of civil laws. While ultimately unsuccessful, this behavior demonstrates that, by the early 20th century, peasants were much more adept at negotiating both the world of local custom and the written space of codified laws- in effect creating an ‘augmented reality’ that could be selectively utilized depending on the situation at hand. Even more interesting, while the state could have insisted on utilization of only written space, they clearly sought an accommodation between peasants and society through the acceptance of local custom in legal claims. In a real sense, the Imperial state acknowledged the presence of the ‘augmented reality’ peasants clamored for, although one should keep in mind the ultimate authority resided in the central governing bodies- they may have tolerated such claims but could ultimately reject them.
The Shelokov Case-1915
There existed a tradition in peasant communities that couples without a son could take a young man into their household in a form of adoption termed primak. This relationship was not usually recorded in official registers, but among the local populace the designation of primak granted full rights as a male heir to an estate. In this case, Evdokiia Zakharova accepted Alkesander Shelokov into her house as a primak and Shelokov married Zakharova’s daughter. After Zakharova died, Shelokov appealed to the Volost court to seek his rights as an heir to Zakharova’s estate. After the case moved to the higher courts, Shelokov was awarded a much smaller parcel of the estate than was traditionally given to male heirs- Shelokov appealed, claiming the district courts were not aware of his designation of primak and the local custom granting him full rights as a male heir. The courts decided he should receive a greater portion of the estate amounting to a ‘widow’s share’. Feeling slighted again, Shelokov appealed the new decision, this time sending in a list of improvements he made on the estate in order to demonstrate his willingness and ability to manage the full parcel of land. This tactic proved far more successful, as the district board officially recognized his primak status and instructed the volost courts to review the case once more taking into account the local custom of inheritance associated with those designated as a primak.
Here we have a case that, at first, sought to place Shelokov directly under the rule of written space in a clear embracement of the ‘analog dualist’ perspective. Only through vigorous appeal did Shelokov receive his traditional, unwritten rights as a designated primak. Just like the Egorova case discussed above, the state recognized the presence of an ‘augmented reality’, albeit only after continued insistence by Shelokov that the ‘textual dualist’ conception did not apply and could not provide justice as established under traditional rights.
From Inventory Reform to Legal Custom- Evolution of ‘Augmented Reality’
In this very brief survey of complex peasant/serf interactions with the Russian Imperial state, I’ve tried to demonstrate the empirical roots of what Jurgenson calls the web objective fallacy of ‘digital dualism’ by showing that similar fallacious claims were made with the written word, in what I will term ‘textual dualism’, through use of supposedly objective ‘liberalistic’ claims to equality embodied in codified laws. Clearly, due to the rather long history of the written word in modern societies, there are several more examples that could be examined in greater depth to provide even stronger empirical claims to points raised in Jurgenson’s essay.
What the examination of both Inventory Reform and the use of local customs in legal appeals points towards is an evolution of the applicability of ‘textual dualism’ to include, or at least acknowledge, the ‘augmented reality’ claims made by those groups who felt they were treated unequally by the imposition of written space on the lived experience. This points to a hopeful future in which increased user sophistication of web platforms will lead to a greater acceptance and recognition of ‘augmented reality’ despite the prevalent use of ‘digital dualist’ conceptions. The current debate over the use of oral citations on Wikipedia point towards developments of this trend. However, the chipping away of ‘digital dualist’ practices will not occur on their own accord, and if participants in digital culture today take anything away from the peasant/serf experience surveyed above it is that continued pressure must be applied to bring the effects of ‘augmented reality’ into practice.
Jeremy Antley (@jsantley), who writes about history and culture on his blog Peasant Muse, is a PhD student currently studying the immigration of Russian Old Believers to Oregon in the 1960’s.
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.