Digital Dualism explored.

, 30 January 2013

Recently, I came across a meme which dates back to around 1998. A simple website, entitled The Last Page of the Internet, it encourages one to “turn off your computer and go do something useful with the rest of your life”. I am a journalist, I work from home and due to the remote nature of my job, I spend a lot of time on the Web either writing or doing research. In the meantime, I like to interact: sometimes I share links, that I think are worthwhile and will provoke discussion; music, or pictures of rabbits; sometimes I engage in a comment exchange. That begs a question: how much of my experience can be written off as fake or non-existent? And why should my online chat carry less meaning than small talk by a coffee machine?

Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson coined a useful term – ‘digital dualism’, to describe the belief whereby online presence is significantly different to ‘real life’, the latter happening somewhere else, and apparently consisting of meaningful events which the Internet cannot provide. The distinction between online and offline realities is a legacy of Web 1.0, of The Matrix‘s pop Gnosticism and of a Cyberspace through which one ‘surfed’. The rules of the game changed a long time ago, yet the concept of digital dualism persists, thriving both in the media as well as a number of techno-pessimistic books (Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine are prime examples). The Web, as Manichean arch enemy, is blamed for many things; superficiality, substitution for actual, valuable experience, promoting mediocrity and mob mentality, trivialising knowledge and human relationships but primarily, for making one live a lie.

There is a website called IRL: Internet Real Life, and were it not for the fact that it consists only of lorem ipsum placeholder text, it’s the perfect example of digital dualism, or the lack thereof. But perhaps it already does. So-called ‘IRL’ (‘In Real Life’), as opposed to the digital landscape of ‘virtual’ reality is, in fact, largely lorem ipsum – meaningless content, predominantly trite. It appears we don’t want to acknowledge this, and instead choose a digital scapegoat. The Internet, particularly social media, becomes a stupefying, alienating chaosphere, antithesis of the purposeful, significant ‘IRL’ dimension of ‘true’ events and bonds.

Why so much disdain towards the online? Perhaps because it mirrors, in its current form, the outside world almost exactly, yet on a smaller scale. Much-criticized Facebook isn’t an appliance designed for ‘collecting friends’, but rather an aggregator, summing up in one place the various friends and acquaintances one meets throughout their life. And, as such, is a reminder of the disappointing fact that the majority of these relationships are actually trivial. For an average person, a simulation of the friends, neighbours, acquaintances, schoolmates, work colleagues, friends-of-friends, friends-of-ones-siblings-and-their-significant-others ad infinitum would surely result in an impressive number of Facebook friends; offline relationships which consist of little more than a passing nod. The word ‘friend’, which Facebook uses to describe them all, may be misleading; creating the impression of a bubble of insincere attachments, whilst even without the existence of Facebook, the majority of those people wouldn’t care much about the user in the first place. Those with whom one interacts the most usually mirror their circle of friends (neither acquaintances nor colleagues) offline as well.

Sherry Turkle warns against the narcissistic nature of social media, suggesting an image of compulsive smartphone-gazers; yet what actually happens is that pre-existing relationships and behaviours simply settle into a new medium. But while online and offline interaction diverge in their mechanics, encouraging different types of communication and, to an extent, prompting different behaviours and attitudes, they are more likely to be two facets or modes of experience, rather than separate realities.

Image by Torley.
Image by Torley.

Soon after revisiting Turkle’s concept of online presence as the cultivation of one’s ego, I came across an article about ‘spotting’, a recent student fad. It uses Facebook as a convenient medium for getting in touch with people briefly seen face-to-face, with whom one didn’t have the chance to talk. If you notice an interesting stranger in the bus queue or the library, you can let them know on a specific Facebook page: ‘I don’t know you, but I’d like to get to’. This phenomenon isn’t a new one – printed newspapers had similar sections in the past – but in its digital form, it successfully challenges the conception of social media as ‘an alternative to real life’. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t add empirical value, but as I write this piece I’m sitting next to my fiancé, whom I met via Facebook, and my cat, found via an online advert. I have dear friends, who I only discovered were actually my neighbours after I knew them as fellow bloggers. Paradoxically, the concept of virtual friendship thrived in Web 1.0 due to IRC, mailing lists and online forums; those tools, now nearly obsolete, brought users together on the basis of common interests. Avatars, pseudonyms and elaborate email addresses belonged to that universe. Gmail, and later Facebook, put an end to the Internet ‘second self’, prompting the use of one’s genuine name as their login.

Digital dualists make one worthwhile point, though. The Internet experience changes the way we consume information, quite often for the worse, even if we manage to navigate its profusion. Abundance is the curse, leading to detrimental mind traps such as ‘tl;dr’ (‘too long; didn’t read’), compulsive link-skipping and submission to endless distractions – here, applications like Readable or Pocket work wonders by removing the clutter of suggested links from sight. Sarah Wanenchak, a Cyborgology contributor, writes about her attachment to printed media, which I can empathise with; online reading, due to its open-ended nature, encourages nervous information consumption. Print, providing a sandboxed experience, is the friend of deepened reflection, and an excellent tool for honing focus and concentration.

As a print media contributor (still), I am far-removed from cyber-utopian attitudes and starry-eyed progressivism. A direct, brief and witty tweet is occasionally referred to as the future of journalism; I hope it won’t be, and I doubt it at the same time. Not every good writer is a talented aphorist; as in print, the short form will coexist with more extensive ones. Contrary to popular headlines, the Internet isn’t making us stupid. The reader simply needs convenient instruments to help them put things in order.

Technology habitually eludes predictions and more often than not springs sideways in unexpected directions, leaving prognosticators confused. Common conceptions held about the Internet still seem to echo the old millennial fears we can see writ large in the aforementioned Matrix, or Strange Days, while the Web itself stealthily works its way into everyday human experience, becoming something less mind-blowing and more mundane.**

Header Image: Torley