The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The "Offline" Debate: Finding the Same Register

With the advent of the Internet, “offline” has become a new category of perception and experience. Nathan Jurgenson, however, took issue with the category: “Offline” and its closely related “IRL” (or “In Real Life” for the uninitiated) is a fetish, he argued, positioned as the moral high ground by “the disconnectionists.” He argued that the category was not “real,” useful, or distinct from “online.” In essence, he claims that the idea of “offline” is just as socially constructed as, say, the concept of “cool.” It is whatever people agree that it is, but some people have it, and some people don’t. And the haves hold it over the have nots.

If you’re unfamiliar with the debate, or need a refresher, I’ve summarized below one major thread. From there I analyze the context and goals of the debate, hopefully providing a more fruitful discussion going forward.


The Debate: “Offline”

Round One
Nathan Jurgenson started off with “The IRL Fetish” in which he argued that people have become obsessed with disconnecting from the Internet and electronic devices, and that in doing so, their “offline” experiences are more “real” than “online” ones. Jurgenson perceptively points out that even when we are “offline,” our lives, perceptions, and choices are still informed by the existence of the web and its devices. (We go camping, knowing that we will later post the photos to Facebook. Thus, camping remains informed by the Internet’s existence—so we are not truly “offline.” We exist in the same world where the Internet does, and we know it.)

Jurgenson further seems to suggest that we who are “offline” adopt a smug, self-righteous elitism in being “real.” In other words, this “digital dualism” of “online/offline” becomes a tool of power that some people hold over other people.

The debate began when Nick Carr responded with “The line between offline and online”. In it, he attacks Jurgenson’s apparent claim that the Internet has made us appreciate “offline” even more by contrast. Carr retorts that there have been many who appreciated “offline” before the Internet existed—appreciated it as much as we do today, Carr would venture. Carr goes on to attack Jurgenson’s further claim that this “appreciating” is actually “fetishizing.”

Even so, both Carr and Jurgenson seem to agree that the “offline” is saturated with the “online.” You can’t go camping without Facebook in the back of your mind. Some of what you do while camping becomes some of the content posted on Facebook. The question is, Are “online” and “offline” distinct at all? If they compose two circles, are they a Venn diagram, or do they completely overlap as one circle?

With these sides taken, Michael Sacasas chimed in with “In Search of the Real”. He teases out the distinction between Life Before “Online” versus Life After “Online.” Life Before we had the Internet was a world where we didn’t know we were “offline.” Life After the Internet is a world where, when we are “offline,” we can’t not know it. So, although going camping looks and feels very similar Before and After, they are not the same. Before is a world where Facebook doesn’t exist; After is a world where it does.

Sacasas’s point, I believe, is that when we choose to “unplug,” we mistakenly believe that we are choosing Life Before “Online.” Thus, we believe, based on that illusion, that when we unplug, we have the right to be smug, self-righteous, and elitist. And to this Jurgenson is, in effect, saying, “Life Before ‘Online’ doesn’t exist anymore, so you don’t have any right to claim superiority.”

Round Two
Round Two started when Carr picked up the thread again 7 months later with “Digital dualism denialism”. There, he zeroes in on another of Jurgenson’s essays, where Jurgenson delineates four positions: (1) strong and (2) mild “digital dualism” and (3) strong and (4) mild “augmented reality.” Both strong (1 and 3) positions are straw men, and Jurgenson ultimately sides with “mild augmented reality.” Carr perceptively distills the two mild positions down to a single distinction: Are the digital and physical “different worlds” or are they “one reality.” In other words: Do they make a Venn diagram or a single circle? And depending on your answer, does anyone have the right to feel self-righteous or not? Carr challenges the notion that everyone who “unplugs” feels self-righteous about doing so.

Besides airing this critique, Carr accepts the IRL phenomenon at face value: “people really do feel a difference and even a conflict between their online experience and their offline experience,” he writes. “They’re expressing something important about themselves and their lives.” Carr believes that accepting the perceived difference at face value and exploring it would be much more interesting, but that Jurgenson’s critique, by collapsing online and offline into a single circle, prevents us from exploring the differences. Carr laments this, seeing the exploration as having potential to produce valuable philosophy and art. He concludes by arguing that even Jurgenson’s “augmentation” position assumes a Venn diagram.

Jurgenson offers a number of clarifications in “Responding to Carr’s Digital Dualism”. (First) “Reality has always been augmented.” In other words, Life Before “Online” was already Life After the Printing Press. And Life Before the Printing Press was already Life After Writing. And so on. There were always things to “unplug” from, always reasons for self-righteousness and power. (Second) Jurgenson agrees that not everyone who “unplugs” automatically feels superior. (Third) “the digital and physical are not the same . . . but both Facebook and the coffee shop inhabit one reality.” So, no Venn diagram for Jurgenson. Contra Carr, he sees a single circle.

Even though he admits the (Second) clarification, Jurgenson maintains his criticism of people who use “offline” as a power play just like the “cool” kids did. Perpetuating the belief that we can really be “offline” allows us “to claim that one’s own disconnection makes one more real.” The idea of “the real” is something that one can claim to “have access to” and feel superior for having. “Offline” people then wield this abusively against others.

After this, a fourth voice, Tyler Bickford, chimed in with “The digital dualism of ‘digital dualism’ critics”. Bickford’s analysis is the densest, but he was also the one who illuminated for me Jurgenson’s emphasis on power. As the adage goes, “Whoever makes the rules wins the game,” and so also whoever decides what is “real” (supposedly “offline”) gains the upper hand. By calling “offline” more “real” than “online,” people “unplug” and smugly judge those who don’t.

Bickford argues that Jurgenson’s “mild augmented reality” solution still reinforces the dualisms he wants to dismantle, the same point that Carr made: a Venn diagram. For Bickford, “the solution here is to stop talking about ‘reality’ altogether.” His alternative is “rather than ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical,’ can’t we just have ‘lots of different stuff’?” Deconstructing categories into “lots of different stuff,” Bickford seems to believe, will resolve the power plays at work, or at least blunt their force. If there aren’t “cool” kids but instead, just a lot of different people, then there are no outsiders.

Jurgenson responded.

The hubbub petered out finally with Sacasas’s “Online/Offline/No Line”. There, Sacasas admits that the points of disagreement aren’t exactly clear. (My summary should show that there does actually seem to be a good bit of agreement, and that where there is disagreement, opponents are talking past each other.) Sacasas sympathizes with Bickford’s desire to simply deal with “lots of different stuff,” but he also recognizes that an “undifferentiated blob” isn’t very helpful either: “There are realities against which our language, concepts, and knowledge claims rub, and within this reality there are distinctions.” (Although I wonder how Jurgenson and Bickford feel about Sacasas’s deployment of “reality” here.) From here, Sacasas returns to the categories of “online” and “offline” and calls them “meaningful” labels for the “difference” that Carr believes “people really do feel.”



The Weapon: “Offline”

After “reviewing the literature” such as it is, I follow Bickford’s reading: Jurgenson seems more concerned with power and oppression than he is with “online” versus “offline” as social constructs. Jurgenson could have just as easily have used other socially constructed weapons. For example, “homosexuality” versus “heterosexuality” could have been his social constructs of choice (which he will do); some people deem one orientation to be better than the other and use the distinction as a weapon to benefit themselves and dominate the other. (In fact, that argument is made here.)

We need to distinguish Jurgenson’s goal from his means. The “offline” question is merely a means to his end. His end goal is to prevent people from claiming power and abusing others. The weapon, as he sees it, is the belief in the “offline.” If Jurgenson can deconstruct “offline,” then he can remove that weapon from the arsenal. He can stop people from claiming that alleged power and abusing others.

Carr and Sacasas are not attacking Jurgenson’s ends. I don’t even see them recognizing his ends. But they are attacking his means. And so when Jurgenson hears them attacking his means, I think he hears them attacking his ends. However, I do not think that is their intent at all.

Yet, even with his means, Carr and Jurgenson seem to be talking past one another: Carr is talking about “offline” in the context of experience, but Jurgenson seems to be talking about “offline” in the context of perception. (Although, perception is rightly a subset of experience.)

Jurgenson argues that the Internet factors into your perceptions even when you are logged off. You account for the Internet even when you go camping. It’s presence is assumed for when you return from camping. In terms of perception, we are never “offline.” We can’t go back. We are all online now.

Conclusion

In order for Carr and Jurgenson to converse productively, the context and the goal need to be clearly understood. Jurgenson is talking about “offline” in the context of perception, and his goal is to deconstruct “offline” as a path to power. Carr is talking about “offline” in the context of experience, and his goal is to use “offline” to describe lived experience in meaningful ways. These are very different contexts and goals, very different registers. Once they can start speaking in the same register, the conversation might finally bear some fruit.



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