The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other


Occasionally in a meeting at work, I’ll hear someone say, “Let’s talk about it offline.” When I first heard them say it, I didn’t give it much thought. The meaning, even without much context, seemed obvious: “Let’s defer this conversation to another time outside this meeting.”

What’s interesting about the term “offline” is what it suggests both about the meeting and about our new way of thinking about our lives and relationships. Before we could ever think of being “offline,” we had to know what it meant to be online. It wasn’t until the Internet that being online really meant something to most people. And it wasn’t until everyone was using the Internet that the concept of being “offline” seemed like a useful metaphor. The Internet is everyday for everyone so that now the novelty isn’t being online, it’s being offline.

Nathan Jurgenson pointed this out most recently in his article “The IRL Fetish.” IRL being the handle for “in real life.” But after reading Nick Carr’s reaction and LM Sacasas’ response, I remembered my meetings at work.

The Internet has turned “online” into a metaphor for being engaged with others, as we are in those meetings. Those people sitting around a table, working and discussing and aligning priorities and allocating resources—that’s what being online means. It means working together, communicating, connecting. In other words, the Internet now epitomizes the idea of gathering together. Google + Hangout would like it that way. Just like books gave us the metaphor of “being on the same page,” the Internet is giving us new ways to talk about relating to each other.

And so, by contrast, talking offline, is now a bit like being “off the record.” But being “offline” also means being together unmediated, face-to-face. IRL. Jurgenson argues that the Internet has made us more aware of these rare moments—without a smartphone or a computer to capture it. By having an online existence, we now, by contrast, can better appreciate life offline. But Jurgenson argues that we’ve taken our love for the “offline” to the extreme. We’ve fetishized it. We’ve made it an object, the way porn and ultraconservative clothing makes women into objects. We come to examine it—life offline—as an object to savor, even as we are experiencing it. We are disconnected, even in the moment. So that, not only are we offline in the sense of being face-to-face, we can also be offline in terms of being emotionally present.

The online/offline dichotomy isn’t exactly a new experience though. The Internet has simply drawn our attention to offline, to feeling disconnected and self-aware, and has set it in relief so that we notice it more clearly. People have always had awkward dynamics with other people, but with books gave us a new metaphor to describe the experience of not being on the same page. Similarly, the Internet has given us new ways of thinking about experiences we’ve always had.

Yet, things aren’t exactly the same after the metaphor either. With our new awareness, our perspective has changed. We’re faced with a new normal. This is how technology changes us. It alters our perspective and our perception. We see the world in a new way.

My perception used to change most consciously from the insights of great books. An author would put my experience into words and I would say “Yes, I know that feeling exactly.” And that’s a fun experience, especially when you know it’s happening. But we’ve often failed to see that technology does it by another route. Technology works just like an idea does, but it does so in less perceptible ways because it is an object. We don’t think of objects as altering our perspective.

Consider aspirin. When you have a headache, you grab a bottle and some water and magic—no more headache. But if someone with a headache chooses not to take aspirin for it, people look at them sideways. Why wouldn’t you take aspirin for a headache? But the technology in our medicine cabinets has altered our perception of what is normal. Just like the online/offline metaphor, we have a new normal.

The same is true for every technology. It makes new things possible, but it also alters what we consider normal. Every technology is a new normal.

The point though is not to try and “fix” it by logging off or downgrading or abandoning technology altogether. The point is to be aware of it. To understand not only what technology makes possible, but also what it normalizes, and even what it makes impossible.

Impossible like living offline IRL and seeing a beautiful sky without being tempted to Instagram it or having a brilliant idea and not writing a blog about it. Because online, the only things that exist are the things you put there. Otherwise, offline, all the ephemeral grandeur and intricacy of our daily lives does not exist unless we somehow capture it with our technology. The only other way to revel the fleeting moments of our lives is to experience it with someone else—a meeting of sorts. But technology makes it so we don’t have to.

"The IRL Fetish"
Nicholas Carr
LM Sacasas