Much of the digital ink spilled on battling the scourge of “digital dualism” is intellectually lazy and morally naive. I have already discussed the use of the term “digital dualist” as an academic pejorative in previous posts. The label is applied to scholars that are critical of social media and digital devices with little justification, and, as I think is becoming clearer as this line of critique continues, is really an over-intellectualized plea by some to shield their favorite gadgets and practices from scrutiny.
Anti-digital dualists tend to list off scholars and popular authors, including Evgeny Morozov or Sherry Turkle, as dualists without quoting from them or presenting much evidence. Apparently their works are so flawed as to not require a basic level of engagement before being dismissed, as if their purported flaws were obvious enough not to need justification.
Jurgenson’s recent piece in The New Inquiry continues that tradition. For instance, while noting that “there has been a long tradition of social theory linking the consequences of altering the “natural” world in the name of convenience, efficiency, comfort, and safety to draining reality of its truth or essence,” he drops names like Robert Putnam and Sherry Turkle as if this were an adequate description of their research. For anyone who has read Putnam’s Bowling Alone, this interpretation is simply nonsense. The draining of reality of its truth or essence is nowhere an evident concern in his work. Rather, he studies the quantifiable and demonstrable decline in certain kinds of social practices and explores the potential effects of such a decline on well-being and the functioning of civil society.
Turkle, likewise, never promotes as simplistic a view of authenticity as Jurgeson and other anti-digital dualists like to claim. For instance, she writes in Alone Together:
“There are no simple answers as to whether the Net is a place to be deliberate, to commit to life, and live without resignation. But these are good terms with which to start a conversation. That conversation would have us ask if there are the values by which we want to judge our lives. If they are, and if we are living in a technological culture that does not support them, how can that culture be rebuilt to the specifications that respect what we treasure – our sacred spaces” (p. 277).
This is not an expression of someone buying into a linear or zero-sum model of technological growth as coming with a decline of truth but the open-minded and critical concern about whether or not certain technologies in their current instantiation support the kinds of lives their users value. Maybe for anti-digital dualists, this is a simple matter: of course they do. However, people do not make, admittedly melodramatic, videos lamenting changes in social practices – such as, the intrusion of cell phones into their conversations – simply because they maintain illusions about what is authentic but because they find those changes undesirable.
Furthermore, Turkle does not simply champion “disconnectionism.” Rather, she carefully documents the ambiguities and trade-offs within the practices and experiences of users of digital devices, taking their concerns more seriously than Jurgenson seems willing to do. Disconnection is meant to be a self-reflective experiment: What is lost? What is different? What can be wrong with promoting a critical, but inevitably partial, break from a set of devices that suffuses and co-shapes one’s daily life? To me, it seems like an opportunity to explore whether or not contemporary technological civilization is all that is cracked up to be, which might motivate users to demand better devices and/or their subsequent regulation. Anti-digital dualists, however, find it dangerous.
In the last section of Jurgenson’s article, he throws around a bit of Foucault to make those who worry about the trade-offs of screen time appear to be the modern-day equivalents of prudish but sex-obsessed Victorians, stifling the steering of digitally evoked desires “away from progressive ends and toward reinforcing the values that support what already exists…maintaining traditional understandings of what is natural, human, real, healthy, normal.” What worries Jurgenson the most is that new taboos could emerge about when, where and how digital devices enter into one’s practices, and attempting to build social norms is apparently everywhere and always a bad thing – you know, because of Foucualt: “Digital austerity is a police officer downloaded into our heads, making us always self-aware of our personal relationship to digital desire.”
Since when is mindfulness concerning our relationship with our desires and how they may lead us to undesirable places immediately a bad thing? Apparently, little do I know that all my efforts to, for instance, not get too drunk at social gatherings or learn to handle strong emotions like anger in ways that do not cause loved ones to suffer have really just been exercises in self-repression.
What is most bizarre about this kind of logic, which Jurgenson’s piece unfortunately shares with a great deal of post-modernist-inspired theorizing, is that the labeling of deviance or pathology, along with those little internal police officers that come with it, is inevitably omnipresent. To exist within a culture, within a community, is to have an understanding and contribute to the evolution of standards of behavior. Jurgenson does not seem to realize the irony of his final plea: “Take breaks. Unplug all you want. You’ll have different experiences and enjoy them, but you won’t be any more healthy or real.” In short, do what you want but, whatever you do, do not refer to the practices you value as anymore real or healthy.
Jurgenson’s whole project, as such, is not dedicated to the elimination of self-policed thought, but rather ensuring that everyone is policing their thoughts for any hint that they might believe or wish to advocate their vision of the good life to be superior to his more digitally-infused one. The argument built up through his entire article amounts to the normative judgment to ‘Do your own thing but don’t judge anyone else, because…you know…they might feel bad.’ Doing otherwise would probably be “problematic,” the contemporary intellectual’s go to word for labeling something as unhealthy, deviant or pathological without seeming like they are doing so.
The real lesson of post-modern thinkers like Foucault, however, is that power is inescapable and everywhere. There is no escaping the labeling of deviance or notions of authenticity or reality. People need words to separate the practices they find desirable from those they find undesirable. Those who disagree with the current state of those boundaries can do so, but they cannot claim to be above the fray of defining normality and what is real. Anti-digital dualites are just partisans who wish to draw a different line in the sand. They are not seeking an escape from the “normal” but its establishment as a degree of openness and acceptance of the desires and pleasures of digitality that happens to serve their interests and vision of a more desirable world. The new deviance they define is implicit but clear: Concerns about digital devices and their impacts on social practices amount to techno-prudism.
While critics of certain digital technologies wish to be precautionary about radically altering the ecology of community and other social relationships by augmenting them with certain mediating devices, Jurgenson wants us all to embrace the “disruptions” caused by them. Do not worry too much about their potential harms, for they might spur new “possibilities” for “disrupting the status quo.” Which disruptions? Are they desirable or not desirable? Who knows? Let’s wait and see. You don’t want to be a techno-prude do you? Just do your own thing and keep your judgments to yourself.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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