I have been following the “digital dualism” debate of the last few years, which has mostly emerged from Cyborgology blog critiques of writers like Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle, who worry about the effects of digital technologies on human thinking and social interaction. The charge of digital dualism is relatively straightforward. Critics of digital technologies and those are concerned about their effects on everyday life are accused of setting up a false division between the virtual and the real as distinct worlds or realities; they charged with assuming that digital is, in some sense, less real or authentic. Anti-digital dualists, drawing upon the work of Donna Harraway and others, contend that it is more sensible to think of digital and non-digital as composing one completely real augmented/cyborg reality; the digital and non-digital are equally real and not easily separated. I not only find this charge of Carr’s and Turkle’s work unfounded, but also I think that the intention of the digital dualism pejorative has more do to with differing moral imaginaries than differing comprehension of the ontological effects of digital communication technologies. Not only that, I think people on both sides could benefit from considering Neil Postman's view of technological change.
I find the digital dualism debate deeply troubling, but not because I am a closeted digital dualist. Studying for a PhD in science and technology studies, I am well acquainted with the techniques used to take down dualism, whether they be online/offline, religious/secular or natural/artificial. The approach generally takes the form of placing intense focus at the fuzzy frontier between categories, highlighting how the drawing of the boundary is socially and historically contingent and unmasking its arbitrariness. That is, the dividing line between both sides of a dualism is already and always being negotiated. Bonus points are given to those who manage to unearth some unseemly genealogy that connects the dualism with sexism, racism, or another unsavory “–ism.” A short, albeit simple, example of this approach with respect to the natural/artificial dualism can be found here; this author goes so far as to claim that global climate control devices are as natural as “tribal” living.
What do culture warriors stand to gain by taking down a pesky dualism? Both the writer of natural/artificial dualism post and the Cyborgology critics direct most of their efforts towards taking down those who seek more “natural” arrangements or desire more room in technological civilization for the ability to “disconnect.” On some level, eliminating the dualism from the conversation gives rhetorical power to those who do not find ideas like global climate control devices or devoting considerable amounts of their waking hours to interfacing with screens worrisome. If the alternatives are equally natural and real, those who desire bigger and more invasive interventions by humans in climatic and other earth systems or dream up increasingly digitally-augmented futures gain the argumentative higher ground. The onus then falls on critics to mobilize some other criteria that cannot be so easily deconstructed. At its worst, the taking down of dualisms lends itself to equally fallacious continuity arguments, where problematic aspects of the present can be justified or claimed to be (mostly) innocuous by their bearing a family resemblance to instances of the past that, from contemporary eyes, no longer seem to have been all that harmful.
To staunch advocates for their elimination, dualisms are, at best, rooted in nostalgia and, at their worst, an unjust exercise of power. Yet, I worry that their concerns lead them to throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes, it is true that human categories are somewhat arbitrary and often unfair, but that does not mean they are completely unreliable fictions. True, they are leaky buckets used to imperfectly catch and organize aspects of perceived reality, but they are not always and completely independent of that reality. I view them as similar to the old quote about advertising: half (or some other percentage) of our categorizations reflect reality; the trouble is knowing which half. Yet, while strict dualisms are very obviously problematic and over-idealizing, holism can be equally misguided and inaccurate. Refusing to make any distinctions at all is simply the pursuit of ignorance.
As can be clear from later clarifications and Carr’s rebuttal, strict digital dualism and strict holism are straw man positions. Still, the argument persists when there is seemingly less and less to argue about. Critics like Carr and more techno-optimistic Cyborgology theorists seem equally interested in the dynamic interplay of offline and online spaces and technologies. As Carr points out, if online and offline were completely separate worlds there would be nothing for people like him and Turkle to write about. Can we drop this already? Could both sides agree that all human practices and activities lie on some spectrum between face-to-face, embodied interaction and relatively isolated, anonymous text chat and quit going in circles with pointless labeling? I can’t prove it, but I feel the ostensible disagreement rests on differing moral valences. Those who more optimistically view the promise in an increasingly augmented future feel threatened by those more concerned with the undesirability of some the unintended side effects.
Regardless, it is obvious that my interactions with my wife are phenomenologically different when I have my arms around her than when I send her a text message. Both are real in some sense, but I know which interaction I and most people I know would prefer. While I often enjoy Facebook and writing emails, at some critical point, the more the context of my life leads me to converse mainly through mediated channels rather than face-to-face, the less happy and more lonely I become. Yet, it is equally clear that the effect of digital communication technologies on my life is somewhat inescapable; I cannot avoid everyone who uses them and all instances where it is employed, and neither can I stop the effects such technologies have on systems and networks more distant from me that nonetheless impinge on my daily life.
In truth, I think Neil Postman’s perspective is the most apt, though some readers may find this claim to be initially perplexing. Wasn’t Postman, famous for his critical portrayal of the television’s effect on public discourse as “amusing ourselves to death,” a digital dualist bar-none and a technological determinist at that (hint: I’m not convinced he was either)? I have a soft spot for Postman; reading his books on weekends in my small house in the plains of Montana motivated me to want to study technology. As such, I tend to read him sympathetically. In spite of the fact he plays too little attention to the “interpretive flexibility” of technologies and how they are social constructed, his conceptualization of the effects of technologies, once they are constructed, is insightful. On page 18 of Technopoly he asserts: “Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological.”
Critics of digital technologies, at least the ones worth listening to, do not argue that they have reduced the ability to think or made us lonelier in any simple, linear, or zero-sum way. Instead, they recognize that their introduction has altered the ecology of thinking or socializing. I do not interpret Carr as arguing that his brain has an online mode and an offline mode per se. Rather, as his intellectual practices have come to be primarily mediated by his computer and the Internet, he feels it affecting his thinking in all situations. The previous ecological stasis, which he found comfortable and desirable, has been shifted and perhaps even destabilized.
In the same way, an interaction between a grizzly bear and myself is substantively different depending on whether it occurs in a Montana forest or in a zoo. Natural/artificial may ultimately fail to accurately capture the distinction, but the fact that the character of these ecologies differ significantly and are distinct in regard to how exactly they were shaped by human hands is undeniable. Those who value less mediated interactions with animals and attempting to minimize the effects of human action on their ecologies are not inevitably being dualists; they may simply value a different balance of their technological ecology because of the activities and practices (the good lives) that such a balance affords or discourages.
Of course, one can contend that Carr is making too big deal of the shift or that the effects on thinking by increased screen mediation are worth bearing because all the other benefits they might bring. However, that is moving toward a moral argument rather than an ontological one; the confusion of one for the other is what I think really lies at the heart of the digital dualism debate. The real question is: How much should a particular set of technologies be permitted to shape the characteristic ecologies of daily living? That I may disagree with Cyborgologists on the answer to this question does not mean I fail to appropriately grasp that technologies are malleable and socially constructed or that I am committing the sin of digital dualism. Rather, it simply means that I do not happen to share their vision of the good life.
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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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