Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This tree is made of tweets


IRL. In Real Life. As if this life were unreal. As if my writing this blog or my tweeting about going to a book fair during the weekend existed in a separate dimension of virtual interactions, and those interactions were collectively meaningless, immaterial, or at any rate less meaningful and material than what happens In Real Life.

Nathan Jurgenson is right to point out that this is a fallacy. Emails belong to real life just as much as letters or verbal communication. Facebook is real. But for Jurgenson IRL is more than just a fallacy: it’s a fetish. Calls to disconnect from electronic media and reconnect with the physical world as ‘something more real’ are, in his view, nonsensical, because there is no there there to return to. The online and the offline world are now so enmeshed that Real Life no longer exists except as a nostalgic construct to be accessed by those who wish to affect an uncommon sensitivity. He writes:
What a ridiculous state of affairs this is. To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection. Author after author pretends to be a lone voice, taking a courageous stand in support of the offline in precisely the moment it has proliferated and become over-valorized. For many, maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses.
In response to this mindset, and to the ‘digital dualism’ that underlies it, Jurgenson has been working for some time on the concept of augmented reality, which is supposed to account simultaneously for ‘the merging of material reality with digital information, as well as the augmentation of digitality with materiality’, that is to say for the feedback loop between the digital and the material world. In the simplest possible terms: relationships that originate and take place mostly online may at times dominate one’s social existence, but so too the store of knowledge of the networks is comprised of information that is generated mostly offline. In the final analysis, it becomes not just impractical but futile and conceptually flawed to attempt to separate the two.

Which is fine as far as it goes, although Jurgenson runs into some difficulty when he tries, or tries not, to explain how and at what level of abstraction the enmeshing of bits and atoms is actually supposed to operate if ‘augmented reality’ is to be used for other purposes than to denounce digital dualists, and is not to produce another kind of dualism (digital vs. analogue). There is also some irony in the fact that the main target of Jurgenson’s critique, the Sherry Turkle of this admittedly less than impressive New York Times opinion piece about the lost art of the face-to-face conversation, owes her scholarly fame to a 1995 book – Life on the Screen – that was amongst the first to address these very same issues. It’s while conducting her research for Life on the Screen that Turkle was told by one of her informants ‘RL is just one more window, and it's not usually my best one’, a quote correctly suggesting that the end product of the internet revolution would be not so much an enmeshing as a series of slippages between socially constructed meanings – of what is media, of what is experience, of what is life, of what is real.

I am of course not alone in thinking that living at a time when the troubled settling of these meanings can still be noticed and – to some extent – contested is a historical privilege. Barring a forced and catastrophic resetting of the technological clock, future generations will likely find it as hard to think in pre-internet terms as a literate culture does when it tries to imagine what life was like before the alphabet was invented. Even now I think I am starting to struggle, and I didn’t own my first computer until the age of fifteen or encounter the internet until the age of twenty-six. Recollecting previous habits of mind is one of the hardest things. But at least I still know people who are internet-illiterate. I can rely on their experience, face what is at times the challenge of relating to them after spending the entire day or week on the other side of the paradigm shift. I can even defer the development of this literacy in my children, if my partner and I agree that they might benefit from a gentler introduction. Such not-yet-radical gestures, too, are privileges that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Which is why I find the fallacies and fetishes that Jurgenson decries less problematic than the rhetorical framing of his critique. This involves heavy use of what I have taken to calling the Wired ‘we’, a magical pronoun that captures the entire range of behaviours and attitudes towards electronic gadgets or digital media in order to allow a writer to make a universal point about these technologies. Turkle herself makes a dreadful abuse of that ‘we’ in her piece, but the retort is worse. These are all from Jurgenson's TNI essay.
While eating, defecating, or resting in our beds, we are rubbing on our glowing rectangles, seemingly lost within the infostream.

Twitter lips and Instagram eyes: Social media is part of ourselves; the Facebook source code becomes our own code.

It’s not real unless it’s on Google; pics or it didn’t happen. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends. We have come to understand more and more of our lives through the logic of digital connection. Social media is more than something we log into; it is something we carry within us. We can’t log off.
There is a very suasive flow to these passages. That we is so tempting, enveloping. It almost makes you forget it’s tosh, and I mean all of it. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends? Who thinks that? And I know it’s not me in bed or on the loo with the glowing rectangle, and that I’m the only person in my immediate family who’s even on social media. There is no we around me, not yet. And even if there was, even if we were all issued with smartphones and unlimited data, this picture wouldn’t be us but rather the global society as imagined by Wired magazine, made of people who all used the technology to produce the same social formations and meanings, all coming to understand our lives through the logic of digital connection. This is simply another fallacy.

Over at Cybergology, Giorgio Fontana has written a nuanced and much more sympathetic critique of Jurgenson’s work which covers some of these same issues, but for some reason I ended up stuck on a throwaway sentence: ‘A tree can exist without the net; a tweet simply can’t.’ This is true in the sense that he meant it, but I mentally quibbled: not if the people who planted the tree came together on the net for the express and shared purpose of planting trees. This is how I would tackle the IRL fallacy, as the incorrect opinion that the physical world can be said to make sense independently of the social. In that respect, a life lived surrounded by books is neither less nor more real than a life spent playing chess or surfing the web. The web may in fact be the best option, if what you wish for is to rearrange the world.

However what Sherry Turkle and Robert Kaplan and others for the most part are saying, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, isn’t that spending one’s time online amounts to living a life less real, or that we should prefer a mythical, edenic IRL to its digital simulacrum, but rather that the demands that the internet often entails – chiefly the requirement to always be on, always be available, both affectively and professionally – have a cognitive and social cost, not least since, as Jurgenson himself implicitly acknowledges, the internet aspires to occupy the whole of your RL and to subsume all other means of experiencing the world and other people. This, I feel, is a very legitimate argument, and if anything I wish it were taken up more articulately and forcefully.

As for the most persuasive part of Jurgenson’s essay, I don’t think it would be ungenerous to say that it was already formulated quite perfectly by this xkcd cartoon of some years ago called ‘Bored with the Internet’. I think about it quite often.


13 comments:

merc said...

Thought provoking, and I thought, and thought...surfing the web.

rob said...

Beaut post :-)
And that xkcd is haunting.. cos there can be something compulsive about digital sharing, even while a lot of it is simply a sociable urge to communicate, tell a story, interact, share an experience.
Elements of social media, can satisfy or gratify or stimulate our desire to be writers, film-makers, artists, intellectuals, leaders, journalists, politicians... that's to say, it's not just our desire to share, but also to shape the experience of others.
This isn't a bad thing, at least not per se. But it's something that's not always recognised, even when we're in it. (I once posted a bunch of photos on facebook that I thought were pretty good, and when people liked them or commented, I felt a sort of warm glow - the 'artistic' ego being fanned, so to speak!) I'm only slowly learning to negotiate the social world digitally.

George D said...

Were we friends until we met "in real life"? Would we still be friends if I did not participate in online rituals? And if you unfriended me, or put me on your kill-list?

I live in what might modestly be described as a beachside paradise, where internet is too patchy to use. I find this enforced seclusion to be pleasure, yet the impulse against it is strong. On Sunday I shared a wonderful meal with a friend, swam and saw whales. On returning to work, it became part of the lives of those I commune with. The desire to tell stories is inherently human, and preliterate. It won't be my project but I think a turn to anthropology, and a look towards those without writing could tell us more about the internet than might at first seem obvious.

nathan jurgenson said...

Cool post! Lots of really smart, and clear, feedback here…thanks!

I think the point about the first-person-plural “we” in my essay is indeed the best, and most important, critique of the essay. The choice to use that style was very much an intentional, conscious decision. Context: this is an essay in a culture mag, I’m trying to provoke a little more than trying to say True Statements. It’s a style that has serious drawbacks, but I wanted to try a different strategy, one similar to the essays (like Turkle’s op-ed) that got so much attention. This was my attempt at the essay format rather than the academic style I’ve been trained for (where I wouldn’t use the first-person-plural almost ever).

Quick note: when I said “It’s not real unless it’s on Google; pics or it didn’t happen. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends” I was referring to common refrains often thrown about; I was not saying I agree with them, as was your reading (I should have put those in maybe single quotes).

“Which is fine as far as it goes, although Jurgenson runs into some difficulty when he tries, or tries not, to explain how and at what level of abstraction the enmeshing of bits and atoms is actually supposed to operate if ‘augmented reality’ is to be used for other purposes than to denounce digital dualists, and is not to produce another kind of dualism (digital vs. analogue).”

It’s a new set of ideas, but I try here to lay this out more clearly: http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/10/29/strong-and-mild-digital-dualism/

I do not follow the point regarding a digital-analogue dualism, though. My point is that there is one reality, one that comprises materiality as well as information of many flavors (of which digital is just one). As I said in the essay you link to, I do not see the digital as the same thing as the analogue.

Thanks again for taking these ideas on!
nathan

Giovanni Tiso said...

“Quick note: when I said “It’s not real unless it’s on Google; pics or it didn’t happen. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends” I was referring to common refrains often thrown about; I was not saying I agree with them, as was your reading (I should have put those in maybe single quotes).”

I figured as much, but that’s my issue with the essay: using ‘we’ turns these comments that are thrown about into universal sociological truths. In fact it’s doubly problematic in your essay because it’s through such statements that you build the argument against the IRL fallacy while at the same time distancing yourself from its most questionable implications. ‘We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends’, ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ etc. are claims that deserve to be critiqued rather than used as evidence for the conclusion that ‘we can’t log off’.

Plus when you were quoted in the NYT blog they became your words. ‘As Nathan Jurgenson says, we aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends’ perverts your point but isn’t an unfair quotation. So the issue becomes: how do you critique the IRL fallacy (and I agree it’s a fallacy) without using these claims as evidence and without lending your writings in turn to greater fallacies? I’m not saying this to catch you out, I see this as a genuine problem with how to position oneself critically that comes up at every turn in these debates.

“I do not follow the point regarding a digital-analogue dualism, though. My point is that there is one reality, one that comprises materiality as well as information of many flavors (of which digital is just one). As I said in the essay you link to, I do not see the digital as the same thing as the analogue.”

My problem - and I haven’t clarified it very much in my mind – is that it seemed to me that you were using the digital-analogue binary to counteract digital dualism. But even separating information more generally from the physical world is a form of dualism, and as Katherine Hayles has shown it’s not an easily resolved one. There Be Dragons, although as I say I am not entirely clear on the use you make of these concepts - I need to read more.

Oh, and thank you very much for stopping by.

nathan jurgenson said...

“ using ‘we’ turns these comments that are thrown about into universal sociological truths”

Context is important; it’s an essay in a culture mag, and I neither intend nor recommend anyone reading universal truths into such pieces. More importantly, I remain unconvinced that I shouldn’t use common phrases like “pics or it didn’t happen” to show enmeshment of on/offline.

“Plus when you were quoted in the NYT blog they became your words.”

Couldn’t disagree with you more on this one; I think that’s a troubling precedent to follow. I didn’t think I was quoted perfectly in the NYTimes, but, the piece was quoted in the NYTimes…sometimes that’s how ideas work. In the academic-paper-version of things I can state the ideas more perfectly, but lose much of the appeal. Theory papers in theory journals tend to be read very well by very few. Essays like the IRL Fetish will be read less-well by many more. I’m fine with doing both. I like this conversation, though, because it certainly makes this tradeoff more clear!

“My problem - and I haven’t clarified it very much in my mind – is that it seemed to me that you were using the digital-analogue binary to counteract digital dualism. But even separating information more generally from the physical world is a form of dualism, and as Katherine Hayles has shown it’s not an easily resolved one.”

Yes, *this* is the bigger issue. Hayles argued that materiality and information are always interpenetrated (love her terminology there). However, from this, one does not *need* to say material and information are the same thing, just that they have a co-dependent, mutually-constituted, dialectical relationship. Personally, I am quite fine with the idea that different flavors of information have different properties, which have different properties than materiality. I do not think we can ever separate information from material or vice versa, but I am fine with distinguishing them at the conceptual level to help understand the world. The notion that information and material *are the same thing* is what I call “strong augmentation” in the post linked to in my previous comment. I’d be excited to read someone defend that perspective, but I do not subscribe to it myself.

Giovanni Tiso said...

“Context is important; it’s an essay in a culture mag, and I neither intend nor recommend anyone reading universal truths into such pieces. More importantly, I remain unconvinced that I shouldn’t use common phrases like “pics or it didn’t happen” to show enmeshment of on/offline.”

I think the reason why you shouldn’t use common phrases like that is that it’s a confidence trick, and furthermore it’s the exact same confidence trick that Sherry Turkle uses. When she complains that ‘we’ don’t lift our heads from our electronic devices, she’s not really saying that she isn’t - she’s talking about the rest of ‘us’, and making all manners of generalisations about ‘our’ behaviour and psychological states. Now if you use ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ to bolster your argument even though you claim to know better, does it mean the enmeshment of on/offline doesn’t apply as far as you are personally concerned? And if you think it does apply, then why didn’t you argue it based on evidence that you consider to be true? But there’s a second major issue: when other people say ‘pics or it didn’t happen’, what do they mean? Are they actually serious, or are they using the phrase ironically? Can we and should we generalise based on a phrase that is thrown around even though it is quite possible that nobody or only a minority actually subscribes to its wider implications, which you take as read?

(Note that I’m not against the use of ‘we’ in any circumstance in this kind of critique. I have no quarrel with the way that Rob Horning uses it for instance. It’s what that ‘we’ does that matters, whether or not you actually include yourself in it and whether or not you use it to smuggle into the argument positions you don’t hold or that are misrepresented in the transition to that ‘we’.)

Ben Wilson said...

>Oh, and thank you very much for stopping by.

Totally, this is good stuff.

>But even separating information more generally from the physical world is a form of dualism, and as Katherine Hayles has shown it’s not an easily resolved one.

No, it is not. It's not even clear to me why dualism needs to be resolved - so far as I can see it's an equally valid ontological theory (along with any number of other pluralisms), and the fact that perhaps a majority of scientists tend to be materialists is just an interesting fact about scientists, rather than a scientific fact (the two can often be confused).

I'm not entirely sure if either of you are referring to dualism in this way, though. It seems to be channeling the very old meaning, as characterized by Descartes, but the language you're using is not that of analytic philosophy, which most of my own training was in.

You refer to concepts like digital and online as nouns "The Digital" "The Online" rather than as predicates. Which makes me think that they're not referring to how I think of them at all.

I find the breaking down into categories that Jurgenson does not to shed any real light, because it sets up positions based on attitudes to various predicates, but leaves the predicates themselves undefined. I'm left wondering what is meant by "reality" and "interact" when trying to make my choice of direction in his flow diagram. Indeed, it would seem to me that people could and would only end up in different boxes at the end if they had different interpretations of what those words meant. So communication is not achieved, I don't know what position I'm in at all. If different meanings are allowed for each person reading the graph, then a position is not absolute, but relative to the other positions, at best. Or, more likely, the positions are incommensurable, and the interlocutors talking past each other.

Which is, indeed, my whole take on most philosophical discussion around materialism and duality. If there's a fight, it's over the meaning of the terms used, and the winner is the one whose terms get used, usually. Or there is no fight, no real clash, just a war of similar sounding terms that are not actually referring to the same things at all, a haggle for pricing someone's apples as oranges.

Iguana Jo said...

Non vorrei apparire troppo ingenuo o tera terra, ma il dubbio mi rimane: su realtà aumentata e relazioni tra rete e vita vera, l'hai letto Charlie Stross? Pensavo a Halting State e a Rule 34.

Giovanni Tiso said...

No, mi mancano entrambi ti confesso. Stross non mi ha mai preso tanto, ma è un eclettico e mi sa che devo riprovare.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I find the breaking down into categories that Jurgenson does not to shed any real light, because it sets up positions based on attitudes to various predicates, but leaves the predicates themselves undefined. I'm left wondering what is meant by "reality" and "interact" when trying to make my choice of direction in his flow diagram"

I’m as guilty as the next fellow, but yeah - digital media, digital technology, the digital age all mean different things. So does materiality versus the physical world. However one of the reasons why it’s problematic to issue a blanket edict against a term such IRL is precisely that many people use it (even Turkle’s informant, in spite of himself) and within a wide but not indiscriminate semantic field; just like the longing to disconnect can certainly be critiqued as an attitude but shouldn’t be dismissed altogether for the simple reason that for many people it is quite real.

Ben Wilson said...

I hope you know I've got a problem with edicts, period. But I don't have a problem with people setting up a discussion framework, if they make the terms they're using clear.

In Jurgenson's framework, it's pretty clear that there's only one reality, or many, depending on your definition of reality. So what you're discovering with the flowchart is what the definitions are. But definitions aren't positions, they don't make arguments. They're just a way of using words. So the 4 positions:

-Strong Digital Dualism
-Mild Digital Dualism
-Mild Augmented Reality
-Strong Augmented Reality

are really just ways of saying how you define "reality". Two people in different boxes can't have a productive argument about anything, really, because they refuse to use the same terms. Or, they accept that changing the terms puts them in different boxes.

For what it's worth, I don't have a position. I'm neither a materialist nor a dualist because I will not insist on a particular meaning for the term "reality".

Megan Clayton said...

This tree is made of tweets.
This tree is made of teeth.

This tree is made of tears
and tweets of tears.
This tree is made of bandwidth.

This tree is made of tweets.
This tree is made of lies.

This tree is made of usernames
and aliases and avatars.
This tree is made of shoes

that stepped in off the street
that came in from the light,
that brought the night, that
bought the right.

This tree is made of me,
harrying you,
RT
RT
RT.

This tree is made of tweets.

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