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.