I’ve spent the better part of the past 48 hours editing a chapter of my thesis called ‘Always online: How social networks and mobile phones re-embodied and re-placed digital narratives’.
The crux of the piece is that over the course of the past ten years (what some might call the ‘Web 2.0‘ era), and particular over the past five years since smartphone ownership rates skyrocketed and Internet-enabled mobile devices became the norm, the dichotomies of online/offline and virtual/real have become less meaningful, and certainly less useful, ways of describing the relationship that we, the users, have with the Internet. Not only has the Internet moved rapidly from being the haunt of geeks and researchers to a tool that everyone uses, but really, we’re always online. Having access is something that we take for granted; the trade off of ubiquity is that we’re never really alone, and never really ‘offline’.
I read this blog post by Nathan Jurgenson, a doctoral researcher from the University of Maryland, about the tendency of society – particularly the mainstream media – to still reduce life to digital dualisms, despite the fact that the notion of there being anything at all ‘fake’ about the Internet is far out of date. It was a timely post for me, as he’s managed to say in 500 words what I’ve been battling with for the past two days (more eloquently, of course).
The term that Jurgenson uses is digital dualisms. This is the notion that the dichotomies I mentioned above – online/offline, virtual/real (and others, like disembodied/corporeal, mind/body) – are absolutes when it comes to the Internet. It is the idea that everything that happens online is fake – and that, somehow, we possess the ability to switch ourselves on and off – connecting and disconnecting from ‘the matrix’ (hi, 1980s cyberpunk fantasies).
Digital dualism is the attitude that regards the Internet as some kind of digital other-space, and the interactions and relationships that are enacted within that space as entirely fictional.
zomg virtual reality. this is how i access the internet. /source/
For most of us in the field of Internet research, online space stopped being perceived as a virtual Other a long time ago. For me, it began with the move toward an increasingly social web. Once upon a time (in a land far away), people would go online and construct alternate identities for themselves. They weren’t necessarily fake, digital representations of the self, but they weren’t quite the same as the everyday offline self, either. It was not always the norm to use our real names and post photos of ourselves on publicly accessible profile pages, nor was it the norm to connect online (via social network ‘friendships’) with people we knew offline. It happened, definitely, but not on the scale that we today perceive as standard, thanks to Myspace, Facebook, and the like. Without going in to the details of how Jurgenson’s post arose (you can read the full story here – basically it involves an American college footballer being duped into a relationship with a woman who didn’t exist, and the media are calling it a “digital hoax”), I instead wanted to highlight some of the things that he’s said that really exemplify how incorrect many attitudes are to the way so-called “digital” life works.
For some reason, users – especially young ones – are depicted in the mainstream media as possessing a plethora of social ineptitudes as a result of always having their eyes glued to their smartphones. Their only real skills, some would have you believe, are taking selfies and demonstrating nonchalance toward anything that happens in the ‘real’ world. They’re portrayed as so disconnected that they’re more zombie than human, lost causes aimlessly wandering the digital (ahem) streets of cyberspace. Probably on the Information Superhighway. When they’re not too busy surfing the net. And sexting.
The point isn’t that there exists a digital world that’s fake; it’s that there isn’t a digital world. The hoax is the invention of some cyber reality we’ve traded the offline for, where interaction is fake. The hoax is this conceptual error that Egan and other digital dualists rely on to make many of their arguments.
These writers get mileage out of calling this a “digital deception” and declare the Internet “fake” in order to have a convenient answer (“technology!”) for real, messy, complicated, human problems like celebrity, romance, and deception. Blaming technology also provides a simpler solution: “less technology!” And as I discuss in my IRL Fetish essay, by constructing the digital as some “other” place, and then judging that as “virtual” and less real, one can then value their own non-use as more human and deep.
I couldn’t agree with this any more. For some reason that makes absolutely no sense to me, but complete sense to most, the Internet and its goings-on are still a convenient scapegoat for real, complicated human problems. Young person has a naked photograph plastered all over the web? Blame Facebook! Celebrity attacked by the public via social media? Blame Twitter! Parents don’t know how to control their children? Blame teh intarwebz!
Here’s a thought. Perhaps the reason that the media and, it must be said, many parents, are still demonising the Internet is because they’re from a generation that didn’t grow up online, and this technology is still relatively new to them. As such, they lack the skills to adequately interpret the place that it has in society. It’s like that idea that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Likewise, the Internet (which is not actually a sentient, autonomous being, incidentally) doesn’t create hoaxes – people do. People attack and hurt and deceive each other, and it’s high time that we (the collective We – society) realised that. The Internet is merely a communications tool. It’s the same as a telephone or a CB radio or a letter, for god’s sake. Without people, these are inert objects and systems.
the internet: not as terrifying as you think. //source//
I’d really recommend that you read Nathan Jurgenson’s post. He makes a lot of sense. More than me. My prediction is that to the society-leading adults of the future, this malarkey over cyber-hoaxes and general digital fear mongering will seem completely ridiculous. They’ll have grown up online, they’ll have already made the mistakes that we’re accusing them of now making, and they’ll have come up with ways to deal with it – from different parenting skills, to formal education, to the relaxation of hype in the media. More to the point, online behaviour will just be common sense because it will be normal. Nobody who grew up with a telephone fears the unseen dangers that lurk on the other side of the line, and the media has, for the most past, stopped with the moral panic about television.
It’s called technology, everyone. It changes, and sometimes it’s a bit scary, but it’s not always a bad thing.