If we want to understand digital dualism properly, we need to abandon the concept of ‘digital dualism’

In a recent post Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, offered a really interesting critique of what has become an increasingly influential idea within the sociological blogosphere: digital dualism. He begins with what is probably the clearest summary of digital dualism I have yet to encounter:

The distinction between online and offline is an outdated holdover from twenty years ago, when “going online,” through America Online or Prodigy or Compuserve, was like “going shopping.” It was an event with clear demarcations, in time and space, and it usually comprised a limited and fairly routinized set of activities. As Net access has expanded, to the point that, for many people, it is coterminous with existence itself, the line between online and offline has become so blurred that the terms have become useless or, worse, misleading.

The underlying point is one which I find glaringly obvious, as I’ve explained elsewhere:

Until the recent proliferation of mobile devices, it was necessary to sit down at a computer and stare at a screen to use the internet. This helps creates a sense of the internet as a ‘virtual’ space which is in some way disembodied. As someone who has had unpleasant back and neck problems from my posture when using a computer in the past, it’s always been obvious to me that using the internet is not at all disembodied. Though the obviousness of this has become utterly glaring, to the extent that I can’t quite take those who disagree seriously, since I started using an iPad and iPhone. Similarly the cyberpunk romanticisation of the ‘virtual’ plays a cultural role in propping up this ontological assumption.

However ‘digital dualism’ is a critical term, it conceptualises an ontological fallacy. The whole point of the concept is that digital dualists are mistaken. If the concept is useful, which I still think it is, it is because it helps elucidate how and why  ‘digital dualists’ are mistaken. Crucially I’d suggest that digital dualism is not always an assumption people are aware that they are making – in a similar way to the sexual assumption, it is architectonic, it is conceptually presupposed by certain views people are aware that they hold and it rail roads their thinking in certain directions. But this doesn’t mean that people reflectively think there are two separate ‘worlds’ which are entirely independent of each other.

I think the concept can be more useful understood as our deliberations being conceptually structured, they are concepts in social circulation which have a certain practical plausibility for some (i.e. if you primarily or entirely use the internet by sitting down at a desk, turning on a computer and logging on then the distinction between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ just makes sense) and so culture and practice reinforce each other. They are tools we think with, both in terms of our internal conversations and also how we externalise such inner conversations to external others. As a pretty strong claim, I’d suggest that ‘online’ and ‘offline’ are the sorts of terms we only ever really use when we’re talking to others about something which we’ve previously been introspecting about by ourselves.

The problem with ‘digital dualism’, as a catchy but flawed critical concept rather than as the attitude it designates, rests on its inadequacy as a term to make sense of this empirical complexity. It surely designates something real and interesting. But it does so at such a degree of abstraction that, when applied to empirical subject matter, it’s apparent sophisticated belies a strikingly limited interpretive repetoire. Carr makes this point usefully

 There is something tiresome about the self-righteousness of those who see, and promote, their devotion to the offline as a sign of their superiority. It’s like those who can’t wait to tell you that they don’t own a TV. But that’s a quirk that has more to do with individual personality than with some general and delusional dualist mentality. Jurgenson’s real mistake is to assume, grumpily, that pretty much everyone who draws a distinction in life between online experience and offline experience is in the grip of a superiority complex or is striking some other kind of pose. That provides him with an easy way to avoid discussing a far more probable and far more interesting interpretation of contemporary behavior and attitudes: that people really do feel a difference and even a conflict between their online experience and their offline experience. They’re not just engaged in posing or fetishization or valorization or some kind of contrived identity game. They’re not faking it. They’re expressing something important about themselves and their lives—something real. Jurgenson doesn’t want to admit that possibility. To him, people are just worshipping a phantom: “The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online.”

The difficulty here can, I’d argue, be understood in terms of Margaret Archer’s concept of ‘central conflation’. This is an idea she uses to make sense of what she takes to be mistaken orientates towards the structure and agency debate in sociology. This is the Wikipedia entry I wrote about this, which I’ll quote because this post is taking a lot longer to write than I initially planned:

Archer argues that much social theory suffers from the generic defect of conflation where, due to a reluctance or inability to theorize emergent relationships between social phenomena, causal autonomy is denied to one side of the relation. This can take the form of autonomy being denied to agency with causal efficacy only granted to structure (downwards conflation). Alternatively it can take the form of autonomy being denied to structure with causal efficacy only granted to agency (upwards conflation). Finally it may take the form of central conflation where structure and agency are seen as being co-constitutive i.e. structure is reproduced through agency which is simultaneously constrained and enabled by structure. The most prominent example of central conflation is the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens. While not objecting to this approach on philosophical grounds, Archer does object to it on analytical grounds: by conflating structure and agency into unspecified movements of co-constitution, central conflationary approaches preclude the possibility of sociological exploration of the relative influence of each aspect.

In contradistinction Archer offers the approach of analytical dualism.[1] While recognizing the interdependence of structure and agency (i.e. without people there would be no structures) she argues that they operate on different timescales. At any particular moment, antecedently existing structures constrain and enable agents, whose interactions produce intended and unintended consequences, which leads to structural elaboration and the reproduction or transformation of the initial structure. The resulting structure then provides a similar context of action for future agents. Likewise the initial antecedently existing structure was itself the outcome of structural elaboration resulting from the action of prior agents. So while structure and agency are interdependent, Archer argues that it is possible to unpick them analytically. By isolating structural and/or cultural factors which provide a context of action for agents, it is possible to investigate how those factors shape the subsequent interactions of agents and how those interactions in turn reproduce or transform the initial context. Archer calls this a morphogenetic sequence. Social processes are constituted through an endless array of such sequences but, as a consequence of their temporal ordering, it is possible to disengage any such sequence in order to investigate its internal causal dynamics. Through doing so, argues Archer, it’s possible to give empirical accounts of how structural and agential phenomena interlink over time rather than merely stating their theoretical interdependence.

My point is that the critique of ‘digital dualism’ can too easily conflate the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’. In doing so, we’re left with a situation where, yes, we’ve acknowledged their interpentration but because we’ve ‘transcended’ the dichotomy, we lose the ability to unpack the interplay between its two sides. The argument that “no, you’re wrong, these aren’t separate things at all!” is useful in so far as that it allows us to identify an interface between two things that were erroneously deemed to be distinct. Likewise, it can help us understand the mistakes which ensued from imputing a discreteness which was mistaken. But it becomes a problem when the argument which allows us to identify and critique comes to preclude our capacity to explain. It becomes a problem when our eagerness to explain “you’re so wrong, look how interpenetrative they are” obscures the variation and sequencing of that interpenetration. The ‘online’ and the ‘offline’ are not distinct. But the modalities of their interpenetration are empirically variable in a profound, interesting and important manner. We need a conceptual toolkit which allows us to both identify and unpack that empirical variability. I don’t think that the idea of ‘augmented reality’ (the ‘correct’ counterpart to digital dualism)  can provide these tools.

4 thoughts on “If we want to understand digital dualism properly, we need to abandon the concept of ‘digital dualism’

  1. “He begins with what is probably the clearest summary of digital dualism I have yet to encounter”

    buuuut that summary you quoted isn’t really what those discussing digital dualism are talking about! that’s his new invention, but not what “has become an increasingly influential idea within the sociological blogosphere”.

    Carr surely did use “digital dualism” to conflate difference, but that’s simply using the term poorly. for me, and many others writing on the topic, the purpose of the digital dualism critique is that in order to best explain the deeply different ways people encounter the digital one must begin with the assumption of digital enmeshment. the synthetic view best explains difference. this is the point so many have made, and that Carr neglected in his post.

  2. Hi Nathan, sorry for late response, wanted to have a read over your stuff before replying but took me a while to find the time. Now I have I’m a little confused about your point (and I suspect I didn’t get mine across very well) – the clarification you make here is something I hadn’t read previously and it’s precisely what I was driving at:

    At some level, yes, the boarders of these different properties are blurry, and it’s a good idea to never treat any categories hegemonically, but an email and a paper letter are the result of those different properties, different affordances, and I wouldn’t want to forfeit being able to talk about that. So I’ll concede that “digital” and “physical” and “online” and “offline” are all problematic categories and will instead insist that they can be salvaged by treating them as what Max Weber called “ideal types”, conceptual categories that are useful to think with, even if they are never perfectly realized in practice.

    My point being that explaining the empirical interpentetration of the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’ necessitates that we analytically distinguish the different dimensions in spite of their empirical ‘enmeshment’. When I say ‘explain’ I mean very literally explain in the context of empirical research – I was criticising the broader debate for its lack of conceptual tools that can be deployed usefully by social researchers, not criticising it as a set of theoretical propositions.

    And to be frank I was initially kind of baffled by the idea that the view Carr offers is an invention and not “what those discussing digital dualism are talking about”. But then I read your response to Carr, which did help clarify – and credit to you for acknowledging how this ‘misinterpretation’ of digital dualism stems from a perfectly understandable reading of your early writing on this, which I shared with Carr – but also entrenches my view that this is a dead end for social research. I completely 100% agree with you about the nature of this enmeshment but I’m interested in exploring (and EXPLAINING) the historical variability, as well as the social and technological conditions underlying it, which it seems blindingly obvious to me characterises this enmeshment. I want conceptual tools which help unpick and unpack the nature of this enmeshment for concrete actors in concrete settings.

  3. Mark,

    Excellent piece. I think, particularly in your concluding paragraph, you explain the fundamental unhelpfulness of “digital dualism” as a critical concept and why it’s ultimately a “dead end.” And I agree that Nathan’s (newfound) desire to separate the discussion from considerations of “historical variability,” particularly the dramatic changes in how people access the Net (and other online services), further underscores how a focus on supposed dualism actually distracts us from the really interesting questions. “We’ve always been cyborgs” and “reality has always been augmented” are true statements, but they’re not particularly interesting statements. I think we all begin with the assumption of “digital enmeshment,” and I’m not sure why Nathan keeps suggesting that this is a contested point. It’s the nature of the enmeshment that’s the interesting subject, and, as you suggest, that requires making distinctions between “online” and “offline” and testing the porous boundary between the two in many different ways. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that there are correct and incorrect ways of thinking about and discussing online and offline.



  4. Perhaps unsurprisingly I’m in complete agreement with you here! I’m worried this debate in its current form isn’t going anywhere useful or amicable though – I’m going to leave it for a while and come back to it post-PhD later in the summer.

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