The fetishization of the offline, and a new definition of real

The impact of the Internet on society and relationships is a common theme on this site. I recently stumbled on a few articles on this topic that I think are worth highlighting. Yes, this idea has been covered a lot, and Sherry Turkle’s recent New York Times article brought the discussion to the forefront yet again. But don’t roll your eyes — there are some interesting arguments in these articles. As usual, I’m going to quote some key sections from each, but I highly recommend that you queue all of these up in Instapaper and read them in order. It’s great weekend reading!

It all started with Nathan Jurgenson’s The IRL Fetish — an excellent reflection on the stark (and fairly recent) distinction we make between being online and offline:

We are far from forgetting about the offline; rather we have become obsessed with being offline more than ever before. We have never appreciated a solitary stroll, a camping trip, a face-to-face chat with friends, or even our boredom better than we do now. Nothing has contributed more to our collective appreciation for being logged off and technologically disconnected than the very technologies of connection. The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity. In short, w’ve never cherished being alone, valued introspection, and treasured information disconnection more than we do now. Never has being disconnected — even if for just a moment — felt so profound.

He goes on to describe the obsession with the analog and the vintage — like the resurgence of vinyl — as the “fetishization of the offline”. An interesting, provocative phrase. The core of his argument follows:

In great part, the reason is that we have been taught to mistakenly view online as meaning not offline. The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online. If we can fix this false separation and view the digital and physical as enmeshed, we will understand that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected. That is, disconnection from the smartphone and social media isn’t really disconnection at all: The logic of social media follows us long after we log out. There was and is no offline; it is a lusted-after fetish object that some claim special ability to attain, and it has always been a phantom.

Nathan’s essay kicked off a slew of thoughtful responses that commend him for the article, but also disagree on some key points. First, the always brilliant Nicholas Carr responds in The line between offline and online:

I’m going to resist the temptation to quote some Wordsworth or Thoreau, but I will say while our present age may be tops in some things, it’s far from tops in the area of solitary strolls. The real tragedy — if in fact you see it as a tragedy, and most people do not — is that the solitary stroll, the camping trip, the gabfest with pals are themselves becoming saturated with digital ephemera. Even if we agree to turn off our gadgets for a spell, they remain ghostly presences — all those missed messages hang like apparitions in the air, taunting us — and that serves to separate us from the experience we seek. What we appreciate in such circumstances, what we might even obsess over, is an absence, not a presence.

I find that comment interesting because where Nathan claims that being online is inseparable from the experience of being offline, he doesn’t say anything about the negative effects of that. Nicholas points out that even though online experiences can enhance our offline relationships, it’s also true that those relationships can be affected negatively by our inability to let go of the online.

Next up, Michael Sacasas has similar objections in his piece In Search of the Real, but he also adds this thought on the distinction between being offline and online:

I would not say as Jurgenson does at one point, “Facebook is real life.” The point, of course, is that every aspect of life is real. There is no non-being in being. Perhaps it is better to speak of the real not as the opposite of the virtual, but as that which is beyond our manipulation, what cannot be otherwise. In this sense, the pervasive self-consciousness that emerges alongside the socially keyed online is the real. It is like an incontrovertible law that cannot be broken. It is a law haunted by the loss its appearance announces, and it has no power to remedy that loss. It is a law without a gospel.

Aha — now we’re getting somewhere. The distinction between online and offline is legitimate, but calling one experience real and the other not doesn’t work. Instead, the only part of this discussion where the word “real” should come in, is when we talk about our realization/self-awareness that there is a distinction between online and offline — and it behooves us to figure out what that distinction means.

Adam Graber takes the discussion in a slightly different direction in Offline:

The same is true for every technology. It makes new things possible, but it also alters what we consider normal. Every technology is a new normal. The point though is not to try and “fix” it by logging off or downgrading or abandoning technology altogether. The point is to be aware of it. To understand not only what technology makes possible, but also what it normalizes, and even what it makes impossible.

There’s the “awareness” concept again. He continues:

Impossible like living offline IRL and seeing a beautiful sky without being tempted to Instagram it or having a brilliant idea and not writing a blog about it. Because online, the only things that exist are the things you put there. Otherwise, offline, all the ephemeral grandeur and intricacy of our daily lives does not exist unless we somehow capture it with our technology. The only other way to revel the fleeting moments of our lives is to experience it with someone else — a meeting of sorts. But technology makes it so we don’t have to.

The theme is clear by now. Online and offline experiences are both real, but they have positive and negative effects on each other. As we discussed earlier, online experiences can enhance offline relationships because we bring our online interactions into those relationships, but they can also be broken down by online’s constant and relentless hold on our consciousness.

Finally, Nicholas Carr weighs in again and pulls it all together with I was offline before offline was offline:

But the fact that we now consciously experience two different states of being called “online” and “offline,” which didn’t even exist a few years ago, shows how deeply technology can influence not only what we do but how we perceive ourselves and the world. Certainly we didn’t consciously choose to look at our lives in this way and then formulate the technology to fulfill our desire. The defense contractors who started building the internet didn’t say to each other, “For the good of mankind, let’s create a new dichotomy in perception.” And when we, as individuals, log on for the first time (or the ten-thousandth time), we don’t say to ourselves, “I’m going to use this new technology so I’ll be able to think about my life in terms of being online and being offline.” But that’s what happens.

It’s not that technology “wants” us to think in this way — technology doesn’t want a damn thing — it’s that technology has side effects that are unintended, unimagined, unplanned-for, unchosen, often invisible, and frequently profound. Technology gave us nature, as its shadow, and in a similar way it has given us “the offline.”

Some might say that these types of discussions are a waste of time. That people react with hand-waving alarmism every time a new technology emerges — the telephone and the printing press were going to make us stupid long before Google might be doing it. And it’s true that for every good discussion about this, there’s an equally bad one (looking at you, Newsweek). But I think that we have to keep talking and arguing about this, because it is in the extremes of these arguments that we find the middle ground that approximates the true impact of technology on our lives.

I recently went searching for my first tweet, and it’s about as inane as I expected:

I can honestly say that after more than 4 years, I still don’t know how this thing works. I know that being connected has altered my life in profound ways — some good (I get to write here!), some bad (I definitely struggle to put the phone down). But I think I’m ok with not knowing as long as enough people are coming together to try to understand how this online/offline thing affects us — and to challenge each other’s ideas in a thoughtful way.

I agree with Nicholas — technology doesn’t care what we do with it. But we cannot stumble blindly ahead without striving for the self-awareness that this still-real new reality requires. Because once we understand it, we’ll truly be able to regain control over the technology that is shaping us.