The clear distinction between the on and offline, between human and technology, is queered beyond tenability. 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.
Nathan Jurgenson, The IRL Fetish
Jurgenson shares his thoughts on a concept I have often been thinking about lately, which he’s phrased as digital dualism. I keep reading about people taking digital sabbaticals and how we should all disconnect and feel skeptical about whether that is the right approach or not. Does there need to be a dividing line between online and offline now that internet connectivity is nearly 100% ubiquitous?
The distinction between the two was only important when there was an absolute dividing line, when you sat down at a computer and waited for your dial-up modem to connect, or you had to switch computers in a computer lab because the network connection wasn’t functioning properly.
Now, not only are we always connected with our devices, it’s as Jurgenson says, “we carry [it] within us.” The moments of being together with friends or family members used to be about those shared moments and people would pose for group photographs have been replaced by trying to capture as many mini-moments within that larger moment. It is not enough to capture the group in a perfect picture, people want to capture the moment where the ice cream is dripping down the face just so to be able to share it with others later.
Beyond the hard disconnects preached by digital sabbaticals, both Jurgenson and Ben Brooks talk about how people are romantacizing the older technologies as a way of promoting the off-line lifestyle. Jurgenson writes:
The current obsession with the analog, the vintage, and the retro has everything to do with this fetishization of the offline. The rise of the mp3 has been coupled with a resurgence in vinyl. Vintage cameras and typewriters dot the apartments of Millennials. Digital photos are cast with the soft glow, paper borders, and scratches of Instagram’s faux-vintage filters.
I see this differently.
People are turning to vinyl because it sounds better, and it’s accessible still through record shops and used stores. When you go to a pawn shop, you are more likely to find vinyl records than you are casettes, for example. Instagram is appealing because it separates the photos from “the normal.” People are constantly seeking out ways to carve out their own lifestyle niches to be rebelious or to explore what feels good to them, and so on.
The other part of this is identifying the real challenges in the world today and trying to do their part with it. Going to a thrift shop to purchase clothes or used books eliminates those items from being thrown into a landfill somewhere. People are very much aware of consumerism lifestyles and wanting to reverse those trends.
I don’t think of it as disconnecting. I think of it as a way to strengthen the bonds between people, to make friendships last longer and be more meaningful. They are likely discovering like-minded people through Facebook or Twitter, but their experiences are not easily shared in those environments. They need to be taken to alternative spaces, similar to how people migrate to World of Warcraft or attend ComicCon. If ComicCon ceased to exist, people would find a new space to congregate, whether it be a physical space or a place in Second Life.
Online spaces are a more accessible version of what may exist physically or would have been developed otherwise. Whereas some people like to hang out in bars at certain hours of the day to connect with their friends, others prefer to carry a smartphone in their pocket to connect with theirs.
It is difficult to leave or disconnect from a place you wish to be apart of: a social club, a choir, a bar, a social network. It is going to be increasingly more difficult to distinguish the social interactions from one compared to the others.