Digital Dualism

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Nathan Jurgenson: against the separation of the real and the virtual

1. The Critique

" some have a bias to see the digital and the physical as separate; what I am calling digital dualism. Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.

In a 2009 post titled “Towards Theorizing An Augmented Reality,” I discussed geo-tagging (think Foursquare or Facebook Places), street view, face recognition, the Wii controller and the fact that sites like Facebook both impact and are impacted by the physical world to argue that “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.” This is opposed to the notion that the Internet is like the Matrix, where there is a “real” (Zion) that you leave when you enter the virtual space (the Matrix) -an outdated perspective as Facebook is increasingly real and our physical world increasingly digital.

I have used this perspective of augmentation to critque dualism when I see it. For instance, last year I posted a rebuttal to the digital-dualist critique of so-called “slacktivism” that claimed “real” activism is being traded for a cyber-based slacker activism. No, cyber-activism should be seen in context with physical world activism and how they interact. Taken alone, yes, much of the cyber-activism would not amount to much. But used in conjunction with offline efforts, it can be powerful. And, of course, my point is much, much easier to make with the subsequent uprisings in the Arab world that utilize both digital and physical organizing. This augmented dissent will be a topic for another post.

Recently, I have critiqued “cyborg anthropologist” Amber Case for her use of Turkle’s outdated term “second self” to describe our online presence. My critique was that conceptually splitting so-called “first” and “second” selves creates a “false binary” because “people are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction is becoming increasingly irrelevant.” [I'll offer my own take for what that digital presence should be called in a soon-to-come post.]

But the dualism keeps rolling in. There are the popular books that typically critique social media from the digital dualist perspective. Besides Turkle’s Alone Together, there is Carr’s The Shallows, Morozov’s The Net Delusion, Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, Siegel’s You Are Not a Gadget, and the list goes on (we can even include the implicit argument in the 2010 blockbuster movie The Social Network). All of these argue that the problem with social media is that people are trading the rich, physical and real nature of face-to face contact for the digital, virtual and trivial quality of Facebook. The critique stems from the systematic bias to see the digital and physical as separate; often as a zero-sum tradeoff where time and energy spent on one subtracts from the other. This is digital dualism par excellence. And it is a fallacy." (

2. The alternative

"I am proposing an alternative view that states that our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once. We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities, ala The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits. And our selves are not separated across these two spheres as some dualistic “first” and “second” self, but is instead an augmented self. A Haraway-like cyborg self comprised of a physical body as well as our digital Profile, acting in constant dialogue. Our Facebook profiles reflect who we know and what we do offline, and our offline lives are impacted by what happens on Facebook (e.g., how we might change our behaviors in order to create a more ideal documentation).

Most importantly, research demonstrates what social media users already know: we are not trading one reality for another at all, but, instead, using sites like Facebook and others actually increase offline interaction. This is not zero-sum dualism." (

PJ Rey on the proper Augmented Reality paradigm

PJ Rey:

"What distinguishes a mediated-reality perspective from an augmented-reality perspective is, precisely, that it fails to capture the recursivity of the online and offline. In fact, it generally examines the way in which the online alters the offline at the expense of recognizing the ways in which the offline has always been reproduced through the online. For this reason, the mediated-reality perspective distorts the social world. It tends to reinforce digital dualism even as it attacks it, by assuming that that online networks and their content emerged ex nihlio. Thus, I generally view “mediated reality” as a pejorative descriptor. Nevertheless, mediate reality was the predominant ideology informing Internet research in the 2000s.

If mediated-reality is problematic, virtual reality is more problematic. Not only does virtual reality assume that the origins of the online world are independent of the offline world, it also assume that the online world has no bearing on the offline world – the online is assumed to be completely isolated from and to actually “displace” the offline world. The concept of virtual reality is digital dualism par excellance. Early (1990s) Internet literature is widely characterized by the virtual reality perspective of the Internet. For this reason, it was filled with skepticism and concern that our healthy social interaction was giving way to unhealthy simulated social interaction. Despite the fact that a number of studies (e.g., Wellman, 2001) that demonstrate the coextensive nature of online and offline social interaction, many theorists discussing social media tend to continue reify this supposed dichotomy.

In the tradition of much post-Modern theorizing, “augmented reality” offers a new conceptual paradigm, seeking to implode/queer/do category work on the real/virtual dichotomy and make room for a more flexible understanding of social media that allows for recursivity between these two concepts. A person embedded in augmented reality is a cyborg in the Harawaysian sense. For this reason, the editors of this blog have proposed – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that our research is best understood as “cyborgology.” In augmented reality, the culture is hyper-literally super-imposed on the material. Our bodies and all other objects in the world become canvases for the digital and its rapid circulation of signs and symbols. In Bauman’s term, everything becomes a conduit of Liquid (post-)Modernity. However, the symbolic order expressed through the digital does not emerge out of nothing; it is a reproduction or extension of what has always existed. The digital and material are always in circulation and neither can be abstracted from the new order of social relations. That is to say, society in neither online or offline; it is augmented. Thus, augmented reality and the cyborgs who populate it are now the proper objects of sociological inquiry." (