First things first: The IRL Fetish, written by Nathan Jurgenson for The New Inquiry is an essay you should read in full and bookmark right away, because it’s one of the best you’ll find, especially for its clarity in describing this ‘tech life’ many of us live today. A tech life where “Thoughts, ideas, locations, photos, identities, friendships, memories, politics, and almost everything else are finding their way to social media.”
It’s a captivating, thought-provoking read. The central part, the point Jurgenson makes which I find absolutely spot-on, is this:
To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection. Author after author pretends to be a lone voice, taking a courageous stand in support of the offline in precisely the moment it has proliferated and become over-valorized. For many, maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses. “I am real. I am the thoughtful human. You are the automaton.” I am reminded of a line from a recent essay by Sarah Nicole Prickett: that we are “so obsessed with the real that it’s unrealistic, atavistic, and just silly.” How have we come to make the error of collectively mourning the loss of that which is proliferating?
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.
Digital information has long been portrayed as an elsewhere, a new and different cyberspace, a tendency I have coined the term “digital dualism” to describe: the habit of viewing the online and offline as largely distinct. The common (mis)understanding is experience is zero-sum: time spent online means less spent offline. We are either jacked into the Matrix or not; we are either looking at our devices or not. When camping, I have service or not, and when out to eat, my friend is either texting or not. The smartphone has come to be “the perfect symbol” of leaving the here and now for something digital, some other, cyber, space.
But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say “IRL” to mean offline: Facebook is real life.
Yet, while reading this very fine argument, I started having some doubts. My point of view is one of a person who has experienced ‘life before the Web’ and who has lived through the great impact and transformations brought by the Internet from the mid-1990s up to now. That is why I don’t completely agree when Jurgenson writes “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.”
I tend to see some kind of separation between the online and the offline because, well, I lived that moment when the online started creeping into my life. I lived that moment where the online started becoming an activity that separated me, in some ways, from my surroundings. I lived that moment in which logging in and ‘going online’ was somehow like going someplace else. And since I could spend (a lot of) time doing things in this ‘other place’, the experience was more addicting and detaching than, say, losing myself in a book (an ‘offline’ activity). While over the years and especially in these recent years I’ve come to accept this increasing interconnection between the online and the offline, while I’ve come to terms with the fact that technology has gone under our skin (figuratively for now, and maybe literally soon), for me the “disconnection from the smartphone and social media” is still a disconnection, and “the logic of social media” doesn’t follow me long after I log out.
That is why my position starts diverging from Jurgenson’s when he writes:
Facebook doesn’t curtail the offline but depends on it. What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media. The photos posted, the opinions expressed, the check-ins that fill our streams are often anchored by what happens when disconnected and logged-off. The Web has everything to do with reality; it comprises real people with real bodies, histories, and politics. It is the fetish objects of the offline and the disconnected that are not real.
I politely beg to differ here: I’m not entirely sure that “What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media.” Or rather, I’m not entirely sure it’s this simple. I see increasingly strange and quirky behaviours online from people who — I suspect — have less and less offline material to offer as ‘fuel’. In other, more blunt words, I notice behaviours of people whose life when not connected is practically non-existent. I notice this in the way people express their opinions in online forums and discussion threads on sites and blogs where comments are permitted. I notice certain ways of reacting, certain ways of interpreting things, certain lack of logic and common sense that in my opinion reveals how little of ‘the offline world’, of ‘the world out there’ these people have experienced. (Or how much they’ve come to rely on the online dimension only, getting information there and there only, without being able to effectively sort the wheat from the chaff.)
This is what I find most dangerous: that this increasing presence of the online in our lives might end up throwing off the delicate balance between online and offline, and progressively become self-sustaining. I’m exaggerating a bit here with the dystopia, I know, but since Jurgenson mentions The Matrix, think about the scene where Cypher meets Agent Smith at the restaurant and says: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? … Ignorance is bliss.
“The Web has everything to do with reality — Jurgenson writes — it comprises real people with real bodies, histories, and politics.” It is true, yet at the same time we have to start asking ourselves what is this ‘reality’ we’re talking about, because the Web has everything to do with a reality the Web itself is changing and transforming every day. The IRL (In Real Life) dimension may be fetishised by some, but I’ve also encountered people who clearly fetishise the online. People for whom Facebook is indeed real life and not just an ingredient, a part of it. People for whom an Internet acquaintance has the same importance as the person they’re meeting face to face.
Let’s be clear here. I’m not saying that people you exclusively interact with online are less important than the ones you know in person. We’re all real people with real bodies, etc. What feels wrong is the lack of focus and depth of field, so to speak: we are meeting for a dinner among friends, why does texting or chatting on your smartphone with your acquaintance overseas have to get the same focus, the same prominence, as the situation you’re living this very moment, in the here and now, with the people you’re having dinner with? I’m not saying ‘Don’t use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so forth’, I’m just saying ‘Why now? Why do you have to lose yourself in that portable glowing device (smartphone or tablet) right now? I’m simply advocating layers, foreground and background, depth. Do you really feel that checking in to Foursquare when you enter a pub, or snapping photos of the food you’re about to eat and sharing them on Instagram, or chatting online with your smartphone with someone who’s not even there (unless we’re talking of loved ones and significant others) makes for an enriching, fuller experience?
In short: I realise the digital and physical are enmeshed and dichotomies are silly here, but where is this inseparable interconnection taking us? Who knows, perhaps what Jurgenson calls fetishisation of the offline is some kind of reaction to the very infiltration of the online, of the digital, into our lives. Some kind of re-adjustment.
Finally, the part I disagree with Jurgenson the most is this paragraph near the end:
Those who mourn the loss of the offline are blind to its prominence online. When Turkle was walking Cape Cod, she breathed in the air, felt the breeze, and watched the waves with Facebook in mind. The appreciation of this moment of so-called disconnection was, in part, a product of online connection. The stroll ultimately was understood as and came to be fodder for her op-ed, just as our own time spent not looking at Facebook becomes the status updates and photos we will post later.
How can Jurgenson be so sure of that? Honestly, when I disconnect from the Web and the online (and it happens for a few weeks every year), when I go for a hike or excursion, I love to feel the place, to feel the moment for myself. In those circumstances, believe me, the Internet is far far away. I write notes in my paper notebook, I take photos with my film and digital cameras, but I’m not doing those activities with the urge of sharing them online later. For me, sharing is a choice, not a need. Compared to my experiences offline, what I share online is little, really. I’m wired that way. I like to share, mind you, but online sharing is not the ultimate goal of what I do every day.
(And by the way, sharing offline — lending books, making others listen to certain music you like by being in the same room while listening, showing photos in person, sending postcards, giving small gifts — for me is certainly more satisfying. Something I loved to do when digital photography was just in its infancy, was taking Polaroids of the sky, of the clouds, on different days and in different weather conditions, and then giving them to people I cared for so that they could use them as bookmarks. Their reaction to my little idea was indeed a fulfilling experience).
“[O]ur own time spent not looking at Facebook becomes the status updates and photos we will post later” to me sounds like too simplistic a statement, and while I shudder as I reckon that for some people it may not get more complex than that, I most certainly don’t think and don’t function that way. The time I spend offline is definitely not a function of what I may or may not do online later, or what I’ve done online before. For example, when I take a photo during a walk around town, I don’t choose the subject thinking “Hah, I can’t wait to show this on Flickr or Instagram”. I simply photograph things I love, scenes or fragments which have attracted my attention somehow. This always comes first. Then I might choose to post such photos or not. There isn’t any compulsion to share or towards online social media. There is a sphere of privacy, of intimacy, of feeling certain experiences as mine and mine only, where the online is simply not allowed to bleed in. It’s probably a subtlety, but it makes all the difference to me.