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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Digital dualism enables internet idiocy; monism motivates meaning

First things first-- if you haven't already, go over to technosociology and read Zeynep Tufekci's excellent post Free Speech and Power: From Reddit Creeps to anti-Muslim Videos, It’s Not *Just* “Free Speech." You can probably glean the subject matter from that title, but the post is a very nuanced and careful (and even more careful after some edits) consideration of what free speech means on the many and varied private venues of conversation that compose the internet. I'm not really going to add to that-- just go read.

What I want to talk about here is actually something mentioned in a specific part of her post, on the significance of what happens on the internet as opposed to "real life":
Another variant of the argument has been that “it’s just the Internet.” Chill. This, of course, rests of on something I've long been railing against, the notion that the Internet is somehow not real, that it’s virtual or that it is “trivial.” (My friend Nathan Jurgenson coined the phrase “digital dualism” to refer to this tendency).
Mind/body dualism is the term for a belief that the mind and body are fundamentally separate, made of different stuff in some way. The most common version of this is belief in a soul, the locus of all of the "important" thinking-- aka, the mental stuff, the stuff that makes you, you-- which either wasn't ever part of your body or will cease to be part of your body upon your eventual demise. Digital dualism, then, is the casual belief that what happens in the internet is not part of real life-- that it is somehow fundamentally separate. The soul is separate and therefore more significant, but life on the internet is separate and therefore less so. It's not part of "real life," but a diversion from it, or at best, a tool to assist in maintaining it. Jurgenson writes regarding the genesis of this thinking:
The digital dualism versus augmented reality debate relates to another outmoded conceptualization that argues the Internet has the power to transcend and remove social locatedness. At its onset, the Internet seemed to promise the possible deconstruction of dominant and oppressive social categorizations such as gender, race, age and even species; as the cartoon goes, “online, no one knows you’re a dog”. We can trace this line of thought through the classic Hacker ethic that ‘all information should be free’ through the open-source movement behind Linux and in the philosophy of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. 
Essential to these projects was the idea that the Internet can be created as a sphere separate from (perhaps even better than) the offline world. Digitality promised a Wild-West frontier built without replicating the problems of our offline reality, fixing the its oppressive realities such as skin color, physical ability, resource scarcity as well as time and space constraints. The new digital frontier was a space where information could flow freely, national boundaries could be overcome, expertism and authority could be upended; those old structures would be wiped away in the name of a utopian and revolutionary cyber-libertarian path blazed by our heroic cyber-punk and hacker digital cowboys (indeed, those were boy’s clubs). 
This dream could only be maintained by holding the digital as conceptually distinct from the physical. Perhaps this is understandable given this new space was literally being invented. However, the novelty of the new digital reality betrayed the ultimate reality that none of this digitality really existed outside of long-standing social constructions, institutions and inequalities. (Emphasis in original)
This blog's name is due in part to digital dualism. I was trying to think of what sums up the significance and purpose of a blog most, and got stuck on the fact that a blog is a means of expressing something to the world  with little to no expenditure necessary on the part of the author, no requirement of means, let alone credentials. It requires time and effort, and that's it. That makes a blog nearly the cheapest signal possible, but that cheapness only refers to the ability of any yahoo with an internet connection to make and maintain one. The messages transmitted can also be cheap, or they can be incredibly valuable-- but that value depends on, is determined by, the messages themselves. If the messages are valuable and have an effect, that breaks from digital dualism and betrays at they are in fact part of the real world.

PZ Myers slaps away the notion that the ease of putting something out into the internet makes it less substantial or important:
The internet made publication trivial. It apparently diminished the substance of communication — no more crackling bits of paper that pile up on your desk. Media like twitter and facebook encourage you to blurt casually, with little attention to the words you write. It leads to the illusion that communication online is as insubstantial as the conversation you had with your cat. 
But it isn’t. In the vast howling noise of the internet, what you say has become more important — voices that babble and shriek don’t rise to prominence and become regular draws (they can be brief freak show sensations, though, and we do see a tendency for voices of minimal talent or intelligence striving to become louder through more extreme viciousness or stupidity). Because something is written in the intangible pattern of electrons doesn’t make it less substantial, but instead makes it easier to distribute, copy, and archive — you could burn an incriminating letter, but once it is on the internet, it is spread far and wide and, while not completely unerasable, is harder to remove…and actively trying to remove something tends to make it more noticeable and more widely disseminated. Meanwhile, I’m finding hardcopy to be less useful — I get dunned with so much junk mail, all those crackling bits of paper that offer me new credit cards at low low rates and advertisements for big screen TVs on sale and sweepstakes I must enter to win millions of dollars, that I increasingly devalue stuff that is written down. I used to photocopy journal articles every week and file them away in a cabinet — I’ve still got a huge pile of these things from 20-30 years ago — but now I rarely print anything, it’s far more useful to have a searchable, indexable, archived PDF that I can also instantly email to students and colleagues. 
Just because some old fogies don’t comprehend or appreciate the volume and content of all the communication that goes on by this medium doesn’t make it less real. The internet is not the place where a billion ghosts chatter over matters of no consequence — it’s the new reality, the tool that many of us use to make connections that matter. It’s the greatest agent of information and communication humanity has yet invented, and it deserves a little more respect than dismissal as something “unreal” where trolls can roam unchecked.
It's not just "old fogies" who are digital dualists, though-- it's those same trolls, and everyone who agrees with them that degrees of anonymity make everything matter less. The old fogies are ignorant of the reality of the internet, but the trolls are not-- they are living in denial in order to avoid accepting the responsibility of being trolls. The distance makes it easy to pretend that there are not actual other people on the end of every barbed forum post or abusive tweet. It's baffling to me to see people actually use their Facebook accounts to express every kind of bigotry and hate under the sun both on Facebook itself and on all sorts of news sites and other fora which use Facebook for commenting. Don't they know they're using their real identities for that? Of course they do, but they don't care-- the distance makes it seem like it doesn't matter.

My dissertation was, in part, about how belief in a soul can actually inhibit the ability to practice empathy by establishing the body and the physical/social environment as less important, as mundane and disposable, and then dehumanizing people to place them solidly within that realm as opposed to the company of the ensouled. Digital dualism is not an exact analog to this, but I can certainly see how empathy can be switched off by relegating others to the status of "internet people" and dismissing their concerns in a very similar way. Perhaps it's even the same move gone one step further-- if the soul is what binds us with eternity and makes us children of God in contrast to everything else in this worldly world of ours, then perhaps so-called "real life" likewise divorces us from the fake, transient, shallow world of the internet. Maybe we always need some kind of existence to subvert and make into a meaningless playground.

That certainly seems, anyway, to be the mentality on display whenever there's a discussion of poor behavior anywhere on the internet, but especially in gaming, where people can ramp "It's just the internet" up into "It's just a game." We don't need to worry about unfairness, bigotry, or general douchiness here-- it's just a game! Because I guess people who play games cease to be people. Or maybe just all other people aside the one steadfastly defending the right and appropriateness of his being a douche.

I've written on the subject of empathy inhibition on the internet before, here and here. But in the former of those two posts, I also wrote about how online interaction can foster empathy to the point of creating tremendous opportunities to help people who have been observed suffering-- observed via the internet. When people are well and truly convinced that what they do on the internet affects real people even if those people are strangers, some beautiful things can happen. That being the case, I can see no benefit in promoting the notion that the internet is not "real life." I can see only downsides. Not only is digital dualism false-- what we do online has tremendous effects, even if they are not immediately obvious or consistent-- but it's also harmful, because it encourages people to harm others without taking responsibility for it, because they do not acknowledge that those others are also people. And it impedes the opportunity for and practice of great acts of empathy.

So let's discard the dualism. This is real life. Let's act like it.

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