Breaking Bread, Breaking Digital Dualism

New York Times author David Carr has a wonderful, mouth-watering piece about the joys of sitting to dinner with a group of friends and eating home-made bread baked from a recipe passed on from the host’s mother. Then he finishes the column with this point about face-to-face interaction:

All of which is a way of saying something that is probably obvious to others who are less digitally obsessed: you can follow someone on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, quote or be quoted by them in a newspaper article, but until you taste their bread, you don’t really know them.

I agree with most everything he says in the column because, besides the last paragraph, his column is a antidote to digital dualism–the idea that online and offline worlds are somehow separate entities, one “virtual” and the other “real.” But his column brings back digital dualism at the end–and does a disservice, in my opinion, to the rest of his points. He starts by explaining how the dinner group first met each other mostly online, then had this beautiful dinner together, and then shared the recipe over email–and ponders whether or not Google would ever find this recipe. (It seems that Carr asked the host, Clay Shirky, for the recipe and I have a feeling that it might soon end up where Google can find it.)

All these examples of how the online interacts with offline are clear example of why questions like “face-to-face or online friendship?” or “was online or offline more important in the Arab spring?” are not fruitful. The answer is yes. Because there is no “virtual” world separate from this world. As Nathan Jurgenson, who often writes about “digital dualism”, puts it the correct model to understand the Internet is not that the Internet is the “Matrix” and this world is “Zion” a la the movie Matrix. The world is one.

However, that one world is not the same one as the world before the Internet. What’s analytically and politically important is that the online is NOT the same as the offline, not that online and offline are somehow two separate planets. Bits and atoms have different properties and their current integration creates many novel configurations we have not yet adapted to as societies.

Bits are easy to copy while preserving their full organization, atoms are not (in other words, in the online world we have whatever Scotty in Star Trek used to beam people up by deconstituting them molecule by molecule and reassembling them someplace else. (Oops, if you are in an industry where your product is in bit form). Bits travel much easier than atoms, making bits much harder to censor and isolate (I’m looking at you, Mubarak). The architecture in the online world depends on the underlying code while the architecture of the offline world depends on laws of physics. Hence, online, we don’t have the same balance of privacy and visibility that come from the physical properties of space and time: that offline speech disappears after it is uttered; that, offline, we can usually see who is looking at us; offline walls, doors, locks and windows operate in a predictable manner. (That is why Facebook can be so jarring at times: it often ignores deeply ingrained cultural conventions based on laws of physics. It puts all your friends in the same room, by default–and its new timeline defies rules of flow of time as we knew it).

This lack of dualism applies to other technologies which separate the person from their words (which is the nexus of what Plato was vehemently objecting to when he decried the invention of writing and hence the separation of the human from their utterances. That critique is not invalid and remains applicable). When I was a child in Turkey in the pre-Internet era, I would have running conversations in my head with my favorite authors. These authors were quasi-people in my life because I had a void in my personal  world. It’s not that I was asocial, on the contrary. I had many  friends and I played in the streets and did all the kid things –and enjoyed them– but I also had a deep interest in topics that I was unable to find anyone around me to talk with in person (I suspect  this is not an uncommon experience). So, I’d go for walks and have conversations in my head. With authors. Whom I’d never met and probably would never meet.

And, somehow I just couldn’t manage this conversation as well with authors who I knew were dead. I was fully aware the odds were almost impossible –heck, I didn’t even speak English then– and I was a kid having these conversations walking by the sea by myself in a little sleepy town in Turkey. But there was always this tantalizing possibility that one day, I’d have that conversation with that person: books and my world were not dualistic, they were augmented. And I knew that the only true separation, the only true duality was death, and hence my deep disappointment whenever I learned a favorite author was not a contemporary. (A poignant  Turkish proverb asks: “Is there a village beyond death?” ["ölümden öte köy var mı?])

These days I meet people sometimes first online, sometimes first offline, but almost always have interactions that span both modalities. When a friend recently told me (online) that he was going on a pretty amazing trip, my first reaction was “how cool.” My second reaction was, “um, heck, does this mean I can’t email you with my random thoughts on stuff we’d been talking about?” Connectivity has become augmented and for me and the deeper divide has become not whether or not connectivity is online or offline, but whether there is some kind of connectivity or not.

There is certainly a difference between emailing someone and, say, sitting in a cafe by the Bosphorus; however, I am not able to categorize it merely as one is good/the other is bad. Each form has strengths and weaknesses depending on the topic, person, location, moment… Some things are better discussed over email. But sometimes you need to be able to hold out a hand. And as Carr mentions in reference to my work, interaction is one of the key mechanisms through which ties can strengthen or weaken–and certainly accessibility through online interaction is part of this mix. In fact, ubiquity of online platforms might increase the isolation of those who either through choice, disposition, or opportunity are not willing or able to be part of mediated, digital sociality and hence create a third level of “social” digital divide. (First level being basic access and second level being skill).

You might think my own experience is unique (and as a traveling academic I am certainly not typical), and Carr is also not typical. But recent survey findings reveal that ordinary people are also  increasingly establishing “migratory” friendships–In two separate studies, about 20 to 25% of respondents report friendships which begin online and migrate offline (Wang and Wellman 2010; Gennaro and Dutton 2007) so this is certainly not the exclusive domain of the digerati.

I am not at all claiming that this augmentation of bits and atoms does not have profound consequences; it does. For example, thanks to the Internet, we are more increasingly able to connect with people with whom we share affinities rather than people we happen to live next to (but it also works the other way around — when I moved to Chapel Hill, I chose to live where I live so I would be neighbors with  someone I knew previously and with whom I had mostly interacted online before). This is what sociologist Barry Wellman calls “networked individualism”: instead of being completely confined to historical “boxes” of family history and geography, we can open up to constructed ties of interests and affinities. This is a profound change and it is still playing out in the early stages. (Carr and others worry that this might lead to “filter bubbles” as we get our information mostly from chosen friends. Maybe, maybe not, as I reflect on this here.)

The fact of online and offline augment, rather than categorically oppose, does not change the fact that there is something deeply human and imitable about in-person interaction. Babies, even when a few days old, respond to a human smile differently than a non-smiling human, and distinguish between a representation of a face and a shape that has elements of a face but is not arranged like one. To this day, one of my greatest regrets is that I never managed to meet in person with one of the authors with whom I had these deep, personal but internal conversations, Edita Morris, and tell her she changed my life. She was alive when I read her book but died a few years after. By exposing me to the existential horror that can be brought about by scientific knowledge, something I had not considered before, her novels about the aftermath of the atom bombs started me away from the path of the child driven by scientific curiosity and one who wanted to be a scientist herself to who I am as an an adult–a person who wants to understand and help shape how science and technology interact with our world. If I had the Internet then, I could have at least emailed her.

16 thoughts on “Breaking Bread, Breaking Digital Dualism

  1. Spyvie Locust

    From my perspective, Mr. Carr’s story only serves to illustrate that our culture is coming full circle.

    Bread making was of course all but perfected by humanity a very long time ago. In our recent past it wouldn’t have been the least bit notable to encounter the almost biblical hospitality of a warm loaf of bread as a guest in someones home.

    It’s amusing to see our erudite cognoscenti musing on about such mundane slices of the human experience, but this is not my point.

    I think my point is this… social networking is trying to make us human again. It is written language perfecting itself, much to Plato’s chagrin.

  2. Jeremy Antley

    Yes, very nice post. I agree that there are moments when personal relations are preferred, others when the less tangible web methods of communication work better.

    However, there is one part of your analysis I would like to address- when you state, “Bits are easy to copy while preserving their full organization, atoms are not…” and, “… that offline speech disappears after it is uttered; that, offline, we can usually see who is looking at us; offline walls, doors, locks and windows operate in a predictable manner,” I’m not sure that tells the full story.

    As regards the first statement, I would add that while Bits are increasingly easy to copy, this ease of copying should not be confused or equated with ‘preserving their full organization’. Federico Giordano, and others engaged in digital preservation of old or antiquated digital technologies, worried in his essay, ‘Almost the Same Game’, that there is a real danger of losing the integrity of a digital artifact, the experience its use once contained, once we move its bits of data to another platform for which it was not originally designed. If I load up an emulation of the NES classic ‘Super Mario Brothers’ on my MacBook, am I experiencing the ‘full organization’ supposedly preserved with digital copying? Many would say no, and this example demonstrates that there is much volatility even in digital constructs.

    On the second statement about how the offline is governed by the laws of physics, making offline speech ‘disappears after it is uttered’- I’m not sure this is accurate either. Take the Great Fear of 1789 in France, for example. That period’s well documented panics and fear-mongering was directly tied to rumors circulating among French villages. Rumors, once uttered, take on a life of their own, and much to the chagrin of ruling authorities these ‘willful interpretations’ (as Russian Imperial authorities took to calling Peasant use of rumor) do not fade away easily. (They may also lay dormant, like a virus or seed, waiting for the perfect moment to rise up and grow again) Because of this, one can never be sure how others are perceiving them. Perhaps inanimate objects can be relied upon to operate in a predictable manner, but the social discourse of analog speech is far from predictable in its operation. (This is something I try to address in my post looking at the debate surrounding the use of the term ‘cyberspace’

    Again, great post!

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