A lot is said about being/living/working online. About how we (as a global culture) are living in the networks of social media and ubiquitous access of Internet information. There are plenty voices warning about how this is causing us to lose our ability for sustained attention and about our strained relationship to what we read, listen and see as a result, and, for some, actual changes in our brains’ neurological set-up. I think of popular writers such as Nicholas Carr (see his The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, or his Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. He does have a knack for catchy titles… ) or computer scientist Jaron Lenier’s concerns about young adults’ living their (online) lives under the rules of a “hive mind,” which takes on a mob-like quality (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto).
Certainly, the anecdotal evidence that many of us can amass in support for how digital media changes our professional and personal lives is important. Some of those experiences are negative, robbing us of time that we could have spent doing something more productive (how much of the time and energy spent on Facebook, for instance, is time spent purely for entertainment?). Even those who do not agree with the arguments by thinkers like Carr and Lanier can get a sense of excess and the fatigue from constantly being “on.” Other experiences are radically positive, opening up new avenues of human innovation and insight.
In a world in which mobile media allow an increasing number of people to access the Internet and each other, how can we think about the offline? “Offline” has meaning now, of course, because there is an online. Not having access to the online world that parallels and intersects the world of living things put that world into a particular perspective. I want to think about offline as a moment of reflection about the online. In the offline the lack of the interconnectivity that I have become used to puts that very connectivity into sharper focus. I can see how my habits of reading and writing have changed. Even when writing this short, essentially personal reflection, I feel the urge to check information, to search for something that might be relevant to what I am thinking and writing or even to interrupt my writing to check my email, the news. And to say that seems true to the point of being banal.
I would not describe this process of interruption purely as a state of pensee interruptus. I don’t always regard “online” to be a negative state of attention-deficiency like popular thinkers like Carr would have us believe, although certainly it can be, just as watching TV or reading books can be fostering a kind of lack of attention, if what I am supposed to be attending to is something other than watching the news or reading that novel. It is not that my thoughts are shallow and I need to augment them with the thoughts and words of others. Rather, I have become habituated to immediately put my thoughts into conversation with others, even those whose work that I do not yet know and already have in my mind (such as my reference to Carr just above). Rather, in this expectation and desire to reach outward, I want to expand my thinking into other intertextual realms. I want to my line of thinking to see what comes to mind as I interact with the information and knowledge that I access. This process of seeking dialogue (however strained that metaphor perhaps may be) is speeded up, made different by the online/offline dichotomy. Thinkers such as Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles choose to see the interaction with digital technology in this sense as a process of engaging with other cognizers (a word Hayles often uses to point to the eerie “thinking faculty” that computer technology’s processes seems to generate, a distributed cognitive system).
Although the model of complex systems as made up of human and non-human cognizers may be attractive, it seems to me that the immense popularity of social media suggests that this image does not properly account for the wish for humans to participate in these systems (when we have a choice). It is the successful recognition and use of the social in social media that render those practices successful. A service or platform that does not figure out how to connect humans—rather than just the machines—will ultimately not succeed as social media. (That does not mean that these platforms are not populated by a whole host of computer bots, auto-generated code strings and processes that do not need human input to operate.) Interestingly, social media is also very much made up of “dehumanized” information in which the individual loses its value and his or her control over her information to a large extent and becomes an identifiable part of a larger whole which aggregates information and data (this is where Lanier’s critique seems to be concentrated). In this oscillation between personal and public, individual and masses, the experience of lived life, the offline and online merge into one another by way of our engagement with the two states. The expectations of one spill over to the other. There is no online without the offline, and most definitely there is no offline without the online.
Digital media are used across generations, class, gender, cultures, languages, and continents. My offline life is thus becoming a facet of the online, one in which my behavior is colored by the expectations and habits I form online. The offline, then, also becomes a possible state of momentary or chronic disadvantage. Digital or not digital, old or new medium, print convention or new media practice: these concepts and states of experience necessarily fuse into one another to form practices and world views that guide our thinking about our own positions in that world. There is no “virtual reality” and “real reality” divide, and if anything (particularly if one believes in the impossibility of the unmediated) ours is then an augmented reality, already intertwined with digital media, no matter if they’re on or off.