A Brief Reflection on Digital Dualism

Note: Cross-posted at Cyborgology

It feels like every time I’m at a gathering of social researchers, within 15 minutes of being there I’ll hear the words “digital world” and “real world” being used to discuss interactions that take place in a technologically-mediated context versus actions that take place in non-technologically-mediated context.

The sound of this always makes me cringe, because assuming that somehow the “digital world” is separated from the real world makes it seem as though every time anyone uses Google Maps they are quite lucky the fake Google world that exists in the digital realm somehow maps quite impressively onto the “real” one that the person is moving through. If the speaker seems receptive enough, I will often ask them, quite playfully, “what isn’t real about the digital world?” This often gets them to clarify their language, and I assume that little harm is done. Often people don’t mean to separate mediated interactions from “real” ones, they just shortchange their audience by using limited language. But it is often that limiting of language that is problematic, as it shifts the discussion to reductionist terms that may not fully address the concept or experiences at hand. It is also the reason that I hope more people can come to terms with the notion of “augmented reality.”

I’m not going to re-define the term “augmented reality”, as you can read an excellent post by Nathan Jurgenson that encapsulates the discussion here, but I want to share a story from a recent gathering of social researchers that helps illustrate why “augmented reality” is a better explanation for the way many people are interacting with and through technology.

*I do want to acknowledge that there are a wide variety of experiences that people have with technology, and in some cases their experience in mediated environments, such as forums, chat rooms, MMORPGS, etc can be completely detached from the lived experience they are perceived to have by members of physical space around them. However, I want to use the following example to explain augmented reality in practice, and how it often can account for the link between mediated (by technology) and unmediated interactions.*

I was at a recent gathering of social researchers discussing what the future could hold for social technologies in a number of situations, such as education, health, political uprisings, and so on. We were discussing education and young individuals using technology, when one member of the group mentioned that s/he had read a recent and compelling study that social network use was making individuals less social and even lonely. While s/he couldn’t remember the particulars of the study, s/he found the evidence quite compelling and wondered what we thought about these side effects. There was a pause in the group, and so I offered her the following explanation (roughly paraphrased):

“Perhaps it is not the technology that is making them less social, but the technology is making them more aware of the actions of others. Let’s say, as an example, I go out to the park with my friends for a picnic. While there, I take photos of the picnic with and post these to Instagram, which then posts them to Facebook. Another friend takes pictures with her DSLR and posts those photos to Facebook as well. Our other friends there do not take pictures, but they post status updates and tag me in them. So while I may be out doing one activity in the physical world, I (and those around me) have created a large set of digital artifacts of this experience, which you observe through Facebook. In this scenario, instead of just hearing about my picnic from me, you see multiple sets of images and Facebook statuses about this experience. So while you know that I only did one thing, it feels like I was doing many things because the mediated interactions (comments, likes, and so on) on the digital artifacts extend and amplify my physical experience into an augmented one.”

The individual who had proposed the “less social” idea slowly nodded at this, responding, “so instead of you going to the park and telling me about it, you go to the park, and everyone I know tells me about it, right? Which means although only one thing ‘happened,’ there were a large number of interactions, both mediated and not, that resulted.”

Fortunately, the discussion that followed as a result of this example led the group to have a productive conversation about areas that more research should be done to understand the variety of experiences that social technologies facilitate. While that conversation will be saved for another time, I was glad to see the group embrace the idea that mediated interactions often not only support, but frequently amplify, physical interactions to create an augmented reality that persists the interaction to a greater extent that was previously possible.

If we, as a research community, want to continue to make progress in understanding the role that technology can play in our lives, it is imperative that we recognize and explore the various ways in which technology facilitates our interactions. Some things do happen in physical spaces, and some things are contained to digital spaces, but many experiences have both a physical and digital component, and have relevance only in that intersection.

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