Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 23, 2013

digital dualism and experiential monism

I'm going to begin by quoting only the concluding paragraph of a fairly long essay by Nathan Jurgenson, so please click through and read the whole thing to make sure I'm not misrepresenting the argument. Here's the end:

Of course, digital devices shouldn’t be excused from the moral order — nothing should or could be. But too often discussions about technology use are conducted in bad faith, particularly when the detoxers and disconnectionists and digital-etiquette-police seem more interested in discussing the trivial differences of when and how one looks at the screen rather than the larger moral quandaries of what one is doing with the screen. But the disconnectionists’ selfie-help has little to do with technology and more to do with enforcing a traditional vision of the natural, healthy, and normal. Disconnect. Take breaks. Unplug all you want. You’ll have different experiences and enjoy them, but you won’t be any more healthy or real.

First of all, I don't understand the need for an accusation of "bad faith." Perhaps if the disconnectionists are wrong they are sincerely wrong. I see no reason to attribute to them this particular moral failing.

Second, I fully endorse Jurgensen's point that the connected life is no less real than the disconnected. Our lives are always real; anything we do is as real as anything else we do. I also agree that “the disconnectionists establish a new set of taboos as a way to garner distinction at the expense of others, setting their authentic resistance against others’ unhealthy and inauthentic being” — this is indeed far too strong and too common an element of disconnectionist rhetoric.

But there are elements of Jurgenson’s argument that I can’t endorse. Let me get at them by noting that the question I would like to put to the disconnectionists is this: What are you going to do once you disconnect? You've got a lot of extra time on your hands now: how do you plan to use it?

Suppose a sedentary man who had been spending several hours a day playing World of Warcraft decided to disconnect and take up running. Wouldn't he in fact have made himself healthier by that decision? — and let’s be precise here: not by the decision to disconnect as such but by the subsequent decision to do something better, which required disconnection as a prerequisite. And doesn't that disprove Jurgensen's blunt claim that if you disconnect “you won’t be any more healthy”?

Perhaps Jurgenson didn’t mean that kind of health. But if you can become physically healthier by replacing one kind of activity with another, then why not in other areas of life as well? Perhaps also Jurgenson would say that he merely meant that one doesn't automatically become healthier by disconnecting; but that's a very, very different claim than the one that he actually made in his essay. To respond to the claim that disconnection will make you healthier by saying that disconnection won't make you healthier doesn't advance the discussion: it just replaces one highly dubious generalization with another.

What does disconnection do? It depends. It depends on why you disconnect, on what you were doing when you were connected, on what you do instead of being connected. (Now reverse the polarities and ask what connection does, and you’ll need to employ the same logic. Imagine a person who’s sedentary because she reads books all the time getting an iPhone with fitness apps that she uses to help her become more physically active and more disciplined.)

A lot of Jurgenson’s recent work has been focused on this critique of digital dualism, but my concern is that Jurgenson may just be replacing a simplistic dualism with an amorphous monism. At one point in his essay he writes, “The obsession with authenticity has at its root a desire to delineate the ‘normal’ and enforce a form of ‘healthy’ founded in supposed truth.” Note that every significant term here is placed either in literal or implicit scare quotes: normal, healthy, truth, authenticity. Not all of these terms are obviously useless, and I’d particularly like to make a case for the value — even the necessity — of thinking about our leisure-time decisions in terms of what conduces to our health.

So while Jurgenson is right to deconstruct the binaries of digital dualism, he’s wrong, I think, to believe that such a critique requires deconstruction of the values and concerns that drive digital dualism. We may agree that digital dualism is an inadequate response to the role that digital technologies play in our lives; but it does not follow that that role requires no reflection, no interrogation. All digital tools and toys — just like all non-digital ones — are prone to misuse, and in my view the categories by which we distinguish right use from misuse are precisely those of health, at least, health in the broader and richer sense of flourishing, eudaimonia.

Now, as a Christian, I’d want to steer a conversation about these matters from health to eudaimonia and ultimately to the love of God and neighbor; but I’d be happy to start with health, and remain in that conceptual ambit for a while. And I certainly don't think we’re helped to make wise technological decisions by a deconstruction of digital dualism that leaves us with even fewer means of sorting through our complicated technological experiences.