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The Straw Man of Digital Dualism

John Suler

Digital dualism Straw man

A new term has become popular among some social media researchers: “Digital Dualism.”

Such researchers seemed to have invented this term in order to object to the concepts implied by it. They claim that advocates of digital dualism have created a false dichotomy of spaces as well as a false dichotomy of real versus virtual.

A False Dichotomy of Spaces

Digital dualism is the belief that online and offline are separate and distinct realms.

By contrast, the anti-digital-dualists claim that the online and offline worlds are actually highly intermeshed, especially given how people in social media often connect with each other in-person, as well as how “augmented reality” enables people to use digital resources to enhance their lifestyles in the physical world.

A False Dichotomy of Real/Virtual

In digital dualism the online world is perceived as “virtual” while the physical world is perceived as “real.” Similarly, digital dualists falsely dichotomize online persona and in-person identities, often labeling the online self as somehow false, contrived, constructed, or performed, while the in-person self is more spontaneous, real, and genuine.

By contrast, the anti-digital-dualists say that many people simply accept the virtual world as part of reality, as a reflection of the real world. They claim that both online and offline people are always constructing their identities, with their ever-changing, always-performed selves being both digital and embodied.

For me and I suspect for many other researchers, this perception of digital dualism is unnecessarily exaggerated, overly simplified, ironically dualistic itself by posturing the anti-digital dualists against the supposed digital dualists, and even set up as a straw man to be attacked as a strategy for claiming things we already knew.

An Interaction Rather Than a Dichotomy

Let’s start with that first criticism.

Things can be distinct and separate, yet still interact.

That’s the whole point of interaction effects in scientific study. Cyberspace and physical space are distinct psychological and social realms that influence each other in complex, subtle ways. I like to think of them as the black and white fish of the yin/yang symbol swimming around each other while also embedded within each other. After all, if online and offline did not possess any kind of distinctness, if they were so totally enmeshed that no differences at all existed between them, then why would we need “internet” researchers, “cyber” psychologists, and “social media” experts – professional labels that even the anti-digital-dualists apply to themselves.

“…saying that there is no difference between online and offline is like saying there is no difference between our minds when awake and when immersed in fantasy or dreams.”

Before we vanquish any division between online and offline, consider these scenarios.

Your companions at the dinner table aren’t paying much attention to you because they are preoccupied with their phones (nicknamed “phubbing”).

Car and pedestrian accidents are on the rise because people text while driving and walking. Clearly, their minds are somewhere else rather than on the social/physical environment around them.

For these situations researchers want to understand the level of connection and disconnection between the online and offline experience, and how to better integrate the two. That’s the goal of augmented reality technology, as well as the spirit of the “integration principle” that I discuss in my book Psychology of the Digital Age.

Two decades ago, when the internet was still young, many people socialized online with other people that they did not know in-person, mostly because the people they knew offline had not ventured into cyberspace.

Some people were also immersed into online role-playing and fantasy games, or they used the novel experience of anonymous text communication to experiment with self-expression that either slightly or dramatically differed from how they presented themselves in the face-to-face world. This is why Sherry Turkle talked about people having a “second self” online. This is also why concepts like the “online disinhibition effect” became so popular in internet research, because people were saying and doing things online that they would not ordinarily say or do in-person.

This is also what led some people into mistakenly setting up the straw man of digital dualism.

Even though there were these discrepancies between online and offline lifestyles, few researchers actually claimed any kind of rigid dichotomy or disconnection between the two. Instead, the supposed digital dualists were saying that what happens in cyberspace can be different than what happens in the face-to-face world.

The anti-digital-dualists themselves acknowledge this fact when they admit that chatting online or at a café are not the same experience – and when they point to how people in social media deepen their relationship when they meet their online friends in-person.

If the relationship is deepened by meeting face-to-face, then something is happening there that did not happen online.

Add to these observations the fact that in cyberspace you can fly like superman over New York City or create an entirely different body for yourself. Conveniently, the anti-digital-dualists ignore the reality that experiences in virtual reality can be very different than in our everyday reality.

In these cases, saying that there is no difference between online and offline is like saying there is no difference between our minds when awake and when immersed in fantasy or dreams. Of course, there are important differences, yet once again the goal has always been understanding how these distinct experiences are related to and influence each other.

The Multifaceted Self

For people in cyberspace who are immersed into role-playing games or who carefully construct an ideal persona in social media, their online identities could easily be perceived as contrived, false, or performed. They often say these things themselves, even though the anti-digital-dualists want them to think otherwise.

Yet sophisticated researchers recognize that online identities, no matter how unusual they might be, are always an expression of underlying needs. They are part of the person’s sense of self, albeit an aspect of their psyche that is not obvious in the offline world.

A man who switches his gender during his nighttime adventures in cyberspace does not appear to be a woman to his coworkers at the office during the workday, but his online identity certainly does say something important about he “really” feels about himself.

Psychodynamic theory in particular acknowledges these multifaceted aspects of self, how the complex interactions between the supposedly “real” self and the contrived/performed self transcends any kind of simple dichotomy. They recognize how cyberspace allows people to express these hidden and often unconscious aspects of identity in ways not easily afforded in the face-to-face world, which makes cyberspace a unique interpersonal realm.

Since the early days of the internet, the distinction between online and offline has indeed diminished for many people, especially for those who use contemporary social media as an alternative way of connecting with friends and family – an alternative that differs from being in-person.

Thanks to the online disinhibition effect, they tend to say and do things online that they wouldn’t in-person. They interact with photographs and “likes” rather than words. They develop their “brand,” often an idealized version of themselves and their lives. As they stare into their screens and especially when they immerse into the worlds generated by VR goggles, they very much subjectively experience cyberspace as being somewhere else other than where their physical body resides.

A New Environment

In the course of history we humans have done something quite amazing.

We have created a new, highly complex and interactive environment for ourselves. As I mentioned in my last post, I still like to call it “cyberspace.”

In my book Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric I propose a transdisciplinary theory of this new space that attempts to transcend the digital dualism straw man as well as any supposed theory that deconstructs all distinctions between online and offline to the point where there is nothing meaningful left to be said about either one.

By applying the eight dimensions of cyberpsychology architecture described in this theory, we can better understand how different computer-generated environments compare to each other and to the in-person world in terms of the psychological impact they have on people. We can better understand exactly how online and offline spaces intertwine, as well as how they do not, for what particular kinds of people and circumstances.

About The Author

John Suler

John Suler is author of Psychology of the Digital Age (2016). He is Professor of Psychology at Rider University's Science and Technology Center and Honorary Professor at the Royal ...

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