A month doesn’t pass where you won’t find an article on some website, in some newspaper or magazine, or hear a story on TV about how people are “losing themselves” to some online service, game, technology — you name it. Or the story will go something like this, “Can you believe that when I was talking to my friend the other day at lunch, she whipped out her phone and started texting?!”
There’s this dichotomy or division between how we divide our life with time spent online and time spent interacting with others face-to-face (or in real life — IRL). Or is there?
Nathan Jurgenson, writing over at The New Inquiry suggests that this dichotomy is a false one, and researchers and academics who are hand-wringing about the lack of quality face-time with one another are simply missing the point.
It’s not one or the other, he argues, it’s both because they are both an integral part of our lives now.
How sound is this argument?
For those of us who balance our everyday lives with spending time online, it’s a point worth examining.1 Does technology keep us from interacting in our real world, or does it enhance it in some way?
We need to acknowledge that regardless of where you might stand on this issue, people are spending more time in front of screens — whether they be your smart phone, iPad, e-reader, laptop, video gaming console, whatever. Twenty years ago, our screen time was limited only to a computer screen, a TV, or a video game screen. So a lot has changed in 20 years.
Since our day has not expanded from its usual 24 hours, that inevitably means that people are spending less time doing other things. Some of that is reading the newspaper or magazines, and watching TV.2
But Jurgenson argues, since the online depends upon our offline lives, we cannot trade off one for the other:
But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say “IRL” to mean offline: Facebook is real life.
Facebook doesn’t curtail the offline but depends on it. What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media. The photos posted, the opinions expressed, the check-ins that fill our streams are often anchored by what happens when disconnected and logged-off. The Web has everything to do with reality; it comprises real people with real bodies, histories, and politics. It is the fetish objects of the offline and the disconnected that are not real.
This is true, if the Internet consisted only of Facebook and social media. But it doesn’t.
It consists of an infinite supply of information, entertainment, engagement with others, and games that often are a one-way street — you consumer it individually, in private, alone. While there are an endless array of games where you can play with others, there’s a thousand-times bigger library of video games that people play by themselves (or interact minimally with others, such as the still-popular Farmville). You don’t catch up on the news or watch YouTube with your friends. You do it alone online.
So while certainly it’s true that some social services online — like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like — rely on your real-world interactions, that’s still a tiny portion of the Internet universe. Jurgenson acts as though the other few billion websites don’t even exist online. But these other billion websites are still supreme time-sucks.
Most of us have not “queered beyond tenability”3 the divide between what it means to embrace technology and being human. Most of are simply human and use the tools of technology to help enhance that experience.
The problem arises when we mistake the tools that are a means to an end as an end unto themselves.
What Do You Gain From “Farming” Online?
Social gaming — whether it be World of Warcraft or Words with Friends — is just such an example. While it’s a great way to fritter away free time when you’re stuck in a queue someplace or need to unwind after a hard day at the office, it’s a horrible way to enhance your self-worth or spend dozens of hours doing every week.
The end result is largely meaningless to the world, and has taken away those finite amount of hours you could’ve spent doing other things that may have enhanced your life in other, more beneficial ways.
Let’s look at two quick examples:
Amy has been farming in Farmville for months now and has a wonderful farm, full of good crops, happy cows, and an amazing acreage. At first Amy did it the reason everyone does it — she got a friend request and found it to be a good stress relief initially. But then she started worrying about the health of her cows, and whether she could expand the farm. What was initially a stress-relief turned into an added source of stress in her life. She continued “farming” out of a feeling of responsibility to her existing efforts, rather than simply the pure fun and enjoyment of it.
Joe decided this year he would plant an herb garden. He’s been meaning to for years because he never has the right fresh herbs he wants when making dinner, and kept putting it off. So he goes to the local garden store, picks up some seeds, plants and soil, and begins work. It takes him a few days to lay out the plot, plant all the seeds and plants, and get things watered. In a few weeks’ time, he has a few first herbs, and begins using them when making meals. The meals taste better, and he’s proud of his achievement — one he shares with his family every time he cooks.
You could spend the same amount of time on both efforts. One gets you a sense of achievement in the online world, but little outside of that. The other gets you something you can actually share and enjoy with others.
I guess the disconnect comes primarily when the online intrudes upon IRL, such as when someone whips out their iPhone to text, or their Droid to update their Facebook status. We don’t think twice when the real world intrudes upon us reading an article on our laptops or when we’re watching a YouTube video and the kids beckon. But for some reason, it’s an issue when the reverse happens. Perhaps it’s because face-time is limited and finite, while online time is infinite: “Why are you taking away from our limited time together to expend it on a resource you could access any time, anywhere?”
And make no mistake about it — it is taking away. Your friend or co-worker is not benefiting in any way, shape or form from your updating your Facebook status while trying to have a conversation with you over lunch.
I think there’s certainly benefits to being online, but I also recognize the benefits of being totally disconnected from the Internet flow. Since it’s endless and infinite, it never misses you when you’re away for a few hours (or, god-forbid, a few days). Whereas if you logoff of your real life for that same amount of time, you will not only be missed — people might panic.
Because, contrary to what Jurgenson argues, you cannot engage in “deep introspection” into your life while constantly checking to ensure your cows are fed in Farmville or to play your next word in Words with Friends.
Read Jurgenson’s full (and lengthy) essay: The IRL Fetish
- For the purposes of this argument, let’s ignore the fact that there’s still a huge chunk of our population that doesn’t use the Internet like the technocrati do, and that some people — like my Mom — will never be online. So for those people, this argument is largely moot, since they have little or no online presence. [↩]
- Nielsen is happy to show you the decline of people watching primetime TV over this time, and newspapers haven’t closed their doors due to lack of news. [↩]
- Jurgenson’s words [↩]