Surveillance and Digital Dualism: A Reflection on “Theorizing the Web” 2013
On Saturday, March 2nd, 2013, I made a presentation in New York as part of the International Conference Theorizing the Web 2013 (#TtW13). Organized by Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) and PJ Rey (@pjrey) [Yes, I also wonder what his real name is], both doctoral students in sociology at the University of Maryland (Washington, DC), the event was held in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A prestigious and perfectly equipped venue (no Wi-Fi issues), which promoted the sharing of high quality insights.
Organization of the conference
The organization was very professional and quite remarkable, worthy of a great international conference, despite the fact it was mainly organized by PhD students. On this point, I would like to emphasize the extraordinary dedication of the planning committee, which seemed to perfectly master the principles of division of labour. Besides the superb communication material, both printed and online, I particularly enjoyed the total integration of Twitter in the event, which I had never seen used so comprehensively in a conference before.
Not only has the hashtag of the event (#TtW13) been announced on the website for weeks, but each room in which a thematic panel was organized had its own sub-hashtag (for example: #TtW13 #d2); hashtags moderators were in charge of both moderating parallel discussions on Twitter and collecting questions, to ask a question to a speaker via a moderator, you only had to start your tweet with ‘Q’ (and use the right hashtags); each speaker and each participant had a personal badge with his/her Twitter username, and some have even created online interactive graphs summarizing all the discussions!
All this has obviously helped to create an excellent synergy between the participants. Everyone was also fully engaged in the project as everyone had a Twitter account! (The list of the speakers’ Twitter accounts was included in the programme). A fine example of the intelligent use of social networks for research: Digital Humanities in action!
Content of the conference
During the 44 presentations over the two days, many topics were discussed. Among those I attended, I notably remember the lecture given by Sophia Drakopoulou on the dimension of the ‘lived now’ aspect of social networks, that of Piergiorgio Degli Esposti (@pgde) on ‘online after death services’ or that of Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart) on MOOCs. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to understand much of the round table entitled ‘Free Speech For Whom?’, during which Danah Boyd notably spoke (and whom I congratulate for her very elegant New York style hat that would, I think, be quite awkward to wear in an academic conference in France), as understanding spoken English without the support of slides is (sometimes still) difficult for me. Sorry about that!
Danah Boyd. Photo credit : Aaron Thompson
However, during these two days, I received an incredible number of extremely rich intellectual stimuli that have left a deep impression on me. Some of these will no doubt bear fruit in future projects. It is obviously not possible to summarize them here. I nevertheless wish to focus on two points: surveillance and digital dualism.
Everyone will agree with the fact that one topic has dominated these two days, and I must say that it was a great surprise to me: that is the issue of surveillance. It was indeed rather ubiquitous as it was the subject of both the opening lecture by Alice Marwick (@alicetiara) and the closing one by David Lyon (shouldn’t the theme of the opening and closing lectures have been different?), albeit both very interesting. According to Alice Marwick, whose point of view was supported by user surveys, we use social networks to keep under surveillance / track / observe each other through a horizontal surveillance between users, which she calls ‘social surveillance’ (you can read her research paper in the review Surveillance & Society). I’m not sure that we should so hastily consider as ‘surveillance’ the natural curiosity that drives us to observe others. We have always observed each other, as this is part of the basic way to connect with others. Is a teenager who is interested in a pretty girl, what she’s wearing, what she’s doing, the places she goes to or the friends she meets, undertaking a form of surveillance or simply expressing his desire? Is showing interest in others, in the information they give us access to, in the digital traces they leave, keeping them under surveillance? I’m not sure.
I am of course aware that, since Foucault, the topic of surveillance is a political issue that has never ceased to be topical. A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture at the University of Nîmes, in the south of France, and I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that there were already ‘76 CCTV cameras scattered throughout the city,’ that there will be ‘200 within three years’ and that, according to the city’s official website, all these CCTV cameras were meant ‘to ensure the tranquillity of its inhabitants’ (source). There's a thin line between monitoring and surveillance and I find it unacceptable that public spaces devoid of any ‘watching eyes’ no longer exist. In other words, it is clear to everyone that we live in a society of surveillance, which is implemented by various technical means, be they digital. As evidenced by the very strong concerns already raised by the possible disciplinary use of the future Google Glass.
However, using surveillance as the major subject of a conference whose aim is to ‘theorize the Web’ seems to be a questionable choice which I personally disagree with. Although it is perfectly legitimate to ask oneself what role is digital technology playing, as a technical device, in the society of surveillance. But insofar as surveillance goes beyond (and precedes) the issue of digital technology, I don’t understand why it should be the main subject of the ‘Theory of the Web.’ And, as such, even if he has been widely quoted by several speakers, Foucault does not seem to be the best suited author to understand the digital changes that we are experiencing. Because Foucault had no experience of digital technology and because the digital mutations that we are experiencing are not primarily issues related to surveillance. In France, moreover, the country of Foucault, it is not at all the issue of surveillance that concerns the thinkers who take an interest in digital technology.
One example is collective intelligence according to philosopher Pierre Lévy (@plevy), whose ideas have, early on, orientated the French approach towards the logic of digital cooperation; the economy of contribution according to philosopher Bernard Stiegler, which is integrated into a global vision of the current hyper-industrial political economy and develops (in its way) this logic of cooperation; the psychological experience of new technologies according to psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron, who develops an empathic psychology of the relationship with machines but based on the extremely problematic concept of the ‘virtual’; the new opportunities of Internet democracy according to sociologist Dominique Cardon, in opposition to the demonization of the internet of which the media are so fond; or, in the younger generation, the new hybrid forms of sociability introduced by the digital liaisons according to the sociologist Antonio A. Casilli (@bodyspacesoc), the new ontology that emerges from the architecture of the Web according to Alexandre Monnin (@aamonnz) or the new structures of perception introduced by digital ontophany into the phenomeno-technological approach that I suggest (1).
I’m not saying that French thinkers are not interested in the issue of surveillance as it may be raised again or in a new way due to Internet technologies. What I’m saying is that it’s not what concerns them the most with regard to the internet, even if young philosophers such as Cléo Collomb (@CleoCollomb) are currently working on the ‘digital traces’ we leave behind us in the era of Big Data. Moreover, when discussing this with Lev Manovich (@manovich) during the After Party at Slattery’s Pub, I had the feeling that I was right to consider the theme of surveillance as excessive. Manovich was telling me that, according to him, this could be explained by the importance given to the individual and to ‘privacy’ in the culture of English speaking countries. For my part, I was thinking that a country that dominates the world like the United States does, and is so focused on performance, can only be extremely concerned about all forms of power that exist between individuals. But these reflections may be too simplistic in addressing this issue.
By the way, thanks to Theorizing the Web 2013, I am now more aware of surveillance issues in digital media and I even agree on the assholishness of Google Glass.
Two years ago, in February 2011, Nathan Jurgenson published a post on Cyborgology entitled Digital dualism versus augmented reality. In this text, he used the term ‘digital dualism’ for the first time. Here is an extract:
The power of social media to burrow dramatically into our everyday lives as well as the near ubiquity of new technologies such as mobile phones has forced us all to conceptualize the digital and the physical; the on- and off-line. And some have a bias to see the digital and the physical as separate; what I am calling digital dualism. Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.
I must say that this concept of digital dualism has been for me a source of genuine intellectual excitement throughout the conference, as well as the main reason why I wanted to attend. Not that I have indeed discovered something but, stylistically speaking, I saw in this term a simple and clear manner to describe the way of thinking that I have long considered as a regrettable aberration. For several years now, I haven’t been able to satisfy myself with what I personally call the ‘vulgate of the real and the virtual’ (2), whose persistent rhetoric tires me greatly, as I have heard it for so long and as I think it paralyzes the mind by blocking any progress in the study and understanding of the digital phenomenon (in my PhD dissertation, I suggest we consider this vulgate as an ‘epistemological obstacle’ as Bachelard called it).
The worst thing is that this miserable doxa has become so popular that it has introduced itself not only into everyday language, into the language of the media or into Wikipedia articles (3), but also in the approach of some researchers too... That takes the biscuit! However, if people had read, as I did ten years ago, the life-changing and pioneering book by Pierre Lévy entitled Qu’est-ce que le virtuel ? (4), we would not be where we are today. This book has been published in French for the first time in 1995 and was translated into English in 1998 (under the title Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age)! Pierre Lévy has understood before anyone else the false and absurd use that was made of the concept of ‘virtual’ at the beginnings of so-called ‘cyberspace’ (5). Quoting Deleuze and Aristotle, he brilliantly demonstrated how the distinction between the real and the virtual, in opposition with the entire Western philosophical tradition, was meaningless. I couldn’t agree more!
Unfortunately, France has rejected Pierre Lévy, a visionary who emerged too early and eventually emigrated to Canada in 1998, where he is now teaching at the University of Ottawa. Then have developed the French theories of the virtual, a term which, under an unconscious dualist agreement, everyone began to use to describe ‘digital reality’ in opposition to ‘physical reality’ (despite the fact that digital reality is an attested form of physical reality: Bits are also Atoms). The numerous research studies made on video games (which can be defined as a virtual world in the IT sense of the term) have then indirectly (and unintentionally?) contributed to this trend, and the psychoanalytic theories of Serge Tisseron (who is somehow the French Sherry Turkle), although nuanced and more subtle than they may seem, have sanctified the term, which is now even used by the Academy of Sciences (6). It shows how necessary it is to now deconstruct, in the sense of Derrida, the theories about the virtual (7). I hope that we will soon be numerous enough to work in this direction in France because so much work is needed to ‘undo’ all of this properly.
Because, contrary to what I thought, belief in the existence of two separate worlds is still very much alive today. On 6th December 2012, Serge Tisseron himself declared in an article published on a website called Écrans (whih means 'Screens' and is affiliated to the national daily newspaper Libération), that we ‘must raise children with the idea that the world of life and that of the Internet are two totally different spaces.’ I was so disappointed to read such a statement, almost twenty years after Pierre Lévy, that I immediately responded on my personal blog with a post entitled There is no difference between the 'real' and the 'virtual', which also became the title of my presentation at the #TtW13 conference. For if there is one thing I am absolutely certain of is that the world of the Internet is an integral part of the world of life, or to quote Husserl, of ‘lifeworld.’ And, in ten or twenty years, digital natives will prove me right. This is why what Tisseron called the ‘psychological virtual’ is, I believe, the most inappropriately named concept in the world, as it adds confusion to confusion. I'll return to this in my book L'Être et l'Écran (Being and Screens), to be published in French in September 2013, as well as in other publications.
Question by @machinestarts about digital dualism at #TtW13. Photo credit : Aaron Thompson
For now, I would like to say that I am very happy to have discovered and met, on the other side of the Atlantic, a whole community of researchers, the members of Cyborgology, who are opposed to ‘digital dualism’ and are working to condemn the IRL Fetish (N. Jurgenson) as well as the Myth of Cyberspace (PJ Rey), without limiting themselves to being white boys with toys. Those who still believe in the difference between the real and the virtual had better watch out because they have been identified! In France, in the United States or elsewhere, they now have a name: digital dualists. Do they know it? Do they accept it? They would better stick to it or give it up as we are now numerous, on each side of the Atlantic, to fight their well-entrenched rhetoric that doesn’t impress us anymore and, if they want to survive, they will have to find some strong arguments. Because this is not a joke. To be or not be a digital dualist has many implications in how to engage and act in today’s world (I will go back to this in a future post).
I’ve been using the internet since 2000, and so I probably believed in digital dualism at the beginning (because I think it is a natural and inevitable attitude for those who are not digital natives or digital designers), but I completely abandoned it as soon as I have been able to experience, in my everyday life, the new opportunities of the Web Squared in which we all live today and from which it is clear that digital and material realities constantly co-construct each other. That is why, since I finished my PhD dissertation, the obvious has imposed itself on me: the separation between the real and the virtual doesn’t exist and never has. The dualism of the substance, based on Neo-Platonism (slides 16-17), is an illusion. Better still, it is an epistemological fantasy, that is to say, an illusion of knowledge that aims at healing a phenomenological trauma: the trauma caused by digital ontophany in our daily lives (I cannot develop this idea further here as this post is already too long, please refer to my presentation). But fundamentally, it doesn’t make any difference. There is and there has always been only one substance, which feeds on the permanent co-construction of the digital and the material. Those who have been using Facebook on a daily basis long enough know this: it is no longer possible for them to separate the online and offline dimension of their social relationships. They have become completely interdependent and co-constructed. Facebook is not a social world separate from our social world. Not only is it fully part of our social world but it is also a great accelerator for this world (just think of the Arab Spring for example, but I could also quote many more mundane examples from my personal life). As Nathan says, now people are not friends until they are friends on Facebook. Facebook is real life.
Also, to make my contribution to the building of our common vocabulary, I suggested in my presentation at #TtW13 to use the term ‘digital monism’ to describe the point of view of those who defend the model of Augmented Reality, which I belong to. As I wrote in my PhD dissertation last year, ‘we have always lived in an augmented reality’ (8), a position also held, I’m glad to say, by the Cyborgologists (perhaps am I also a Cyborgologist without knowing it, although I don’t like this term much, as, in my opinion, it refers too much to science fiction).
What characterizes our contemporary world is that augmented reality (which has always been so) is now digitally centred, a phenomenon that I suggest we call ‘digital tropism of reality’. This does not mean that the modalities for the augmentation of reality are now only digital (all technologies are involved, and not only digital technology). It simply means that they all tend to aggregate around a digital core, what I called in my PhD dissertation, following the work of Bertrand Gille, a ‘technical digital system’ (9). Our reality is based on a digital tropism, that is to say, it orbits around digital technology in the way electrons orbit around the nucleus, due to an irresistible attraction.
But it is not only technical. It is phenomenological. This is why digital technology is ‘a form which our perception slips into’ (10) or, as I explained in my PhD dissertation (again!), an ‘ontophanic matrix’ (11). We live in what I call the ‘digital ontophany’, i.e. a perceptive environment (or Umwelt) with a digitally centred phenomenality, which, because it is technically augmented, is fundamentally hybrid, both digital and material, online and offline, so that it forms a single continuous substance.
Designers have perfectly understood this, as they always keep looking towards the future and are not afraid of technology. The hybrid experiments they offer us more and more, reflect the fundamentally monistic direction that the digital technical system is taking. The work of French designer Étienne Mineur with Éditions Volumiques is a perfect example of this, as he designs and produces new types of games and toys based on linking the tangible and the digital (see video below). Because it is with these types of objects that our children are growing up and learning how to perceive reality, and it would never occur to them to imagine that their existence is split into two separate worlds.
Finally, I would like to tell you once more how exciting this two-day conference in New York was for me. In addition to in-depth debates, I returned to Paris with new desires and new ideas. In France, we are too individualistic. People focus on their own career, myself included. This is probably academically necessary, but not very challenging in the long-term and above all totally ineffective internationally. That is why the American Cyborgology community seems, in my opinion, to be an excellent example for us to follow, even if it seems to have trouble following itself as it is so active! This is why I decided to launch a new collective blog in France, Technophilosophy, fully bilingual (French-English), and of which this article is the first post.
Its aim is to improve the quality of the public debate on digital technology by showcasing the work of the new philosophers of the digital era in a style that would be both accessible and communicative, and by preferring interpretative approaches to descriptive approaches. The objective is to overcome individualistic approaches, without denying them, by developing collective work among the new generation of French Digital Theorists. Available in English and French, with free open access, it is published and licensed through Creative Commons (by-nc-nd).
To give weight to our ideas, but also to finance the translation into English of our articles, we are looking for institutional partners and sponsors to provide us with financial or intellectual support. If you too feel concerned by these issues, please send us a message!
Finally, I extend a friendly greeting to all those with whom I’ve had the opportunity to share ideas during these two days and/or who have enjoyed my presentation: Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson), PJ Rey (@pjrey), Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical), Jessie Daniels (@JessieNYC), David Banks (@DA_Banks), Lev Manovich (@manovich), Jeremy Antley (@jsantley), Piergiorgio Degli Esposti (@pgde), Jeffrey Keefer (@JeffreyKeefer), Lesley Gourlay (@lesleygourlay), Gina Neff (@ginasue), Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart), Shannon Sindorf (@shannonsindorf), Neal Stimler (@nealstimler), @machinestarts, @thejaymo, Nathanael Bassett (@mrliterati), R. Stuart Geiger (@staeiou), @Notorious_QRG, @maulingbears, Cansu Ekmekcioglu (@c_ekmekcioglu) and probably many others that I have forgotten!
1. Stéphane VIAL, The Structure of the Digital Revolution, PhD dissertation in Philosophy, 302 pages, University René Descartes, Paris, 2012. [Online], URL: http://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00776032/en. The main content of this dissertation will feature in a book entitled L'Être et l'Écran : comment le numérique change la perception ('Being and Screens: how Technology affects the way we Perceive'), to be published in French in September 2013 by the Presses Universitaires de France.
2. Stéphane VIAL, The Structure of the Digital Revolution, p. 186 and following pages.
3. According to Wikipedia (French version), the term ‘virtual’ is used to “describe what happens in a computer or on the Internet, that is to say, in a ‘digital world’ as opposed to the 'physical world'” in Wikipedia (French), ‘Virtuel’, first lines, version of July 22nd, 2012 at 17:04, [Online], URL: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtuel
4. Pierre LÉVY, Qu’est-ce que le virtuel ? (1995), Paris, La Découverte, 1998. Translated in English as Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, New York: Plenum Trade, 1998.
5. Note that Pierre LÉVY does not reject the term ‘virtual’ but gives it a different and more rigorous meaning, although he seems to now prefer the term algorithmic medium, which seems, in my opinion, more accurate and closer to what I call ‘calculated matter.’ For my part, I think one should abandon the term ‘virtual’ for good.
6. Jean-François BACH, Olivier HOUDÉ, Pierre LÉNA, Serge TISSERON, L’enfant et les écrans : un avis de l’Académie des sciences, Paris, Le Pommier, 2013.
7. Stéphane VIAL, ‘Contre le virtuel : une déconstruction’, MEI Médiation et Information, No. 37, L'Harmattan (forthcoming).
8. Stéphane VIAL, The Structure of the Digital Revolution, p. 170.
9. Stéphane VIAL, The Structure of the Digital Revolution, chapter 3, p. 102 and following pages.
10. I borrowed this expression from Anne Cauquelin, in L'invention du paysage in order to apply it to technology in general.
11. Stéphane VIAL, The Structure of the Digital Revolution, § 17, p. 147.