Posts Tagged ‘digital dualism’

posthuman

Over at Cyborgology blog,  Whitney Erin Boesel has written a critical post about gender representation in Digital Dualism Debates. To really engage with what she writes, if you’re not part of the discussion already, you might have to read some of the posts she links to. Here I show the begining para of her piece, followed by my comments BTL and her reply to me. Then I will see if I can ‘widen’ out this topic to be relevant to more than just the digital dualists (and their opponents).

Whitney ( @Phenatypical) wrote:

‘If you’re a regular reader of Cyborgology, chances are good that you caught the most recent “brouLOL” (yes, that’s like a 21st century brouhaha) over digital dualism and augmented reality. If you’re a careful reader of Cyborgology, chances are good you also caught (at least) one glaring omission in much of the writing featured in this wave of commentary. What was missing?

Ladies, gentlemen, and cyborgs, allow me to (re)introduce you to Jenny Davis (@Jup83) and Sarah Wanenchak (@dynamicsymmetry)—oh yeah, and my name’s Whitney Erin Boesel (I’m @phenatypical). None of us identify as men, and all of us have written about digital dualism. In fact, you may have seen our work referenced recently under our collective noms de plume: “the other digital dualism denialists,” “others on this blog,” “others,” “other Cyborgologists,” “other regular contributors,” etc. If you’re a crotchety sociologist with a penchant for picking apart language (ahem: guilty), it doesn’t get much better than this. Per the conversation earlier this month, there are two groups of people who write about digital dualism on Cyborgology: there are named men, and there are unnamed Others’

I responed:

‘I too notcied the debate being framed as between what I termed – a bit sarcastically – ‘men of ideas’.

But I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say women are being ‘silenced’. Your post is not silence for a start. And in the piece by Machine Starts about Jurgenson v Carr the writer also mentioned Sherry Turkle at least. And at the #ttw13 there were loads of women talking, tweeting, organising, questioning etc.

Here’s my take. I believe that the ‘where are the women?’ statements are PART OF THE PROBLEM. They give too much credit to the ‘white men’ and their ‘pissing contests’ and present women as innocent victims of their lack of ‘voice’.

I believe gender inequalities are a problem in the realms in which you are focussing on – academia, journalism, tech, entrepreneurship etc. But I dont think these inequalities are as simple as a ‘lack’ of women and a ‘dominance’ of men. You mention trans people and people from diverse ethnicities, but as an afterthought, or as subservient to ‘women’.

I am a woman. And, as I have said before, the people who have ‘silenced’ or attempted to silence me the most have been feminist women.’

Whitney replied:

‘hi QRG – thanks for your comment. i agree with you that there were a good number of women engaging in dialogue around #TtW13; in fact, that’s part of why i think there *must* be more women writing about these issues, too!

we both know there’s a lot of gender stuff we’ll never agree on (though i like to think we have our points of agreement as well ;) , but there are two points in your comment i wanted to address:

first, i certainly have not intended to treat transpeople and people of color as afterthoughts. my focus in *this post* is the way women theorists were overlooked in a particular conversation (everyone writing for cyborgology at present is white, as is everyone who’s engaged in the early march 2013 debate so far as i know); what i want to do in my *future post* is highlight work done by a range of non-white-men. there are probably more non-white-men doing this type of work; i just don’t know about them yet. wanting to know is part of why i wrote this piece.

second, there’s a big difference between “speaking” and “being listened to.” women ARE speaking about digital dualism, as i’ve illustrated! but if no one’s listening (or if most of everyone is ignoring), that’s being silenced-in-effect–and i think it’s important to recognize that.’

I replied:
‘I do not think ‘white men’ is an accurate description of those who dominate debates on digital dualism or anything else. I suspect they have other characteristics in common. Because in USA for example, many ‘white men’ are INCREDIBLY disadvantaged in terms of economics, education etc. Are they writing about digital dualism? I doubt it. Once we start looking at ‘the academy’ we are already talking about some very ‘well off’ people in many ways.

also, as for ‘not being listened to’ = ‘silencing’ I see where you’re coming from. But not sure its an exact fit. and again, it is feminist women who have ‘not listened’ to me the most, in groups, on blogs, twitter etc and who have banned and blocked me to high heaven. so ‘silencing’ is not just something those big bad ‘white men’ do.’

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So how does this exchange fit into wider debates on gender, academia, and the ‘digital society’ we live in? Firstly I have noticed before that the rather loaded question, Where Are The Women? is asked frequently and insistently. Where are the women in politics? science? celebrity chef land? music industry? etc. And the answer usually seems to be that they are cowering under the weight and dominance of those beasts – men. I find it is normally white, middle class feminist women, who already have some ‘power’ in life, who ask this question. And that they blame their brothers and husbands and colleagues – white middle class men, for the lack of parity in gender representation in their fields. Boesel says in her piece she is not looking here for reasons for gender inequalities in digital dualism debates. But I think she is. And I think she finds reasons – ‘white men’. But as I said in the comments, many many ‘white men’ are far more disadvantaged and far more ‘silent’ in the media, academia, technology, than the women she is championing. Because inequality doesn’t cut down a binary line. It’s complicated! The calls of ‘where are the women’ just reinforce the binary, and maintain the ‘silence’ of those not ‘represented’ by it in my view.

Secondly, the notion of ‘divides’ in digital cultures is not always helpful. In his #ttw13 talk,  ‘Urban Libraries and the Control of Access’ Daniel Greene ( @greene_dm ) critiqued the concept of the ‘digital divide’. He – yes, he is as far as I can tell a ‘white man’ – suggested this binary presentation of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in digital culture is simplistic and misleading. The myriad ways in which we access technology or are excluded from technological activities, are not expressed by this phrase. And I think the ‘where are the women?’ phrase similarly simplifies and obfuscates the complex issues of gender, opportunity, ‘silence’ and voice in digital dualism debates. At one point in her piece Whitney asked for us to send her links of work by ‘non white men’ on digital dualism, including people from various ethnic minority backgrounds, and trans people. I dont think this is the answer either. Trans people in particular, I think, may have huge problems in having a voice and being visible in academic cultures, digital or otherwise. For them, ‘visibility’ can be hugely distressing, difficult,  linked to medical and financial issues around transition, and, can even be a matter of life or death. I don’t think it is any coincidence, for example, that Professor Raewyn Connell became ‘visible’ as a trans woman after she had developed her career and name as an academic in her assigned gender identity. As a trans person I dont think she’d have been able to achieve what she did, at least not without all sorts of very hard personal and political battles. Maybe some of the men and women writing on digital dualism are trans? But haven’t ‘come out’? And why should they? Boesel is not advocating ‘outing’ trans academics, but I think she may be assuming more of them are ‘out and proud’ than there probably are.

 I have more to say on this. And, I am glad that, the group at cyborgology won’t try to ‘silence’ me. I have found them welcoming and open in their style of engagement. However, one of the issues I do intend to tease out is, illustrated by Boesel’s post, some of the gender politics these exciting young academics espouse, are lagging behind their more forward thinking 21st century ideas on digital societies and digital dualism. Donna Haraway was, in some ways ahead of her time with her cyborg feminism. But in other ways she was very much of her time, and she held up ‘women’ to be special flowers in my opinion, oppressed by those big bad wolves, men. I dont see the world like that. And I don’t think cyborgology has room for gender or any other form of binaries.

At-sign

I’m excited to remind you that this year’s Theorising The Web event is almost upon us. Taking place at the CUNY Graduate Centre in NYC  on March 2nd, #ttw13 will include a mix of presentations, panel discussions and, of course, twitter contributions on the subject of our society’s immersion in digital technologies. Last year I enjoyed taking part online. Though I wish I could go to New York to be there in person this time, I know that the organisers Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey encourage and value remote participation as much as the input from IRL delegates. Because, these young and groundbreaking academics are all about challenging our misguided separation of the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ , aka what Jurgenson has termed  ‘digital dualism‘.

As someone who finds it impossible to distinguish between my online and offline ‘self’, I am fascinated and enthused by their ideas. And I will be taking a front row seat, in the real world, sat at my computer at home on Saturday, whilst I happen to watch papers live streamed rather than in a seminar room, and as I make my points on the #ttw13 hashtag instead of by putting my hand up. I hope some of you can join us on the day. The world is changing faster than we can theorise it, but I am glad someone is giving the social media age a run for its money.

Nathan Jurgenson has a great piece in the Atlantic, about what we might call representations of digital phenomena in the physical world.  The article has made me think hard about our perceptions of reality in the ‘internet age’. I hope to write something on it soon.

Jurgenson and his colleague PJ Rey are doing very exciting work on ‘social media theory’, making sense of the new ways in which we communicate and produce our identities. Their website Cyborgology is well worth a read. Here is Nathan’s Atlantic article in full:

‘Sometimes the Internet seems to jump from the screen: When that avatar you only knew on Twitter materializes in physical space in front of you; when you see graffiti on a wall with a Twitter hashtag; a mouse-pointer-arrow charm necklace; a QR code protest sign; when you get dizzy trying to come to terms with these physical instantiations of what began as digital

How do we understand these objects? What do we call them? Why do they exist? What do these objects say about the complex relationship between information and material, digitality and physicality, atoms and bits?

Ontology (what exists?) and phenomenology (how does existence appear to us?) are hard. The digital seems very different than the physical: Shopping at the mall is different than Amazon.com, talking face-to-face is different than texting, cyberwar or cybersex certainly seem different than their offline predecessors. But all these terms are trouble. PJ Rey provides a terrific investigationinto how these differences came to be known in spatial terms built around a collective fiction that digital information could be segregated into some new “cyber” space; the Net, the Web, The Matrix, a fictional Other Place conveniently at once separate but always accessible. This fiction was never tenable, and much of my work has centered on the vanishing point of this­­–what I have coined as “digital dualism.”

Something as simple as a mouse-pointer-necklace or an online friend encountered offline make obvious the bigger point that the workings of information transcend barriers like atoms and bits and blood and circuits. However, we run out of language when it comes to talking about a physical instantiation of something previously known primarily as digital. Just typing that last sentence hurt. So I asked on Twitter for some language, new or old, to get at this trend. I am surprised how few existing terms we have for this, and certainly nothing anyone agrees upon. Some of the most interesting replies I received:

  • This all can be thrown under the larger umbrella of “The New Aesthetic,” which deals with the collision of the on and offline. But for these objects we’re looking less at aesthetics (what is beautiful?) and more ontology (what exists?). Also, The New Aesthetic, arguably, is too general for our purposes here, capturing all of the dialogue between the digital and physical.
  • Bruce Sterling has used the line ” an eruption of the digital into the physical” when discussing The New Aesthetic, which does get at this more specific trend. Perhaps simply “digital eruption” could work?
  • Next Nature has discussed this trend as Boomeranged Metaphors, where something projected onto the Web is spit back out into the physical world.
  • “Ectoplasm” is an interesting suggestion, often used to describe spiritual energy manifesting in the physical world, which might be repurposed to describe the Web.
  • Robin Sloan’s “Flip Flop“: “the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again–maybe more than once.” Perhaps we could abstract this phrase beyond art/craft?
  • “Eversion” and “meatspacing” are terms used by William Gibson.
  • Tangiblasts
  • “What if cyberspace is oozing through the walls that once held it back, seeping out of the very fabric of reality?” – Gene Becker
  • What else?

Reading the last example from Gene Becker, I am at once excited that we are discussing information and materiality as interrelated, but also worried that all of this is reinforcing the problematic “digital dualism” I critique above. Cyberspace is not oozing out into reality, that which we encounter on some glowing screen was always reality, never locked away in a separate, mythical, cyber space. Terms like “ectoplasm” reinforces a dualistic view of separate digital and physical realities: “ecto” means “outside,” describing that which crosses between words.

These are not digital objects becoming real; these objects were always in our reality. What we are experiencing is not a Matrix-like teleportation trick, but a rearrangement, a different flavor of information. We need new terminology that makes reference to the enmeshed, imploded, overlapping, interpenetrating nature of the physical and digital. I dig some of the suggestions above, but I think we need to chew on this more. What are some other terms we might use? Who has written about this before (be it academic, popular or fiction)?’

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Nathan Jurgenson’s earlier essay on digital dualism is here.