Some quick thoughts about sociological realism and digital life

What do we do online? This is an issue I’ve pondered in a variety of guises but I’ve been thinking about it today as a result of running a fun (though badly attended) workshop about ‘demystifying social media’. As someone who runs social media workshops in universities, I’ve become ever more convinced that many of the confusions which surround digital activity stem from a basic ontological misunderstanding of what online activity is. It’s too frequently construed as something distinct from the ‘real’ world.

The reasons for this distinction, which has pithily been named digital dualism, are a fascinating question in their own right. In part I think it stems from the phenomenology of the internet. Until the recent proliferation of mobile devices, it was necessary to sit down at a computer and stare at a screen to use the internet. This helps creates a sense of the internet as a ‘virtual’ space which is in some way disembodied. As someone who has had unpleasant back and neck problems from my posture when using a computer in the past, it’s always been obvious to me that using the internet is not at all disembodied. Though the obviousness of this has become utterly glaring, to the extent that I can’t quite take those who disagree seriously, since I started using an iPad and iPhone. Similarly the cyberpunk romanticisation of the ‘virtual’ plays a cultural role in propping up this ontological assumption.

If people see the internet as a distinct ‘world’ disconnected from the ‘real world’ then it becomes normatively and practically confusing. The tacit and explicit guides to action, the criteria we use to judge experiences, don’t seem to apply. When I run workshops I try to ‘reembody’ digital activity, encouraging people to incorporate digital tools into their wider lives. The concerns, projects and plans which unproblematically apply to every other sphere of life also apply to digital activity. Digital tools are only contingently different to other tools. If we treat them as something other, as mysteriously distinct from the stuff of day-to-day life, our practical engagement with them is unavoidably inhibited. It’s necessary to understand the tools but, in a way, this is secondary. It’s much more important to understand how we might use these tools as part of the wider projects and practices which stem from our lives beyond them.

The sheer newness of the digital tools we are presented with impedes the common sense sociological realism which guides us in other aspects of our life. Too often we fail to see (though we may retrospectively reflect in an intellectual manner) that the people we encounter ‘online’ are, well, people. Who are using tools to communicate for a whole range of reasons. If we artificially delineate ’the digital’ as a distinct sphere of human activity we deny ourselves the possibility of properly understanding what people do online. Likewise we preclude the possibility of participating in the ‘online world’ with the same degree of practical poise with which we engage with much, though not all, of our ‘real lives’.


Mark Carrigan is editor of the Sociological Imagination. He blogs about stuff here and tweets about things here.


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