[There is a] systematic bias to see the digital and physical as separate; often as a zero-sum tradeoff where time and energy spent on one subtracts from the other. This is digital dualism par excellence. And it is a fallacy.
—social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson
In the mid-2000s, the phrase on the lips of every cultural maven, pundit, and lifestyle reporter was work-life balance, a near-mythical state of equilibrium in which the demands of both a person’s job and personal life are equal. At the heart of this popular phrase was the idea that our society was becoming work-obsessed to the point of dysfunction, and only by dialing back the workweek creep—the gradual extension of the workweek marked by performing work-related activities during nonwork hours—could we regain equipoise.
Well, that didn’t work. Those of us lucky enough to have jobs are working more than ever, and leisure is increasingly giving way to weisure—free time spent doing work or work-related tasks. So our cultural Cassandras had to come up with something else to demonize, and they’ve settled upon technology itself. They say that our former work obsession has morphed into a technology obsession in which we prefer fiddling with shiny gadgets over relating to real people. The new cri de coeur is for tech-life balance. We must, the battle cry goes, learn to use technology in ways that don’t interfere with or reduce the quality of our personal lives or relationships.
Hence the proliferation of disconnect porn—articles and features that tell us to turn off, tune out, and drop in on people in the real world. We hear about black-hole resorts, which block all incoming and outgoing Internet signals, part of a larger category of technology-free traveling called disappearance tourism. We’re told to increase our doses of NST (non–screen time) and to spend more time living IRL (in real life). This demonization of the online experience and insistence that the overconnected unplug and revel in the real has been dubbed the IRL fetish.
But some people reject the very idea of tech-life balance because they believe we can no longer separate “tech” from “life.” The sociologist Nathan Jurgenson calls this belief digital dualism and describes it as viewing the physical as fully “real” and the online as merely “virtual” and compares these digital dualists to the Cartesian philosophers who believed that the mind was separate from the body.
But according to Jurgenson and others, cyberspace (a term they reject because of its inherent dualism) is real not only because it is imbued with the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of a couple of billion people but also because it has off-line effects. Witness, for example, the often-horrific consequences of cyberbullying, such as the recent suicide of teen Amanda Todd. Moreover, the real world isn’t separate from what happens online because we now think about online processes even when we’re not connected. When a particularly tasty-looking meal arrives we think about posting a picture of it to Facebook; when we watch a presidential debate, we reach for the phone to tweet our reactions to it; when we’re on a trip, we are already deciding which images and thoughts we will post to our vacation Tumblr.
But surely the fetishization of IRL experiences derives not from dualistic thinking but from a fundamental asymmetry in how the online and the off-line are enmeshed. That is, in the same way that the mind is fully created by and dependent upon physical structures such as neurons and synapses and is animated by the release of neurotransmitters and other physical processes, so too is cyberspace fully created by and dependent on fiber-optic lines and routers and is animated by social processes such as the posting of photos. On the other hand, the colonization of the physical by the virtual is only partial. Yes, we often think about Facebooking or tweeting or Tumblring a current experience, but often we’re just engaged in the business of life with no thought to the online realm. As long as that remains true, what need is there for tech-life balance? However, if your first thought with any new experience is deciding whether it’s tweetable or Facebookable, then we should probably talk.
This article originally appeared in print as "Balancing Act."