Is this the real life?: Connectedness makes IRL all the sweeter

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Image: Is he in the real world?

In an essay for The New Inquiry, called “The IRL FestishNathan Jurgenson picks away at ideas like “online” and “offline” and the sense of virtue we often seem to attach to IRL (In Real Life).

Jurgenson argues that if moments of being disconnected feel more real and vital, maybe it precisely because we are connected most of the time that we are appreciating them…

The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity. We savor being face-to-face with a small group of friends or family in one place and one time far more thanks to the digital sociality that so fluidly rearranges the rules of time and space. In short, we’ve never cherished being alone, valued introspection, and treasured information disconnection more than we do now. Never has being disconnected — even if for just a moment — felt so profound.

It reminds me of one of those “a year without the internet” (or a day, or week, or a month experiments) articles. For the first few weeks the experimenter felt liberated, looked at life differently, felt like they were better somehow. Then the novelty faded and they felt normal. Then they felt bored and disconnected from their life. Paul Miller – a journalist who spent a year offline – describes his experience:

My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.

So why are people talking about “offline”, digital diets, screen sabbaths? Jurgenson thinks we are suffering from what sounds to me like a mixture of confusion and nostalgia:

In great part, the reason is that we have been taught to mistakenly view online as meaning not offline. The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online. If we can fix this false separation and view the digital and physical as enmeshed, we will understand that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected. That is, disconnection from the smartphone and social media isn’t really disconnection at all: The logic of social media follows us long after we log out. There was and is no offline; it is a lusted-after fetish object that some claim special ability to attain, and it has always been a phantom.

There is also a sense of caution amongst people, of noticing how immersed we are in the windows into the great machine of the web, and pulling back slightly. If not slowing down our headlong charge into the connected age, abstention, “going offline” is a gesture toward slowing down, a comforting habit, like a heavy drinker who has one day off a week, partly to show themselves they can still do it.

Pushing back against always-on connected life is also about figuring out a workable framework for using the web well in our lives.

It helps me to wind down before bedtime to switch off devices, to slow down my use of the web (much as I drink less coffee and don’t eat a large meal before going to sleep). I try to delay the moment I first open a browser, an app or an inbox after I wake, to let myself start the day with a little less urgency, to think about things a little before I start inviting things to happen to me.

Sometimes. Sometimes it works like that. Other times I do it differently – partly this is a lack of discipline, partly that I am playing with different ways of living in the connected world. Working out what works.

A binary argument about “online” and “offline” is not helpful – connectedness is not all good or all bad. It has a mixture of benefits and drawbacks and we are learning how to live well online.

The polarised positions people take in this debate are down to what Kahneman calls “the affect heuristic“. When we like something, feel good about it, we exaggerate the benefits and play down the negatives. When we dislike something, we all but ignore the upside and overplay the pitfalls.

If we are able to be rational about it, we can see the upside of being connected, acknowledge the dangers and work to mitigate them.

We’ll get there. But not with out some blustering and blunders…

HT to Ross Breadmore

  • Andrea Vallejos

    I have many friends “online” – in fact, I have better friends around the world who I met on the internet, than I do have IRL. My absolute best friend, my husband, started out as an “online” friend.. and now here we are – married and together IRL.
    I don’t get the whole “IRL is better” idea at all.
    Yes, sometimes (on a FEW occasions) it IS nice to meet people (Friends) in person somewhere.
    But for some of us (introverted geeks) it’s so much easier to be ourselves, when we are not worrying about social interaction/fitting in in real life.
    I love being connected with my online friends. I do love to see my in person friends every now and then, but I don’t thrive on personal/physical interaction. I guess I am not that gregarious.

  • http://www.purplecar.net/ PurpleCar

    I agree… this binary argument is obsolete, bankrupt. It’s similar to my pet peeve with “social” media. All media is social in some way or another. We will stop using these terms and this idea soon. No one talks about being “on the phone” or “off the phone” or as having a “pen pal friend.” We make friends. We communicate. We use tools to do these things sometimes. That’s assumed.

    I’ll have to rethink my lexicon now. Thanks, Buddy. ;P

  • amayfield

    The introversion dimension is an interesting one for this subject too. Is a digital space/communication/relationship sometimes superior to one where we meet in physical space? The answer’s “Sometimes, yes”.

    And are relationships that began or anchor themselves in the physical world enhanced with online communication. Of course. If weren’t able to stay in touch in so many ways we would simply have to have fewer friends. How dull.

  • amayfield

    Absolutely. Neologisms are only useful while things are new and then we have to let them fall away or be absorbed into the lexicon of the everyday.