On the Distinction between Online Life and Real Life

What is the experience being online like? What is the relevant sense of “being”? Is “I am online” like saying “I am on a bus”? The grammar looks the same. One goes on and off and pays fees for use. But in another sense, being online covers a vast range of experience, much of which is difficult to articulate, unlike bus riding. Nowadays, when and how is someone ever offline? Can someone actually ever go offline? Where would they be going?

The popular assumption is that online life has a particular, distinct way of being. It is a realm of existence—a special place to be. The online world is a world unto itself. It houses its own occupants. It is conceived as both subterranean and in the clouds, both occasionally and yet always inhabited by the users. Human beings are online beings. How exactly do the two beings in the two worlds relate?

There are real stakes connected to the question. Consider common reactions to tech news. Do people feel the full force of cyber threats and plan adequately for their possibility (better: inevitability)? Remember the Atlanta cyber attack? Perhaps not. The Equifax story was a major scandal. Private information of millions was and remains compromised. Yet something about it doesn’t feel so pressing.

Edward Snowden showed the depth of constant government surveillance. Does the outrage reach a commensurate level? The same is true for the stunning data collection tactics of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and TikTok. By all appearances, people care to some extent, or know intellectually that they should care more, but the stories concern a nebulous separate world.

What explains these reactions? The idea is that, at some vague and unarticulated level, people take the online world to have a secondary ontological status. In the ubiquitous phrase, it isn’t the real world. According to 21st century folk ontology, cyberspace occupies a lower level of reality than meatspace.

Evidence is found in how Mark Zuckerberg phrases a principle for removing posts from Facebook. Many had been asking questions about Facebook’s place in the complicated causal story of the 2016 election. Just as salient should be the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingya minority. Zuckerberg said,

“The principles that we have on what we remove from the service are: If it’s going to result in real harm, real physical harm, or if you’re attacking individuals, then that content shouldn’t be on the platform.”

I call attention to this line not because it is philosophically nuanced or reflective. It is neither. Like much that Zuckerberg says, it is anodyne and superficially plausible. Rather, the line is important because Zuckerberg is communicating on the basis of a shared conception of the internet, the activities that take place on it, and its place in the world.

He is ostensibly interested in the harm of ‘physical individuals’. That’s real harm. The moral patients are somewhere off his platform. Seemingly then there is cyber-harm that precedes the real harm. This would be harm to the non-physical or non-individuals occupying the online world. Obviously such harm would not be real because, insofar as harm is bad, Zuckerberg would then have moral objections pertaining to it. The qualities of the online pre-harm are left mysterious.

For him and most everyone else, there is a distinction between cyberspace and meatspace—the online and offline worlds. The language reflects the idea that one is the privileged reality. The other isn’t really reality. Accordingly, being online isn’t being (fully) human.

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What reasons could be given for the folk internet ontology? There are several possibilities. First, the internet is not taken to be a “thing.” What is it? Where is it? Buses and bodies are real things. Cyberspace isn’t actually a space.

Then again, if the internet isn’t a thing, how could someone be “on” it? The internet is a system. Systems, although often not tangible themselves in a particular place, can be quite real. Failing to recognize this means falling prey to a category mistake. Is it metaphysically possible for a real system to have not real or less real parts?

Second, when someone is online it is difficult for them to know whether they are interacting with a person or a bot. A bot appears like a real person but isn’t one. People often struggle to discern the difference between humans and bots. And with increasing interaction, the behavior of the two becomes increasingly similar.

But where does the difference in reality come in? To draw a distinction, there might be two senses of the word ‘real’ at play. Pyrite, or fool’s gold, isn’t real gold. But in another sense, fool’s gold is real. A piece of pyrite exists. It has just as much reality as a piece of real gold. Sometimes ‘real’ means ‘genuine’ and sometimes it means ‘existent’.

The distinction resets the question. Do people think online life as a whole is somehow a counterfeit of genuine life? Or do they think online life doesn’t exist? Does a bitcoin not exist, or is it a counterfeit of a genuine coin? Neither option seems exactly right. The two senses are blended into a bizarre and unexpressed assumption—namely, an ontological hierarchy according to which offline life has more reality than online life.

Other distinctions are possible. Sometimes ‘real’ carries the sense of nonfiction, as opposed to fiction. Perhaps then the internet houses a fiction world. What happens on the internet is fake. This is certainly true about some places on the internet, where users find fictions, but it is not true of the places that are typically contrasted with the ‘real’ world. Social media as a whole, like a nonfiction book, represents the world—specifically, the behavior of those who participate on the platforms. Nevertheless, it is plausible that some version of the nonfiction/fiction distinction is at play in talk about the reality of the internet.

None of the candidate distinctions directly map on to the online/real world distinction. A feature of the folk ontology is that it is vague overall and only potentially precise in specific cases.

As a way of constructing a better idea, consider how the two realities interact. Andrew Couts says, “we know, deep down, that the disconnect between what we do online and offline is a figment of our imagination. […] We understand that the Internet is real life – we simply choose to ignore it.” Couts is surely on the right track, but the ambiguity of ‘real’ needs attention. There is a difference between saying:

  1. The online world affects the offline world.
  2. There is only one world, and the online/offline distinction distinguishes equally real aspects of it.

It is possible to read #1 as obviously true. A few clicks and a real tangible package arrives at the door. Online life on Lyft brings a meatspace car and driver to the door. But these claims are consistent with the ontological prioritization of the offline world. On such a view, perhaps the offline world acquires its reality from the effects it has in the real world. It is real only insofar as it reaches into the real world. Zuckerberg appears to assume something like this.

On reflection, though there are indeed distinctions to be made, it is impossible to justify any ontological prioritization. The online/offline distinction does not correspond to distinct levels of reality. Where do your clicks on Amazon take place? Which aspects of a Lyft order are not in the real world? What would the process of “reaching into” the real world from somewhere not real look like? Where is the border?

The superior view is 2. The online world affects the offline world because it is real. To be more precise, it is not that both worlds affect each other but that there is only one world. In the world, some actions involve particular technologies. Those actions take place online. Some real entities are online. Ontological prioritization inferred from the cyberspace/meatspace distinction is a mistake.

There are different forms of human interaction, some of which involve the internet. There is undoubtedly a difference between talking to someone through Twitter direct messages and talking to their physical face from across a table. They share some features and differ with respect to others. One might even prefer one over the other. The difference, however, does not constitute two levels of reality. One is no more real than the other. What markers of reality does a text conversation lack? If all the real actions involved in a text conversation are subtracted, nothing would be left.

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Taking the reality of cyberspace more seriously would result in much needed moral recalibration. The mistaken ontology lowers the stakes of what happens online. It explains the muted reactions to news of surveillance, internet addictions, and election hacking. The topics are important because they concern destructive actions in the world. They do not exist in a secluded virtual terrain that only occasionally infringes on the real world.

The ontology also justifies or generates an emotional gap between the online and offline worlds. Many people are more prone to mock and threaten someone from behind a keyboard than they would be if the person were standing in front of them. Bullying should be wrong across all domains and in its various manifestations. By stressing that there is no ontological hierarchy, issues like online bullying could be viewed differently.

The folk ontology is taken to lead to the view that people who spend a lot of time online aren’t living good lives. Although the conclusion might be true in many cases, the premises deserve scrutiny. Criticism of the ontology is consistent with claims that people should “unplug” or that too much of life is online. The claims, however, aren’t true because online life is ontologically deficient. People should spend less time smoking cigarettes. That is not because they aren’t experiencing “real” life when they’re smoking. In fact, it is challenging to see how something can be deleterious if it is not real (and not an illusion or hallucination). Judgments about how online activities are part of a good life need to be more nuanced.

It is also essential to develop a more detailed internet ontology—or a literature and discourse about it—before sophisticated versions of technologies like virtual reality and simulations become a regular feature of life. They will present many complicated moral questions. The questions are likely to include assumptions about or implications for an internet ontology. Best to make the assumptions explicit now. Interrogating possible justifications for the secondary ontological status of the online world is, in the end, less important than reflecting on why people are inclined to stratify the world in such a way. The prevailing online world/real world distinction is not the result of a common venture into public metaphysics. Rather, it stems from a collective self-misunderstanding. What is required is greater reflection on the experience of being online. logo-red

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