On the Distinction between Online Life and Real Life

1. Toward an Internet Ontology

How do we experience being online?

Consider what we mean by the phrase “I am online”—something familiar yet spoken less and less. What sense of “to be” or “being” are we using? Is it like saying “I am on a bus”? In a sense, yes. The grammar looks the same. You go on and off and pay fees for use. But in another, being online covers a vast range of experience, much of which we struggle to articulate, unlike bus riding. Nowadays it is difficult to know when and how we are ever offline. Do you actually ever go offline? Perhaps there is a range of experience, from immersive Virtual Reality to the barely conscious knowledge that our phone carrier knows where we are at all times.

In general, we treat online life as a particular, distinct way of being. It is a realm of our existence. The online world is a world unto itself with its own occupants. It is a subterranean or atmospheric (or cloud-based) level of reality that we dip into on occasion and yet, paradoxically, always inhabit. We are human beings. Sometimes we are online beings. How exactly do the two beings in the two worlds relate?

There are real stakes connected to the question. Reflect on how we react to certain news stories:

  • When we hear about potential cyber threats, we struggle to feel their full force. Remember the Atlanta cyber attack? Perhaps not. The Equifax story was a major scandal. Your private information was compromised. Yet something about it doesn’t feel so pressing.
  • Edward Snowden showed that we are being constantly surveilled by our government, but we struggle to sustain the outrage. The same is true for the stunning data collection tactics of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. We care to some extent, or we know intellectually that we should care more, but the stories concern a nebulous separate world.
  • We are told that Russia attacked our country in 2016. We know that the issue is important, but it also feels intangible, like we are straining the meaning of ‘attack’ or ‘act of war’. It is also tough to know how much of the emphasis on the issue is the result of standard political polarization.
  • Something feels wrong about using the word ‘addiction’ to describe the unhealthy relation many people have to social media. And even if it is an addiction, it surely isn’t as serious as addiction to alcohol or gambling.

What explains our psychologies? My suggestion is that, at some vague and unarticulated level, we take the online world to have a secondary ontological status. It isn’t the real world. Cyberspace occupies a lower level of reality than meatspace.

We talk in this way all the time. Consider how Mark Zuckerberg phrases a principle for removing posts from Facebook:

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.

We are interested in the harm of ‘physical individuals’. That’s real harm. We are then left to wonder about some cyber-harm that precedes the real harm, the non-physical non-individuals occupying the online world.

There is a distinction between cyberspace and meatspace—the online and offline worlds. Our language reflects the idea that one is the privileged reality. The other isn’t really reality. We might say it is mere “virtual” reality. And when something is ‘virtually x’, it isn’t ‘actually x’. Being online isn’t being (fully) human. This stands in contrast to the standard meanings of the ‘on’ and ‘off’ prefixes, according to which online would signify the positive, being, and default, while offline the negation that lacks being of its own.

My second suggestion is that, to the extent that we infer an ontological prioritization from the cyberspace/meatspace distinction, we are mistaken. In fact, the idea is deeply pernicious. We would do well to rid ourselves of it.

2. Cyber-realism and Monism

What reasons could we give for our folk internet ontology? There are several possibilities.

  • We don’t exactly take the internet to be a “thing.” What is it? Where is it? Buses and bodies are real things. If the internet isn’t a thing, how could we be “on” it? Cyberspace isn’t a space, at least in the standard sense.
  • When you are online it is difficult to know whether you are interacting with a person or a bot. A bot appears like a real person but isn’t one. As the 2016 election showed, 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?

It is useful to draw a classic philosophical distinction. We may be talking about two senses of the word ‘real’. As an example, pyrite, or fool’s gold, isn’t real gold. But in another sense, fool’s gold is obviously real. A piece of pyrite exists. It has just as much reality as a piece of real gold. One is a counterfeit relative to a preference. But a counterfeit is still a real thing.

So we have the sense of the word ‘real’ meaning genuine, true, and authentic. In that case, there is plenty offline and online that bedevils us fools (like gold-seeming things and person-seeming things). But there is a sense of ‘real’ meaning ‘existing’ and ‘having being’. We say that Santa Claus “isn’t real” to say that he doesn’t exist. We wouldn’t say that a bot doesn’t exist. A bot is a real counterfeit of a human being.

The distinction leads to a question. Do we think that online life as a whole is somehow a counterfeit of genuine life? Or do we 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. In my view, we largely don’t know what we think of the question. Because we don’t think about it. We blend the two senses into a bizarre and unexpressed metaphysical assumption—namely, an ontological hierarchy according to which offline life has more reality than online life.

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.”

Let’s be careful here. 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.

We could read 1 as being obviously true. A few clicks and a real package arrives at your door. Your online life on Lyft brings a meatspace car and driver to your door. The online life of some Russian operatives can bring a meatspace man to the White House. 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.

But with reflection we see that, though there are indeed distinctions to be made, we cannot justify any ontological prioritization. The online/offline distinction does not correspond to distinct levels of reality. Which aspects of a Lyft order are not in the real world? At which point are Russian hackers not doing something in the real world? Where do your clicks on Amazon take place?

The superior view is 2. We can also read the views as consistent with each other: 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, and in it, some actions involve particular technological innovations. We say those actions take place online. There are no grounds for ontological demotion.

Again, we are able to make distinctions. 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. You might even prefer one over the other (though I encourage you to be critical about why). The internet enables new forms of counterfeit. The difference, however, does not constitute two levels of reality. One is no more real than the other. It is not that you’re having a truly real conversation when you’re sitting with the person but not when you’re texting, emailing, or handwriting letters. Ask yourself what marker of reality a text conversation lacks.

If we subtract all the real actions from a text conversation, we are left with nothing. 

3. Technomoral Pragmatism

If we took the reality of cyberspace more ontologically seriously, the resulting moral recalibration would make us better able to grasp the very real problems we face right now. In general, our mistaken ontology lowers the stakes of what happens online. It explains our muted reactions to news of surveillance and election hacking. We are wrong to think that they are important only insofar as they have meatspace effects. They are important because they are destructive actions in our world.

Zuckerberg would do well to stop leaning on the naive internet ontology to downplay his responsibilities in correcting the problems he has caused. He is failing, at least publicly, to appreciate the seriousness of the problems. His language suggests that he views his platform as existing in an ontologically secluded terrain that only occasionally infringes on the real world. He is wrong. (And he should shut the site down.)

We might also use the ontology to justify or create an emotional gap between the online and offline worlds. I take this to be Couts’ main concern. 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. Obviously bullying should be wrong across all domains. If we stress that there is no ontological hierarchy, perhaps we would view issues like online bullying differently.

We assume because of the ontology that people who spend a lot of time online aren’t living an ideal life. Although the conclusion might be true in many cases, we need to reflect on the premises. What I am saying is consistent with claims that we should “unplug” or that too much of our life is online. Those claims, however, aren’t true because online life is ontologically deficient. People should spend less time smoking cigarettes. That is not because you aren’t experiencing “real” life when you’re smoking.

I will end with a more speculative point. In the future it is plausible that there will exist entities without meatspace bodies. The topic is found in the discussion of simulations and whether we are in one. If we are, the ‘hierarchy of being’ built into our language about technology implies that we become lesser, downgraded entities (though even that inference is tenuous). We feel like news that we are simulations would be a bummer. Given my arguments, that conclusion would be a mistake. It would be guilty of what I call substratism.

Reflecting on or constructing an ontology would help us move into the future with better moral insight. It would help us interact with the news better. And it would help us know ourselves betterlogo-red

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