Your Weekend Digital Dualist New York Times Op-Ed

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I’ve written before about how the lazy go-to op-ed route is to take some technology and say how it is replacing something more real, deep, and human. These op-ed’s rely on the fallacy of digital dualism to make their case [more on that here]. There’s much more to say about this trend, but two of the big errors are (1) understanding the on and offline as a zero-sum trade-off often without presenting any data to make that case but rather just holding it as an unsubstantiated conceptual assumption; (2) using this digital dualist assumption to make value-judgments about what and whom are more human, something I critique in my IRL Fetish essay. 

Today’s example comes, predictably, from The New York Times in an op-ed titled “Your Phone vs. Your Heart”. The topic is important, staring at screens has very real biological consequences, and there’s much in the research question here that is important. All the more reason to be critical of the unspoken assumptions and how they influenced data interpretation and what conclusions are made. 

This op-ed follows the tired IRL Fetish template, beginning by declaring oneself as fighting back against a culture that only celebrates how people are staring at screens. This author will take some uncommon stand against this trend seemingly unaware that this stand is so common as to be highly cliche. ”Less has been said about the costs”, the article predictably declares. I’m not sure where the balance of positive/negative words on mobile technology falls in the op-ed world, but it’s not hard to find either, so let’s put this framing to bed. But this is a minor quibble, the more important points are the conceptual and value-based assumptions. 

The logic of the article follows from a mostly implicit assumption that time spent staring at one’s screen means more time spent not staring face-to-face with another person—that screen and face-to-face are a zero-sum trade-off. This is never proven in the op-ed, but just assumed in spite of the fact that there’s much research, at least for adults, that demonstrate people often use their screens precisely to meet up more face-to-face. 

This assumption that the screen and the face exist in opposition is a significant part of digital dualism. And this often comes paired with the more moral/value-based/ethical dimension of digital dualism: the tendency to use the conceptualization of the on and offline as separate worlds to declare one or the other as more human. This op-ed goes the IRL Fetish route in the conclusion, 

So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.

(I’m going to skip over the use of “him/his” to mean any child, but let’s cut that sexist language out)

Saying that pulling a child away from a screen means pulling them back into “the world of real social encounters” declares that the type of socializing one does via a screen isn’t real. When my mother interacts with my 18 month old nephew over many miles via a tablet-based video call, that interaction is indeed and unquestioningly “real”.

Further, the final line implies that looking at a screen endangers one’s capacity for “humanity” and comes dangerously close to implying that the people mentioned at the beginning of the op-ed looking at their phones are not quite as human as those looking at someone’s face. This is the part of digital dualism that upsets me the most because it’s not just incorrect intellectually, it’s also downright dangerous to look over a group of people and declare which ones are more or less human.

More time spent face-to-face might indeed have health or social benefits, but, as is the case here, a synthetic view of the on/offline is needed to best make that argument.

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