The distinction between digital optimism and digital pessimism is a well-known one in the sociology of the media and comparisons of their respective positions are a fairly commonplace feature of any discussion of the social impact of different forms of new media. This is particularly the case in relation to something like social media where the debate is increasingly framed in terms of overly-optimistic claims for it’s innate goodness and equally-pessimistic claims for its innate badness.
While there’s nothing particularly wrong with examining and evaluating new media in this way, if you want to add a slightly more-nuanced reading of something like social media to the debate, Jurgenson’s (2012) novel reinterpretation / reinvention of the term “augmented reality” might fit the bill.
“Augmented reality”, if you’re not familiar with it, refers to the idea of overlaying the real world with digital layers that enhance or augment what we’re seeing. You could, for example, be in a museum looking at a picture and, by pointing your phone at it you reveal a variety of details about the artist, the picture and so forth on the screen.
Alternatively, if you’re into less high-cultural pursuits think Pokemon Go – a game that uses a phone’s GPS function to overlay virtual creatures on real-world locations.
Conventionally, therefore, the term involves seeing the real and the virtual worlds in terms of a digital dualism – conceptualising the “online” and “offline” realms as separate social spaces (SSS’s) linked by various forms of technology: from physical objects like mobile phones to metaphysical objects such as the web / cyberspace. This, Jurgenson argues, is both mistaken and misleading.
Rather than seeing the two as separate spheres connected by technology, Jurgenson argues they have become enmeshed and are now impossible to separate: we are living and experiencing a single “augmented reality” that merges:
For Jurgenson our online and offline lives have become indivisible and it’s no-longer clear where one starts and the other ends. While we are able to distinguish, at some level, our different online and offline existences, the two are inextricably linked. In relation to social media for example,
“Our offline lives drive whom we are Facebook-friends with and what we post about. Our offline histories, social-locatedness in various structures, demographics, epistemological standpoints [the proof we will accept about our fundamental beliefs], etc. all influence how we behave online.
And what happens on Facebook influences how we experience life when we are not logged in…For example, social media users are being trained to experience the world always as a potential photo, tweet, check-in or status update. The logic of social media sites and smart phone technologies fundamentally influence how we experience reality even when offline”.
Although Jurgenson was writing before photo / video sharing sites like Instagram (2010) and Tiktok (2016) came to the fore of social media, their existence and popularity simply reinforces the idea of a convergence between our offline and online selves – albeit one that augments the other.
“It is because social media augments our offline lives (rather than replaces them) that research shows Facebook users have more offline contacts, are more civically engaged, and so on. The online and offline are not separate spheres and are thus not zero-sum”.
In other words, unlike digital optimist and pessimist positions where for one to triumph the other must fail (a zero-sum game), Jurgenson’s augmented reality argues for the reverse: a variable-sum game where the online and offline worlds have their advantages and disadvantages for different individuals and groups.
Jurgenson, it should be noted, actually goes a bit further than this to cast “the Facebook user as the paradigmatic example” of the Harawaysian “cyborg””: Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, published in the early days (1985) of internet development, argued, in a nutshell, that the anonymity of cyberspace allows us to create and recreate different “cybernetic personalities” that are both closely related to – and sometimes widely divergent from – our offline personality. Developments in surveillance over the past 25 years have, to say the least, made this both a fanciful and questionable claim.
Similarly, it’s probably an indication of how quickly things change and “events in the virtual realm” are overtaken by events in the real world that Jurgenson’s arguments about the nature of augmented reality in relation to various forms of social protest – from the so-called Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street – now seem hopelessly outdated and over-optimistic.
Whether this invalidates his basic argument, however, is something for you to debate and decide.
And if you want to merge and extend this debate you could think about how the concept of hyperreality might be critically applied to Jurgenson’s basic argument.
Jurgenson, Nathan (2012) “When Atoms Meet Bits: Social Media, the Mobile Web and Augmented Revolution”