Are Online and Offline Separate?

In response to Sarah Genner’s, On/Off, I’d argue there’s an undifferentiated muddle in the online/offline dichotomy. The manner of our being in either world is contingent on how we comport ourselves. Therefore–from that perspective–there is no duality problem here.


The author’s argument is not discordant with that point of view, given her claim on page 180 of

…understanding online and offline as a multidimensional continuum rather than a dualistic ON/OFF switch.

The categories given in the table on page 182 are useful exemplars, but extensible, as this is more of a multiverse than the set collections of characteristics she has glommed together. They are convenient, but restrictive and/or limiting as a consequence. Moreover, they are most accurate on the boundaries and ambiguous in between.

A problematic counter argument embedded in her exegesis is that many if not most of the “online” sites we visit are actually cached.

So, in a sense, we’re reading yesterday’s news.

Moreover, as is the case with the “offline” editions of Wikipedia that Jimmy Wales and company distributes to the developing world in a variety ROM formats, if the world that end-users operate in is too big to know, they may be unaware, or even incapable of distinguishing if they are in a closed or open universe.

Corporate intranets are another example of the undifferentiated muddle. They are updated internally on a regular basis–ever changing–but closed on some funky periphery that may indiscernible to employees. They may, like the character played by Jim Carey in The Truman Show, set their own boundaries according to established company protocols. They are extensible on the LAN from the standpoints of employees–who send internal emails or post to the company blog– and even present editions of breaking world news, but still bo offline in the WAN sense.

Another example is wired schools. Though on the ‘Net, they are generally filtered according to the precepts of some subcommittee of the “Board of Education” (Is that an oxymoron?). Their rule sets are constructed in some cases to minimize liability (access to naughty sites) or based on some flyover state mentality that the creationists have it right, and therefore there’ll be no access to pro-evolutionary content.

Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall project is another exemplar. Many of the computers he installed in remote Indian villages were offline, but expansive enough to provide a rich set of interlinkages (sufficient for the kids to autodidact in a rich number of disciplines).

A popular fringe argument is that we are ALL embedded in a virtual reality environment–like the Matrix–unable to discern that all that appears to be real is actually artificial. Could we all be avatars in one sophisticated hi-res simulation?

And of course, there’s the biblical argument that we are finite and g-d is infinite, therefore, we cannot know him/her. We have neither the bandwidth nor access privileges.

It’s great to start from an ontological perspective as the author has done in describing a discrete set of categories, purportedly on a continuum bounded by 0 and 1, to characterize the nuances of “off-lineness” and “on-lineness.” The disaggregation of a binary state into a set of n-tuples is not, however, getting at the root of the problem.

Moreover, as Dan Schwartz (former classmate) has pointed out, it’s easy to map categorizations onto behaviors, but nearly impossible to disambiguate behaviors into a discrete set of categorizations, especially when several are manifest.

We need to move beyond categorizations to social imperatives.

Extreme cases can be most illustrative, so let’s look at the matter of Internet porn and adolescent males.

According to Philip Zimbardo in a TED Talk entitled The Demise of Guys, heterosexual boys have on-demand asynchronous digital access to “phosphorescent” girls (50 times per week on average), rather than synchronous analog interactions that would foster a capacity to function in relationships. Zimbardo attributes this in part to addiction syndrome. To paraphrase Woody Allen, ‘they’re practicing a lot on their own.’ They’re no longer shy–they’re socially awkward–fearing rejection. He says, “They don’t know the language of face-to-face contact–the set of non-verbal rules.”


So, we can pinpoint them behaviorally on a sort of DSM scale, but let’s then move on to an actionable agenda–rooted on an ethical plane–that teaches them how to comport.

Towards the end of the article, Genner alludes to “mindful” approaches to build awareness. I’d like to see a set of ethical precepts to augment her ontology. I think the best way to do that is situated–in the context of face-to-face interactions–whether live or via synchronous high definition video conferencing. Perhaps the immersiveness of VR will give them a harmless playground in which to experiment and learn.

This has already been demonstrated with great success in treating autism.


The Autism space used in the video was implemented in SecondLife. It is an immersive virtual reality environment that required all newbies to spend a few days on Orientation Island. There, a tour guide would teach newcomers how to navigate the space and more importantly, how to behave (aka `Netiquette). If one misbehaved–by using inappropriate language or harassed other participants–ze was banished from the world. That sort of indoctrination would obviate a lot of the problem experienced in other forms of social media.

Genner references  the work of James and Jenkins on “mindful and responsible usage” and “ethical behavior online.” I’ll need to delve into their program to determine the extent to which they are addressing the problem.


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