The terms ‘online’ and ‘offline’ present a dichotomy. The suggestion that, like a light bulb, we are either ‘on’ or ‘off’ at all times. There is no place for the ambiguous state in between.
The digital platforms that are part of our lives are virtual representations of the type of vital interactions we look for, on a daily basis, offline. They satisfy the needs we feel in our everyday lives and it’s for this reason we seek them out, their effects don’t stop when we move away from a laptop or put our phones in our pockets.
The youth of the sixties were believed to have turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Today, some suggest, the friends who all place their phones on the table at dinner; the people in the front row filming the gig - we have all logged on and checked out. We can’t hold conversations. We can’t empathise with each other. We can’t connect. We have lost the ability to be bored. We have traded real life for a virtual one.
Users of technology have been encouraged to resist technological intrusions and aspire to consume less. A data diet has been prescribed. This point of view suggests that it is impossible to have both; it’s not possible to be completely present in the real world and the virtual world at the same time because they are opposites. On and Off.
An alternative way of looking at this is through the idea that opposites are intrinsically bound in their relation to each other. ON exists in its relation to OFF. William Blake outlined this relationship, “Without contraries” he states, “is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.”
Just as a life lived fast and loud in the city can help a person to appreciate more deeply a weekend in the countryside, so being online socially, or for work, can enrich the experience of a face-to-face conversation or an evening with a book. The normal pleasure of these experiences can be increased in its opposition to an online existence.
So the difficulty in online/offline is not raised by the meaning of the words themselves, it’s the dichotomy; the treatment of the two terms and their relation to each other.
In 1981, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation. The text is famous for coining the phrase ‘Hyperreality’, a state in which it is impossible to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality. Hyperreality promotes the merging of physical and virtual reality as a new, natural state.
The digital and physical world is now symbiotic. What we do while connected is inseparable from what we do while disconnected. The reality is that since the digital superhighway was created, our lives are now made up of the constant meshing and embracing of the online and offline, the digital and the physical and the hyperreality of life.