Episode 3 -The Noisiest of Our Preoccupations, Blended States, and Documentary Vision with Nathan Jurgenson


Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) is a social media theorist, Contributing Editor of The New Inquiry, and a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland.


  • Theorizing the Web Conference
  • Cyborgology 
  • "Time away from your machine is offline?"
  • "Do we put people down for being connected with technology"
  • "Do you have documentary vision?"
  • "you see the present as always this potential future past"
  • "Don't congratulate yourself not taking your phone out of your pocket"
  • "Creating a medical condition out of medical condition?"
  • "We create the addiction to create "Normal...social ranking via digital usage"




Pathologizing - Regard or treat (someone or something) as psychologically abnormal or unhealthy.




Mindful Cyborgs - Contemplative living in the age of quantification, augmentation and acceleration, with your hosts Chris Dancy and Klint Finley.

CD:      Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs. Hey, it’s Chris Dancy and we're back with Episode 3 - I can’t believe it’s 3 already. How are you doing, Klint?

KF:       I’m doing well.

CD:      Klint, as I’ve shared with you last year – or actually it was this year, time moves really weird for me -- I went to this conference in New York City called Theorizing the Web. It was like one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. Overwhelming, emotional, weirdly connected. Made me think way too much and messed with me for months afterwards. I stood up and recovered. At that conference I met Nathan Jurgenson who is a social media theorist as well as being an editor over at the New Inquiry, which I proudly pay for every month, and a sociology graduate student from University of Maryland. And we are lucky enough to be joined with Nathan today.

             Hello, Nathan.

NJ:       How’s it going?

CD:      We are so excited to have you on. I think we’re both big fans.

NJ:       Oh cool, cool. Happy to be chatting with you.

CD:      So, Klint, you’ve read some of Nathan’s work. I have read some of Nathan’s work. Nathan, could you just kind of give us a real quick overview of who you are, what you’re writing about and what types of things you find interesting?

NJ:       Sure. Like you said, I’m a graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland and a contributing editor to the New Inquiry which is one of my favorite things. I’m really proud to be a part of that. And together with P J Ray who’s another graduate student in sociology we founded  the Theorizing The Web Conference – which is a lot of fun, really cool to meet you there – as well as the Cyborgology blog.

            And the blog’s name I think says a little bit about the work that I do, Cyborgology. The cyborg reference there is Donna Haraway’s conception of the cyborg which is really beginning thinking about humanity as always enmeshed with technology, and that’s not just since computers but since always. And that’s really where all my work comes from: at this intersection of technology and society.

I think for a long time we’ve conceptualized technology and society and “the online” and “the offline” as largely separate. And I’ve always begun all my work from the perspective that they are enmeshed and trying to maybe blur some of these lines that we’ve typically drawn.

CD:      You talk about this “IRL Fetish” or “in real life fetish.” Can you explain that to me and to the listeners a little bit?

NJ:       Yeah, so, I was sort of noticing how people describe disconnection and logging off in this way that I thought wasn’t just appreciating being away from your computer. And I appreciate being away from my computer, I wrote the essay largely outdoors. I like that. But people are more than appreciating being disconnected and offline, but rather fetishizing it.

What I mean by fetishizing it is making two mistakes. First, thinking about the time that we spent away from our screens is really offline. And second, using this appreciation for being disconnected as a way of putting other people down.

And so that’s what I really described in the essay is that this time that we spent offline - and I reference Sherry Turkle who wrote in New York Times of that talking about how we should take walks on Cape Cod like her and appreciate being offline – how those experiences offline are still very much influenced by the internet. For instance the walk on Cape Cod was experienced as “not Facebook,” and that became fodder for her op ed. For us maybe it would be fodder for our social media profiles.

And then the second part of that mistake is putting people down for being connected with technology. Often times we talk about the digital as virtual or less than real and I think when we say IRL to mean “not Facebook” or “not the internet” and I think that’s fundamentally wrong. If we say that, then IRL stands for In Real Life. Well, Facebook is real life. The internet is real. Digital connection is real.

So, we’re making two mistakes. One, thinking that the virtual, the internet isn’t real, and second thinking that our offline experiences are totally real and not virtual at all. And they are virtual, they are influenced by the internet. So again it’s beginning from this idea of the enmeshment of the online and offline rather than the separation.

KF:       I find that really interesting because I’ve been really guilty of being and IRL Fetishist over the past few years. It’s forced me to reconsider what I’m actually trying to get out of a disconnected state. I’m curious when you started to formulate this idea and how did you arrive at this?

NJ:       I was reading Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 1 and he described how sexuality, the story that we typically tell about sexuality is that it used to be very repressed and now we talk about it and we’re breaking taboos and being subversive and uncovering the mystery of sexuality. And Foucault thought that was very silly, that in the age of restriction and taboos of sexuality we’re oppressed with it. We talked about it all the time.

Foucault thought it was very interesting that we were pretending like there was the silence around what he called the noisiest of our preoccupations. And I felt that there was a parallel there between that and how we talk about reality and disconnection. We talk about it as if it’s going away, that people aren’t talking face to face anymore, that people don’t appreciate the tactile and the tangible and the material in this age of digital connection.

That’s the story that we’re telling and I think it’s fundamentally false. We’re actually meeting face to face even more. There’s plenty of research out here that’s showing that people who use social media more, spend more time offline meeting face to face. They spend more time in political protest. They go out and vote more. They join clubs more and, in fact, not only are we not losing face to face conversation and doing things offline, not only are we doing that more than ever before or at least in recent history, we’re also obsessed with it.

People just go on and on. Every week there’s a new op ed about somebody congratulating themselves for spending a day without their phone and it’s getting really, really ridiculous and people are really patting themselves on the back for doing what people are already doing all the time. And so I really thought this whole disconnection, digital Sabbath, all this offline stuff, all these debates were sort of disingenuous.

They were sort of starting from the wrong position that didn’t match up with what we know from research. So that’s IRL Fetish. That essay was a way of for me, I think, just sort of resetting the entire debate. That’s what I hoped it would do and I’m kind of excited by how well that essay did.

CD:      It was amazing because I had so many people that I shared with who just totally wanted to crucify you, I mean they were just like, “Who is this digital antichrist that’s writing this?” and I’m like “For God’s sake calm down. He’s just a writer. It’s his opinion.”

            But it reminds me a lot of the 90s when I was, y'know, I’d meet people who would brag to me about how they don’t have television, they don’t watch television and these are people my age who even though they grew up in an age of television they’d evolved out of it and it wasn’t really important to them. Or my grandfather who in the 70s would say to me as a child, “You’re watching the boob tube.” It’s almost like a digital classism that I see.

But I loved it. I want to thank you for writing it. Klint?

KF:       I was actually going to bring up TV. I think we forget how much time people used to spend watching it. Or often still do, but they’re watching TV and they’re on social media at the same time, so there’s more of a social connection happening rather than just sitting at home watching television alone.

NJ:       I think The Atlantic they have that cover story “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Which I hate to say was a very, very poorly done article that sort of cherry picked research. Some of this is an empirical question. You can look at social media users and look at what they are doing, who they meet, how big their social circles are, how typically involved they are and the research is really pointing in the one direction that social media isn’t displacing what we do offline.

That whole displacement, that whole zero sum idea of the online and offline – more online means less offline and vice versa -- that’s what I call digital dualism. That zero sum displacement idea. And that’s really not what’s going on. The online and offline are sitting right on top of each other. They’re enmeshed and it makes complete sense that it’s a more and more situation. People who are spending more time online are also spending more time offline because they are two separate worlds. That’s entirely possible. So I think it’s really important to ask that question about social isolation and loneliness in our modern society, and certainly the suburbs and car culture and television led to that. And suddenly we have this new blip, very recently people are a little bit less isolated, especially young people.

And it was really a shame to see Facebook or social media being singled out as a part of this modern loneliness when really it’s one of the few things that we have that’s going in the other direction away from social isolation.

KF:       What about blended states? When you are in a group of people and everyone has out their phone texting or adding things to Facebook, communicating with people who are somewhere else rather than with each other?

CD:      Klint that was exactly... You and I need to get out of each other’s heads. So at Nathan’s conference someone said, and I’m going to paraphrase it very poorly, and if it was Nathan who said it Nathan’s going to come after to me with a crowbar... But someone said we spend a majority of our time reconstructing the present within the digital space. So just like you’re saying people together taking photos and saying what they’re doing, why they’re standing in front of each other. So, Nathan, do you know what I’m talking about?

NJ:       Yes, this is one of the things I’ve written quite a bit about. What I call “documentary vision” or “the Facebook eye,” which I’m making reference to the camera eye. If you’ve ever taken a lot of photos . . . are either of you photographers by chance?

CD:      Just an iPhone photographer.

KF:       I actually really try not to ever take photos.

NJ:       Oh okay, so this might even be more relevant for you. So, if you’ve taken a lot of photos, if you’re a photographer and you spend a lot of time with the camera in your hand or up your eye. You develop the thing that is called the “camera eye,” that is even when the camera is not at your eye you start to see the world through the logic of the camera mechanism. You see the world as a potential photo with a framing, lighting, the depth of field and so forth. And that’s called the camera eye and I think social media, especially Facebook, has given us the sort of documentary vision or the Facebook eye where you see the world as a potential Facebook post or tweet or Instagram photo.

That is you see the present as always this potential future past, this sort of nostalgic view of the present. I don’t think it takes us out of the moment. Some people say that, that you’re not experiencing life in the moment because you’re worried about posting it on Facebook. I think that’s just a different experience of the moment. But it’s worth debating whether that’s a better experience or worse experience.

And to the first question that was asked, it’s also very much worth debating what is the good manners for having your phone on public. If you’re sitting at a bar with three other people around the table and all three of them are looking at their phones, I don’t blame technology in that situation. I would say that you need to find some new friends. Those people are being assholes with their phones and we should work and not do that. But at the same time let’s not congratulate ourselves for never taking out our phone even once. If you need to send a text every once in a while, send your text every once in a while. If you’re not paying attention to the people you’re with then you probably don’t like them very much or they don’t like you very much for doing that. And I think we can do this, work through these manners without patting ourselves on the back for keeping our phones in our pockets, but also not keeping your phone out and ignoring other people. That’s just acting like a jerk. I hope we need to theorize that much more deeply than that. That’s just being a jerk. Stop doing it.

CD:      I love that. It’s funny because I was on Bloomberg Television about a month ago and the producer’s name’s Cory. He’s at Cory TV Online. I never met someone who was a television person. And literally he walked around during our interview, he’d interview, interview, interview and then stop and he’d like come back to “real life.” Sorry, I don’t want to get crazy. And then he’d start literally talking to me and the producers and the camera people as if he was in that third eye you’re talking about except he lived in that third eye. He lived as if he was always setting up scenes even when he wasn’t. It blew my mind.

NJ:       Well, I sort of think we are all always doing that. It’s just more explicit. What social media is really doing is performing and documenting. And all these things that we do in social media is really making explicit what we’ve already done. We are always performing with a costume we call our clothes and with a script of the sort of things that we all learn to say and do. And so it’s just a little bit maybe more obvious in that situation, but to me it’s a great metaphor for what we always do all the time.

CD:      Klint, I don’t know about you but I literally want to just rent an apartment next to Nathan and listen and eavesdropping and talking all day long.

NJ:       Probably not. You probably don’t want to do that. laughs

KF:       Going back to the etiquette of using a phone I think in a lot of cases we know it’s rude but we feel compelled, possibly out of doing an obligation to be connected to things that are online – at least those of us who have time sensitive work to be concerned that something important is coming in on the phone – or just a broader addiction to getting this information off the phone. Or at least it feels like addiction. And that’s what I was wondering about is do you think that there’s anything to this notion of addiction to information, or addiction to this sort of digital connection?

NJ:       Yes, I’m very, very against the addiction, sort of pathologizing framework of talking about this  for few different reasons. The first thing that pops into my head is some people really are tethered to their phones because of work obligation, and then what we do is we put down the person, the individual, for what is really a social and structural problem that is that workers are increasingly being asked to be on the clock or near their phone 24 hours a day. That people are being on call or working longer and longer hours for less and less pay and it’s causing people to be at their Blackberry, or whatever, their phone all the time. And then that stinks and I think that’s something that we need to work through, if that’s even legal, what are the workers’ rights in the situation. It’s a social problem and I really don’t like the rhetoric of them blaming the individual and talking about that as a kind of an addiction.

            And the other reason why I don’t like addiction is precisely that kind of pathologizing, creating almost a medical condition out of digital connection. And what I typically think when we create these new pathologies, these new problems or illnesses that people have is we often create that illness to simultaneously create what is normal. We talk about addiction to then be able to frame our own non-use as healthy and normal and they create this divide between healthy and non-healthy, which is really a way of doing some sort of social ranking, being able to put myself above the other person because I’m a healthy normal person. They’re abnormal or unhealthy in some way and probably need to seek some kind of a treatment or something like that. So the addiction framework or almost the medical kind of framework for this I think glosses over the social problems and the social injustices of workers being asked to get out their phones and be connected all the time.

CD:      That’s what I took out in real life piece. The one thing I took when people asked me was once I read it I realized that I knew people who literally justified or made . . . they found validity in the relationships they were running from by creating an alternate universe that they called online. And it reminded me of when I started my first corporate job in the early 90s and they were pushing down my throat that I need a work/life balance. And there is no work/life balance. There’s life. And I didn’t need justification of having a job to prove that I had a family.

            I loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it.

We’re going to jump into some real quick news. I’ve only got two tweets and two headlines, or two news items. Nathan, do you want to stick around for another 5 minutes?

NJ:       Sure.

CD:      So, Klint, as you know the Quantified Self European Conference happened. Two really interesting things I read and I’ll put a link and in the shownotes out to a bunch of wrap up blogs. One, massive health home implications. But one was At Home Rapid Strap, At Home Urinanlysis. And then which I thought again saving . . . it’s one thing to go to WebMD or fact check your doctor when he leaves the room. It’s another thing just to do the testing yourself at home, and those are things I didn’t know that you could actually get at this point. But then there’s this thing called Beddit which is basically a device that supports tracking your sleep but it purports to be so sensitive that it can capture individual heartbeats and breath. And I just thought, wow, are we there at the point where the bed is now more alive than our partner in the bed with us? What do you think of these devices that are just coming out of the woodwork and these sensors that’s just . . . what do you think?

NJ:       I’m no expert in the quantified self movement. I read Whitney Erin Boesel’s piece in Cyborgology. It was really, really good on gender and quantified self and it certainly doesn’t surprise me. What I know about the quantified self movement, doesn’t surprise me that the bed would be part of self quantification. It’s part of the self so why wouldn’t it be quantified under that rhetoric.

Personally, my first thought usually with the QS people is I think the most interesting part of quantified self probably isn’t the movement that calls themselves quantified self. I think I’m interested in lower case QS rather than uppercase. I think for instance keeping track of how many likes our photos get would be an example of quantified self that is far more prevalent and probably diffused through society.

I think those are things I’m most interested in. But as far as these devices or things like that I’m no expert in those.

KF:       I sort of like the idea of the bed insofar as just to make the sensors and tracking devices more invisible. Rather than wearing some sort of weird strap into bed the bed itself just keeps track of your movements and your heartbeat and so forth so that we can have less and less of external devices that we have to carry around and configure and just have all of that stuff disappear into the background.

CD:      And then you go to the opposite direction with things like Google Glass and all the devices that we do wear very externally. I was just at a conference in Vancouver. They asked me my opinion on this and I said to me it reminds me of homosexuals who came out of the closet in the 70s and 80s, me being one of them, and the type of flamboyant clothing we would wear. And it just seems like we’re in this kind of revolution where we have to prove just how techsy we are almost with a digital hanky code by wearing certain types of devices to show people yes, I’m identified as this person which hopefully will migrate through that period of time. I don’t know.

NJ:       Yes, I mean that’s what Eric Schmidt was getting at when he was talking about how using a smartphone is emasculating and you need to have this Google Glass that is somehow more masculine or something like that. It was really, I thought, offensive. And I think the correct reading of that was that the smartphone, now, everybody has a smartphone. How can you look like you’re a rich, powerful man if you have this thing that everybody has?

Well, there’s Google Glass now and again reinforces how what a cellphone used to do. When people see you wearing the Google Glass will say oh, well, you’re an important rich, powerful man. It’s really I think sad in sort of an offensive way to market that product. They’ve done a terrible job marketing Google Glass I think.

CD:      Yes, we featured your tweets on the subject on the show.

            Two tweets a week, one of them of course is from Nathan Jurgenson, our favorite topic so far. But the other tweet was from Cyborg Camp and that was “While designing the future. We don’t want to disturb normalcy too much and the concept was MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable).” And the person who actually was talking about this came up with the concept of minimal viable person.

So, if you take a smiley face, just a hand drawn smiley face in one end and you take a realistic cartoon on the other. There is this uncanny value of people want imprint more themselves on products that are not fully drawn lifelike things. They actually want something as he called  minimal viable person.

Do you have any thoughts or concepts around his theory that people want technology to be less like them so they can imprint themselves on it?

NJ:       No, I hadn’t thought about it. You put me on the spot there a little bit. Yes, it’s super interesting.

CD:      Klint, with all the tech and all the companies you meet, I mean has anyone the concept of minimal viable person when designing services applications or devices?

KF:       No, I’ve never come across that idea.

CD:      So, we’ll wrap up with a Nathan Jurgenson tweet which was sometimes you read Twitter and you like look at something and then you’re like you re-tweet it instantly but then you look at for like 30 seconds which seems like 7 years because you really want to soak it in before you share it with anyone else.

Nathan tweeted “I think social media’s over stimulation largely occurs when we’re away from the screen.”

KF:       Yes, Nathan, what do you mean by that? Because I read that and wasn’t really sure.

CD:      I think I know what he means by it. That’s why I loved it but I was just like . . .

NJ:       You tell me what you think I meant by it.

CD:      Because when I’m away from the screen I cannot wait to go back to Oz. When I’m in Oz, I’m just there. There's munchkins running around. It’s normal. It’s just it feels natural. It’s a complete weird reverse fetishism. I’m hyper stimulated when I’m away from these things. They enriched my physical life even though that would be a fetish.

NJ:       Yes, I think that’s in the spirit of what I meant. I think I’m most interested in . . . I think the way that social media, or say Facebook specifically, the way that most impacts us, most influences us is how we sort of downloaded the logic of these sites into our heads, how we carry them with us. I think Facebook’s biggest influence happens when we’re away from the screen. How Facebook has influenced ourselves and our identity and as I was talking about earlier even the way that we perceive the world, for instance, as the potential Facebook photo, as a potential status update. When we’re away from the screen that stuff all happens when we’re not even logged into Facebook.

            And so one time I was on a subway. I think it was like 3:00 in the morning and there was these young very drunk people behind me and one of the girls said, she said “real life is the place where you take photos for Facebook.” And I was just thinking she’s the smartest person I’d ever heard on a train and she was articulating exactly that point that Facebook’s influence isn’t just what happens when you’re logged in and sitting in front of the screen. Instead social media’s stimulation or overstimulation is what happens when we’re away from the screen partly because we don’t even know it.

CD:      Boom! Boom! Nathan, thank you so much for being on this show. It really means a lot to me personally. I’m such a huge fan. Is there any place people can see you speak? I’m going to tell people how they can find you online and stuff. Are you’re going to be at any events or any place where people can catch up with you... “in real life?”

NJ:       I’m going to be speaking at a conference in Milan a week from today. And boy, I don’t know if I have any. Conference season just sort of ended. I don’t think I have another one till the American Sociological Association annual meetings in New York City in August. But if you go to follow my Twitter or whatever you’ll be able to keep up with where I’m at or if you want me to speak somewhere let me know that might be the easier way.

CD:      Yes, and we’ve got people who do that sort of thing. So, you can follow Nathan. He is @NathanJurgenson. I’ll put in the show notes. You can Google him. He comes right up. You can read his stuff over at New Republic and Cyborgology.

NJ:       The New Inquiry.

CD:      New Inquiry. I always say that. I don’t know why I say New Republic. I need to figure out what the psychological kink is for me there. Klint, you’ve got some things coming up, don’t you, events?

KF:       Well, just the Digital Global Congress in Barcelona. It’s from June 12th to 14th. I’m speaking the first day of June 12th about quantified work.

CD:      And we’ve got two other events. We’ve got Global Feature 2045 which is that Russian billionaire renting out the Lincoln Center and turning us all into avatars June 15th and 16th in New York City. And of course we’ve got Buddhist Geeks August 16th and 19th in Boulder, Colorado.

Well, thanks so much Klint and Nathan. It’s been a real pleasure. We will see everybody back here in 2 weeks from Mindful Cyborgs. I like to think our producer Ross Nelson from Brown Hound Media and the creator of the Mindful Cyborgs art, Aaron Jasinski. Thanks so much.

NJ:       Thanks for having me on, Chris, and, Klint. Good to meet you.

KF:       You too. Thanks. Bye.

NJ:       Bye.