To be (or) not to be – how to overcome socio-technical dualism

The inspiring talk “Habits of Living: Data, Life and Society in Network Societies” by Nishant Shah made me think – once again – about dualisms. We’re locked to them in our everyday lives, as each element in our language exists in contrast to it’s opposite: black/white, warm/cold, male/female, life/death. For me the reified object of dualism is the now defunct, hence very present, Berlin Wall. The inherent dualism of Germany was and is east and west. With the reunification we gained another dualism: north and south. In order to describe the specifics of the different parts we describe them by their opposites: the north is what the south isn’t and the west is what the east isn’t – and the other way round.

If you were ask to describe yourself, how would you do it? Isn’t it so much easier to talk about who you’re not rather than who you are?

The problem of dualism is the underlying notion of hierarchy. Through a dualistic lens things become separate and inferior, they start to compete with one another. One of my favorite questions to ask is, if someone would rather live by the ocean or by the mountains. Ask yourself! What would you rather? Live by the calm never-ending ocean or the great majestic mountains. And while you gather your arguments think about Lady Justice’s scale and image how you fill up both sides with your arguments. What happens? The scale gets out of balance even though both sides are equally valid.

In media science we’re facing the same issue when talking about today’s media (technology). We’ve learned from STS that technology is never just technical but also social. The media (technology) inherent dichotomy of the technical and the social makes media research viscous and challenging.

In order to overcome the dualistic view Nishant Shah suggested in his talk an ‘opaque metaphor’, first introduced by Wendy Chun. In her view we have converted media (technology) into habits. By us connecting habitually to them without even thinking about them, media (technology) has made itself invisible. And this is why they so often take us by surprise.

Chun as well as Shah is trying is to overcome duality by rethinking, critiquing and challenging current ways of investigating media technology. Rather than juxtaposing the social and the technical against each other, they ask how things are shaped through one another. (Btw. they’ve done so in a Thinkathon – a thinking marathon, love the idea!)

I think this is a very valuable and much-needed approach in social science; however, I would like to propose an alternative, which is also applicable in everyday life: the method of radical acceptance. What I have observed lately is, that we’re trying so hard to overcome the dualism inherent in technology that it manifests itself even stronger. The more we talk about it, the harder it seems to change our way of thinking and the stronger appears the dualism itself. Thus, rather than rethinking our dualistic world, let’s radically accept it as it is – as a dualistic world.

‘Radical Acceptance’ is a method recommended by Tara Brach in order to heal trauma. In order to do so the fist step is to fully experience and accept all sensations that arise in our bodies. The second step is to fully welcome them with an open heart. The underlying assumption is that pain continues to cause pain, until we’ve fully experienced and accepted it. Or, as she cites Rumi, “the cure for the pain is in the pain”.

Even though cyberneticians don’t talk about pain at all, in the end they talk about the same when claiming “only variety can destroy variety”. The Law of Requisite Varity states that two systems can only be stable, when the number of states within the two systems are equal. Applied to our stated problem of duality this means that the outcome of our research needs to have two states as well.

In conclusion, in order overcome a dualistic view, I suggest that we first need to radically accept the two dualistic states and then, second, adjust our way of scientific thinking accordingly. This means, when researching media (technology) we must always look at them from the dualistic sides. By doing so, hopefully, the inherent dualism will slowly disappear – so does the trauma once you’ve accepted and re-experienced it.

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