A case against the online/offline divide
Today I would like to look at a common assumption in our approach to digital wellbeing – the notion of separate reality online and offline. Most of the traditional conversations about the impact of digital technologies on our wellbeing assume a clear cut between what happens to us online and offline and how we perceive those both seemingly completely separate worlds. We are advised to switch off, go back to connection with nature and spend more time with our friends.
However, all those conversations completely dismiss the simple truth: in 2020 it is impossible to draw a clear cut line between online and offline. Our sense of identity, our social connection and our experience of the world are complex. It involves multiple layers of online and offline experiences. We have thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are supported by offline interactions and online connections too.
The clear cut assumption comes from the fact that many self-proclaimed cyber-psychologists (pardon my sarcasm, but I can afford it as I myself used to be one of them!) define the digital technologies as tools or platforms. Digital technologies are spaces and realities we experience in a much more complex way.
Yes, we use tools and those tools oftentimes pre-define the way we connect online. The algorithms, defined by people in power and in charge of those, affect (limit or facilitate) what we see and who we connect with. We access, process and contribute to information online. We connect with others and build tribes. We hurt and support each other. We build movements and inspire. We also promote hate and crime. All those processes are very complex for our minds, but we have not researched the shifts in our collective thinking nowhere near enough to state clearly that digital is only detrimental to our mental health.
By focusing on a clear cut between two realities we simplify the richness and complexity of how our brains operate. By focussing on digital technologies alone, we simplify the nature of humanity. What makes us truly human is the ability to make choices. In my opinion, we have to finally accept the responsibility for our individual and collective interactions – regardless of the channels we use to do so.
To demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at the research. As a trainee counsellor, I am currently doing a lot of reflective work exploring deeper challenges, traumas and biases to ensure that I can support my clients even better, more effectively. At the moment, I am going back to my roots, exploring grief, connection with ancestors and a wider world.
One of the areas of my interest is the power of stories in tribal, more native cultures. So I started going back to one of my university topics: the culture of Ojibwe people living in North America. Today, I can connect with the Ojibwe people on Google, but also on all leading social networks. I can watch parenting workshops on YouTube and follow specific writers on Instagram if I wish to, to find out more about those who inspire and lead them too. I can find their Elders and learn their wisdom with…a press of a keyboard button. Isn’t that amazing? I cannot believe just how much easier it is to research and connect with #Ojibwe stories in 2020 comparing to the 90’s when I was a student and I came across one of them on IRC (text chat).
My connection with Ojibwe people is marked by multiple experiences of online and offline though. Back at the university, I had the privilege of talking to an Ojibwe Elder who was so humbled by my interest in their traditions that a few weeks later I have received an English-Ojibwe Dictionary in my dormitory post. As a result of my library reads, I connected with someone on the other side of the pond and ultimately got to hold a treasure chest of their language in my very own hands sometime later. I never learned the language properly, I was young and distracted but that connection built my respect towards Ojibwe culture even more.
My recent research led me to the “Water Walker” book, which I could order on Amazon Prime and hold in my hands the following day. After the English-Ojibwe Dictionary, this is my second book read in both languages. What a story! You can find out more about the main character, a real figure fighting for the health of water, Mother Earth and people in general over at motherearthwaterwalk.com, which is exactly what I did. I noticed the link in the bio at the end of the book and dived deeper into the story of Ojibwe women (later men too) who participated in this campaign raising awareness around the need for clean water.
And then, just when I was about to leave the page to go back to my studies, I noticed a YouTube video on the sidebar of the website – please do take a moment to listen to this:
I experience so much joy when I connect with REAL people in those seemingly UNREAL digital spaces. I feel educated, connected and enriched by the stories of people who dare and care greatly. I consider the tool my bridge to the past and my hope for a better future. I instantly draw parallels between this book and the one written about Greta Thunberg. I draw parallels between Ojibwe’s care for Mother Nature and that of our younger generation too. I personally actually feel hopeful. And that hope drives me forward.
We are so well connected now…but are we making the most of it? I so wish in this divided world people would celebrate the diversity and acknowledge that regardless of our bloodlines, identities and passports we are all one kind. I’ve learned that from Ojibwe and all other tribes. Today we see Greta Thurnberg doing the same as Nokomis Josephine-ba Mandamin did back then, I just wish she lived to sit down with Greta for a good chat. I am hopeful that we are all waking up. Thanks to those wise, courageous women who carry us and bring us water.
And maybe we will all wake up to one (not many!), one simple reality of our lives – a reality in which digital technologies facilitate connection, impact us but how it’s really down to each and all of us to decide.