Bad Metaphors Let’s Take This Offline

The fantasy of a perfectly productive place

BAD METAPHORS is an ongoing series that takes a critical look at the figures of speech that shuttle between technology and everyday life. Read the rest here.

Let’s take this offline, my colleague writes to me in Slack. She means that we should look up from our laptops two meters apart in our open plan office and go and talk in the kitchen while we make coffee instead. Later the same day, a project manager will interrupt a weekly retrospective that has derailed into an extended conversation on a minor topic to suggest that we take that, too, offline. Of course, as we stand in the conference room, iPhones in hand with the weak spring sunshine streaming through our windows, we are both online and off. But that doesn’t seem to matter. At my Berlin start-up and others like it, we can’t stop talking about taking things offline, which is mostly ironic, because even when we are standing next to each other, we are all online all the time.

“Online,” to our project manager, is where important conversations take place and decisions are reached; “offline,” by contrast, is your business

“Let’s take this offline” suggests two meanings — the literal and the metaphorical — but it has splintered into many more, often contradictory significations. The most obvious, literal definition of the phrase is let’s talk about this in person: a shorthand for the fact that communicating over text is not always as easy as talking voice-to-voice. Discussing something aloud, with the possibility of trading questions back and forth or interrupting at an early stage to question the whole premise of your conversation, is often simpler. My colleague is bored of typing; fine. Our project manager, however, means something more like take this outside. “Online,” in her usage, means on-the-clock, alert. “Online,” in this formulation, is where important conversations take place and decisions are reached; “offline,” by contrast, is your business.

The phrase doesn’t really refer to the internet; it refers to a place, but not one that exists in any substantive way, concretely or even conceptually. Instead, it uses “offline” as a metaphor for a place that is simply Not Here. The beauty and grotesqueness of the metaphor is in this space-making, space-creating potential. It establishes a binary set of locations — Here and Not Here — which, in a corporate setting, correlate with work and non-work. The metaphor is incoherent, but it helps as a sort of linguistic organizer.

The phrase doesn’t really refer to the internet; it refers to a place

Let’s take this offline posits a fantasy space where people really communicate, and things really get done; as opposed to the space you’re in, where the opposite is happening, be it online or off. This fantasy space is a realm in which you are productive and focused; hard, brilliant work is attainable, distractions are few. When a Slack channel is too cluttered with minutiae, and scrolling back takes too long, “offline” signifies a clean slate, while also providing a catch-all that allows one to blame technology for the annoying tendencies of its users. It’s not your coworkers clogging up the workspace with gossip and in-jokes; it’s the internet itself that clogs up our potential for greatness and efficiency.

“Offline” can also suggest the opposite: a dumping ground for all the human slack — gossip, in-jokes — that interferes with productivity. It might be necessary or even positive in the long run (everyone needs a time out, so that they can return to work better), but it needs a boundary, if not quarantining. Note that my project manager used the phrase at a time when we were gathered in person in a tangible space; being more offline than not, “online” — the place where we sort of weren’t — took on the connotations of work-readiness.

The real implication of let’s take this offline is that, online or offline, you are always already in the wrong place. If the metaphor seems incoherent, even contradictory, that’s because it reflects the contradictory demands of the workplace: Our bosses want us to really work and not just mess around on Slack; they also want us to be reachable via Slack at any hour of the day. They want us to enjoy ourselves at work and think of our colleagues as family, just as long as the only thing we’re connecting about is getting the job done. These contradictory imperatives have long breached the world outside the office: Think of the many smug “NO WI-FI — TALK TO EACH OTHER” signs at the sort of indie cafés patronized by freelancers who are there because they have work to do, but no office to do it in.

If the metaphor seems incoherent, even contradictory, that’s because it reflects the contradictory demands of the workplace

Project manager aside, most metaphorical uses of “offline” skew positive, finding their roots in the same technophobia that assumes that the internet is somehow separate, and worse, than “real life.” Face-to-face discussions are just more meaningful, more intimate. But while it’s certainly nicer to hang out with my family in person than it is over our group chat, at my start-up and others like it, where you can attend upwards of five meetings a day, it’s unclear that the quality of conversation has much to do with the medium.

There’s a sense that “offline space” is free and unencumbered by distractions or protocols — places where we can speak openly and get to the heart of things in a way that isn’t documented or monitored as it is over social platforms. This is a comforting idea, but it rests on a misunderstanding of the internet itself, which is where we live our lives, whether we’re sitting two meters across from each other or separated by an ocean. Let’s take this offline, more than anything else, expresses a longing for binaries that don’t really exist, or the capacity to switch at will from unproductive (and peaceful) to focused (and happy). Both states are cheery and entirely isolated from each other; it’s no real surprise that neither really exists.

“Let’s take this offline,” my manager says, as we walk up the stairs after lunch. I don’t respond; I’m checking Twitter. I think, for fuck’s sake, where do you want me to go?

Mikaella Clements is an Australian writer currently based in Berlin. Her fiction and non-fiction can be found in the Guardian, Catapult, Buzzfeed, Hazlitt and more.