Why We Disconnect Matters

A little over two weeks ago, The New Republic ran a piece by Evgeny Morozov titled “The Mindfulness Racket.” Comments that accompanied links to the article on social media suggested that Morozov had torn into the advocates of mindfulness and critics of digital distraction with the sort of eviscerating rhetoric that we’ve come to expect from him. The title reinforced the expectation.

When I finally got around to reading the article, however, I found that this was not exactly the whole story. Morozov does take issue with the “digital detox crowd,” but not because of their desire to disconnect or their uneasiness with the new “attention economy.” Rather, he takes aim at their motives and their strategies. For instance, Morozov points out that many advocates of mindfulness urge us “to unplug—for an hour, a day, a week—so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction.” Unplugging and the pursuit of mindfulness, if it is only practiced in order to re-immerse oneself in the same regime of distraction and technocratic productivity, if it does nothing to change the conditions that gave rise to the need to disconnect in the first place–such practices simply do not go far enough.

Approached in this way, disconnection functions analogously, although inversely so, to the place of carnival in medieval society. Carnivals playfully overturned the expectations and assumptions ordering society. They inverted political, religious, and social expectations. They were temporary eruptions of disorder that ultimately functioned to preserve the order of society. They did so by operating as safety valves releasing the tensions, frustrations, and desires that were ordinarily repressed by the existing moral order. Extraordinary moments of controlled disorder, in other words, served to preserve the ordinarily existing order. On Morozov’s reading, disconnection as practiced by many of its advocates functions similarly. Disconnection is a moment of order that functions to sustain the ordinarily disordered status quo.

Morozov also alludes to Nathan Jurgenson’s critical essay, “The Disconnectionists,” and Alexis Madrigal’s similarly suspicious piece, “‘Camp Grounded,’ ‘Digital Detox,’ and the Age of Techno-Anxiety.” But Morozov’s brief discussion of these pieces is a hinge in his argument. After citing Jurgenson and Madrigal, both of whom raise important considerations, Morozov adds,

“Note that it’s the act of disconnection—the unplugging—that becomes the target of criticism, as if there are no good reasons to be suspicious of the always-on mode championed by Silicon Valley, what is called ‘real-time.’”

A little further on he warns, “critics like Madrigal risk absolving the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.” From there Morozov suggests that the problematic aspects of social media should not be viewed as a natural price to pay for the enjoyment and benefits we derive from it. Rather, he thinks we should scrutinize social media as we would slot machines: “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.”

Finally, Morozov is right to stress the fact that “why we disconnect matters.” “We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity,” Morozov suggests, “or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley.” Of course, it is the latter option that Morozov urges us to adopt.

I trust that this has been a faithful summary of Morozov’s argument, but I encourage you to read the whole piece. Critics like Jurgenson, whose essay from last year I’ve long meant to write about, and Madrigal raise important concerns, but it has always seemed to me that the net, perhaps unintended, effect of their criticism was to suggest that there is no real problem with the way that our digital lives are ordered. In my view, Jurgenson and Madrigal are most useful when they are pointing out the self-serving and self-righteous tendencies in some of the digital cultures critics. Morozov does the same, but in doing so he does not suggest that the problem itself is illusory. In fact, the most serious failure of the disconnectionists in his view is their failure to fully understand the scope of the problem. Consequently, they have not been serious enough in their efforts to redress it.

Two Introverts On The Internet

Paul Fidalgo wonders about the relationship between extroversion and the disconnectionists, the label he borrows from Nathan Jurgenson for those who advocate periods of disconnection from the Internet. Like Jurgenson, Fidalgo is annoyed by what he takes to be the self-righteous tone of the disconnectionists, but he also links his complaint to the opportunities for expression the Internet offers introverts like himself:

Online I’ve found a taste of liberation. Not only do I feel more free to expound upon all manner of subjects, to make dumb jokes, and to promote myself with a sincerity I could never muster in meatspace, but perhaps more importantly, I more often feel at ease in simply explaining things about myself as a person, to talk about my kids and my day-to-day life, to unpack some of the mundane stuff as well as the heavier things. Behind the screen, at the keyboard, at the flick of the scrolling display, even in the midst of the cacophony of the Internet, I can communicate without so much of the same noise within my own mind, where each synapse second-guesses the next.

I can relate to Fidalgo’s introversion, and I can understand where Fidalgo’s is coming from when he raises the following possibility in his conclusion:

I’d be curious to know whether many or most of the folks who espouse disconnection are extroverts, if they are biased by their own inclination toward revitalization through in-person human contact, all within a “real world” already largely constructed around extroverted predilections. If I’m on to something, well then of course they see the online life as valueless, or as phony. It doesn’t serve their own needs. But for me, and I suspect for my kind, the Web is the means of expression, the gateway into general society, that we’ve been waiting for. We’re damn lucky it came about it our lifetimes, and you better believe that for us, it’s real life.

Well, I can offer myself to Fidalgo as one point of anecdotal evidence: I espouse certain forms of disconnection, and I am decidedly not an extrovert. Without calling Fidalgo’s experience into question, I’ve sometimes felt that my disconnectionist impulses stemmed in part from my own introversion. I’ve also linked my inability to be at ease on Twitter directly to my introversion. That is to say, I sometimes find using Twitter to be as draining an experience as navigating a crowded and unfamiliar social setting.

Again, this is not to discount or challenge Fidalgo’s experience; it’s only to offer a contrasting one.

Perhaps talk of introversion and extroversion, conceptually fuzzy categories to begin with is not the only or best way of describing whatever dynamic is at play here. Zeynep Tufekci , for instance, invites us to consider the possibility of a condition she calls cyberasociality:

It remains a possibility that there are people for whom text is unable to evoke the same deep reaction embodied physically co-present interaction arouses. Such an inability, or an unwillingness, could be seen akin to another modern ailment, that of dyslexia (Wolf, 2007). The ability to convert alphabetical symbols to words, and then to seamlessly convert those words into meanings, is one of the more remarkable feats of the human brain and is mastered by most who are given persistent and competent instruction. However, for some segment of the population, this leap may remain unattainable and pose great difficulty even though the person in question may not suffer from any other disadvantage such as technological incompetence or inability or fear of using computers for instrumental purposes.

Whatever causes dyslexia, it would not have been detectable in a pre-literate population as among such people, words are always and only just sounds. In fact, linguists often caution against our tendency to equate words with letters and remind us that language is primarily aural and the transition to visual language is a late development. (Ong, 2004). Dyslexia emerges as a disadvantage only as a society incorporates the ease of use of the written word into the expected competencies into its portfolio, similarly, the increasing incorporation of online-sociality may expose a segment of the population that is similarly disadvantaged from being able to use these technologies as effectively as others.

Thus, conceptually, I propose a modern condition, named cyberasociality, which represents the possibility that some segment of the population remain unable or unwilling to relate to others via social media as they do when physically-present; and that this is not necessarily related to their general levels of sociality or to their competence with or use of computers or similar digital devices.

It seems to me that Tufekci is on to something important. In any case, I’m not sure why we would privilege either connection or disconnection in abstraction. Decisions about Internet use should be responsive to any number of shifting internal and external variables. While negotiating digital culture, it seems best to keep all options on the table, including the practice of disconnection … sans self-righteousness, of course.

Flame Wars, Punctuation Cartoons, and Net-heads: The Internet in 1988

I remember having, in the late 1980s, an old PC with a monochrome monitor, amber on black, that was hooked up to the Internet through Prodigy. I was on the Internet, but I had no idea what the Internet was. All I knew was that I could now get near-realtime updates on the score of Mets games.

Back in November, the Washington Post’s tech page posted the text of an article from the newspaper covering the Internet in 1988, right about the time I was messing around on Prodigy:  “Here’s how The Post covered the ‘grand social experiment’ of the Internet in 1988.” It’s a fascinating portal into what feels like another world, sort of. I usually think of the modern Internet experience first taking shape with the World Wide Web in the early and mid-90s. Reading this article, I was struck by how early many of the contours of the web as we know it, and the language we use to describe, began to appear. To be sure, there are also striking discontinuities, but the Internet in 1988 — before AOL, WWW, the dot-com bubble, Web 2.0, social, mobile, and all that — exhibited characteristics that will be readily recognizable. 

Consider the early example of “crowd-sourcing” or collective intelligence with which the author opens the article:

Kreisel was looking for an efficient way to paint patterns inside computer-drawn shapes. Paul Heckbert, a graduate student in California, did not know Kreisel, but he had a pretty good piece of code, or computer programming, to do the job. He dispatched it to Kreisel’s machine, and seconds later the New Yorker’s problem was solved.

Of course, the snake was already in the garden. The article is, in fact, occasioned by “a rogue program, known as a ‘virus,’” designed by a student at Cornell that “did not destroy any data but clogged computers and wasted millions of dollars’ worth of skilled labor and computer time.”

The virus, we’re told, “frightens many network visionaries, who dream of a ‘worldnet’ with ever more extensive connections and ever fewer barriers to the exchange of knowledge.” (Cyber-utopianism? Check. Of course, the roots of cyber-utopianism go back further still than 1988.) According to a Harvard astrophysicist, the Internet is a “community far more than a network of computers and cables.” “When your neighbors become paranoid of one another,” he added, “they no longer cooperate, they no longer share things with each other. It takes only a very, very few vandals to … destroy the trust that glues our community together.”

The scale clearly appeared massive, but today it seems quaint: “Together the news groups produce about 4 million characters of new material a day, the equivalent of about five average books.” But don’t worry about trying to keep up with it all, “90 percent of it is complete and utter trash,” at least as far as that astrophysicist was concerned. Hard to imagine that he was far off the mark (or that the ratio has shifted too much in the ensuing years).

At the time, “thousands of men and women in 17 countries swap recipes and woodworking tips, debate politics, religion and antique cars, form friendships and even fall in love.” Honestly, that’s not a bad sample of the sorts of things we’re still doing on the Internet. In part, this is because it is not a bad sample of what human beings do generally, so it’s what we end up doing in whatever social spaces we end up creating with our tools.

And when human beings find themselves interacting in new contexts created by new communication technologies, there are bound to be what we might kindly call “issues” while norms and conventions adapt to account for the new techno-social configuration. So already in 1988, we read that the Internet “has evolved its own language, social norms and “netiquette.’” More than twenty years hence, that project is still ongoing.

The author focused chiefly on the tone of discourse on Internet forums and, rightly I think, attributed its volatility to the characteristics of the medium:

Wouk’s riposte is a good example of why arguments sometimes intensify into bitter feuds known as flame wars, after the tendency of one character in Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four to burst into flames (“Flame on!” he shouts) when he is angry. Is Wouk truly angry or just having a good time? Because the written word conveys no tone of voice, it isn’t always easy to tell.

“In a normal social setting,” said Chuq von Rospach of Sun Microsystems, “chances are the two of them would have a giggle over it and it would go away. On a network it tends to escalate. The feedback mechanisms that tell you to back off, or tell you that this person’s joking, aren’t there. The words are basically lifeless.”

Not only would I have failed to guess that flame wars was already in use in 1988, I had no idea of its etymology. But the author doesn’t use emoticon when describing their use:  “True net-heads sometimes resort to punctuation cartoons to get around the absence of inflection. They may append a :-) if they are making a joke (turn your head to the left) or use :-( for an ersatz frown.”

“Net-heads” appears not to have caught on, but what the author calls “punctuation cartoons” certainly have. (What we now call emoticons, by the way, first appeared in the late 19th century.)

Finally, lest the Internet of 1988 appear all to familiar, here’s one glaring point of discontinuity on which to close: “The one unbending rule is that thou shalt not post commercial announcements. It isn’t written anywhere, but heaven help the user who tries to broadcast an advertisement.”

And for good measure, here’s another snippet of the not-too-distant past (1994) that nonetheless manages to feel as if it were ages ago. “Allison, can you explain what Internet is?”

11 Things I’m Trying To Do In Order To Achieve a Sane, Healthy, and Marginally Productive Relationship With the Internet

It’s fair to say that when I write about the Internet or digital devices, my tone tends toward the cautionary, and that’s probably understating the case. But, as my wife would be quick to confirm, I don’t always practice what I preach.

I wanted to do something about this, so I created a list of digital disciplines (obviously couldn’t resist the alliteration) that I’ll be trying to stick to in a serious, but not quite puritanical fashion.

Of course, I don’t think these digital disciplines will be universally applicable. You may find them entirely implausible given your own circumstances, or you may find them altogether unnecessary. All I’m claiming for them is this: given my priorities and my circumstances, I’ve found it helpful to articulate and implement these disciplines in order to achieve what I would characterize as a healthy relationship to Internet culture.

[Aside: I'm using the awkward expression "Internet culture" as shorthand for the whole range of diverse artifacts and practices that accumulate around the Internet and the devices we use to access it. I realize that the very idea of "the Internet" is contested¹, but trying to delineate it here in a rigorous "academic" manner would be even more tedious than this aside.]

Before getting to the digital disciplines, though, let me first lay out some basic underlying assumptions. You’ll probably find some of these debatable, but at least you’ll know where I’m coming from.

  • Time is a limited resource, and I would rather treat it as a gift than as an enemy.
  • While I have no interest in denying the authenticity, much less the reality, of online experience, I do privilege face-to-face experience (or “fully embodied experience,” which is not to say that online experience is disembodied), all things being equal.
  • Relatedly, we are not less than our bodies; so how our bodies, not just our minds, interact with the Internet and Internet-enabled devices matters.
  • While it may be difficult to articulate a precise theoretical distinction between online and offline experience, the terms attempt to get at real distinctions with practical consequences.
  • Trying to “keep up” online is a joyless, Sisyphean undertaking that is best abandoned in principle.
  • “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
  • I don’t go in for the whole trans-/post-human/cyborg thing. As Douglas Rushkoff recently put it, “I’m on team human here. Call that egotistical, but it’s the only team I know.”
  • “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.  While it retains visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.” (Hannah Arendt)

Make of those what you will. Here, finally, is the list. Remember, I am the primary audience for this advice.

1. Don’t wake up with the Internet. Have breakfast, walk the dog, read a book, whatever … do something before getting online. Think of it as a way of preparing – physically, mentally, emotional, morally, etc. – for all that follows.

2. Don’t remain ambiently connected to your email account. Close the email tab/app. Check in two or three times a day for a fixed period of time. The same holds for FB, Twitter, etc.

3. Sit on a link for a few hours or even a day before sharing. If it’s not worth sharing then, it probably wasn’t worth sharing in the first place. Don’t add to the noise.

4. Don’t take meals with the Internet. Log off, leave devices behind, and enjoy your meal as an opportunity recoup, physically and mentally. If you’re inside all day, take your lunch outside. Enjoy the company of others, or take the chance to sit in silence for a few minutes.

5. Breathe. Seriously.

6. Do one thing – one whole, complete thing – at a time whenever it’s reasonable to do so. If writing an email, write it all at once. If reading an article, read it straight through. If a task can’t be completed in one sitting, at least work on it for a reasonable amount of time without interruption. Resist, in other words, the allure of the multitasking myth. It’s the siren song of our age, and it will shipwreck your mind.

7. Clear the RSS feed at the end of each day. If it didn’t get read, life will go on. This is a hard one for me; I want to read it all, stay on top of things, etc. If I don’t clear the feed, though, I end up with a pile of information that eventually snowballs to unmanageable proportions anyway. What’s more, deleting potentially interesting, unread items each day functions as a happy, cathartic gesture of liberation.

8. Turn off all notifications that threaten to interrupt or distract. Mentally, we tend to respond to these with Pavlovian alacrity. Emotionally, they are not unlike our own little versions of Gatsby’s green light. In either case, it’s a ruinous habit.²

9. Turn devices off when spending time with others. Also, shut the laptop when speaking to another person. This may seem quaint or reactionary or nostalgic or antiquated or judgmental or curmudgeonly. I see it as a way of remaining minimally civil and decent, whether or not I’m accorded the same civility and decency in return. If you must attend to a call or text, politely indicate as much and do so. Better that than surreptitiously attending to your device while still attempting to give off the impression of attentiveness. That’s a meaningless charade, and everyone involved knows it.

10. Log-off of social media sites after visiting them. The extra step to log-in makes it slightly less tempting to click over when a craving for distraction strikes. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of these little digital speed-bumps.

11. Don’t go to bed with the Internet. Here’s why.

A few years ago, Umberto Eco said, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” Perhaps that’s a bit too melodramatic for this particular list. Certainly, I’ve attached no death-defying hopes to it. But I do think following through on these digital disciplines will help me make better use of this life and take more pleasure in it.

If you’ve got your own similar list of digital disciplines, share them in the comments below. If they’re useful to you, chances are others would find them useful too.

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¹See the comment thread on this post on Nick Carr’s blog.
²Self-plagiarism alert. I’ve used this language before, here and here.

Relay Failures

Years ago I heard someone say that many arguments would be averted if only we would use the word merely more often. Case in point: I titled my last post “Don’t Be a Relay in the Network.” My point could have been more appropriately stated, “Don’t Be Merely a Relay in the Network.”

The difference is not insignificant. Being a relay in a network is not necessarily problematic. We receive and pass along information, digital and otherwise, all of the time. Problems arise when we function merely as a relay, or, even better, when we function merely as a passive relay.

My concern stems from the habits I felt taking shape as a result of my own online reading practices. I found myself reading not for the enjoyment or value of reading, but simply to have read. I owe this formulation to Alan Jacobs, who, in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, observes that we sometimes read simply to be able to claim that we have read something.

Jacobs had in mind lure of the prestige attached to being known as the sort of person who has read War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time or whatever happens to be trendy at the moment. There’s that, to be sure, but I have in mind the desire to have read which translates into seeing my RSS feed at zero. It is reading motivated by the pressures of keeping up with the digital news feed or fear of missing out.

When this sort of reading is coupled with the desire, variously motivated, to share what has been read, then it becomes reading to have shared. And it’s not just reading, of course. All forms of online content are subject to this dynamic. When this sort of dynamic drives our experience with online content, then we are acting merely as relays in a network. There’s something of Eliot’s “Hollow Men” in this dynamic: we’re shaped by the network, but we have no form of our own. Stuff passes through us, but we remain hollow.

Thoughtless passivity is one of the problems that attends being a mere relay in a network. The pattern of habitual receiving and sharing within the temporal horizons of digital culture tends to preclude the possibility of internalizing the information so that it is appropriated as genuine personal knowledge. Apart from this sort of internalization that is, in part, a product of time and method, what we are left with is a vague, generic awareness that we have at some point come into contact with some information. “Oh, I think I read about that a few days ago” or “I saw a link to that on Twitter” or “Didn’t someone post that on Facebook not too long ago.”

I would go so far as to suggest that the apathy or inaction in contemporary culture that many lament is partially a function of this kind of ambient awareness that does not quite sink in and become personal knowledge. Involvement and action are a product of personal knowledge. The ambient awareness that comes from functioning as mere relays of information lacks the power to motivate, inspire, outrage, etc.

The other danger is what we could call the conditioned passivity of being merely a relay. This describes the subtle temptation to pass along information that will be well-received by your audience. This is not unlike the “filter bubble” problem in which our personalized streams of digital information enclose us within a filter bubble or echo chamber that mirrors and reinforces our prejudices and blind spots. The risk of being passively conditioned when acting as a mere relay arises from the temptation to share and disseminate what will resonate or play well with the audience we’ve fashioned for ourselves. The temptation, in other words, is to tacitly bend to the shape of our bubbles or tune our online voice so as to achieve maximum echo.

None of this necessarily follows from reading online or sharing information through social media; but it is a temptation and it is worth resisting.