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.

On Paper

“The world of Paper is an anachronism. It’s a screenless world created to sell you a thing made for the screen. It’s the past resurrected in order to convince you that something entirely common today is actually a portal to the future. Anyone touching a shiny, bright screen is going to look futuristic when they’re ensconced in a world furnished with stuff from Grandmother’s attic. This is a manipulation. If we want the world of Her, let’s actually go build it. Let’s figure out how to build technology that can be productively used without having to stare at it all the time. Let’s figure out how to do that in a way that doesn’t continue to hand over our privacy and free will to corporations that clearly still haven’t figured out how to get out of the advertising game. Let’s figure out how to break the attention barrier and return to a sense of technological progress that is measured by how useful things are, not how good they are at catching us in digital traps where we waste our lives clicking things. But let’s not delude ourselves that we’re just an app-install away from a frictionless and clean world of invisible technology.”

From Christopher Butler’s wide-ranging reflection on Facebook’s new app, Paper, “fashionable Luddism,” the commercial uses of nostalgia, depictions of the future in film, and our perpetually re-negotiated settlements with technology. Read the whole thing.

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.

When Silence is Power

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote, “What first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” She went on to add, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are  not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In our present media environment, the opposite of this formula may be closer to the truth, at least in certain situations. Power, in these situations, is actualized only when word and deed are severed. In these cases, the refusal to speak is action. Silence is power.

The particular situation I have in view is the hijacking of public discourse (and consequently the political order) by the endless proliferation of manufactured news and fabricated controversy.

These pseudo-events are hyperreal. They are media events that exist as such only in so far as they are spoken about. “To go viral” is just another way of describing the achievement of hyperreality . To be “spoken about” is to be addressed within our communication networks. In a networked society, we are the relays and hyperreality is an emergent property of our networked acts of communication.  

Every interest that constitutes our media environment and media economy is invested in the perpetuation of hyperreality.

Daily, these pseudo-events consume our attention and our mental and emotional energy. They feed off of and inspire frustration, rage, despair, paranoia, revenge, and, ultimately, cynicism. It is a daily boom/bust cycle of the soul.

Because they are constituted by speech, the pseudo-events are immune to critical speech. Speaking of them, even to criticize them, strengthens them.

When speaking is the only perceived form of action–it is, after all, the only way of existing on our social media networks–then that which thrives by being spoken about will persist.

How does one protest when acts of protest are consistently swallowed up by that which is being protested? When the act of protest has the perverse effect of empowering that which is being protested?

Silence.

Silence is the only effective form of boycott. Traditional boycotts, the refusal to purchase goods or patronize establishments, are ineffective against hyperreality. They are sucked up into the pseudo-events.

Finally, the practice of silence must be silent about itself.

Here the practice of subversive silence threatens to fray against the edge of our media environment. When the self is itself constituted by acts of speech within the same network, then refusal to speak feels like self-deprivation. And it is. Silence under these conditions is an ascetic practice, a denial of the self that requires considerable discipline.

But if we are relays in the network, then self-sabotage becomes a powerful act of protest.

Perhaps the practice of this kind of self-imposed, unacknowledged silence may be the power that helps resuscitate public discourse.