Last week, I disconnected from social media. Today is the day I was supposed to disconnect from e-mail. Next week, I was supposed to disconnect from the internet completely.
I reconnected last night.
I feel compelled to set out my reasons for having done this, as well as for going back on my public declaration last week. Partly I feel a need to justify myself, partly I feel a need to tell you some things you should probably be aware of that the experience has taught me.
I should begin by saying that I never felt the internet to be evil in any way. I consider it a tool. An immensely large and sophisticated tool, to be sure, and one that makes things possible that simply can’t be achieved without it, but a tool nonetheless. There to be used, or not, by people.
I made the decision to abstain for a number of reasons, some entirely personal, others academic. The personal issues I shall set down elsewhere, privately, as they’re really no one’s concern but mine. The academic ones I here briefly outline. And in the spirit of doing things academically, even though you can hardly call this an academic piece of writing, I can tell you that I disconnected because I was beginning to find Social Media degrading, dehumanizing, and exploitative. Because I disagreed with some of the fundamental premises at its heart. And I’m only back because I quite simply have no choice but to be so.
And neither do you.
I am a member of the last human generation with any knowledge of what life was like before the internet. Odds are, if you’re reading this, you too are one of the last humans who will ever remember what that was like.
When I was four years old, my parents, being good and insightful people, signed me up for a program called Future Kids. I don’t think it exists any longer, but I have happy memories of being sent for lessons on the huge, yet somehow friendly behemoths that we were being told how to use at the time. Remember that this is in the age of the floppy disk.
Thanks to Moore’s law, a great many of the things that those computers could do, and a great deal more they could never possibly have attempted, are now possible through the handheld devices most of us own. I mention this simply to illustrate that that shift has occurred in much less than one human lifetime.
We don’t think about what this means, for the simple reason that we can’t really comprehend it. Nothing like this has ever happened before. To anyone.
Seriously. There is no parallel for this in all of human history. And I’ve looked.
There is a useful distinction to be made, and I can’t seem to be able to search who initially made it, between cyberspace and ‘meatspace’. The former representing the internet, and the latter being a somewhat pejorative sounding word for the real world. For existence as it happens to you. For life as God gave it to us.
Our lives now occur in both places. We exist in both the physical realm, and in this new one we’ve created for ourselves. We have our lives in the real world, and we have the lives that we’ve projected onto webpages and websites around the world.
Our physical life happens to us whether we like it or not, but to maintain our existence in cyberspace, at least a portion of our day in the physical world has to be spent in obesiance to our machines. Heads bowed over mobile phones or laptops, we service the new versions of ourselves that we’ve created, not, I once thought, because we want to, but because on a very fundamental level we feel compelled to. And indeed, because we have very few choices left open to us if we don’t.
This is because ultimately the internet is nothing but an extension of space. We feel obliged to fill it because we are each unique beings that occupy space, and space needs to be filled.
You generate millions of lines of programmable data every day. We all do. And that data is unique. No one else’s is like yours. It is not possible for another person to have your exact web history.
By data, throughout this article, you should read you.
And you are being bought and sold.
Your data is used, bought, sold, resold, and then repackaged to you in exchange for money, probably thousands of times a second.
This struck me as fundamentally dehumanizing. Because it is. A lot of the assumptions embedded at the heart of privacy policies are more than a little degrading.
Take Facebook’s, for instance. And here, I cut and paste, because the following principle is at the heart of their entire approach to how they use your data. You can find this yourself unless they radically change their terms of service between now and the moment you read this, which I suspect they won’t.
“We always appreciate your feedback or other suggestions about Facebook, but you understand that we may use them without any obligation to compensate you for them (just as you have no obligation to offer them).”
By feedback or suggestions read data. Because the principle applies throughout everything they do. They are not obliged to compensate you for anything you give them voluntarily.
I find this a fundamentally unsettling principle to have embedded at the heart of what is, at the moment, one of the most important legal documents in the world. Up there with most written constitutions. If for no other reason than over one billion people have clicked a button saying they’ve read it. Most of the time, I suspect, they haven’t.
Similar principles are at the heart of many, but not all, terms of service and use. Of which there are a great deal. There are sites that treat your data with respect and consideration. Many, and I suspect most, though I have no way of knowing for sure, do not.
If you take anything away from this blog, if you’ve read this far, I want you to remember that you are being exploited. In a very real way. The people doing the exploiting are, for the most part, people you’ve never met, and many of them may be infinitely smarter than you.
We live in a capitalist, aggressively meritocratic world. In life, one either exploits or is exploited.
I can accept that this is a fact of life. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, nor does that mean that people should have the right to decide how it’s done privately. And by this I mean we no longer force six year-olds to push barrels of coal for pennies a day. Somebody stops that. Somebody made sure you didn’t have to do that. Because you have rights.
But in the cold, mechanistic, digital world we’ve created, you don’t yet have any rights. Not really. No one has specifically said that you do with any clarity. Indeed, the terms of service we blindly click through every day are going to be a large part of the precedent that lawyers are going to have to work with when these issues start coming up.
Lawyers work from precedent, but when it comes to the law, at this moment, to quote Aldous Huxley, history is bunk. There are simply no precedents for this kind of thing in the human past. People are just going to have to make it up as they go along.
It’ll be interesting to see what states do. As far as I’m concerned, the state exists for one purpose and one purpose only. And that is to guarantee its citizens rights, liberties, and responsibilities. If it doesn’t do that. If we delegate that power to the extent that we’re increasingly doing, there is really no reason for it to exist at all.
Some of the most exciting places in the world in these coming years are going to be legal faculties and courtrooms. People will wrestle with these problems in a wold in which everything that happens online, and everything that people are online, can be bought and sold.
Though I hesitate to quote the trailer for a video game, I’m afraid I will anyway. “You are no longer an individual. You are a data cluster on a vast global network.” A network that you had no hand in building, don’t really understand, but yet are expected to use daily.
Because if you really do want to know why I reconnected to social media, it was because I had no choice. It is simply not professionally possible. People will give you funny looks, and you will be fit for manual labor or academia.
I disconnected because I didn’t want to be ensnared in other people’s webs anymore. Because I wanted my freedom. My freedom from the Pavlovian compulsion to use a service that, apparently, I’m under no obligation to use.
I disconnected because I wanted to disengage from a process I didn’t yet fully understand. Because I wanted to stop feeding the machines that are busily churning away in Silicon Valley and countless other places around the word, driving the global economy. Reducing humanity to strings of code, there for computers to churn into dollars.
An academic I spoke to at the university of Toronto likened the project to something that might have come from the mind of Ted Kaczynski, more popularly known as the Unabomber. Naturally, I found this comparison rather unsettling and unflattering
I had preferred the analogy to Thoreau. I wanted to disconnect in the spirit of social and civil disobedience. I didn’t want to participate in a system I couldn’t fully understand or support. I wanted to be true to my own moral self
I’m reconnecting in large part because I have no choice. Because I can’t uninvent the internet. It isn’t going to go away. It is, in a very real sense, an extension of the world. An undiscovered continent. I can’t make it go away, or pretend it isn’t there. I can only do my part to make it better.
And I am more than the sum of my data. So are you. The truly amazing thing about the vast, global, dehumanizing network we all now inhabit, is that every single one of those data clusters remains unique. They have their own needs, their own desires, and their own rights.
We shouldn’t forget that. To paraphrase one of the best shows ever broadcast, we shouldn’t be distracted by what’s fashionable.