Why Opting Out Isn’t An Option
by Anne Russell
I listened to my headphones as I walked to my friends’ house the other night. According to the message of Look Up, a video currently doing the rounds on the Internet, I thus probably missed out on meeting and falling in love with fifty soulmates, since I was too wrapped up in my technology to talk to strangers and thereby gain a legitimate social existence.
In Look Up, British spoken-word poet Gary Turk laments the supposed erosion of social interaction by the trivialities of the internet and social media. The second half of his video tells a story of a man on the street who asks a woman for directions and thus goes on to build a life and raise children with her—something that apparently would not have happened if he’d used Google Maps on his phone. The moral of Look Up runs that people would lead more engaged and meaningful existences if we only stopped relying so heavily upon communications technology.
Critiques of this sort crop up with the advent of any new medium; in many ways, Look Up resembles an inferior version of Howard Beale’s tirade in the prescient 1976 film Network, which itself is a commentary on how television as a medium absorbs and sensationalises entire cultures. The same critiques by the increasingly unhinged Howard Beale [pictured below] have been reproduced forty years later by Turk; a claim from both that their respective media deal in illusions, and that reality (and thus, apparently, wellbeing) can be found by individuals turning off that medium.
Many Internet commentators have pointed out the irony in how Look Up‘s plea for people to switch off their computers has gone viral online, with many repeat views. But this fact is not a trump card to beat Turk’s critiques, any more than pointing out Occupy Wall St members’ use of banks and mass-produced phones nullifies their critiques of capitalism. What is interesting about Look Up is not any supposed hypocrisy of Turk, but that it shows a medium so powerful that it can be denounced using that media itself without any material consequences. It is very difficult to effectively critique the Internet when that critique is by necessity, published and distributed online.
Moreover, the Internet partially cannibalises all other forms of media. Although people still read paper books, watch television, and produce photos and videos on film, these are all slowly but surely being supplanted by electronic media. The Internet has successfully saturated our work, social lives, and information systems to a degree perhaps greater than any medium that preceded it.
As such, some reactions to Look Up rightly blast its condescension, sentimentality, apocalyptism and overall poor execution (can we hold Youtube accountable for a proliferation of terrible spoken-word poetry?), but also appear to come from a place of intense attachment to the Internet as a medium. Although Turk’s critique of the Internet was a knee-jerk one, many of the responses were equally reactionary, dismissing him as a Luddite or technophobe.
But the technophobe label in particular implies an institutional power that Internet critics simply do not have. How can raising a few doubts about technology, voiced through that technology itself, possibly compare to the systemic ways in which electronic technology is attempting to totalise the realms of human existence? Under contemporary capitalism, abandoning the Internet can mean unemployment, social isolation, lack of access to vast quantities of information, and an increasing inability for children to participate in the education system. Moreover, individual attempts to unplug are fairly useless in a society that uses the Internet to store your medical information, banking details, documents of citizenship, and countless transactions that determine how you obtain food, clothing, medical treatment and shelter. In this context, technophobia carries about as much structural weight as misandry.
Also, Turk’s wholesale opposition to Internet technology puts him offside with some of the same dis-empowered people he is trying to befriend. In particular, the assumption that the Internet invariably socially isolates people smacks of able-ism, given how the Internet can enable people with physical impairments or mental illnesses to participate in social scenes they are otherwise disabled from. For those with anxiety or depressive disorders, the Internet can be a haven where they can remain informed, entertained and connected to others without having to do the often draining labour of leaving the house and/or engaging in interpersonal interaction. (Though this can in turn become pathological when people stop leaving the house at all.) Many of Look Up’s pronouncements are somewhat absurd given that the Internet is clearly not stopping people from meeting, falling in love and raising children together. Dating sites show that the Internet in fact often facilitates and enables this process, and the Internet in general can be a godsend to new parents who are isolated at home.
This overall neutral effect of technology leads some to claim that it matters not what technology is but how we use it that determines its value. But it is misleading to suggest that humans have completely conscious agency over the technology they use. As technology is used as an artificial extension of the self, so it extends back into the self and shapes how the human using it behaves and thinks—essentially creating a broader version of the Tetris effect. Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media that “Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.” This is not to imply that Smartphones and the like have any intentionality with regard to how they shape our interactions, but to point out that humans do not have a one-way command over the tools they use.
The question, then, is not how humans use the Internet, but what the Internet does when used: which social power relations it entrenches, and which ones it serves to deconstruct. Certain aspects of the Internet deconstruct some power relations with the left hand while entrenching others with the right. For example, Facebook and Twitter allow activists to organise and broadcast up-to-the-minute information to the world on police crackdowns, but can then also be used by the state and its police to effectively track down those same activists. In Iran, the activists who used social media in the Green Revolution protests of 2009-10 were tracked down, imprisoned, tortured and in some cases, executed via their Internet footprints. Similarly, while cyber-bullying has driven many people to suicide, several people I know have also been talked down from killing themselves by their Internet friends.
This is not to imply that the Internet is simply a passive channel through which information flows untouched and unchanged. McLuhan’s most famous pronouncement was that the medium is the message, meaning that the medium used to communicate something determines what gets communicated and how, and in turn influences broader social discourses external to itself. For example, the Internet changes how people in power engage with the rest of the population, such as Obama’s Google+ hangouts, Judith Collins’ infamous former Twitter feed, or the Wellington City Council’s use of Loomio.
The instantaneous and easily alterable nature of typing online means that it occupies a place somewhere between speech and the written word, resulting in the informal, chatty tone used for many blog entries and Gawker articles. The effects of this typing spill over into speech—consider saying the words “lol” and “omg” aloud—and even influences the tone of print journalism and books to some degree. Moreover, the ability to embed hyperlinks and videos within articles means that the reader is often switching back and forth between different formats within the overarching medium, which creates a fragmented reading experience (if it can even be called that).
All of which leads to what is perhaps Look Up’s most salient point; that as a medium, the Internet is built to be extremely distracting. If you have read this far in the article without clicking to another tab, congratulations; you probably represent around 0.0001% of regular Internet users. Having the world at one’s fingertips can be useful, but can also fragment the attention span and create anxiety for an Internet user continually flicking between a long article by Foucault and videos of red pandas. It is impossible to change this environment; you can change the experience of reading a book by sitting to read it under a tree rather than in a crowded train station, but the Internet is always a bustling metropolis, its gifs and Twitter feeds screaming out for quickfire attention all at once. It demands constant connection from each individual who surfs the Internet, always and yet never alone.
The Internet provides access to avalanches of information, and hence is often mistakenly thought as a receptacle of knowledge. But knowledge is something produced, not accessed; while information is merely synonymous with data, knowledge represents the end product of mental analysis of that data. Data themselves are ideologically neutral, mere letters and numbers on a page, but the knowledge produced from their consumption is not. Different media encourage the production of different types of knowledge, and often effectively mould the user’s consciousness to fit their own patterns. Hence consciousness as shaped by the internet can often feel frenetic and disordered—Elle Hunt writes on The Wireless that “I find it hard to believe the time I spend online has not impacted on my thought processes and powers of concentration when, for much of the time, my brain feels like a browser with too many open tabs.”
However, since both the Internet and interpersonal interaction exist within power structures, the relative benefits of either are largely dependent on context. When I visited Christchurch in January, I did in fact end up spending three fairly pleasant hours wandering around with a man who I had asked for directions to the Outdoor Buskers’ Festival show. Unlike Turk, however, I did not proceed to characterise street interactions with strangers as a universally beneficial or safe practice in a world rife with power, randomised violence, and strangers who are simply boring to talk to. Look Up has essentially made the same demand—for constant connection and social labour—as the medium is critiques. It ignores the fact that when many people do look up from their phones, all they see is the grey cityscapes, barren modernist architecture, and the dull routines and pathways of late capitalism trodden by equally bored people. Smartphones might not be so necessary for distraction if the surrounding world offered more opportunities for intellectual and emotional growth.
This is one of the central problems of Turk’s video; at best, its critique of how the Internet shapes our lives is cynical and individualistic. The solution of turning off one’s phone implies that stopping one particular behaviour would enable individuals to escape an Internet-based culture. But it’s hard to stop using the Internet or avoid its social effects when everyone around you is still plugged in, as I found when discussing the skeleton of this article with two friends who were both half-concentrated on their iPads. A voluntary mass exodus from Internet technology is unlikely to happen in the near future, as it is clearly inadvisable in many ways.
Despite this, it can be validly argued that the current era of Internet saturation could be merely a transitory period in human history. Although the Internet itself is nebulous and mobile, it requires enormous resource consumption and consequent environmental damage to manufacture the gadgets on which it is accessed, rendering the digital divide intractable at a global level. Capitalists have little motivation to produce their goods in truly environmentally friendly ways; Microsoft and other corporations systematically build their products to fail in order to feed the processes of demand and consumption. Without significant social and economic shifts, it may prove difficult to produce long-lasting versions of these commodities en masse before the required material resources run out. (It is telling that one touted solution to excessive resource consumption is to start mining the moon rather than merely slowing down production; though oil may be running out, it seems the earth still contains rich deposits of denial.)
Once a technology has been created, it is almost impossible to undo, and critiques of what cultures lose with each new technology generally fall by the wayside. At age 24, I may be part of the last generation to have witnessed the transition to an Internet-based world, and my memories of life before the Internet are already hazy. Whether or not these critiques actually matter overall is determined by cultural priorities. Socrates was not entirely wrong that “[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves”; most people living in contemporary print-based cultures have neither the ability nor the inclination to memorise long passages of thought in the way that oral-based cultures encourage. However, the written word enabled a different sort of intelligence to flourish; one that could capture long-form analytical streams of consciousness and widely distribute exact replicas of them.
Critiques like Look Up ignore that the Internet makes people gain new types of intelligence, even while losing others. But groups like the Internet Party equally ignore the fact that the Internet does not necessarily represent a net gain to society, and does not unilaterally serve to deconstruct oppressive power relations. It may, after all, prove difficult to smash the system when that system is capable of spying on every social interaction and providing infinite distractions to one’s activism. Different media are capable of capturing both the best and the worst of humanity. In Network, aging former TV executive Max says to his lover that: “You’re television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death; all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split-seconds and instant replays.” The same could arguably be said for Upworthy headlines.
At times, the Internet acts as a crutch for boredom and loneliness, a palliative for a genuine need that eventually encourages excessive reliance on that support. Just as when people have problems with food, Internet addiction must be managed rather than given up entirely, as society demands its usage throughout our social, political and economic lives. But in a tiny attempt to retain certain parts of my intelligence and sanity, I will resist buying a Smartphone for as long as commerce allows me to, and when walking, I periodically remember to take off my headphones so I can sing softly to myself.
This article was originally published on Scoop on May 12, 2014.