Law in the Internet Society

Digital connection VS. Personal connection

-- By DanielaWeerasinghe - 09 Jan 2022

The unappreciated dichotomy between self-connection and digital connection.

For the first time in probably ten years, I switched off my iPhone and disconnected myself from the Internet for ten hours. This real-time in Cognito experience was surprisingly gratifying, for two reasons: it reinvigorated a connection to myself, while also nuancing my appreciation of the concept of time. Without constant notifications or temptations to disrupt myself by e.g., checking WhatsApp? , Instagram, Gmail, the weather report, or Google, I could stay in my own thinking bubble and execute the things that were most important to me that day and at my chosen pace. Going online to procrastinate was not possible. I was forced to listen and respond to myself and not to whatever I come across on smart devices.

Having been separated from the online social world, yielded more time in the real world which I spent more mindfully. For instance, I was able to enjoy moments that I would have otherwise missed had I been on my phone. In brief, I realized that I miscalibrated the benefits of bringing smart devices everywhere I go. The magnitude of the harm caused from my addiction to smart devices is unquantifiable but perhaps not yet irreversible.

Why the resulting dearth of human authenticity goes unnoticed.

Ayad Akhtar tied Kahneman’s seminal findings on the effectiveness of unconscious priming to today’s scrolling culture (i.e., irrespective of being aware of having seen a word, that word affects one’s decision-making). That is, Akhtar conceptualized screens as the “delivery system for unconscious priming”, engineered for maximum engagement by so-called “attention merchants”. She also argued that smart devices have a “confirmation bias as the default setting”. This is to reassure, soothe, and reinforce the views that you have been primed to believe to keep you “engaged” – which symbolizes a “profound technological support for primary narcissism”. (The Singularity is Here, the Atlantic, November 5, 2021).

I agree with Akhtar and realized that it is not targeted advertising that is my immediate “visible” concern of smart devices, but their ability to subconsciously exercise a monopoly on my attention and dictate my thought process. For example, when I was in primary school, I obtained my first Nokia phone, purely for emergency calls to my family. That is, I would use the device only when really needed. Once I received an iPhone in high school, my usage frequency rose exponentially – after all, chatting on WhatsApp? and posting on Instagram became “normal”. The past decade, I have been using my iPhone almost every second, admittedly rarely for an objectively important purpose, but chiefly out of addictive habit catalyzed by the perceived convenience of using smart devices. I tend to default to mindlessly scrolling and lose track of time more easily than when offline. Put bluntly, I no longer use the phone as I did in primary school, but the iPhone uses me and consumes my ever-shrinking attention span. As a corollary, smart devices interfere unconsciously with my day-to-day autonomy which in turn sabotages my relationship to myself, in an uncanny manner.

Why it is hard to break up with my iPhone.

Yet, even after the positive 10-hour-offline experience, there remains an inertia towards fully remedying this autonomy-compromising default tendency to resort to smart devices. Prior to that offline experience, I thought it was impossible to exist without an iPhone and the Internet. Now that I know it is possible and indeed gratifying, I have made progress. However, not yet at a breakthrough level, for since December 8, 2021, I repeated the offline experiment only once, and one month later. Interestingly, both times I felt reluctant to return to my online life, while simultaneously feeling excited and curious to see what I had missed. “This is about as rational as allowing a camera into your bedroom in exchange for a free toaster” (Jeffrey Rosen, The Eroded Self, New York Times, April 30, 2000).

I read Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” one year ago. Now I comprehend the workings of what Lanier referred to as “the allure of mystery” i.e., “somewhat random or unpredictable feedback can be more engaging than perfect feedback”. I never know what to expect when I log into my social media accounts. And even though I know that I usually end up emotionally depleted and “robbed of time”, I still resort to the online world. As Lanier explained, randomness is “a terrible basis for fascination”, for:

“The allure of glitchy feedback is probably what draws a lot of people into crummy “codependent” relationships in which they aren’t treated well. A touch of randomness is more than easy to generate in social media: because the algorithms aren’t perfect, randomness is intrinsic.”

Reclaiming the painting brush.

As pointed out by Eben Moglen and others, we are the last generation to have experienced both a world with and without smart devices and are thus uniquely positioned to understand and harness the pros and cons of living in each of those worlds. I am not advising to become a digital vegan or vegetarian, i.e., quitting entirely or partly the digital world. What I am suggesting is to adopt a thought-through approach towards one’s usage of smart devices. One could think of this as creating a customized nutrition plan: start with a strict diet (e.g., digital detox) and/or switch to a non-smart phone (e.g., Punkt) to resist the constant temptation of resorting to it and allow the necessary mental space to flourish in the real world and authentically.

In conclusion, the two 10-hour-Internet-pauses were this profound to me, because the benefits of being offline transpired astonishingly immediately – even though, comparatively, I spent less than 0.01% of the last 10 years offline. Once back online, however, going offline again feels like a luxury that is difficult to afford. But as with all luxuries in life, one will find a way to afford them, if one really wants to.

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Webs Webs

r3 - 09 Jan 2022 - 09:13:53 - DanielaWeerasinghe
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