Why Thinking Critically About Online Disconnection Matters

Offline nostalgia

My interest in the questions of technology non-use or rather, what is increasingly called, voluntary online disconnection, came through research with older people. They were all 65 or older, some had internet access at home, some did not, but in the majority of cases, they simply claimed they had no interest in engaging in online activities, such as social networking. In the majority of cases, internet access was not an issue, but rather the nostalgia for slower, less distracting life, ‘as in the old days’. My informants were particularly upset about the change when it comes to social interaction in public spaces, such as buses. Previously, one could enter a bus and start chatting with some passengers. ‘’People barely speak to each other these days, they stare at their phones instead’’ was one of the reoccurring answers.

This longing for a life without internet resonates well with the recent trend for offline romanticism, temporary media refusal or detoxing. If for older people this means going back to something familiar and known from before, for the younger generation it often means entering a new, unknown territory. The omnipresence of digital networks and ubiquity of computers have made the digital, to some extent at least, invisible. In such new terrain of the eternal offline, the digital is noticed mostly by its absence. If, some twenty years ago, going online was an act of escapism, seeking a refuge in the analogue and offline world marks today’s era of hyperconnectivity, social acceleration and distraction. Going offline, albeit temporarily, is a response to the effects of online addiction, social isolation and deteriorating mental health. When it comes to definitions, scholars use a variety of terms to describe technology non-use of the voluntary kind. As Light (2014) notes, disconnection implies a removal or breaking of the connection but it can also exist as a possibility on its own, in relation to connection. He also mentions ‘disconnective power’ as a form of individual agency which in practice means the whole spectrum of activities such as the use of dislike buttons, lurking – consuming content without generating any, to passivity in terms of not liking, sharing, tagging and temporary media breaks and detox. These are described by Hesselberth (2017) as gestures and voluntary tendencies towards withdrawal, but she also mentions the publicly circulating discourse of the “right to disconnect”, often appropriated by corporate actors. In fact, the corporate actors and the tech industry itself have been active in developing solutions to provide a more balanced environment for workers by the means of disconnective technologies.

Symptoms and solutions

Distraction caused by technology is considered by some a constant threat to cultural integrity, well-being and productivity. Especially the latter, namely productivity along with effectiveness are important elements of the capitalist ethos of work. In order to deal with factors potentially distracting workers from their ‘real’ job, disconnective technologies offer jamming programs and applications with telling names such as Self-control, FocusWriter, StayFocused or FocusMe. The semiotic power of such applications is often strengthened by the very fact of rejection of networked technologies. The goal is simple- to disconnect (albeit temporarily) in order to reconnect with even better performance. The purpose to promote wellbeing and health is one among neoliberal appropriations of technologies as tools for disconnection and increasingly becomes a management strategy at work. In fact, in recent years the large part of the tech industry itself, mostly the one placed in Silicon Valley, have acknowledged the harmful effects of technology. Part of the backlash against technology is due to latest scandals such as data breaches related to Cambridge Analytica that prompted some users to delete their social media accounts. At the same time, however, the response of the industry has focused mainly on the individual harms, such as internet addiction, distraction and manipulation. In a similar manner, the solutions offered from within the industry focus on allegedly less addictive and manipulative technologies and better design. In other words, the remedy for too much technology is even more technology, albeit of a more humane kind (Tarnoff & Weigel, 2018, Heigl, 2018). This is also to say that the tech industry wants to build a ‘healthier’ relationship with technology by the means of technology fetishism, individualizing and depoliticizing the problem and its core. What I would like to suggest is that we need to continue thinking critically about the relationship between technology and humanity/society and how they are constantly entangled and mutually transforming. In particular, thinking critically about online disconnection is important in order to understand, among others, how and who holds the power to define how should we live with technology.

Why does thinking critically about online disconnection matter?

Critical thinking about technology implies an understanding that technology is shaped socially. It means that when it comes to assessing the ‘digital’, issues such as user capabilities, socio-material affordances of technologies but also questions of power and structural inequalities need to be taken into account as well. Thinking critically about online disconnection implies the concern about power asymmetries in the society and their implications. It implies that one can identify contradictory, open and dynamic tendencies of tech development. It implies an emancipatory approach, one that considers a possibility of change and transformation. In order to analyse and understand the role of social discontent, critical approach to online disconnection needs to look for its causes rather than symptoms. From that perspective, occasional digital detoxing or opting out of social media is not enough. As Lovink (2018) suggests, the idea of leaving social media altogether is beyond imagination, so instead, we need to find ways to politicize the situation and avoid offline romanticism. Like the question of online privacy, disconnection is not only a matter of individual, voluntary decisions to freely opt in and opt out. Disconnection, like privacy, is not personal but rather a systemic issue that needs to take into account the power structures in the society. For instance, it needs to take into account the fact that the five largest companies in the world measured by market value in billions of dollars are tech giants (Mosco, 2017). Consequently, decisions about the design, dissemination, content and to some extent effects of technology remain in the hands of those companies.

Moving beyond offline romanticism and thinking critically about online disconnection, both as a discourse and gesture of temporary withdrawal from online media, urges to ask some important questions. They may include, for instance: What are the purposes, causes and costs of disconnection? Such questions address the politics of online withdrawal and go beyond personal acts of withdrawal. In this context, it is important to acknowledge that connectivity and ‘being online’ has historically been linked to the position of economic and political power. In the context of hyperconnected culture having the option to opt out is a privilege in itself. This is particularly true when it comes to Western perceptions of advanced technology and connectivity as a right yet sort of luxury in itself. It particularly pertains to Western mainstream media reporting on refugees carrying smartphones as ‘bogus asylum seekers’ (Leurs&Smets, 2018). Such perceptions often depart from an idea that network connection and ownership of smart technology is a luxury that only some can afford. Rather than questioning who has the right to stay connected we should be asking who can afford to disconnect. On the one hand, media resisters and disconnectors generally belong to the media-savvy crowd where temporal disconnection can be as much a marker of identity and political stance as a practice of self-discipline and self-regulation. On the other hand, some people are heavily dependent on social media use and connectivity, like knowledge and care workers. In the case of the latter, disconnection can even be synonymous with social withdrawal. When it comes to costs on a structural level also the question of how sustainable is the digital in the digital economy remains important from an ecological point of view.

Another important question pertains to the conditions of power and labour in digital capitalism and the ideology critique of capitalist ethos of productivity. One could ask, for example: How capital appropriates disconnective technologies as sources of control? For instance, if we agree that the goal of attention economy is to commodify audience’s attention, disconnection becomes incorporated into the capitalist mode of production.

In other words, we need to ask about the conditions that put people in a situation where online disconnection is a necessary step in order to cope with distraction, work overload, emotional distress and social acceleration. More research is needed when it comes to colonization of user attention, particularly in the context of dealing with ‘digital wellbeing’ and variety of ways tech companies have an ambition to deal with problems such as digital addiction by offering more products and services. We need to understand and explore how the notions of ‘authenticity’, self-empowerment and personal growth are employed in order to promote disconnective technologies and practices, particularly in the corporate context.

It is also important to remember that deleting a social media account due to privacy violations, concerns about surveillance and politics of Big Data can be seen as a response, yet it is not a particularly viable solution. The real impact can only take place through limiting the power of tech corporations and struggle towards a more democratic internet. I suggest that thinking critically about online disconnection can be a good way to continue the reflection about the future of information society and contemporary ‘culture of connectivity’.

There are some moralising undertones in the idea that digital devices are destructive for concentration and general well-being. As Frank Furedi (2015) has shown, they echo the 19th century’s concern that there is a correlation between distraction and the seductive power of the novel, that allegedly had toxic influence on human cognition. The idea that technology always has one specific effect on society, positive or negative, constitutes the basis of technical determinism which favours a one-sided, causal relationship between technology and society. Critical approach and thinking critically about online disconnection provides an alternative to technological determinism, by illuminating the complexity, and sometimes contradictions of the relationship between technology and society. In my latest paper, together with a colleague, we critically analyse how older ICT users experience and understand digitization (Kania-Lundholm & Torres, 2018). One of the findings is that our informants did not agree that the digital divide can be overcome by simply investing in increasing people’s access or skills to networked technologies. Instead, they suggested that offline, face-to-face alternative services should be made available at all times. It was, however, not a matter of nostalgic longing for the past, but rather a pragmatic concern about the future.

References

Furedi, F. (2015). “Age of Distraction: Why the Idea Digital Devices Are Destroying Our Concentration and Memory Is A Myth?”. The Independent, 11 October. Accessed 18 July 2018.

Haig, M. (2018). “Google wants to cure our phone addiction. How about that for irony?”. The Guardian, 10 May. Accessed 18 July 2018.

Hesselberth, P. (2017). “Discourses on disconnectivity and the right to disconnect”. New Media & Society, 20 (5): 1994-2010

Kania-Lundholm, M., Torres, S. (2018). “Ideology, power and inclusion: using the critical perspective to study how older ICT users make sense of digitization”. Media, Culture & Society, 0163443718781983.

Leurs, K., Smets,K. (2018). “Five Questions for Digital Migration Studies: Learning from Digital Connectivity and Forced Migration In(to) Europe”. Social Media+Society, Special Iss: Forced Migrants and Digital Connectivity, January-March: 1-16

Light, B. (2014). Disconnecting with Social Networking Sites. Palgrave Macmillan

Mosco,V. (2017). Becoming digital. Toward a Post-Internet Society. London: Emerald Publishing Limited.

Tarnoff, B, Weigel, M. (2018). “Why Silicon Valley can’t fix itself?”. The Guardian, 3 May. Accessed 18 July 2018.


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