The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

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This book takes up a possible (negative) aspect of digital technology in terms of privacy and democracy.

TO SAVE EVERYTHING, CLICK HERE: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, by Evgeny Morozov

Imagine a world in which humanity—equipped with powerful self-tracking devices—finally conquers obesity, insomnia, and global warming as everyone eats less, sleeps better, and emits more appropriately. The fallibility of human memory is conquered, as the very same tracking devices record and store everything we do. Car keys, faces, factoids: we will never forget them again. No need to feel nostalgic, since that moment is surely stored somewhere in your smartphone—or, more likely, your smart, all-recording glasses—you can stop fantasizing and simply rewind to it directly. Politics is freed from all the sleazy corruption, backroom deals, and inefficient horse trading. Parties are disaggregated and replaced by Groupon-like political campaigns, where users come together—once—to weigh in on issues of direct and immediate relevance to their lives, only to disband shortly afterward. And even those who’ve never bothered to vote in the past are finally provided with the right incentives and so they rush to use their smartphones to “check in” at the voting booth.

Crime is a distant memory, while courts are overstaffed and underworked and prisons are unnecessary. Both physical and virtual environments—walls, pavements, doors, log-in screens—have become “smart.” That is, they have integrated the plethora of data generated by the self-tracking devices and social-networking services so that now they can predict and prevent criminal behavior simply by analyzing their users. Newspapers no longer publish articles that their readers are not interested in; the proliferation of self-tracking combined with social-networking data guarantees that everyone gets to read a highly customized newspaper that yields the highest possible click rate. No story goes unclicked, no headline untweeted; customized, individual articles are generated in the few seconds that pass between the click of a link and the loading of the page in one’s browser.

While there are many in Silicon Valley who subscribe to an “internet-solutionism” ideology and find such a technology-driven utopia enticing, Morozov finds this sort of future terrifying. He argues: “Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude and perfection—and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity, and imperfection—will prove to be prohibitively expensive in the long run.

See more at the Institute for Public Knowledge.

Does this relate to the dystopian techno-future portrayed in the haunting Tom Cruise film Minority Report?

Inspiration from 1841

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Henry David Thoreau, in his journal on 24th December 1841:

I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?

-2

(Thanks to Peter for this quote.)

Un-plugging

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In 1981 the celebrated poet/farmer Wendell Berry sharply commented:

TV and other media have learned to suggest with increasing subtlety and callousness – especially, and most wickedly, to children – that it is better to consume than to produce, to buy than to grow or to make, to “go out” than stay home. (The Gift of Good Land, p. 156)

And,

“We can get rid of the television set. As soon as we see that the TV cord is a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household, we can unplug it. (The Gift of Good Land, p. 158)

Berry writes about his struggle to raise his own children in the context of mass media, junk food and a culture that doesn’t honor the land, or the local. He laments that in 1980 many children came home from school to then watch 4-5 hours of TV per day: not necessarily because parents wished this, but because they themselves were often too exhausted to be with their children. At the same time he describes that it’s not easy to “deny” children something that is part of daily life. And, that doing so seems to often have the result of such “deprived” children being drawn to the television set or soda-pop like moths to a light bulb.

It’s perhaps fitting that the first Wendell Berry book I read was a gift from my father.

Growing up in the 1980s my parents were, as it seemed at the time, very strict about TV. Until I was 12 or 13 I was allowed to watch one hour of TV per day. And, I was only allowed to watch PBS, which had mostly educational programs. At age 7 I remember sitting on a stool in front of the clock on the kitchen stove for one full hour, literally watching the minutes go by until Square 1 TV (a kid’s math show) was on.

As an older teenager, I was allowed to watch TV more freely, but it was never particularly easy. The television signal at our house was weak, and my parents would never consider getting a satellite dish (“regular” cable TV simply wasn’t available). The picture was almost always fuzzy. And, for a time we had no picture at all, as the TV set had broken and my mother was in no rush to replace it.  During that time I sat and listened — as the sound still worked — to popular sitcoms like Friends or Seinfeld that would be talked about at school the next day.

Even though I suppose I felt like I suffered at the time, it didn’t take so long to feel that my parents — who very rarely watched television themselves — had done the right thing.

At age 16 or 17 I remember discussing a news show that I’d seen together with my mother about a family in Alaska that had no television at all. As part of the show the family was shown snippets of well-known news items from the past ten years such as OJ Simpson’s white Bronco car chase (I don’t remember what any of the “unforgettable” news moments were). One of the questions that the reporters asked the family, including their teenage children, was whether they felt like they missed something by not having a TV — wasn’t this absence, they implied, harmful for the children’s development and participation in nation and the world?  My mother wanted to know whether I felt like I’d been deprived of something by not watching so much TV as might be considered normal. Were there things I didn’t understand as a result? Did I feel left out?

I don’t remember exactly what I said then, but now I certainly feel don’t like I missed anything.

Today parents are of course encountering not only the question of how much TV their children should watch (if any), but also their use of computers, mobile phones, gaming devices, and so on. Is it right or wrong to set limits on a child’s media use? Will a child, for example, be disadvantaged at school if he or she hasn’t had the chance to learn to use a computer or a tablet at home? What if your child prefers to play computer games than to go outside?

The internet, like TV, gives us access to “the world”, but does it also suck life out of the home? Is it a place where parents retreat when they themselves are tired? And, how much more difficult is it (both practically speaking and psychologically speaking) to “unplug” a computer or a mobile phone than the television? Is that un-plugging in fact harder for most parents, than it would be for children? Would the choice not to have internet at home be more drastic than having no TV in the 1980s — e.g. to what extent would this deprive a child of participation in today’s world? Is it a valid choice to have a technology-free home?

(The authors of both Hamlet’s Blackberry and Winter of Our Disconnect consider questions along these lines — both books are written by parents.)

The average American watched 34 hours of television per week in 2010, or a little less than 5 hours per day. Reading this statistic I was feeling a bit proud that I watch quite a bit less TV than that. But, I do spend a great deal of time working in front the computer, perhaps 50 hours per week. And, how different is that? Perhaps I am “accomplishing” more things during my time with the computer, than with a TV. But, physically there’s not much difference, and studies show that extended perhaps of sitting aren’t great for our health. Outside of work I often spend time with other screens or devices, listening for example to a TED talk on my iPad, or watching a film. Yet, watching a film or reading a book are often no longer relaxing. By the end of the day my eyes are tired, even painful. Doing these things means using them more, and sitting still longer. And, I still often do them.

If the average American might spend roughly 84 hours or more per week or 12 hours/day  in front of either the TV or the computer (not counting mobile phone time), what are the implications of this? Is this what it means to live in a digital world?  Do we have a responsibility to integrate children into it, or to help them develop ways to stay grounded and unplugged?

Psychologist Aric Sigman argues on BBC that:

children up to the age of three should have little or no screen time. Then a maximum of an hour-and-a-half up to the age of seven, and a maximum of two hours up to the age of 18.

If at age 17 no more than two hours of screen time per day is recommended, then how much more can we healthily accommodate as adults?

snow storm

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A snow storm here in Sweden snapped the frayed, old telephone-wiring running to our house on Wednesday, which also carried our internet service. In the two days that the internet was off I worked on projects in very concentrated ways: re-writing a book chapter, and reading for hours.

I couldn’t stop being aware of the absence of the internet. I kept forgetting that it wasn’t there, thinking “oh, I’ll do this / check this / read this …” and then remembering a moment later that I couldn’t.

How long would it take for its absence to feel normal?

snowstorm

During the snowstorm I reflected:

I realize how much of a distraction it usually is to have the internet on my computer – I spend time checking my email, looking at Facebook, and the news – but also checking my various blogs and doing other random things online. But as soon as it [the internet] returns I don’t think I’ll be able to resist turning the connection back on. I find it a relief as well that we don’t have access to movies or TV, which we usually might watch online. For about eight years I did not watch TV. Now, with the internet it is so easy, but I don’t like how it makes me feel. Not having it [the internet] gives me the feeling of having more space and peace. Yet, when it’s there, and I’m feeling tired and lonely, the temptation is often too great….

This passage could perhaps have been written by many of us living now. What strikes me is what it’s not about. It’s not about the practical issues of being only semi-connected. I could still get online with my cell phone to check and send emails, but I had to reschedule a phone meeting, I couldn’t get the work done I’d planned to do, and wasn’t sure how soon I’d be able to. These practicalities certainly did give me some anxiety, but what I wrote reflects something else: a sort of underlying desire for more peace/concentration/quiet, constantly defeated with compulsive connecting.

It seems to me that this peace–compulsion dichotomy is something in and of itself. It is as though the experience of working and living with digital media is enveloped by these bigger behaviors (compulsions) and desires (peace). Objectively, we could participate in the digital world — just using these tools to get our work done without experiencing this tension. But, is that actually possible?

Re-reading the excerpts of interviews with this project’s NYC participants I was struck by H’s comment about being digitally connected:

So, you’re always on, but not present, so your mind is in another space. That’s something I want to get better at, being present.

She’s talking about this peace/compulsion conflict too, I think.

I feel this relates to what ethnographer and psychologist Sherry Turkle means when she talks about how technology itself is not bad for people, but we should be wary of the “habits of mind” it allows us to practice. In this very interesting TED talk she notes:

We’re letting technology take us places we don’t want to go” … “those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t just change what we do, but who we are” … “we’re getting used to a new way of being alone together [e.g. three friends sitting together in the same room texting other people] … people want to be with each other, but also elsewhere” …

And also:

We can end up hiding from each other [by doing stuff on one’s Blackberry] even when we are together” … “human relationships are rich, and they’re messy, and demanding — and we clean them up with technology and when we do we can sacrifice conversation for mere connection” … “that feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ is very important in our relationships with technology … it makes us want to spend time with machines” … “we’re lonely but we’re afraid of intimacy”…

Near the end of the talk Turkle emphasizes the importance of learning how to be alone with ourselves — of feeling comfortable when others aren’t around and not immediately reaching for our devices for connection and distraction.

Or, could we look at this as a more complicated dilemma?

We desire to be connected with other people, so we spend a lot of time connecting with them digitally. These digital relationships which sustain, but do not necessarily nourish us allow us to “survive” mentally and emotionally with fewer physical, real-time relationships. And, so we in fact have fewer physical, real-time relationships. This can even be true if you work, for example, all day in a busy office. Most of your time, and most of your colleague’s time is likely spent not with one another, but alone together — each typing away and looking at the screen. The same can be true at home with one’s family, with everyone plugged into their own device, or attention fixed together at the TV screen — together but alone.

And, so if we “unplug”, what’s there…?

Space. Quiet. Ourselves?

We express a desire for this “peace”, but I also wonder, is the quietness that we do experience by disconnecting a lot more quiet than it would have been before all the devices we now have? In other words, by disconnecting are we dropping into the world where we — not too long ago — used to live all the time? And, when we drop in, do we see that this world become weak and thin compared to before? (in that, in it’s current state of few relationships or even daily habits, it alone could no longer sustain us…)

We do of course still have relationships, and do of course still live in the physical world. But, maybe differently and even not as fully as before? Did reading a book or listening to a story be told take us as “far away” as digital devices do?

I was talking a few weeks ago (by Skype) with a friend in New York, and I think that what he said referred to this. He said that he had a strong desire to not be so busy, not be so online, to clarify things and focus. At the same time, he said, the thought of stepping into that SPACE was also terrifying.

But still, so many of us seem to think that it’s important not to lose it whatever it is that is there.

 

Virtual Farming

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I’d like to relate a story, which made a strong impression on me:

Two or so years ago I was working on a market research project for a telecom company. The company wanted to know about consumer’s shifting media habits, particularly the relationship between different devices in terms of where they consumed media — e.g. when did someone watch a movie on TV vs. on a laptop, and what about media on the mobile phone?

Most people recruited to the study were heavy media consumers, with many devices. One, not atypical, was a young man — a college student in his third or forth year of school. I did not travel to meet him, but rather was watching and analyzing a video interview. The camera person moved around the student’s undecorated, yet rather full apartment taking close-ups of the large television propped up on a crate, a gaming console, the student’s laptop and desktop computer, an additional (broken) desktop computer stored in a corner, and a mobile phone.

The student talked about the TV shows he liked to watch, the games he liked to play, how he multi-tasked on his laptop, what the desktop was for. He talked animatedly, but seemed lonely. With all the time he spent with his technology when did he have time, I wondered, to do his school work, let alone see friends (in person)?

Near the close of the interview the interviewer asked the student whether there were any other tech devices he used. The student’s eye’s lit up. “Yeah”, he said, “I have a Game Boy” (a handheld gaming device I dearly wished to have at age 10, but which my parents never bought me — certainly worried that I would be playing games constantly if they did). The student disappeared to another room to get the Game Boy, which looked oddly low-tech.

He explained that he had an old Game Boy model even though he would like to own a newer one, because his favorite game only worked on old models. The game — which was the only thing he used the Game Boy for — was a farming game that he had been playing for many years. It was clear from his enthusiasm that this was something he really liked doing. The game was “very slow” the student said, and it mostly consisted of planting crops and waiting for them to grow. He found the slowness, simple actions and repetitiveness to be soothing and calming.

On my way home, eyes buzzed from hours of starting at the video screen looking at interviews with strangers about their screens, I couldn’t forget that simple moment. Why play a virtual farming game, when one could spend the same time going outside to garden ‘for real’? Has technology really made us happier when the thing we desire to do to relax and feel our best is a virtual approximation of what many of our our ancestors did daily for thousands of years (and what many people do everyday now)? What’s the difference for the body, let alone the psyche, when one farms virtually vs. physically?

Nostalgia

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About a year ago I stopped to admire a table full of finely refurbished old-fashioned typewriters at the outdoor flea market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I chatted with the young man selling the typewriters. I commented that it was interesting and surprising to see an entire “store” full of analog devices.

“Who are your best clients?” I asked. He replied that he often sold the machines — at about $100 each — to young writers who wanted to leave the computer behind and to try out writing as one would have 40+ years ago.

I was surprised by the high price, and the apparent popularity of used typewriters, because only a few years ago they seemed to be regarded as completely obsolete.

I bought my typewriter, on which I’ve written many typo-filled letters, around 2004 at a Goodwill in Montreal. The machine, a charming mint green model, cost about $5 and was to my eyes a good hybrid been functionality and old-time charm. At the time that I bought it, it was only one of perhaps fifty typewriters lying forlornly on a shelf in the thrift shop’s cluttered backroom, and all were offered for rock-bottom prices.

My only trouble until now has been finding replacement ribbons for my typewriter, leading me to odd corners of cities to find typewriter supply stores which seem to have died out one after another. But, perhaps this trend will shift… (If you are in NYC check out Typewriters & Things at 13th and 8th Avenue.)

Neuromancer, by cyber-punk author William Gibson, was famously written on a typewriter.  This is perhaps not entirely surprising as it was published in 1984. But, still, one might have expected that this ground breaking novel, which evocatively imagined a cyber-future not terribly unlike our reality 30 years later, would have been written with the most futuristic tools of the day.

Gibson has indeed confirmed that “the novel was written on a 1927 model of an olive-green Hermes portable typewriter, which looked to him as “the kind of thing Hemingway would have used in the field”. In 2007, the writer commented:

I have a 2005 PowerBook G4, a gig of memory, wireless router. That’s it. I’m anything but an early adopter, generally. In fact, I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.  That’s becoming more difficult to do because everything is “around them”.

For some visuals, check out this post with photos of about 20 authors and their typewriters — Sylvia Plath is pictured below.

The connection between typewriters and authors of the past or of older generations isn’t too odd, but why this apparent nostalgia for typewriters among younger writers (including myself)? As one commentator posits, perhaps the  “typewriter will become the record player of the literary world: a dusty old contraption that becomes fashionable among a generation of people who have always had access to newer, sleeker versions of the same thing.”

Portlandia’s Dream of the 1890s highlights the pop-culture hipness of simpler, analog living in a more general way. The popular TV show’s music video parodies the fact that in Portland — as 120 years ago — people are: “pickling their own vegetables, brewing their own beer … knitting, sewing clothes for their children … are wearing glasses all the time like contact lenses had never been invented … kids grow up to be artisan bakers, everyone has homemade haircuts and men shave with straight razors … people raise their own chickens and cure their own meat…”.

The best commentary I’ve seen on this subject — of why it’s popular to do things in an old-fashioned way that is rather time consuming and inefficient compared to contemporary alternatives — was a long and winding Swedish article which drew connections between hipster culture’s longing for “things that take a long time” (like making sourdough bread) and the speedy digital world that we find ourselves in. The author pointed out that in many ways this hip lifestyle, of growing one’s own vegetables or composting or picking up crochet,  allows one to pursue the pleasures and benefits of delayed gratification — e.g. passing up an immediate reward for a bigger reward gained by waiting.

On a bigger level, we can consider that we live in a society where, for the most part, we aren’t encouraged to develop the art of waiting embedded in practices that connect us to the basics of life such as growing food, sewing clothing, or preserving things for the winter. Things ranging from computers to grocery stores to iPods to global brands like H&M present us with incredibly easy and fast access to information, music, food, pants & shoes for which we, for the most part, haven’t had to wait for or participate in creating.

Yet, one’s experience of eating a cabbage is different if it took you 15 minutes to drive to the grocery store, buy it, and head back to eat it for dinner versus if you grew it yourself. I speak from experience looking at the last cabbage left from our garden which is resting on the kitchen counter — the result of many months of care, slow growing, summer evening walks through the garden, and mini-battles with slugs and caterpillars.

It is absolutely a luxury to be able to zip down to the supermarket and buy tomatoes, oranges, eggs, chocolate, etc. in Sweden in November. But, is there not something lost in the process of creating or tending to something oneself — the waiting, the working, the time and memory infused?

Through this lens one can see the hip activities of concocting one’s own bitters, caring for bees, or chopping wood as intentional reactions to a digital, global culture which gives us everything at — almost literally — the push of a button. And yet, fails to deeply satisfy.

We desire, it seems, things that we can put our hands on; understand on a human scale; or fix or do ourselves. A LONGING for the real, the natural, the slow. A desire for things that, unlike our experience of the digital world, are:

  • physical — the clanking sound of typewriter keys or the clip of a film projector
  • limited — finiteness of a record vs. all the digital albums one could download in 1 hour
  • knowable — the fix-ability of an old appliance vs. the digital complexity of a new one

A real-life example of this exploration of doing things simply / by hand / at home is the charming blog Homemade Crackers which documents the adventures of a young Canadian family of five: “One day we wondered why we had never tried making crackers before. This blog is our journey to make more at home, find local ingredients and become supermarket-free.”  Here are is beautiful grape juice they’ve made:

Or, check out the related Beehive Craft Collective: “Bound together by a common thread of making things by hand, this collective was formed in 2011 by members of the arts community in Hamilton, Ontario. Focusing on handmade, DIY, and sustainability, we hope to engage and promote a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity.” A quilting project:

Of course, there is a difference between being able to make the choice to live more simply and having that be a fact of life. Similarly, as choosing to be offline or analog is different than having no other option. But, it is pretty interesting that quite a few people are making that choice to the extent that one can in a digital society.

Sustainable not Reachable

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Here in Sweden I’m staying in the countryside, near a medium-sized town. Most of the public space downtown consists of two indoor shopping centers, which adjoin one another with an H&M, electronics stores, a large grocery store, a modern library, a pub, a state-run liquor store, and a number of other shops that sell shoes, stationary, sporting goods, and so on.

By chance I was there very early one day earlier this week and wandered further afield into the older part of the town. There is one main street, which presumably was more bustling in the 1940s and 50s prior to the arrival of the malls, globalization, and cement-based architecture. Here, I stumbled on a lovely, old-fashioned Swedish bakery.

At 8:30am on a Tuesday morning bakers were busy making bread and pastries in the back-kitchen. Six older men with worn faces sat around a table drinking coffee and talking (and were still there joking with one another and enjoying themselves when I left an hour later). Two middle-aged women and a teenage girl — a mother, daughter, and aunt? — wandered in and ate pastries. A retired couple ate a slow and quiet breakfast of bakery sandwiches. And a woman sat by the window with her coffee reading the paper.

It struck me that something was unusual, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that it was. What felt so odd, and peaceful, I think, was the fact that here I was in a cafe, on a weekday morning, with no sign of work in sight. No laptops. No wi-fi. No early work meetings. No student madly rushing to finish a stack of articles. No one grabbing a to-go coffee on their way to an office. Just people taking their time.

I read a little stack of newspaper sections that someone had left behind, finding a few tidbits related to this project even in this reading collection edited by a stranger (leaving me with the culture section of Sweden’s equivalent of the New York Times and a few-days-old copy of something like a Swedish New York Post).

This cartoon — the one in color — caught my eye:

The text reads:

1. “You’ve gotten a letter.” // “Oh, really.”
2. (nothing)
3. “What do I do with it?”

And, also this article:

The headline reads “Hotel Queen wants to be sustainable — not reachable”** and the text describes a Swedish hotel-owner who lives in India. The article goes on to note that she doesn’t have a cell phone, considering them “a huge experiment with human health”. And, of course, wifi is available for guests, but only upon special request.

So, per the hotel queen’s headline, is there a conflict between being sustainable (environmentally and otherwise) and constantly reachable?

Outside it has become lovely, gray fall weather…

**The most direct translation of the title of the “hotel queen” article would be “”Hotel Queen wants to be sustainable — not portable”.  “Portable” presumably refers to having a portable (mobile) phone?? … I think “reachable” is a more poetic way to translate the meaning of the title into English, e.g. “sustainable — not reachable”, or maybe it’s just my own creation!

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