some hardly complete thoughts on disconnection

30 March 2014

What follows are some musings on why and how disconnection might matter. They are far from complete, but I’ve already spent too long not getting any farther than this, so I’ve deicded up on the blog it goes! And, I want to start writing informally more often. Usually the only things I ever put out into the world are crazy over-thought academic publications. Yikes!

Disconnection as an act of compassion?

Soon after I returned from San Francisco’s annual “Wisdom 2.0” conference, a colleague forwarded me a new article of Evgeny Morozov’s titled, “Technology’s Mindfulness Racket.” The body of the email read, simply, “Evgeny strikes again!” And indeed, he had.

The article couldn’t have been more well timed for me. Evgeny uses Wisdom 2.0 in the first paragraph of the The New Rebublic piece as an example of just what he means when he refers to an emerging discourse around “the virtues of curbing technology-induced stress and regulating the oppressiveness of constant connectivity.”

As a researcher studying these discourses of connection and disconnection, I appreciate the skepticism that comes through in his description of technologies like GPS for the Soul: “a new app to fight the distraction caused by the old apps.” Morozov doesn’t name too many other names in the start of the article, but he is right to call our attention to a preponderance of new apps and organizations that promise to help us disconnect or detox – some for a substantial fee. There’s Digital Detox and their Camp Grounded; Wisdom 2.0 retreats like Unplugged, and Disconnect to Connect; apps like RescueTime, StayFocused, Vitamin R, or Freedom that prevent us from self-destructive Facebooking and Twittering.

Like Morozov, I find repeated calls for disconnection troubling because they focus on the individual as the locus of the problem: As Morozov puts it, “The disconnectionists don’t seem to have a robust political plan for addressing their concerns; it’s all about small-scale individual action.” Morozov and I are not alone in this frustration, of course. As he reminds us, Alexis Madrigal similarly critiqued Digital Detox’s Camp Grounded event last summer in The Atlantic: “Individuals unplugging is not actually an answer to the biggest technological problems of our time just as any individual’s local, organic dietary habits don’t solve global agriculture’s issues” Madrigal on Camp Grounded.

Morozov argues that many earlier critiques have focused too much on critiquing the act of disconnection itself, without giving sufficient attention to the situation that gives rise to our feelings of “technology-induced stress” or that “constant connectivity” has become “oppressive.”

So, what is this situation, exactly?

Madrigal’s analogy to global agriculture already suggested that the situation is somehow systemic – but he doesn’t spend much time addressing how the mechanics of this system function; whatever it is that has contributed to creating the “biggest technological problems of our time?”

In his own article, Morozov draws our attention to the business models and tactics of Silicon Valley companies:

“Twitter, for instance, nudges us to check how many people have interacted with our tweets. … The business agenda is obvious: The more data we can surrender–by endlessly clicking around–the more appealing Twitter looks to advertisers. But what is in Twitter’s best interest is not necessarily in our communicative interest.”

For Morozov, then, taking account of a bigger picture means recognizing “the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.” Thus, rather than blaming ourselves for succumbing to a technology addiction, Morozov would instead have us hold these companies accountable for manufacturing our compulsive technology addictions. Citing Natasha Dow-Schüll’s Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Morozov calls for us to subject the designs of social media technologies to the “kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the design of gambling machines in Las Vegas casinos.”

So, where to go from there? Morozov returns to the question of disconnection at the end of his article, arguing that the reasons for disconnecting are what really matter:

“We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas.”

I most appreciate his call for bringing some fire to the feet of Silicon Valley. We do need to hold businesses accountable for the impacts of their actions on people and society.

Twitter, Facebook and Google do have it in their best interest to manufacture technology addictions in the rest of us.

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As of late, they seem to be getting increasingly pushy about distracting us – as demonstrated by the pictured recent tumblr post by sexpigeon – and this is something we must bring into conversations about the distracting nature of internet technologies.

Indeed, it was at Wisdom 2.0, that I heard two high-level Google employees wrestling with a frustration that technology companies right now are competing for our “time and attention,” but really, they ought to be competing for our “well being.” How could we make them do that? It’s certainly not in their business interest.

In so far as it goes, I like the idea of reframing disconnection as a political strategy – something that aims to sabotage and disrupt the supposed ‘disruptors.’

But, I also think that there is still more to this systemic situation with which we need to wrestle. These are not the only mechanics of a system that encourages constant connectivity and compulsive distraction.

So, what else is going on? And what else can we learn from events like Wisdom 2.0?

One of the many things that I found striking in attending this conference, was the small booth set up by Digital Detox advertising their Camp Grounded event.

{<2>}Image of Digital Detox Booth

Set up as a mini version of a camper’s room at some rustic scout camp in the woods, the booth screamed a kind of Kinfolk-esque nostalgia.

{<3>}Image 2 of Digital Detox Booth

What first jumps out, of course, is the anti-tech attitude of the camp. There is a Goodnight iPad book propped up on a small wooden table next to a typewriter and against a backdrop of what appear to be Polaroid photos.

But, digital technology is not, in fact, the only thing from which Camp Grounded promises one a detox. Upon some closer attention both to the booth, and thinking back to what I heard in a breakout session led by the camp’s founder, Levi Felix, there is also something very anti-work about Camp Grounded.

{<4>}Image of booth signs of things banned

Alongside the ban on digital devices at Camp Grounded, are additional bans on things like work-talk and networking.

This is one place where I think the Camp Grounded organizers are onto something, and where we need to also focus some of our attention in all this talk of disconnection.

As my colleagues in the academy have recently written about, contemporary businesses are selling their employees availability as part of their product (See, e.g. Mazmanian & Erickson, “The Product of Availability: Understanding the Economic Underpinnings of Constant Connectivity” [PDF]). Melissa Gregg similarly has written about presence bleed – the obligation for contemporary workers to continually & constantly perform professionalism through online social networks in her book Work’s Intimacy. More popularly, Alexis Madrigal asked in The Atlantic, “Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?”.

This is an important critique of the typical narratives about smartphone-addicted individuals. Focusing some attention on the demands of the new capitalist workplace is a critical piece of figuring out the situation before us. As Madrigal puts it: “Much of our compulsive connectedness (insofar as it exists) is a symptom of a greater problem, not the problem itself.” And, like Morozov, he, too, calls for political action instead of technology-detox:

Imagine if 19th-century factory workers blamed the clock for the length of their work days. The answer to the horrible working conditions of the late 19th century was not to smash the clocks or the steam engines! The solution was to organize and fight for your right to a 40-hour week and paid vacations.

However, this analogy seems to break down a bit. It is certainly fair to say that networked digital technologies are not the sole cause of all of this extra work, but they are the tools that make 10pm work emails or conference calls on vacation a real possibility.

Recall Morozov’s argument that we might talk about disconnection as a kind of sabotage of the unreasonable tactics of the Silicon Valley “acceleration-distraction complex.” Likewise, then, disconnection could also be taken up as a kind of sabotage of the unreasonable expectations of the labor-relations inherent within a broader ‘new capitalism.’ We could see disconnection as a tactic of a contemporary worker’s strike – a move to establish boundaries around when and where it is right or reasonable to be doing paid labor.

But, frustratingly, these strategies of total disconnection are only available to those who can afford to suffer the consequences – and likely only available in some temporary way.

As Baratunde Thurston wrote for Fast Company last year, a successful period of “disconnection” requires all sorts of pre-planning, letting people know well in advance about this anomaly in your usual patterns of responsiveness, and promising not to take it up as an all-the-time kind of lifestyle change (See, “#Unplug: Baratunde Thurston Left The Internet For 25 Days, And You Should, Too”. It’s one thing to go away to a “Digital Detox” retreat for three days out of the year; another thing to disconnect for a month (like Thurston); and yet another to disconnect on some regular schedule (every weekend; every evening; etc.). Even the most temporary respite from technological communication requires some amount of power – are you in a position to tell other people you aren’t going to respond to their messages for some number of days? And will they hold that against you? For how long? What will the repercussions be?

Taking a more permanent respite is all but unavailable to most people. As I and Melissa Mazmanian have noted previously, not everyone is in a position to dictate their availability to others (See, Harmon & Mazmanian, “Stories of the Smartphone in everyday discourse: conflict, tension & instability” [PDF]. Even those executives who find themselves at the top of the corporate hierarchy can feel pressure to stay connected, and to be responsive to their subordinates’ requests.

That is to say, we are all caught in multiple webs of expectation involving colleagues, bosses, spouses, children and friends. Digital technologies are embedded in varied and multiple practices of work, care, pleasure, and sociality. Turning them off threatens our own ability to work, care, have fun, and be sociable.

This means that disconnecting is hard; and unlikely to be taken up by many people. And, at the same time, disconnecting as a political act – whether it is sabotage against the business models of the “acceleration-distraction complex” or a strike against unreasonable demands of excessive overtime labor – is a rather hollow act when done by isolated individuals.

Such acts of disconnection will only be truly impactful or successful, if, as Morozov writes, they “give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas. … Hopefully, these movements will then articulate alternative practices, institutions, and designs.”

And so, on their own, these suggestions still leave me feeling unsatisfied. Disconnection still looks like just an individual thing, something impossible for most people to participate in, and something that won’t really matter unless magically hundreds and thousands of people take it up all at once. Given the constraints, this seems unrealistic.

But, I’m not done with disconnection. I think there might be something there, and I want to suggest a third reason for taking this individual action, by way of a return to the Wisdom 2.0 conference.

It’s easy to critique things like Wisdom 2.0 – they are peculiar, and for more reasons than Morozov notes. And we should be skeptical of “Davos-based spirituality brigades,” as he puts it. But, we might also have something to learn from them. In particular, right now I want to bring into this conversation the third word in the Wisdom 2.0 slogan, “compassion.”

One of the things that makes the calls for disconnection previously discussed so frustrating is that their goal is for the individual disconnecting to help him or herself, to wrangle some out of control life into control. Yet these strategies cannot ultimately succeed when enacted by individuals alone; because individuals aren’t the ones putting pressure on themselves to connect.

What’s important in Madrigal’s call for attention to working conditions and in Morozov’s call attention to the business models of Twitter and Facebook, is that they force us to broaden our understanding of just what the problem is – to shift our attention away from the locus of one individual using one piece of technology. But, expanding that view to the business models of the companies behind the apps on our phones, or the working conditions many of us find ourselves in doesn’t encompass the entire web of obligation that triggers compulsive phone-checking, facebook-posting, email-reading.

The thing that still seems bizzarely left out of both of these frames is the presence of all those other people that exist in the world – all those people we are facebook-ing with, reading emails from.

When we use digital technologies, our purpose often has to do with communication. When we talk about being distracted by Facebook or twitter or the constant pings of new e-mails, there are usually other individual humans on the other side of those pings, reaching out to us and trying to communicate. Likewise, when we pick up our own devices to create a new Facebook post or write another e-mail, or send another text message, we are creating a ping for someone else.

So, this makes me wonder, what if we were to think about disconnection – even in a limited or partial form – as a strategy for treating others with compassion?

Here we don’t need to have an army of co-participants to make a difference. Simply refraining from sending a single e-mail at 9 PM at night instantly relieves another person of the obligation to read and respond to that e-mail.

Certainly the impact of this kind of action increases exponentially as more people participate. If we understand the proliferation of 24/7 availability as a standard or norm which creates an obligation for individuals to participate; then, like Morozov’s hope for a social movement, we can also see a practice of not-emailing, not-calling, not-texting, not-facebooking as an attempt at counter-norm-ing. But, creating new social norms certainly takes more than isolated individual action. I’m not holding out too much hope there, but, I think that a shift in our attention from disconnection as a selfish act to disconnection as a compassionate act might be one step towards fostering a more collective attention that might help broader social change happen. Because social change requires just that – a focus on the social rather than the individual.

Yet, just one person, not sending one email, can make a real difference for one other person – someone who now isn’t interrupted at the dinner table, or in the bleachers of their kid’s swimming competition, or while out for an evening walk, or while kicking back & trying to relax in front of the television after a long day at the office.

Seen from this perspective, disconnection does nothing for the individual who is engaging in the practice himself or herself – not unless others begin to copy, mimic, or respond in kind. But, disconnection as an individual act also isn’t entirely empty – it just matters for someone who isn’t the individual. From a standpoint of compassion, disconnection doesn’t help us get our own lives back in control, but it might be a way to help someone else feel more in control of theirs.

This isn’t to say that disconnection can free us all from the webs of social obligation that bind us to our phones and tablets and other communicative devices. For much of the foreseeable future, there will likely always come a time when another person puts you in a position to then demand something further from someone else – at a time when you know that that someone else might be otherwise occupied.

But, perhaps thinking about disconnection with a frame of compassion helps to remind us that communicating with digital technologies is never an individual act; to remind us of our place within social groups that drive our desires and obligations for connection; to remind us that the problem isn’t just about technologies or our own personal failings and addictions, but is something much more social about the expectations and obligations that are put upon us – whether we are enrolled, perhaps against our own wills, to help Facebook profit; to help our employer profit; or, more willingly, to help our friend get their new cable modem working. Seeking out ways to alter the sources and patterns of these obligations is critical for relieving our own stresses. Recognizing, and working to limit, the ways we participate in creating obligations for others is one path towards helping to relieve each others’ stresses.

As Morozov put it, the reasons we disconnect matter. We should be challenging the business models of Silicon Valley; we should be challenging the norms of over-working that dominate American offices. But, even when we aren’t in a position to take those actions for ourselves, or when we feel that our individual actions are too small to even make a significant impact, we might be able to take care of each other in smaller ways that still matter.

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