RE­SIST THE IN­TER­NET

There needs to be a move­ment to take back con­trol from the tyrant in your pocket

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer, a ‘New York Times’ OpEd colum­nist, writes about pol­i­tics, re­li­gion, moral val­ues and higher ed­u­ca­tion

SO far, in my on­go­ing se­ries of col­umns mak­ing the case for im­plau­si­ble ideas, I’ve fixed race re­la­tions and solved the prob­lem of a work­less work­ing class. So now it’s time to turn to the real threat to the hu­man fu­ture: the one in your pocket or on your desk, the one you might be read­ing this col­umn on right now.

Search your feel­ings, you know it to be true: You are en­slaved to the In­ter­net. Def­i­nitely, if you’re young, in­creas­ingly if you’re old, your day-to-day, minute-tominute ex­is­tence is dom­i­nated by a com­pul­sion to check email and Twit­ter and Face­book and In­sta­gram with a fre­quency that bears no re­la­tion­ship to any com­mu­nica­tive need.

Com­pul­sions are rarely harm­less. The In­ter­net is not the opi­oid cri­sis; it is not likely to kill you (un­less you’re hit by a dis­tracted driver) or leave you rav­aged and des­ti­tute. But, it re­quires you to fo­cus in­tensely, fu­ri­ously and con­stantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny lit­tle screen, and ex­pe­ri­ence the tra­di­tional graces of ex­is­tence — your spouse and friends and chil­dren, the nat­u­ral world, good food and great art — in a state of per­pet­ual dis­trac­tion.

Used within rea­son­able lim­its, of course, these de­vices also of­fer us new graces. But, we are not us­ing them within rea­son­able lim­its. They are the mas­ters; we are not. They are built to ad­dict us, as so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Adam Al­ter’s new book, Ir­re­sistible, points out — and to mad­den us, dis­tract us, arouse us and de­ceive us. We primp and per­form for them as for a lover; we sur­ren­der our pri­vacy to their de­mands; we wait on ten­ter­hooks for ev­ery “like”. The smart­phone is in the sad­dle and it rides mankind.

Which is why we need a so­cial and po­lit­i­cal move­ment — dig­i­tal tem­per­ance, if you will — to take back some con­trol.

“Tem­per­ance?” you might ob­ject, with one eye on the lat­est out­rage shared by your co-par­ti­sans on so­cial media. “You mean, like, Pro­hi­bi­tion? For some­thing ev­ery­one re­lies on for their daily work and lives, that’s the ba­sis for our eco­nomic — hang on, I just need to ‘fa­vorite’ this tweet …”

No, not like Pro­hi­bi­tion. Tem­per­ance doesn’t have to mean tee­to­talling; it can sim­ply mean a cul­ture of re­straint that tries to keep a spe­cific prod­uct in its place. And the In­ter­net, like al­co­hol, may be an ex­am­ple of a tech­nol­ogy that should be sen­si­bly re­stricted in cus­tom and in law.

Of course, it’s too soon to fully know (and in­deed we can never fully know) what on­line life is do­ing to us. It cer­tainly de­liv­ers some so­cial ben­e­fits, some in­tel­lec­tual ad­van­tages and con­trib­utes an im­por­tant share to re­cent eco­nomic growth.

But, there are also ex­cel­lent rea­sons to think that on­line life breeds nar­cis­sism, alien­ation and de­pres­sion, that it’s an opi­ate for the lower classes and an in­san­i­tyin­duc­ing in­flu­ence on the po­lit­i­cally en­gaged, and that it takes more than it gives from cre­ativ­ity and deep thought. Mean­while the age of the In­ter­net has been, thus far, an era of bub­bles, stag­na­tion and demo­cratic de­cay — hardly a golden age whose cus­toms must be left in­vi­o­late.

So, a dig­i­tal tem­per­ance move­ment would start by re­sist­ing the wiring of ev­ery­thing, and seek to cre­ate more spa­ces in which In­ter­net use is il­le­gal, dis­cour­aged or taboo. Toughen laws against cell­phone use in cars, keep com­put­ers out of col­lege lec­ture halls, put spe­cial “phone boxes” in restau­rants, where pa­trons would be ex­pected to de­posit their de­vices, con­fis­cate smart­phones be­ing used in mu­se­ums and li­braries and cathe­drals, cre­ate cor­po­rate norms that strongly dis­cour­age check­ing email in a meet­ing.

Then, there are the starker steps. Get com­put­ers — all of them — out of ele­men­tary schools, where there is no good ev­i­dence that they im­prove learn­ing. Let kids learn from books for years be­fore they’re asked to go on­line for re­search; let them play in the real be­fore they’re en­veloped by the vir­tual.

Then keep go­ing. The age of con­sent should be 16, not 13, for Face­book ac­counts. Kids un­der 16 shouldn’t be al­lowed on gam­ing net­works. High school stu­dents shouldn’t bring smart­phones to school. Kids un­der 13 shouldn’t have them at all. If you want to buy your child a cell­phone, by all means: In the new dis­pen­sa­tion, (In­tenet ser­vice providers) Ver­i­zon and Sprint will have some great “voice-only” plans avail­able for mi­nors.

I sus­pect that ver­sions of these ideas will be em­braced within my life­time by a seg­ment of the up­per class and a cer­tain kind of re­li­gious fam­ily. But, the masses will still be ad­dicted, and the tech­nol­ogy it­self will have evolved to hook and im­merse — and alien­ate and se­date — more com­pletely and ef­fi­ciently.

But, what if we de­cided that what’s good for the Sil­i­con Val­ley over­lords who send their kids to a low-tech Wal­dorf school is also good for ev­ery­one else? Our de­vices we shall al­ways have with us, but we can choose the terms. We just have to choose to­gether, to em­brace tem­per­ance and pa­ter­nal­ism both. Only a move­ment can save you from the tyrant in your pocket.

...there are also ex­cel­lent rea­sons to think that on­line life breeds nar­cis­sism, alien­ation and de­pres­sion, that it’s an opi­ate for the lower classes and an in­san­i­tyin­duc­ing in­flu­ence on the po­lit­i­cally en­gaged...

AFPPIC

Search your feel­ings, you know it to be true: You are en­slaved to the In­ter­net.

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