The world today is hyper-connected. It’s hard to pinpoint one exact moment of when it happened but it certainly has, people no longer balk at using their phones in the middle of a conversation at a dinner or spending time in groups just socializing with people outside of the room through their phones. I recently witnessed a social gathering where 4 people that travelled quite a distance sat in a sofa just staring at their phones, missing the point of the journey to meet itself. Through previously being hyper-connected myself i came to realize that the act of keeping this up is very draining and does not leave much time for in-depth focus. You and your friends are trained to deliver and expect instant responses from the people you communicate with, a response time longer than hours is seen as the act of ignoring.
It’s been said a thousand times already but the act of being hyper-connected makes us less connected. Social media transformed from an amazing tool into a depressing, filtered feed of polarizing content. Instead of being a way of staying connected it turned into a popularity contest, with Instagram showcasing an untrue view of other people and Facebook amplifying the fear of missing out. I don’t think most of us has the tools of placing these images in the correct context in order to view these images with the right lenses. This in turn to not be affected by the content they present. Instead our subconscious starts comparing the status markers against our own idea of what we see, meaning the filtered view presented: the highlights, the top moments and exaggerate situations starts looking like the ordinary life of other people and our own life starts to seem bland, unrealized and boring.
Call it a falling out with the modern internet because that is what i think this is. Growing up with the old anonymous internet, where you judged content without the context of the author makes the contrast to today even more stark. Rather than attributing an idea or a situation to a friend, you could easier parse it with the right lenses because the content itself had no personal connection. Compare this to the new Internet that focuses on the “individual” (if the curated view could even be called such a thing) rather than the content. What once was about expression now seems more about showcasing merits and wins to other people that “follows” your persona. Peter Steiner coined the term “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, referring to the time where people judged the text rather than the person behind the text. Today you just have to Google someone’s handle to figure out that they in fact are not a dog.
Hyper-connectedness also grew with the advent of smartphones, being connected about 10 years ago meant sitting down in front of your desktop computer, starting the required software up and actively seeking out the information you wanted. This made the association of your internet persona easy to sustain as this was the role you took on as you sat down in front of the computer, it stayed within the physical realm of your keyboard and was hard to extend outside of your setup. Steve Jobs launched the iPhone in 2007, a device which broke the separation between you and your internet persona. Suddenly the information was pushed to your pocket and your internet persona had to be maintained at all times, what ended up happening is that the internet persona merged with the private persona and the result ended up being the worst of the two. You went from being an active information seeker to a passive media consumer in which contributing meant sharing more of your private life.
People stopped experiencing the moment. Go to a landmark or concert today and watch the behaviour that people exhibit. Instead of watching and admiring the architecture, form, or color people instead spend time trying to take the perfect selfie. They live for the people on the other end of the device, not in the space they currently occupy. Observing this countless times really made me reconsider how i use technology and asking myself why i use technology. If i care more about the people on the other end of the device, why am i not there instead? What’s the point of seeking out a concert, only to spend half of the concert trying to snap a photo or record a movie in order to gain kudos on Snapchat or Facebook? Wouldn’t time be better served just watching the music video on YouTube? In fact i think the mobile device is hostile to in-depth focused experiences because it breaks flow. Similar to how flow affects learning and execution in writing, music and programming i think focus and flow exists when you experience situations too. Being truly in the moment is what changes loud background noise to music or a painted staircase to a piece of art.
“Free” turned out to mean “data source for our advertisers”. Mark Zuckerberg even had to sit in front of the United States Senate & Congress to explain the immense privacy leaks in relation to the Cambridge Analytica leaks. It’s so happen that you don’t control your data on these networks any longer, the mobile apps takes every chance the get at collecting and storing your data, be it location, recent searches, interactions or pictures you posted. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the state of machine learning accelerated exponentially the last 5 years, making in-detail analytics on your photos not a science fiction idea. When people uploaded photos back in 2008, they did it with the assumption that “no-one will ever be interested in looking at my photos” because they lacked the idea that 5 years later, a large GPU cluster would be able to look at every single picture and extract data from them. What happens when the technological capabilities goes further than just being able to extract what brands and products are present in pictures and start extracting context out of the pictures. Will law enforcement in privacy-hostile nations start using this data to lead investigations? This may sound far fetched now but again remember what the sentiment was around pictures uploaded to Facebook in 2008.
So what does this have to do with disconnecting?
To understand why i am actively pursuing disconnection, understanding my stance on why i do it now and didn’t yesterday is important. By choice i did become hyper-connected, because i bought into what the “old” internet promised to bring. I was enticed by the possibility of augmenting my understanding of world events, technology and popular culture but instead i got pictures of my old classmates vacations. What once was controlled usage spiraled out of hand with constant notifications and updates. The value is no longer there, it’s easy to convince yourself it is but if you take an objective look at it, the tools take more than they offer from you.
However, even if it might not seem like it, i still think many parts of the internet are great and the tools developed has certain value in them. For example, i think direct messaging apps such as Signal, Telegram etc has immense value as it facilitates 1 to 1 contact between people regardless of position on the world. Sadly i’m not yet able to ditch my smartphone completely as a large part of my job is being able to tackle certain situations while mobile, which the smartphone as a tool is really good at doing, so i had to settle for something in between. Refocusing the smartphone to be a tool rather than a continuous content consumption device is i think the modern way to treat the smartphone. So how do you effectively do this?
Leaving your phone at home
First time i left my phone at home when going for a walk made me anxious, but this has turned into a liberating feeling (which in itself is a sign that it had to be done). It’s easier to just be with people because you rediscover the feeling of being bored. Having masked the feeling of boredom for the past 9 years with my smartphone, the dread of boredom was hard to take at first but turns out has a lot to do with meaningful experiences. As a result i try to leave my phone either at my desk or at home as often as possible, if i know that i don’t really need the phone there’s no point in bringing it at all. If you are meeting up with friends, remember that most of them has a smartphone anyway so getting a Lyft or checking Google Maps is something they can do for now.
Turning off all notifications
This includes everything. Not just ignoring social media. If you don’t need to act on it 100% real time then there’s no point of having the notification at all. Turns out you don’t have to act on most things in 100% real time either so this ends up removing pretty much every single notification. Doing this is important because it changes the relationship between you and your phone. You’re now able to check it when you have time, rather than when someone posted something. Not being bothered by the endless flow of new posts means that you effectively can allocate time to what you want to check and it becomes easier to figure out what you think is important to keep up with.
Refocusing your tools (the apps)
Take the apps you need to use, for me they are the email client, the direct messaging clients and some other apps and give them the smallest amount of permissions possible. Does your messenger app really need to know your location? Does your bank app really need access to your camera roll? To easier figure this out, just disable everything for every app and re-enable it as you need it. After a short while it will be clear that many apps doesn’t need most of the permissions you give them to properly provide you the value you want.
In the end i think just being aware of it and thinking of the impact of these devices gets you a long way. Would you want your friend to pull up a phone during a dinner to check on Instagram pictures? No? Then do not do the same thing yourself. For me personally the productivity gains alone has justified bothering with this. Sure, people have asked me why i’m not on Facebook anymore or why i don’t want to add them on X but most people also seem to understand when i explained it to them, even expressed similar concerns themselves. I think we all somewhat know that spending time on social media is a drag, but the continous rewardment from the likes is hard to shake. If you do decide to disconnect, instead connect with me and let me know how it goes (ironic right?). You can find my contact details up top.