Photo by Francesca Torricelli
Can't stop checking your phone? You're not alone. Smartphone and internet dependence is being taken increasingly seriously – "internet addiction disorder" is even under review for inclusion in the DSM. With Belorusian writer, thinker and digital-age critic Evgeny Morozov in Berlin on a grant from the American Academy, we couldn't help but ask him to weigh in on the phenomenon.
In our digital times, people tend to spend an amazing chunk of their waking time 'connected' or plugged in – be it on tablets, computers or smartphones. Would you call the internet an addictive substance?
I have little problem with the "addicts" part; it's the "internet" in "internet addicts" that I find troubling. A major part of my own critique of contemporary digital discourse is the way in which it barely registers any alternatives to the way in which Facebook, Google, Twitter and others have colonised our lives, presenting themselves as the only game in town when it comes to connectivity. They are also tied to a particular business model – advertising – and it's this model which results in these sites being as addictive as they are. If they don't get you hooked and you visit them rarely, you are a money-losing unit for them. So when I speak critically of "internet addiction," I am simply cautioning people not to medicalise a socio-economic problem. The right answer here clearly is not to develop more drugs to fix our addiction, but to question how we should run our communication services – perhaps, disconnecting them from the current advertising model altogether.
That same industry that gets people 'addicted' also manufactures tools that help users with 'withdrawal' – apps and software like Freedom, Chrome Nanny and StayFocused that help assess our addiction and stay away from it. The ultimate irony?
Well, this is not ultimate irony; this is how capitalism works. It's clear to me that the best way to deal with information overload is to provide tools that will – at a price – help us deal with it. It's not a plot; this is just how things work in the absence of politics and actual struggles. This is part and parcel of neo-liberalism: things we used to get for free – attention, boredom, privacy, silence – we know how to pay for, with apps or expensive commodities like noise-suppressing headphones.
Could it be that a hyper-connected being isn't so much an 'addict' as a very functional person showing healthy adaptation skills to our digital age? Can we disconnect without marginalising ourselves?
It's not incorrect to speak of the imperative to stay connected – and it's that imperative that then leads to addictive behavior. But I do not think we can attribute that imperative solely to some cultural shifts or imperceptions of the human condition or whatnot; to be connected today means to be a productive subject that can be exploited by multinational data-obsessed companies. So far, this is only a commercial layer but I would guess that very soon, we'll see a state-imposed imperative to connect: if you are not connected, on one way or another, how do we know you are entitled to the same health and insurance benefits from the state? Under these conditions, disconnection would be truly subversive and it would be punished: companies will make your life more inconvenient (try booking an apartment on Airbnb if you don't have a Facebook or Twitter account!) and the state will impose higher insurance payments on you.
What about temporary disconnection? Could Kracauer 's concept of “radical boredom” be the answer – a way to withdraw and regenerate?
I've always been of two minds about boredom as a strategy to deal with this issue. Kracauer, as well as many other thinkers, embraced boredom as a way to deal with the overload that modernity was ushering in a century ago. The problems were somewhat different: traffic noises, ubiquitous radios, etc. On an individual, consumer level, boredom – or at least an urge to cultivate it – can be an appropriate response to such conditions, even today, with social media around us. The mistake, I think, is to treat this as the sole response, imagining that digital detox is all we can do to oppose these changes and steer them towards a better end. The anti-noise campaigners of a century ago didn't just content themselves with boredom and buying better earplugs; they turned noise into a political issue. We have to do the same with attention.