Preparing For A Post-Digital Age
A few months back, at the end a particularly hard week, I took a few moments to savour a small creation, a particularly fine looking slice of toast, then, as we are so often want to do, I posted a photo of it online. Before long a chain of comments grew, complaining the photo was an example of excessive wealth, because in some people’s eyes, my counter tops qualified me as a member of economic elite.
A friend, someone whose professional life had required them to be on social media, bemoaned how being open online was “almost untenable.” I suggested that while I do try to live well, I also try to not be showy about it (well not too much). His advice was to be more showy, to rub the trolls noses in it, so to speak.
This left me wondering, is contempt the only way to face what the internet has become and if so, why do it at all? Not only does it take up time. Not only does it feel taxing. Do I also have to change my personality as well, just to cope?
Time To Reconsider What This is Doing To Us
When social media exploded, there was a popular argument humans would just evolve to cope with the extra cognitive strains of always online connectivity. We just had to wait till the digital natives grew up to see it. Problem was we’ve had that argument since before email came along. Mine was supposed to be the generation that grew up with computers, then it was the next generation, now purveyors of this tired argument are pointing to the latest crop of babies as the ones who be the true digital natives.
It’s time to call bullshit on this argument.
Considering The Effects Of Our Digital Dependency
More than 20 years after email became commonplace and more than a decade after the birth of social media we’ve had to time to think about the effects of digital technologies on our well being. While the convenience of having a world of information at our fingertips feels liberating there’s also plenty of reasons to be concerned. From the corrosion of our concentration (Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It., the effects on our mental health (How Twitter Fuels Anxiety, and our ability to empathise and be intimate (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/will-we-cease-to-digitize-our-relationships/).
We’ve also seen how Facebook was willing to experiment on 700,000 of its users without their consent, in a test to see if changes in their newsfeed alter their outlook, positive or negative, or their activity on the platform.
2016 seemed to be the year a lot of people got fed up. Fed up with Facebook, with Twitter, the relentless surge of biased and low quality “news,” with not just the volume of stuff coming their way everyday, but also the harsh tone of it all. 2016 was the year of “Peak Digital.”
Why 2016 was Peak Digital
Peak Digital was the moment when thoughtful, educated folks realised that for all their time spent online they didn’t understand the world nearly as well as they imagined. They might not have liked Trump’s election or Brexit. But worse still, those outcomes took them by surprise, as if being immersed in the daily churn of shares and retweets had made trends harder, rather than easier to see.
This is the malaise of our times. We’re inundated by news and information, yet we feel ill-informed to make decisions. We second guess our judgment and our memory by researching everything. If the wisdom was once, faced with six hours to chop down a tree spending the first four sharpening the axe, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, our approach would be to spend the first four watching tree chopping videos on YouTube.
We’re starting to realise how dependent we’ve become and it’s an uncomfortable feeling for many of us. There’s a change happening now. The late 90s and early 00s saw the digital tide rising and we started getting used to digital communication taking over more and more of our lives. The age of social media saw us go into retreat as the levies broke and our lives were flooded. Now, more and more of us are surveying the damage and we want our land back. The cleanup has begun.
A Vision Of Wealth In The Future
An exercise popularised by Debbie Millman (of the Design Matters Podcast and the Masters In Branding course at SVA) is to sit down and write, in as much detail as possible, an ideal day in your life 5 to 10 years from now. Where are you working, how are you moving through your day, who are you sharing it with. It’s not about willing yourself to be rich, or anything like that, it’s about clarifying the things that really matter to you
I wrote about a day 6 to 7 years from now, a number I picked because it might come to represent the point where my daughter, having finished High School has gone on to graduate university. Whatever happens my life have to be different by then. The story I spun turned out to be very long, but perhaps the most startling thing was the opening words: “It’s been 2 years since I stopped using email…”
Email and social media feels essential, but they’re very recent inventions, ones we’ve ceded vast tracts of our lives to in a short amount of time.
For a long time I’ve believed we would one day measure wealth, at least in part, by the ability to be offline whenever we choose. It started out that being online was an expensive privilege, a luxury. In some parts of the world it still is, but that’s shrinking, and for many being online, being constantly contactable, is mandatory. Even on weekends and holidays, one eye has to be on the email, on the smartphone, just in case. Even those with what we normally consider to be the trappings of wealth – high income, the best seats on the plane (or even their own plane) – are still unable to escape. What good is a mansion if you’re still a digital prisoner inside it?
If wealth is in any way connected to independence and freedom then it has to be connected to being free from digital constraints. No matter how much money you have, if you’re chained to your tools, you’re still a slave.
Should You Just Quit And Live In The Woods?
My goal isn’t to suggest you should give up, unless of course you feel you need to, in which case you should totally give up. My hope is you will decide for yourself, what your rules are, how this works for you, rather than feeling you must drown in the digital deluge just because everyone has already done so.
But also, from the belief that being driven by contempt, is toxic for anyone seeking to do creative and artistic work. We need to keep our emotions and our vulnerability close to the surface in order to create compelling work. Burying them in a protective layer of contempt (or cynicism) will only be our undoing.
In real life we learn to do this, to take control of the people in our lives, the people in our circles. Not just anybody can walk into your home, into your studio, into your life. Yet, online we let the world in, and we let digital technologies define the rules for us.
So, I’m cooling down on social media, sticking to talking about work, sharing my direct experiences, only replying when I feel it’s a conversation based on mutual respect, and not posting photos of food anymore! I’ll continue being online because the big utopian dream that inspired my first websites back in the 90s, an individual connecting directly with an audience audience across the world is still important, still worth pursuing.
Choose The Rules For Your Tools
The first thing to remember is these things are tools. They are not your life, they exist only to make your life better, it’s up to you to reject them when they don’t, or set rules to make sure they do.
The second is you are never under any obligation to optimise your life so it adapts to the needs of digital platforms. Living so you look good online, or living so you are constantly available online is not getting any easier, for anyone. Anyone who looks like they do it easily has a team behind them even if you don’t see it.
Finally, remember this stuff is all new, and it feels innovative, but it’s really part of a much longer trend, a very human desire to connect in free and open ways. Before social media, there were forums, usenets, bulletin boards. Before that there CB and ham radios, pen pals and chain letters. We tend to assume our present is eternal but only because we forget how quickly things can change. Maybe it’s far fetched to assume that in 5 years I’ll have stopped using email. But it also feels far fetched to assume that something better, something more attuned to the cycles of human life, wouldn’t have come around. Or worse, to assume that we won’t all have come to our senses, and realised that living to look good online was kind of a crazy idea.