I was born in the house my father built, but it was ruled by my mother, Ann. It was 1998, and the analog world was crumbling in the face of the digital revolution. Most saw this impending shift as an accomplishment to be heralded. A few saw it as an inevitability to be managed. But Ann saw the digital age for what it would be—a siege upon the human psyche.
Guided by raw instinct, Ann defended her children, launching into the breach with a crusader’s zeal. There was to be no TV on weekdays. Video game consoles were verboten. Computer time was strictly limited to two hours per week of Freddi Fish or similar CD-ROM games. Relative to my surroundings, to my friends who had Game Boys in their pockets and televisions in their rooms, my upbringing was austere in a way that felt personal. “Why me, why do I have to be different?”
Because resisting habitual digital interaction, the algorithmic reordering of hearts and minds, is a modern necessity. I didn’t always believe that. I used to argue constantly with my mom that the internet was an amazing tool that would unleash man’s potential. “It will encourage genuine human connection at scale!” I pronounced. “It will provide us with unlimited information and opportunity!” I proclaimed. “You’re just a short sighted reactionary, unable to embrace the latest, greatest summit of human achievement!” I chided. For shame, I wasn’t even paid for such impassioned shilling. Now, when my mother critiques the impact of digital technology, my response is simple: “Yes.”
It was a long road before I became a digital reactionary, and that road started in 9th grade when I got an iPhone. From there, my ability to concentrate, to think deeply and to feel at home in my own skin deteriorated. And social media, far from connecting me with others, left me listless, depressed and alone on an island of myself.
I was obsessed with politics in high school, so I wasted my time strip mining news articles for relevant data, extracting every shred of insight I could find. As a crankish, unreformed man of the right, I had convinced myself that I needed all the facts I could muster in order to Own The Libs. But my fantasies of achieving a grand ideological victory against a bunch of liberal sixteen year olds never materialized. How could they? They weren’t real. They were the product of digitally induced psychosis. Daily, I was chugging a toxic brew of Reddit forums, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and news articles. No wonder I was enthralled by meaningless abstractions and pointless conflicts that had nothing to do with my lived reality.
Of course, even then, I roughly knew all of this. For all my constant, pathetic wallowing within the digital mud hole, I understood on some level that I was actively degrading myself, that my addiction to being Really Online had rendered me something less than a free man. I was a digital serf, a laborer toiling on the data aggregation farm of the oligarchs in San Francisco. My reward was but a pittance, a small hit of dopamine in exchange for every single marketable fact about my existence. But as a loyal drudge, I opened my master's user interface each morn and would, like Oliver Twist, just ask for a little more, please.
“So if you knew all this, why did you stay on social media?” I stayed because I was ensnared by the siren song of the network effect. Every time I considered deleting my social media accounts and curbing my usage, I hesitated. Like a teenager being offered a cigarette in an 80s movie, I couldn’t deny that everyone else was doing it.
But we’re all wrong. We are doing more damage to ourselves, to our minds and to our collective emotional wellbeing than we know. Three years ago, after dinner with a like-minded friend, I went home and deleted every social media account I had. Immediately, I felt uneasy and nervous to the core. As if I had actually just done something drastic.
Mild nausea, a pit in your stomach—that’s the feeling of doing anything that is genuinely countercultural. Which is not to say that I’m such a brave maverick. Even after deleting social media, I still struggle deeply with digital addiction. But it is to say that the current “normal” way that most people use digital media should be widely acknowledged as a harmful addiction that actively makes them less intelligent and more prone to mental illness and all manners of derangement.
My mother likes to say that “the future will belong to those who can unplug.” She’s right. Digital media literally plays a formative role in our cognitive processes, encouraging distinct patterns of brain development that render humans inattentive, reactive, shallow and miserable. Those who can put up even a modicum of resistance to the algorithmic restructuring of their minds will literally see the world differently. For the careerists reading this, and that would be all of us, that could also constitute a competitive advantage.
At a societal scale, this will play out as “digital retrieves the medieval.” As we further normalize digital platforms as the medium for a whole variety of standard social interactions, from going to the doctor’s office to attending school to talking to friends, we will become a society where, as Mark Fisher puts it in “Capitalist Realism,” people “process capital's image-dense data very effectively without any need to read” and “slogan-recognition is sufficient to navigate the net-mobile magazine informational plane.” Digitization will construct a quasi-medieval society where a small caste of highly literate people will exist in contrast to the marginally literate majority.
So the question is—will you be among their number? Or will you succumb to the matrix, be subsumed by the sloganeering and languish at the mercy of impersonal, technological processes that simultaneously shape your very existence and are utterly indifferent to your wellbeing? The choice is clear. May you react accordingly.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Reiss Becker is a Trinity senior. His column “roused rabble” usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.