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The Disconnectionists

“Unplugging” from the Internet isn’t about restoring the self so much as it about stifling the desire for autonomy that technology can inspire 

Once upon a pre-digital era, there existed a golden age of personal authenticity, a time before social-media profiles when we were more true to ourselves, when the sense of who we are was held firmly together by geographic space, physical reality, the visceral actuality of flesh. Without Klout-like metrics quantifying our worth, identity did not have to be oriented toward seeming successful or scheming for attention.TNI Vol. 22: Self-Help is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get yours today.

According to this popular fairytale, the Internet arrived and real conversation, interaction, identity slowly came to be displaced by the allure of the virtual — the simulated second life that uproots and disembodies the authentic self in favor of digital status-posturing, empty interaction, and addictive connection. This is supposedly the world we live in now, as a recent spate of popular books, essays, wellness guides, and viral content suggest. Yet they have hope: By casting off the virtual and re-embracing the tangible through disconnecting and undertaking a purifying “digital detox,” one can reconnect with the real, the meaningful — one’s true self that rejects social media’s seductive velvet cage.

That retelling may be a bit hyperbolic, but the cultural preoccupation is inescapable. How and when one looks at a glowing screen has generated its own pervasive popular discourse, with buzzwords like digital detox, disconnection, and unplugging to address profound concerns over who is still human, who is having true experiences, what is even “real” at all. A few examples: In 2013, Paul Miller of tech-news website The Verge and Baratunde Thurston, a Fast Company columnist, undertook highly publicized breaks from the Web that they described in intimate detail (and ultimately posted on the Web). Videos like “I Forgot My Phone” that depict smartphone users as mindless zombies missing out on reality have gone viral, and countless editorial writers feel compelled to moralize broadly about the minutia of when one checks their phone. But what they are saying may matter less than the fact that they feel required to say it. As Diane Lewis states in an essay for Flow, an online journal about new media,

The question of who adjudicates the distinction between fantasy and reality, and how, is perhaps at the crux of moral panics over immoderate media consumption.

It is worth asking why these self-appointed judges have emerged, why this moral preoccupation with immoderate digital connection is so popular, and how this mode of connection came to demand such assessment and confession, at such great length and detail. This concern-and-confess genre frames digital connection as something personally debasing, socially unnatural despite the rapidity with which it has been adopted. It’s depicted as a dangerous desire, an unhealthy pleasure, an addictive toxin to be regulated and medicated. That we’d be concerned with how to best use (or not use) a phone or a social service or any new technological development is of course to be expected, but the way the concern with digital connection has manifested itself in such profoundly heavy-handed ways suggests in the aggregate something more significant is happening, to make so many of us feel as though our integrity as humans has suddenly been placed at risk.

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The conflict between the self as social performance and the self as authentic expression of one’s inner truth has roots much deeper than social media. It has been a concern of much theorizing about modernity and, if you agree with these theories, a mostly unspoken preoccupation throughout modern culture.

Whether it’s Max Weber on rationalization, Walter Benjamin on aura, Jacques Ellul on technique, Jean Baudrillard on simulations, or Zygmunt Bauman and the Frankfurt School on modernity and the Enlightenment, there has been a long tradition of social theory linking the consequences of altering the “natural” world in the name of convenience, efficiency, comfort, and safety to draining reality of its truth or essence. We are increasingly asked to make various “bargains with modernity” (to use Anthony Giddens’s phrase) when encountering and depending on technologies we can’t fully comprehend. The globalization of countless cultural dispositions had replaced the pre-modern experience of cultural order with an anomic, driftless lack of understanding, as described by such classical sociologists as Émile Durkheim and Georg Simmel and in more contemporary accounts by David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together).

I drop all these names merely to suggest the depth of modern concern over technology replacing the real with something unnatural, the death of absolute truth, of God. This is especially the case in identity theory, much of which is founded on the tension between seeing the self as having some essential soul-like essence versus its being a product of social construction and scripted performance. From Martin Heidegger’s “they-self,” Charles Horton Cooley’s “looking glass self,” George Herbert Mead’s discussion of the “I” and the “me,”  Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical framework of self-presentation on the “front stage,” Michel Foucault’s “arts of existence,” to Judith Butler’s discussion of identity “performativity,” theories of the self and identity have long recognized the tension between the real and the pose. While so often attributed to social media, such status-posturing performance — “success theater” — is fundamental to the existence of identity.

These theories also share an understanding that people in Western society are generally uncomfortable admitting that who they are might be partly, or perhaps deeply, structured and performed. To be a “poser” is an insult; instead common wisdom is “be true to yourself,” which assumes there is a truth of your self. Digital-austerity discourse has tapped into this deep, subconscious modern tension, and brings to it the false hope that unplugging can bring catharsis.

The disconnectionists see the Internet as having normalized, perhaps even enforced, an unprecedented repression of the authentic self in favor of calculated avatar performance. If we could only pull ourselves away from screens and stop trading the real for the simulated, we would reconnect with our deeper truth. In describing his year away from the Internet, Paul Miller writes,

‘Real life,’ perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser … It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.

Baratunde Thurston writes,

 my first week sans social media was deeply, happily, and personally social […] I bought a new pair of glasses and shared my new face with the real people I spent time with.

Such rhetoric is common. Op-eds, magazine articles, news programs, and everyday discussion frames logging off as reclaiming real social interaction with your real self and other real people. The R in IRL. When the digital is misunderstood as exclusively “virtual,” then pushing back against the ubiquity of connection feels like a courageous re-embarking into the wilderness of reality. When identity performance can be regarded as a by-product of social media, then we have a new solution to the old problem of authenticity: just quit. Unplug — your humanity is at stake! Click-bait and self-congratulation in one logical flaw.

The degree to which inauthenticity seems a new, technological problem is the degree to which I can sell you an easy solution. Reducing the complexity of authenticity to something as simple as one’s degree of digital connection affords a solution the self-help industry can sell. Researcher Laura Portwood-Stacer describes this as that old “neoliberal responsibilization we’ve seen in so many other areas of ‘ethical consumption,’ ” turning social problems into personal ones with market solutions and fancy packaging.

Social media surely change identity performance. For one, it makes the process more explicit. The fate of having to live “onstage,” aware of being an object in others’ eyes rather than a special snowflake of spontaneous, uncalculated bursts of essential essence is more obvious than ever — even perhaps for those already highly conscious of such objectification. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that identity theater is older than Zuckerberg and doesn’t end when you log off. The most obvious problem with grasping at authenticity is that you’ll never catch it, which makes the social media confessional both inevitable as well as its own kind of predictable performance.

To his credit, Miller came to recognize by the end of his year away from the Internet that digital abstinence made him no more real than he always had been. Despite his great ascetic effort, he could not reach escape velocity from the Internet. Instead he found an “inextricable link” between life online and off, between flesh and data, imploding these digital dualisms into a new starting point that recognizes one is never entirely connected or disconnected but deeply both. Calling the digital performed and virtual to shore up the perceived reality of what is “offline” is one more strategy to renew the reification of old social categories like the self, gender, sexuality, race and other fictions made concrete. The more we argue that digital connection threatens the self, the more durable the concept of the self becomes.

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The obsession with authenticity has at its root a desire to delineate the “normal” and enforce a form of “healthy” founded in supposed truth. As such, it should be no surprise that digital-austerity discourse grows a thin layer of medical pathologization. That is, digital connection has become an illness. Not only has the American Psychiatric Association looked into making “Internet-use disorder” a DSM-official condition, but more influentially, the disconnectionists have framed unplugging as a health issue, touting the so-called digital detox. For example, so far in 2013, The Huffington Post has run 25 articles tagged with “digital detox,” including “The Amazing Discovery I Made When My Phone Died,” “How a Weekly Digital Detox Changed My Life,” “Why We’re So Hooked on Technology (And How to Unplug).” A Los Angeles Times article explored whether the presence of digital devices “contaminates the purity” of Burning Man. Digital detox has even been added to the Oxford Dictionary Online. Most famous, due to significant press coverage, is Camp Grounded, which bills itself as a “digital detox tech-free personal wellness retreat.” Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal has called it “a pure distillation of post-modern technoanxiety.” On its grounds the camp bans not just electronic devices but also real names, real ages, and any talk about one’s work. Instead, the camp has laughing contests.

The wellness framework inherently pathologizes digital connection as contamination, something one must confess, carefully manage, or purify away entirely. Remembering Michel Foucault’s point that diagnosing what is ill is always equally about enforcing what is healthy, we might ask what new flavor of normal is being constructed by designating certain kinds of digital connection as a sickness. Similar to madness, delinquency, sexuality, or any of the other areas whose pathologizing toward normalization Foucault traced, digitality — what is “online,” and how should one appropriately engage that distinction — has become a productive concept around which to organize the control and management of new desires and pleasures. The desire to be heard, seen, informed via digital connection in all its pleasurable and distressing, dangerous and exciting ways comes to be framed as unhealthy, requiring internal and external policing. Both the real/virtual and toxic/healthy dichotomies of digital austerity discourse point toward a new type of organization and regulation of pleasure, a new imposition of personal techno-responsibility, especially on those who lack autonomy over how and when to use technology. It’s no accident that the focus in the viral “I Forgot My Phone” video wasn’t on the many people distracted by seductive digital information but the woman who forgets her phone, who is “free” to experience life — the healthy one is the object of control, not the zombies bitten by digitality.

The smartphone is a machine, but it is still deeply part of a network of blood; an embodied, intimate, fleshy portal that penetrates into one’s mind, into endless information, into other people. These stimulation machines produce a dense nexus of desires that is inherently threatening. Desire and pleasure always contain some possibility (a possibility — it’s by no means automatic or even likely) of disrupting the status quo. So there is always much at stake in their control, in attempts to funnel this desire away from progressive ends and toward reinforcing the values that support what already exists. Silicon Valley has made the term “disruption” a joke, but there is little disagreement that the eruption of digitality does create new possibilities, for better or worse. Touting the virtue of austerity puts digital desire to work strictly in maintaining traditional understandings of what is natural, human, real, healthy, normal. The disconnectionists establish a new set of taboos as a way to garner distinction at the expense of others, setting their authentic resistance against others’ unhealthy and inauthentic being.

This explains the abundance of confessions about social media compulsion that intimately detail when and how one connects. Desire can only be regulated if it is spoken about. To neutralize a desire, it must be made into a moral problem we are constantly aware of: Is it okay to look at a screen here? For how long? How bright can it be? How often can I look? Our orientation to digital connection needs to become a minor personal obsession. The true narcissism of social media isn’t self-love but instead our collective preoccupation with regulating these rituals of connectivity. Digital austerity is a police officer downloaded into our heads, making us always self-aware of our personal relationship to digital desire.TNI Vol. 22: Self-Help is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get yours today.

Of course, digital devices shouldn’t be excused from the moral order — nothing should or could be. But too often discussions about technology use are conducted in bad faith, particularly when the detoxers and disconnectionists and digital-etiquette-police seem more interested in discussing the trivial differences of when and how one looks at the screen rather than the larger moral quandaries of what one is doing with the screen. But the disconnectionists’ selfie-help has little to do with technology and more to do with enforcing a traditional vision of the natural, healthy, and normal. Disconnect. Take breaks. Unplug all you want. You’ll have different experiences and enjoy them, but you won’t be any more healthy or real.

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