Online. Always.

Long gone are the days of actually ‘going online’ – or, perhaps more pertinently, going offline. We are just “on” all of the time. Eve Livingston puts the #DeleteFacebook crisis in the perspective of the ubiquitous internet.

At the start of 2018, I made a resolution that would have sounded absurd fifteen years ago. I vowed to leave my phone in another room while I slept.

Plagued by broken sleep and half-dreams of unanswered text messages, overflowing email inboxes and missed calls, I turned to advice which instructed me not to look at a phone screen for thirty minutes before going to sleep and for thirty minutes after waking up. I’ve slept better, woken calmer and felt empowered by the time reclaimed from mindless scrolling and squinting at a bright rectangle in a dark room.

Where did I get the advice? The internet. The irony isn’t lost on me.

Last week #DeleteFacebook began trending in response to the revelations that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had accessed and used its user data, allegedly with implications for political advertising during the 2016 American Presidential election. As users across the world began downloading the data Facebook holds on them ahead of deletion, the extent to which all aspects of our lives are intertwined with the internet became clearer than ever. Screens filled with lists of all phone calls ever made, all text messages ever sent or received, all locations ever visited, all relationships ever made facebook official and then subtly ended after fiddling with security notifications so that friends and family wouldn’t be notified of your heartbreak.

But even if we were all to delete Facebook en masse – easier said than done when you consider how many of us rely on it for purposes as diverse as keeping in touch with family, video calling, photo storage and organising events – we’d barely be scratching the surface in tackling how internet ubiquity impacts our lives and society. How many couples do you know who met online – or who broke up because of a text message or Facebook photo? How often do you check your work emails in the evening or at the weekend? How long has it been since a tweet by the President of the United States dictated the news cycle?

Long gone are the days of actually ‘going online’ – or, perhaps more pertinently, going offline. It’s true that work, relationships and leisure in most parts of the world are largely structured around technology and the internet, often in very negative ways: the boom in low-paid and insecure app-based work in the gig economy, for instance, or the development of targeted advertising to turbocharge our already excessive consumerism. But it’s also true that these are appropriations of the internet for aims which were already being pursued before its conception – and that they have been allowed to take hold not because of any inherent features of the internet itself but because of its owners, controllers and gatekeepers.

Long gone are the days of actually ‘going online’ – or, perhaps more pertinently, going offline. It’s true that work, relationships and leisure in most parts of the world are largely structured around technology and the internet, often in very negative ways: the boom in low-paid and insecure app-based work in the gig economy, for instance, or the development of targeted advertising to turbocharge our already excessive consumerism. But it’s also true that these are appropriations of the internet for aims which were already being pursued before its conception – and that they have been allowed to take hold not because of any inherent features of the internet itself but because of its owners, controllers and gatekeepers.

This is a reality that is only beginning to be acknowledged by governments and citizens alike, and addressed in legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which will come into force for EU members in May this year. To the relief of those panicking in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, this will give citizens the right to give and withdraw their consent for companies to hold information about them, introducing a ‘right to be forgotten’ and forcing companies to declare all data and their reasons for holding it, deleting anything they cannot justify. Crucially, all data breaches will be reported to both the Information Commissioner and to those affected – rendering illegal the currently perfectly plausible situation in which your personal information becomes compromised without you ever knowing about it.

This is a welcome measure, but the ownership and management of our data is just one element of a long overdue societal conversation which needs to be bold and wide-ranging enough to address questions about what the internet is really for and who should stand to gain from it. There are, for example, debates about whether internet access should be situated as a universal service akin to energy or water provision, and about whether citizens should be able to share in the profits that are undoubtedly being generated from our data. Relegated largely to the domain of tech specialists, these are issues that are yet to be meaningfully addressed in government responses but which will only become increasingly pertinent across all areas of their work, from democracy and security to economy and the provision of public services.

A lack of understanding and a fear of the unknown can result in a tendency to view our constant connectivity with suspicion and melancholy: a cold and faceless existence far inferior to a more innocent time full of human connection and privacy. But for many, the internet age has also been a lifeline, connecting them to people, goods, services and communities that would otherwise have been inaccessible. If parts of the internet reflect the worst of humanity, that’s because parts of humanity were rotting long before the advent of the internet.

A lack of understanding and a fear of the unknown can result in a tendency to view our constant connectivity with suspicion and melancholy: a cold and faceless existence far inferior to a more innocent time full of human connection and privacy. But for many, the internet age has also been a lifeline, connecting them to people, goods, services and communities that would otherwise have been inaccessible. If parts of the internet reflect the worst of humanity, that’s because parts of humanity were rotting long before the advent of the internet.

Ultimately, the reality is that debates about whether the omnipresence of the internet is a good or bad thing are pointless at best and deflecting at worst; for most of us, the internet is already a constant and crucial part of life, interwoven with our relationships, careers, and leisure time. In place of existential crises and moral panics, we should be pushing for technologies that work in the public good, enhancing society and increasing opportunity rather than accelerating inequality and capitalising on the worst of humanity. The internet may be ubiquitous but questions about its control, ownership and benefits are still very much up for grabs.

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  1. James Mills says:

    Sadly for so many today their ‘phone’ is not a tool but a comfort blanket . As a dinosaur from a previous age I fail to see the attraction of being constantly ‘online’ ; I have a smartphone but I only use it for the occasional telephone call , and most of the time it is switched off ! Yes , I know that will sound absurd if not possibly insane to many but I refuse to become addicted to a machine that was originally meant as a means of communication .
    In the street it is commonplace to see many people walking about phone in hand, glancing at it every few seconds . Would not perusing their phone for more than a few minutes be the equivalent of a drug user going ‘cold turkey ‘ ?
    No one is so important that they need to be in such constant contact with the rest of the world , yet this appears to be the position many smartphone users adopt . Some , I think , would part with their children before they could contemplate being separated from their little electronic fix .

    1. Willie says:

      James, if we could be putting chips inside our head there would be many who would be doing it.

      Cyberborg is the future. It’s irresistible, and freed of having to hold and touch a smartphone or computer, doesn’t just thinking about things and getting enhanced physical and mental abilities not sound rather good.

      Prosthetics coordinated by thought is becoming a reality, and scientists have been working on neural connections for years.

      Or did Pistorius say no to his legs, or Prof Hawkins to his synthesiser.

      What was a wild dream fifty years ago, nae thirty years ago is becoming a reality. The fusion of man and machine must come.

      But maybe not for a while, or at least until we’ve made a good going disaster of the planet and those who live in it.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Yes, and “a lack of understanding and a fear of the unknown” can be addressed by increasing worldwide digital literacy. Mere technical skills are not enough to make judgements about the impact of technology on society.

    Tim Berners-Lee of the Worldwide Web Consortium in an open letter says similar things about gatekeepers:
    “The web can be weaponised – and we can’t count on big tech to stop it”
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/12/tim-berners-lee-web-weapon-regulation-open-letter

    Beyond that, some of the larger questions implied by this article’s closing statements are asked in the book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, where he ends on three questions (p462), the third of which is:
    “What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?”

    My current view is that networked humans have the potential to collectively process the vast amounts of information on the web to achieve great things, which is misfiring due to some of the factors raised in this article, being partially diverted into trivialities, ephemera and avoidant distractions. And I think that is partly because our culture has not previously been geared towards mass creative participation (in spite of movements like the arts and crafts, see William Morris). Elites provide steers towards hierarchy, like the popular knock-out competitions eliminating all except a lauded winner.

    And because the Internet itself provides unparalleled learning opportunities, as the article says, fundamental changes are possible given popular will, know-how and organisation: a global collective intelligence that harnesses rather than rejects new technologies.

    1. Pogliaghi says:

      The next frontier in online privacy, after control of one’s own personal data (cf. GDPR) will be transparency of the algorithms that shape content and content delivery.

      Besides the legal and political struggle implied, there is an interesting technical communication challenge in making the web a medium where any user can see, and have a rough feel for the workings of, all the “ropes and pulleys” that determine his/her online experience. Will this make people resistant to manipulation? Perhaps not immediately and directly. But it will move us beyond an insane current norm where the filter bubble has become each user’s reified subjective-reality-as-Truth.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Pogliaghi, yes I think that where algorithms can be fully published that will greatly help citizen oversight. Some people will then provide tools and test data so that these algorithms can be tested (for example, for systematic bias).

        These algorithms will be like recipes: a list of ingredients and resources, and a step-by-step repeatable process. In current UK central governance, some of these rules may be turn out to be irrational or absurd when exposed (such as when Royal Prerogative is used); and some ingredients and resources will be currently secret, and need to be revealed. Conflicts of interest or other oversight/separation-of-powers failures should be clear from resulting diagrams (such as when a body oversees itself).

        Some decisions or creations will, however, be made by black box methods, like some kinds of machine learning, where the process is opaque. As far as I can see, the creation of propaganda by internalised, possibly unconscious rules will largely fall into this category.

        There are also some cases where not knowing the rules is part of the experience, such as in some types of online gaming, where some rules are intentionally hidden in order to promote strategising. The extent to which players’ behaviour is monitored (and manipulated) in online gaming is unclear, but would potentially provide far greater psychological access than any of the social media platforms here discussed.

        I think we are in agreement that for the general good, people need to learn (and keep learning) how better to use these online digital technology platforms. It’s the literacy question for our information age that we need to answer to progress to an age of wisdom.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-box_testing
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black-box_testing
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_model

  3. w.b.robertson says:

    never have possessed any type of smartphone. never missed out on anything of any importance. anyone who needs to contact me can look up the telephone directory. (but I`m an old fogey),

  4. Pogliaghi says:

    The media paradigm has been turned inside out because we’ve moved from a broadcast to a peer-to-peer media culture. If this brave new world is uncomfortable, the pre-2000s world of 5 telly channels, 6 o’clock news bulletins and license fee vans is still there welcoming your passive attention….. The alternative is to keep taking responsibility for how and why we use the tools we’ve got.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    The article also covers sleep deprivation caused in part by screen use.

    In Sleepy Head: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night, author Henry Nicholls devotes a chapter to sleep deprivation, from experimentation to teenage undersleeping. He mentions a Norwegian study which suggests that teenagers were typically getting 2 and a half hours less sleep than they needed.
    “Many of the youngsters were so shattered during the daytime that a doctor would have diagnosed insomnia.” p229

    He points out that sleep deprivation can literally be torture, and we know that it was one of the “five techniques” used by the British state forces in Northern Ireland. The sixth being beatings to enforce the other five.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_techniques

    Whether planned or not, a sleep-deprived population may be more susceptible to various forms of control/behavioural modification.

  6. Eleanor Ferguson says:

    The saddest thing is seeing parents completely absorbed in looking at a screen or talking on the phone, ignoring their babies and children and more often than not, plugging their mouths with dummies so that they can’t talk. I’m not talking about tiny babies, but toddlers who should be interacting with their parents,asking hundreds of questions and being curious about the world. They are soon quietened by being mesmerised by a screen too. The parents lose out too as they miss that lovely time when they get to see the world through a child’s eyes. Ok, I suppose I’m a grumpy old woman, but I do think it’s a shame!

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