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Una Mullally: We can use the new decade to claw back freedom from technology

It used to be a privilege to be on social media, but it is now a privilege to be off it

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, listens during a House committee hearing in Washington, DC, US. File photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At Kate Tempest’s concert in Vicar Street in November, she arrived on stage before the gig “began”, informing the audience that the performance was indeed about to start, and before it did, she would appreciate if people kept their phones in their pockets for it. She provided those eager to document the evening with a few moments to take a photograph of her before the music started, and finally, she asked audience members to be aware of the specific feeling that is our compulsion to reach for our phones. She asked us to notice and identify when that feeling happens, and what that feeling is, the lust to rush to the pocket where our slim rectangles of aluminium and glass are wedged, constantly, subliminally, explicitly, cravingly demanding our attention.

I have a lot of thoughts and ideas about how this decade just ending has been characterised by an enslavement to being online, but I’m often less adept at identifying what those feelings that underpin that development are. There is addiction, of course; compulsion, distraction, the pull of attention. It’s no coincidence that these are some of the fundamentals of the engineering and design of social media platforms.

But there’s also the deadening feeling; the emptiness; the regret of wasting time scrolling; the anxiety; the irritation. I recently heard a sociologist identify these feelings as a fundamental human inability to conceptualise and cope with infinity.

It you don’t identify with what I’m describing, perhaps you are one of the decade’s outliers who hasn’t fallen victim to the wasteland of social media. I’m jealous. Or perhaps you’re so far gone that you no longer identify your behaviour. Oh well.


Important anniversary

As a new decade dawns, 2020 presents us with one of the most important anniversaries regarding contemporary online "culture", the 20th anniversary of the website Hot or Not, a site where people rate the attractiveness of other people in photographs. Hot or Not provided the fundamental blueprint for contemporary social media, directly and indirectly. Mark Zuckerberg based Facebook's predecessor FaceMash on Hot or Not's obnoxiousness. In Jia Tolentino's collection of essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, she writes in The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams about the origins of Facebook, which have been well documented elsewhere.

We now transpose human actions on to hardware and software itself

"It wasn't an original concept," Tolentino writes, "the website Hot or Not was founded in 2000 by two recent college graduates who had gotten into a disagreement about the exact f**kability of a woman they saw on the street. (These young people were men, obviously, as are the founders of YouTube, who have also said they originally intended to build a riff on Hot or Not.)" Later she writes: "What began as a way for Zuckerberg to harness collegiate misogyny and self-interest has become the fuel for our whole contemporary nightmare, for a world that fundamentally and systematically misrepresents human needs."

It’s important to remember how stupid the origins of so much of what now drives our discourse, politics, culture, behaviour, and even concept of selfhood are. In Anna Wiener’s compelling and depressing memoir Uncanny Valley, about working in a tech company as the techlash took hold, she reminds us of the insanity that governs Silicon Valley, how immense control was – and remains – in the hands of delusional, blinkered and intellectually numbed young white men who basically threw tech hairdryers into the overflowing bathtubs of societies and watched the water frizzle while they shrugged, took mushrooms and bought Teslas.

Impact of technology

I have personally spent two decades simultaneously participating in and warning against the impact of technology on our identities, our sense of human connection, and the fundamentals of empathy, with the stance of early-adopter-early-quitter. Every new year offers a moment for reflection, and something has to give.

Technology now is not just (or at all) a facilitator of human connection, but a replacement for that connection to the point that we transpose human actions on to the hardware and software itself. “Stroke the phone screen with your thumb like a mother trying to wipe clean the face of her only child,” Tempest raps in Keep Moving Don’t Move.

It used to be a privilege to be on social media, but increasingly it’s a privilege to be off it. In the next decade, this avenue of privilege – on which the worries of sociocultural behaviour travel – will be broadly split into two lanes. There will be the lane that becomes aware of that feeling Tempest talks about, and there will be the lane that does not think about it and no longer even recognises it. There will be the lane that attempts to claw back autonomy and the ideas of choice or free will, and there will be the lane that lets the algorithm take over.

There will be the lane that considers what’s influencing one’s thoughts, and the other lane that doesn’t really know how we got into arguments about trans rights or whatever the latest bot-leveraged wedge issue is, but by golly we’re angry about it, for some reason. There will be the lane that will stop and listen, and there will be the lane that keeps shouting. There will be the lane that gets offline even just occasionally, and there will be the lane that’s only ever on.

So, a resolution for the new decade. Notice the feeling, identify it, and decide what to do about it, while you still can.