The world is full of people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay’, writes MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle in Alone Together, a study of how technology has warped human interaction.
We live in a world of continuous online attachment. Everyone is in your pocket, but you are also in a million pockets. You can reach any point in the world, but you can also be reached from any point. If the virtual world is giving us enough intimacy, that level of inter connectivity might be a good thing.
But Turkle thinks it’s not. She thinks that digital connections are offering ‘the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.’ We are connected, she implies, but the connections are like limp strings in cyberspace.
When Marshall Mcluhan coined the term ‘The Global Village’ in 1986, he warned that an expansive online community could threaten to turn us into “items in a data bank, ephemeral, easily forgotten, and resentful of that fact”. He thought that outsourcing functions of the human consciousness onto a computer was a bad idea; If we tried to situate human interaction, in all its complexity, onto an abstract server, we would become weightless, direction less, and even frustrated.
If Mcluhan and Turkle are taken seriously, you are left with two options: accept a possible downgrade on your conscious experience or leave the so-called ‘grid’.
In comes the Nokia Brick Phone. A cult classic, but classic in the obsolete sense. Cumbersome, outdated, and with an unsexy User Interface. It gathers dust in Media museums until it gets rolled out for the occasional Y2K Party or Mean Girls Remake.
But what if it can make us less lonely?
I spoke to a couple of St Andrews students who think that making the switch from ‘smartphone’ to ‘dumbphone’ might be a way to save sanity in the modern age.
Third year student Ellinor Cederstrøm Palliotto began weaning off the ‘Global Village’ by scaling back her iPhone use. “I had an old one that I would carry around just for music and my Tesco Clubcard, and then I bought this”, she says, proudly flinging a pink-backed Nokia onto the table. She explains one of the motivations to make the change was to escape what felt like an avalanche of constant online messages.
“One day I left my phone at home, and when I turned it on in the evening there were 22 messages expecting an answer of some kind from me”, she says. “I thought to myself, ‘this is actually not that helpful to my life’”.
To be ‘on top of your social life’ in the connected world is to be answering everything, all the time. It’s a nine to five job, as Palliotto’s experience suggests, or what Mark Fisher describes as “confronting the mythical hydra”. The more Facebook messages we send, the more we receive in return. “Cut one head off and three more grow in its place”.
But walking away from the Hydra does not need to mean losing all your friends, Palliotto says. She sustains a sociable existence, holding positions in a debating-cum-drinking-club, Carnegie, and was the recipient of several waves from passing students (I got none) as we sat at a bench outside the main library. For her, disconnecting is about achieving a level of social intimacy that the smartphone prevents.
“It gets to the point where I don’t think people are even paying attention to you when you’re with them”, she says. She tells me that while her Nokia has no role in face-to-face hanging out, the people around her are often either texting or documenting the interaction. “Everyone is constantly in a state which is one stage away from genuine intimacy”, she adds.
For Palliotto, one of the worst afflictions common to the constant state of interconnection she left behind was a pressure to sustain insubstantial friendships. “I feel like I had a lot of superficial relationships that emerge[d] out of the ability to text so many people”, she says. “Mass connection means that everyone has loads of seemingly strong friendships, but they rarely have anything behind them”.
Strangely, these insubstantial online bonds seem to be what people want. As Turkles notes: “Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.”
We extend a virtual hand to shake, and offer nothing more. We expect only the same in return.
Paliotto wants to put a stop to empty text-and-reply transactions. “If there’s something I don’t require then I won’t respond”, she adds. “I don’t care. In a way the Nokia just functions as a valid excuse to avoid meaningless contact you don’t want”.
“Whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine”, the Chinese Sage Zhuang Zhou said two thousand years ago. “He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine.”
I wonder if Zhou would change his mind after ten minutes on Instagram reels. Perhaps not. Is, as Zhuang Zhou proposes, our device dependence hoovering up all the humanity in the world?
Third-year Jake Rose thinks that the next generation will be the ones to collect the real hospital pass. “These kids, if they are bored at all, jump on the iPad”, he says. “This is what they have been raised with, this is what they know.”
“There’s something absent intimacy-wise right now”, he adds. “It’s a depressing thought that, not only are they lacking the social skills to connect with people face-to-face, they probably won’t even need them.”
Rose got a brick phone in December last year. He says the change brought a pronounced direction in his life. “Sending messages on the Nokia is always very deliberate because you can’t use a lot of words”, he says. “It has to be, ‘let’s meet up at this time and place.’”
“The idea of not knowing someone very well but having a deceivingly intimate text relationship has gone out of my life”, he adds. “[I had] Pseudo-friends. I would have called them friends at the time. But the Nokia has given me clarity as to what was real and what was existing solely on the virtual level.”
For Rose, the powerful ‘reality’ of a smartphone takes up conscious space without you even realising. “People post online and suddenly they’re in your mind”, he says. “Without that continuously taking up space in your head, you gradually get control over what you do think about.”
The absence of an iPhone has meant that Rose needs a new way to listen to music. But he has not minded looking for other options – he thinks that big streaming platforms are part of the problem with the ‘Global Village’. “The big music platforms like Spotify are very social media-esque because you go around liking songs and never get back to them”, he says. “It’s passive in the same way”.
“I’ve got an MP3 player, which is funny to use”, he adds. “You have to go to deliberate and extended effort to get songs”.
To achieve full ‘autonomy of the mind’, Rose says that he even has scrapped using technology to get directions. “It’s all dependence forming”, he says. “I have been using paper maps, which is obviously a bit dramatic, but I don’t want to rely on an app directing me”.
“I’ll drive to Edinburgh or Glasgow for like the twentieth time and think to myself, ‘why can I not remember it, there’s like three turns”, he notes. But he argues that using technology to help him in those moments would prevent any real learning from occurring.
What about the enjoyment to be had from voluntary solitude - Has the magic box distorted that too?
McLuhan, again, provides some insight. “Why should the phone create an intense feeling of loneliness?”, he asks. “The phone is a participant form that demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity. It simply will not act as a background instrument”. This humanoid ‘demand’ of the smartphone, he infers, is totally undermining your desire for rewarding solitude.
Rose thinks that being alone with a smartphone cannot be compared to being alone without one. “The time alone is certainly more fulfilling because there’s no phone to go on to text people”, he says. “You no longer have the immediate option of texting someone to meet up. The result is that you commit to being alone.”
“I don’t feel lonely, and I have adjusted to being alone”, he adds.
Is the way forward to become a technological minimalist like Palliotto and Rose? That remains to be seen. It would be a mistake to argue that the power of online platforms can never be wielded in a positive way. Indeed, the ‘Arab Spring’, one of the most effective uses of virtual media, saw Facebook, Twitter and Youtube mobilised to react against an oppressive regime. Looking at something like that, it is tempting to say that it can result in something other than human docility.
On the individual level, however, the issues of the ‘Global Village’ seem to remain. Virtual Omnipotence is a bit of a drag, these students seem to say, and it came with a load of small print.
“Warhol’s prediction that everyone would be world famous for fifteen minutes had become true long ago”, says German filmmaker Hito Steyerl. “Now many people want the contrary: to be invisible, if only for fifteen minutes. Even fifteen seconds would be great”.
Maybe it’s time to start cutting the connections and seeing how it feels.