What I learned from going cold turkey on technology

After I developed RSI, the use of social media led to crippling pain which forced me to confront my compulsion to react. What would life be like if everyone thought twice? 

Niki Seth-Smith
8 September 2014
sorry no internet.jpg

Credit: All rights reserved.

A year ago, I was diagnosed with a severe case of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) in my hands, wrists and arms. On telling my friends, one response really killed me. ‘So you can’t use any technology? Not at all? Wow, you should really write about that.’ He meant well, but the irony cut to the bone. It was an unthinking reaction to an injury that was preventing me from reacting unthinkingly.

Let me explain. A serious case of RSI means that any texting, typing, taking photos, button pushing or scrolling causes excruciating pain. Given our reliance on these functions, it’s no wonder that RSI has become a silent epidemic over the last ten years. I only realized how much I used technology to respond and comment on the world continuously once this ability had been taken away from me.

Now that I’m finally able to write this article, I’d like to share something I’ve learned from a year of daily pain. Every time I reach for a phone, camera or laptop, I now challenge myself: will this be a meaningful action, or a knee-jerk reaction that helps no one?

This has changed my life, and it’s got me thinking: what would happen if we all became less reactive and more reflective?  

We’re advised all the time to restrict our use of social media. An industry has grown up around the idea that being too plugged-in makes us anxious, depressed and insomniac, if not suffering from ADHD. ‘The Shallows’ was one of the first books to bemoan the loss of the “linear, literary brain”. Since then we’ve been showered with guidance, the latest injunction being to ditch FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) and embrace JOMO, the ‘joy’ of life above the information stream.

But there’s something wrong with this picture. The self-help rhetoric wants to turn us into conscious consumers, regulate our Facebook ‘binges,’ and swap the ‘fast food’ of information for nourishing long-reads. What initiatives like The Information Diet and the Slow Reading Movement miss, however, is that we are rarely passive in our consumption of social media. In fact, technology allows and incentivizes us to be constantly responsive; so much so that the decision not to like, tweet or share an article, film or photo is itself a form of reaction. We are so habitually reactive that even our silences can be read as a response.

Charlie Brooker put it well when he decided to keep using twitter, but not to tweet: “There’s a pressure - if you are actively participating in it - there’s a pressure to have an opinion on every incremental development on everything. And there’s instant scandals and instant laughing stocks or talking points. And I just . . . it started making me feel ill. By which I mean in the head.” It wasn’t about information overload that sent Brooker over the edge; it was the compulsion to respond.

Of course, we’re not all celebrities with a personal megaphone. In fact 16 per cent of British households don’t have access to the internet, while just over half the population own a smart-phone. Yet the reactive mentality is less about ownership of devices than how we’re conditioned to use them. It’s not only the latest Apple ad that dictates that every funny, touching, or ‘special’ event must produce some kind of digital trace. There’s also plenty of holiday-envy spamming, but much of what we do online appears to be altruistic: sharing useful information and moments we think will give pleasure, entertain or enlighten someone else. In other words, the reactive compulsion is just as common for people aiming to change the world for the better.

After developing RSI, I realized how I had been using technology to react to the world around me constantly, and how this had contributed to a frightening mountain of data, much of it useless. It’s not that I became a technophobe. I still believe in the radically democratic potential of technology to decentralize communication and facilitate peer-to-peer, networked debate and collective action. ‘We are all producers now’ remains a revolutionary banner.

But in the cold, bleak light of going cold turkey on technology, I realized I had been doing a lot of acting without thinking. This went far deeper than ‘clicktivism’, which I’d always worked hard to avoid. It affected the most inner regions of my social, emotional and political life. I couldn’t overhear an outrageous opinion without itching to text a friend, or pass a derelict building without pining for a camera. Why this compulsion? What was I actually hoping to achieve?

My revelation came after joining a demonstration at the University of London - a normal decision for me but one I found deeply disturbing this time around. I was standing directly in front of a policeman who was punching a student in the face, but I couldn’t take a photo. I couldn’t tweet, let alone write a proper article about this injustice. I felt frustrated and useless, because I couldn’t react to what was happening around me. I was also panicked at the prospect of arrest, a feeling I’d never experienced before. Not being able to note down my experience of a night in the cells frightened me more than anything else.

At home afterwards, I forced myself to sit down, concentrate, and discover the roots of my need to produce some kind of response to the protest. I had to admit that it wasn’t rational. There were lots of people holding their phones aloft, so there would have been reams of identical photos and dozens of tweets. Being honest with myself, I needn’t have written up the protest (many others did); it was the inability to do so that was causing me so much angst. As I began to analyze my feelings I identified three underlying desires:

1. Defensive, to ward off potential trauma. Even holding the phone in front of my face was an act of defense.

2. Expressive - building and expanding my identity, including my political stance. This was essentially narcissistic: I wanted people to know that I’d been there.

3. Possessive, to feel that I ‘owned’ the event. Recording and writing about the demonstration would have made it ‘more real’, creating a more substantial memory.

I pondered these desires, sad that I wasn’t able to ask Facebook what it thought about my amateurish jaunt into psychoanalysis. I was disappointed in myself. But then it’s not wrong to protect oneself through self-expression. These ‘selfish’ urges are often symbiotic with the desire to inform and support other people. The bare fact that I’d gone to the demonstration might prompt a friend to attend the next one.

Instead of beating myself up, I developed a mental challenge that I set for myself the next time I reached for my phone, camera or laptop: do I understand my aims and motivations, and is this the best way to meet them?

Dave Eggars’ novel The Circle is set within an internet company akin to a future Google on steroids. The most sinister vision from this work of 21st century horror doesn’t show the protagonist defeated by false information or secret surveillance (a la1984”) but voluntarily, addictively, hooking herself up to respond to consumer survey questions. “It was not difficult, and the validation felt good”, she says, sliding into unthinking compliance.

We know that gaming and social media are designed to addict users - just visit the Dopamine Project for a glimpse at how far this manipulative science extends into our lives. The data that are most useful to commercial companies and state surveillance alike aren’t the original, substantive content we produce, but our millions of reactions to products, articles, events, images and carefully placed ‘triggers’. Clearly, there’s a danger of being too reactive in our daily lives that goes well beyond the distraction of Buzzfeed, or the toll that’s taken by too much screen time and information overload.

But the answer can’t be to turn off the power supply. Although I’ve learned something from my year with RSI, I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone else. At a time when the establishment worlds of media and culture are regressing towards elitist exclusion, technology is essential to decentralize communication. In Britain, 17 per cent of the population gets their online news through social media.

Instead, what if, whenever we like, share or comment, we treat this as a deliberate act of production and take responsibility for its outcomes? As I was writing this piece, a militarized police force was cracking down on thousands of people protesting the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. My fingers hovered above the keyboard - the images and the anger crowding out all other thoughts.

But I took on the challenge. Was my desire to react in this case defensive, expressive, or possessive, or did I have something genuine to give? This time, I stopped myself. In order to act in a meaningful way, I need to think and learn.  

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