Becoming Human Again: A Reading List for the Extremely Offline

Think it’s time to get off social media? Then this is the reading list for you.

By Lisa Bubert 

I’m on a mission to become human again. Not through good deeds, being in nature, or communing with the universe, etc., — no — for me the single most humane thing I felt that I could do was to get off of social media.

Deleting accounts seemed a simple, concrete action to take, but I found it anything but. I’m a freelance writer, reliant on Twitter for pitch calls, as well as the all-important Discourse of the Day. While Instagram’s main purpose appears to be to make me feel terrible, the stories remain helpful for getting eyes on my writing. While Facebook operates as my Rolodex of family and friends, my community bulletin board — increasingly, the only way to learn who’s still alive and who’s dead.

This is known as “social lock-in,” where social networks monopolize our experiences and make it impossible to live our lives outside of the purview of the platform. It’s also a feature of surveillance capitalism, a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff to showcase how capitalism no longer simply controls our purchasing power but manipulates our human behavior at scale. Every search query, every post liked, even the amount of time your eyes spend looking at a specific image on your screen is tracked, quantified, and mined to learn more about you, the decisions you make, and why. That information can then be used against you — to sell you more products, to make you more susceptible to suggestions, to know things about you before you even know them yourself. Thanks to social media, capitalism doesn’t just require cornering the market on household products; powerful, unknown players can now corner the market on democracy for the right price.

As scary as surveillance capitalism sounds, for me, the true fear resides in my slow loss of privacy, and with it my sense of sanctuary.

I’m a librarian — a notoriously privacy-obsessed profession. Librarians have always believed that it is your inalienable right to learn whatever it is you want without fear of anyone looking over your shoulder. We were some of the first to cry foul over seemingly small encroachments on digital privacy, such as individual search queries.

We like to believe that our own personal searches, such as “best exercises to improve back posture,” are small fry — too insignificant to matter. After all, we have nothing to hide. But we must look at the big picture, much the same way that surveillance capitalist companies, like Google, do. Our personal decisions about privacy are hardly private — they have always been a public affair. The more we allow tech and social media companies to chip away at our personal privacy, the more they can commercialize our privacy at scale. Everything, even our most interior sense of self, is for sale.

According to Jaron Lanier, computer scientist, futurist, and frequent tech critic, deleting our social media accounts is “the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times” — and it’s the only way to regain our humanity in an increasingly inhumane world.

Here’s some inspiration on going from Extremely Online to Extremely Offline.

You Are Now Remotely Controlled (Shoshana Zuboff, The New York Times, January 2020)

No one understands the importance of privacy as a public affair better than Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff is the one person who has been repeatedly able to clock the tech economy and call it for what it is, before the rest of us even know what we’ve signed up for. Every time we agree to the mass of terms and conditions of a new digital service with personalization (read: data mining) at its core, we’ve agreed to what Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” Any time I sit down to read a piece by Shoshana Zuboff, I can expect it to be engrossing, brilliant, and frankly disturbing — and this piece (which is essentially a Cliff notes version of her banger of a book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,) takes no prisoners.

The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.

…In the competition for scope, surveillance capitalists want your home and what you say and do within its walls. They want your car, your medical conditions, and the shows you stream; your location as well as all the streets and buildings in your path and all the behavior of all the people in your city. They want your voice and what you eat and what you buy; your children’s play time and their schooling; your brain waves and your bloodstreamNothing is exempt.

The Conscience of Silicon Valley (Zach Baron, GQ, August 2020)

I love a good profile. Especially one on a person as strange, enigmatic, and offbeat as Jaron Lanier — the so-called “father of virtual reality,” and according to this piece, “the owner of the world’s largest flute.” Lanier wrote one of my favorite books, Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, a slim little volume that contains just 10 chapters — 10 arguments — and reads like a Buddhist manual written by the dreadlocked Berkeley hippie with a pan flute that Lanier is.

In reading Baron’s profile of him, I am reminded of my own inner child. Lanier, a futurist by nature, is one of the more curious people I’ve come upon, his mind seemingly unadulterated by outside influence — which is why I love this profile showing the weird, wily human he is.

(Lanier) seemed to live somewhere off ahead of us, by the horizon. Now here the rest of us were too.

But all that was only part of the reason I had sought out Lanier, I told him. What I really hoped to do, I said, was to talk about the future and how to live in it. This year feels like a crossroads; I do not need to explain what I mean by this. We are on the precipice of ruin or revolution or both. We are sick of looking at social media, but social media is also maybe driving the most significant and necessary social movement of my entire life. I want to destroy my computer, through which I now work and “have drinks” and stare at blurry simulations of my parents sometimes; I want to kneel down and pray to it like a god. I want someone—I want Jaron Lanier—to tell me where we’re going, and whether it’s going to be okay when we get there.

Lanier just nodded. All right, then.

It’s Not Your Fault You’re a Jerk on Twitter (Katherine Cross, Wired, February 2020)

There are a lot of jerks on Twitter. I like this article because it doesn’t just look at the damaging effects of internet pile-ons propelled by tweet after tweet, it looks specifically at the effects of what Cross calls the “third order” of harassment, i.e., the Discourse.

You know the Discourse. Usually a subtweet about a new argument of the day. A commentary if you will. You have a Twitter account. A thing has happened. You comment on it to signal which side of the Discourse divide you’re on. It’s not a pile-on; it’s just a statement about the situation. But that subtweet, which usually doesn’t directly involve the target of the Discourse, and which may even be supportive of the target, only allows the harassment to continue and grow. Commentary provides longevity, and longevity extends the harmful episode, regardless of what is being said. Twitter’s design allows users to dissociate from the very real human harm they are inevitably causing just by being active on the platform.

The attacks directed at an individual are a metacommunicative shorthand—“I hate Neon Yang” isn’t about Yang, it’s about a suite of ideas that they discursively represent; you can’t @ an idea on Twitter, only a person… This is why even the numerous attempts at “constructive” callouts or criticism in the helicopter story saga, directed at both the original story and Neon Yang in later months, merely added to the pain and fury. The sheer weight and volume of so many people bearing down on an individual all at once becomes powerfully destructive, even if many of those people are being “nice.”

Welcome to Airspace (Kyle Chayka, The Verge, August 2016)

In order to write well, or to create any kind of art that cuts through the persistent noise of human experience, you have to first participate in that experience. There has to be diversity in the aesthetic around you. But the pandemic year left us looking for an aesthetic in an increasingly isolated, and online, world. I scroll through Instagram despite the fact that all the photos are increasingly similar. The algorithm has zeroed in on the aesthetic it thinks I like and serves me photo after photo of the same thing to keep my eyes glued, my time monetized for someone else. By this point, I can’t even tell the difference between what I like and what I’m being fed.

Of all the things I can’t stand about an Extremely Online life, the theft of a diverse and surprising aesthetic burns me the most. (Other than our lives becoming simple data points for someone else’s commodification.) No matter where I go, everything looks the same. This is why I love this article about the increasing “frictionlessness” of the various aesthetics popularized at large — open concept kitchens, industrial design, Edison bulbs over every table — and how the curation of a single aesthetic, specifically by AirBnb, has made it possible to travel from city to city, even internationally, without noticing a difference.

We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.

Escape the Echo Chamber (C Thi Nguyen, Aeon, April 2018)

To me, social media increasingly feels like a cult. It doesn’t matter which platform I’m on; people exhibit the same linear thought necessary for cult indoctrination, regardless of topic. It doesn’t matter what I think about a topic; the Discourse has already been decided for me, for all of us. Now, virality, not facts, equals truth. Questioning out loud has become increasingly difficult. As Nguyen notes in this essay, two things are needed for cult thinking to bloom — epistemic bubbles combined with echo chambers — and social media has it in spades. So yeah, we’re in a cult. Time to call our dads.

In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined. The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust.

***
Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.

 


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