Last weekend I got to collaborate with Willa Köerner of The Creative Independent (TCI) to facilitate a workshop at IAM Weekend, called “How to Use the Internet Mindfully.” The workshop built on an essay series TCI and Are.na published together last year, which asked a group of artists to reflect on the habits and philosophies that help them contend with the online attention economy. This time we wanted to do something similar in person, in a space where creative internet people could talk about our feelings together.
We asked participants to complete a worksheet designed to help them get a better handle on their internet and technology habits. (You can download the worksheet if you’d like to try this—it takes about 35 minutes to complete). The first step was making a mind map of one’s various screen-based activities. Using different colors, everyone then labeled those activities as either harmful or helpful on a personal level. Finally, people jotted down a few “relationship goals” between them and the Internet and brainstormed practical steps for building up their personal agency.
We spent the last part of the workshop sharing results with one another and thinking about reclaiming the web as an intimate, creative social space. Lots of interesting ideas emerged in our conversation, so I want to highlight a few things here that stood out in particular:
1. We often have mixed feelings about certain tools (and specific ways of using those tools). For example, posting to Instagram can be an exploratory and rewarding creative process. But the anxiety about “likes” that comes afterward usually feels empty and harmful. It’s hard to reconcile these opposing feelings within the realm of personal behavior. While we know that we’re ultimately in control of our own behavior, we also know that apps like Instagram are designed to promote certain patterns of use. We don’t want to quit altogether, but we’re struggling to swim against the current of “persuasive” tech.
2. We don’t have enough spaces for talking about the emotional side effects of living with the web. Before we really dug into strategies for using the Internet more mindfully, participants really wanted to share their feelings about social media, Internet burnout, and how the two are connected. We talked about mental health and how hard it is to feel in control of apps that are essentially designed for dependency. We discussed how few of us feel happy with our habits, even though everyone’s experience is different. We wondered about the stigma that surrounds any form of “addiction,” and whether it’s ok to talk about widespread Internet use in those terms. I’m really glad these questions bubbled up, since they helped build enough trust in the room to share the more personal elements of each person’s mind map.
3. We all want to feel personal autonomy, which takes many different forms. We had a lively exchange about different ways to limit the amount of digital junk food we allow ourselves to consume. Apple’s new screen-time tracker was one example that drew mixed responses. Some people felt that a subtle reminder helped, while others felt it was totally ineffective. Some preferred to impose a hard limit on themselves through a tool like Self Control, while others rejected the premise of measuring screen time in the first place. A lot of participants focused on wanting to control their own experience, whether by owning one’s own content or simply feeling enough agency to decide how to navigate the web. We talked a bit about the dilemma of feeling like our decision-making psychology has been “hacked” by addictive design, and how crappy it feels to replace our own intuition with another technical solution. We also acknowledged that setting our own boundaries means spending even more time and emotional capital than our apps have already taken from us. That additional effort is labor we consumers complete for free, even if we don’t usually see it that way.
4. The web feels too big for healthy interaction. We also talked about how using mainstream social media platforms these days can feel like shouting into a giant room with everyone else on Earth. Many of the healthy spaces where participants felt they could genuinely share ideas were ones where they put considerable time and emotional labor into building an intimate social context. People had a lot to say about the fact that users are locked in to their online personas with all kinds of personal and professional incentives. You simply can’t stop looking, or downsize your social circles, or abandon your long-term presence, without breaking an informal social contract you never realized you signed.
The context of the conference also made me think about how we frame the work we put into our relationship with technology. When we get in front of a group, what kind of “solutions” should we be advocating? At what point to individual strategies lead to politics and advocacy?
When you focus on personal habits for long enough, it’s easy to process societal issues as problems originating in your own behavior. But as with other kinds of “self-help,” this is a framing that ignores a grotesque power dynamic. Addiction and burnout are not only matters of consumer choice, but the costs of business decisions made by enormous technology companies. The tech industry – like big tobacco and big oil – has knowingly caused a set of serious social problems and then pushed the work of remediating them onto individual consumers. Now it’s up to users to defend themselves with tools like browser plug-ins and VPNs and finstas and time trackers. As we keep talking about using the internet mindfully, I hope we can connect the dots between this kind of individual action and the larger project of securing universal rights to privacy, anonymity, and personal autonomy. By asking ourselves which tools we want to use, and how we want to use them, hopefully we can open up a broader conversation about how we move beyond surveillance capitalism itself.
I’d be interested in talking more about these connections between individual and collective actions if we get to repeat the workshop. It would be great to work with a smaller group, simplify the worksheet slightly, and get really specific about what questions we’re trying to answer. I’d like to draw on a few other ways of thinking as well, like the Human Systems framework for example. If you’d be interested in collaborating, or just have thoughts on any of this, please send one of us an email: [email protected] or [email protected]. We’d love to hear your thoughts.