21 Jul Are we too connected?
Last Friday, I made a decision. I was going to have a good weekend; a weekend free of intrusions from e-mails (both personal and professional), engagement and marriage announcements on Facebook and free from phone calls. I was going to stay off my laptop, keep my phone on silent and go somewhere different.
That was the decision, and that was the plan.
Whilst I can appreciate that this may be standard practice for many people, it really isn’t in my case. I’ve been connected to the internet almost permanently for about fifteen years between smartphones, tablets, computers in education, the workplace and my free time. Save for three days last year when I attended Leeds Festival without a smartphone, I’ve been constantly plugged-in.
At Leeds, I remember feeling tremendously free. I had no worries, and I enjoyed interacting with people socially in reality, not over a screen. I enjoyed the music, the weather (save for the monsoon) and the weekend has a whole. Despite sleeping in a small tent in the rain on a hard patch of ground, I came home feeling mentally rejuvenated if not physically.
So, I thought, it’s been almost a year since then, let’s try it again. I’ll admit it was a a pretty snap decision.This time, I wasn’t going to Leeds; I was simply going to try removing digital connectivity from my normal life for a few days. The results were very different.
The absence of Facebook and e-mails (I left my SMS and Twitter on for news updates, but I use both far less frequently than the services I deactivated) left me feeling genuinely uneasy. I was concerned someone’s website had a technical problem (it did), or that someone was ill (thankfully, they weren’t) or that I was generally missing out on something I needed to know. Or thought I needed to know. After all, if I wasn’t on Facebook, people wouldn’t just phone me or message me. They’d definitely just not bother to tell me.
Everything was reactivated by Sunday. I felt relieved to be connected again.
I’m genuinely shocked at how unpleasant the experience was. I wasn’t able to relax or unwind without something like a music festival to distract me. We – as a society – seem to have been conditioned to believe that a conscious decision to disconnect from the internet for a period of time that we must be having some sort of midlife crisis. Does there come a point where we are maintaining our connections to people through networks like Facebook long after any need or pleasure we can derive from them has passed, simply because we are scared of disappearing? Is the fear of missing something, or not being able to be contacted instantly, really a driving force for staying on a social network, or for checking work e-mails over the weekend?
I’m not making out that social media is a negative force. It isn’t. But it can leave the user feeling overwhelmed with notifications, and a real sense that their right to privacy has been degraded somewhat. Facebook Messenger leaves us immediately contactable, whether we’re on Facebook or not. That’s quite something, when you imagine that 20 years ago, to contact someone you’d either write them a letter or phone a landline and hope they were in the room. People had the right to remove themselves from being contactable.
While it’s certainly true that increased communication and accessibility has its benefits, losing the right to a little peace and quiet raises some real concerns. For instance, I was stunned about how difficult it was to remove Facebook from my Android phone compared to a standard app. It was made very unclear and difficult, and the usual option to simply drag over the ‘Uninstall’ button had been removed. With all the technological advances and progressions we have made, we don’t have much ease of control over who can contact us when. We seem to be left with an ‘all or nothing’ ultimatum, where we must buy in to the overall experience altogether, or have nothing at all. It wouldn’t be that difficult to implement a temporary deactivation of the account for – say – a week, whereby you aren’t contactable but you don’t get removed from Facebook entirely.
I suppose it’s all part of the quest for companies to gather information and data about users. It’s not in their interests to let you get away.