“Apart from the addictive nature of our new digital way of connecting, it does not seem to satisfy our deep-seated need for true human contact. Instead what it seems to have spawned is the illusion of social connection via a medium that has our dopamine receptors on perpetual high alert as we anticipate, like Pavlovian dogs, the next “ping” that promises to offer us the novelty and pleasure of a text, instant message, tweet, Facebook update or Instagram photograph.”
GENERATION Z: ONLINE AND AT RISK? By: KARDARAS, NICHOLAS, Scientific American Mind, 15552284, Sep/Oct2016, Vol. 27, Issue 5
What is Lent, Anyway?
In many Christian denominations, the practice of Lent is a 40-day period of preparation of the soul for Easter. This is commonly accomplished through times of fasting, prayer, and the denial of the self. You often hear people say they are giving up something or other for Lent, which is to say they are denying themselves something enjoyable so as to focus on more important matters.
Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, which is preceded by a Tuesday. Well, duh, right? But this Tuesday is special. On this Tuesday before Lent starts, people have historically purged their kitchen and cupboards of fattening foods in preparation for Lent. This day is called Shrove (or Fat) Tuesday. In my geographic neck of the woods of South Central Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Dutch celebrate this by baking fasnachts, a powdered donut-like pastry made with potato dough. Once the cupboards are emptied of fattening treats, we arrive at the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, where many faithful celebrate by having their forehead marked with the sign of the cross in ash. This is often done with the declaration of “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” or in English “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
With ashen foreheads, we are welcomed to Lent. This is followed by discount fish sandwiches at fast food joints all over the US. This forty-day period of soul searching and self denial ultimately leads to Easter, the single most significant event in the Christian calendar. There is your history lesson for the day.
OK, so where are you going with this?
This year, I decided to celebrate Lent, by giving up Social Media. Yeah I hear you already – whoah whoah there, mister crazy person! Why would you do that? Why thank you for asking, let me explain.
I’m an avid reader, have been since I was a little tyke. Recently, I have been reading a few books that made me question my own technical reality. Those books are:
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier. This book really set up my Lenten adventure by questioning the Wizard behind the curtain of the social media machine. In this work, Lanier provides ten arguments, in paragraph format, outlining the impact social media has on our society as a whole, and on us as individuals. It was a very impactful book for me – if Lanier is reading this, I thank you for challenging my world view. Though all of the arguments had an impact on me, I was especially challenged by Argument Six (Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy), Argument Nine (Social media is making politics impossible), and Argument Ten (Social media hates your soul). The research provided, and the down-to-earth approach Lanier takes in building his arguments, helped me question why I was using Social Media in the first place, and what impact it absolutely has had on my own life. This book is a fast read, but if you don’t have the time to read it, you can check out his Ted Talk on the topic here.
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, by Tony Reinke. I’ve been reading through this book for some time now, and truth be told have yet to finish it off. Some sections of the book ran slow for me, and other sections were challenging to the social and spiritual aspects of how my phone – and subsequent consumer mentality of all it offers – has been changing my world view. His chapter entitled “We ignore our flesh and blood” rang through in a Cats in the Cradle sort of way, challenging me to deliberately put down the phone and see the people in my proximity. The chapter entitled “We get lonely” helped me look inward, and acknowledge the connection between my “connected-ness” and the desperate loneliness I often carry like an albatross around my neck. The chapter entitled “We fear missing out” returned me to the exciting days of my undergrad Social Psychology class, and how we – like drooling Pavlonian pups – return again and again for that dopamine fix offered by our phones, and how we can have true anxiety when we try cutting back on our digital fix.
Click Here to Kill Everybody, by Bruce Schneier. I’m currently reading through this one, a true work of art from a master pioneer in modern computing. Schneier’s writings are the perfect blend of deep technical expertise mixed with comprehensive research and incredibly applicable truth. Thus far, this book has challenged my world view in the realm of cybersecurity. Perhaps you, like me, consider cybersecurity and hacking to be something that happens to other people… some mildly entertaining story that has little to do with our own cozy life. Through our increasingly connected world, the connected stuff we own and use every day is being weaponized and used against us – including Social Media. We are absolutely in a state of open warfare, or to use Schneier’s terminology, un-peace. The truth that I have no idea how secure my internet-connected oven is right now was enough to challenge my world view. The undeclared cyberwar rages all around us, it’s only a matter of time until some new strain of ransomware attacks our home devices, demanding payment to turn off the oven / turn down the thermostat / unlock our Roku Television. You may recall an earlier blog post of mine on the topic, found here. The reality is that Social Media is being used as a weapon against us by people who either want to addict and monetize us (can I call that a best case?), or outright obliterate our way of living (worst case).
So with all that reading, I decided to quit cold turkey from what Lanier calls “Bummer”. That is an acronym for Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into Empires for Rent, a term he uses quite frequently for specific types of Social Media that are deliberately targeting and modifying our human behavior. To say what I cut out would be a lengthy list, perhaps it’s easier to say that I left LinkedIn because I use it for my employment. Now that Easter is in the rear view mirror (and Memorial Day approaches… where does the time go?), I can share with you some of the impacts on me, personally. The first few days, I kept a detailed journal. After that first week or so, I randomly documented my thoughts, feelings, emotions, and so on. This blog post somewhat recreates that format. Enjoy.
Day Zero: Fat Tuesday
I uninstalled all Social Media links from all my web browser bookmarks, and deleted all Social Media applications from my iPad and iPhone. My rationale was that it’s easier to avoid something if it’s not there to stumble over or mindlessly click. The transition off Social Media (Lanier’s BUMMER) was greatly simplified, as our Verizon FIOS service went down the night before. The moment Verizon went down was somewhat comical, as my teenager and his friend stared around, lost and bewildered, for about an hour as their PUBG screens blinked LAG before disconnecting. Have you ever seen a teenager mope around the house, lost and disconnected? It’s a sad wistful wander, like a butterfly with a damaged wing.
Day One: Ash Wednesday
So it was that on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, there was no Internet, Cable, or Land-line phone service. I used my 4G service to live chat with the overseas FIOS technician. I interrupted his help desk script by assuring him that I already verified power, rebooted the router, disconnected the UPS from the Fiber drop in my basement before rebooted that, and in general knew what I was talking about. The router occasionally gets an IP from the Provider Edge Router (PER), has brief Internet connectivity, then drops and no longer sends or receives routes. My Customer Edge Router (CER) can no longer talk to the PER, which typically indicates some sort of routing issue in the public cloud. Due to the snow & ice storms in the area, they can’t come out until Friday, which suits me fine. No Internet = No Social Media.
Throughout my work day, I found myself periodically picking up my cell phone and reaching for a Social Media fix – which wasn’t there. I had wisely uninstalled / removed all BUMMERs from my device, thus preventing the ingrained habit of priming a dopamine fix. I had not realized how habitual it was to reach for social media throughout the day. Right now, as I type this on my desktop computer that has no Internet access or Social Media, it’s deathly quiet throughout the house. Eerily quiet… like the tense moments before a serial killer pops out from behind a curtain. I half expect a mutant Mark Zuckerberg to suddenly appear, armed with a Facebook-themed Android tablet and start clubbing me upside the head until I click LIKE on the latest political post. It’s somewhat frightening when you see your dependence on checking the latest Post or Tweet. The worn ruts of habit run so deep in the dirt road of life…
I also noticed something else that I’m not quite so proud of. I noticed that when it was bed-time for our babies, I typically would rush them off to bed as quickly as possible. The goal, I imagine, was to get them out of the way so that my path to “free time” or “down time” was clear. But the past few nights, I indulged my five-year old with the bed-time stories and snuggles he always asks for but rarely gets. The “way too late” excuses faded away in light of “they are only little for a very small season of life”.
And after my 8- and 10-year olds finished story time with my darling Pooky, I spent more time snuggling and rubbing their backs before bed, much to their delight. Those precious bonding moments that I shoved aside in the chasing after smoke… I have truly been missing out. I’ve come to realize that Social Media really is like chasing after smoke – having caught some in my cupped hands, I never realized that there was nothing really there. It was the pursuit, the chasing, that kept me going back again and again. Never was there some actual ownership or capturing of something substantial. I was like the parable in the Bible of the man who looks into a mirror, then immediately forgets what he saw as he turns away. And so I kept returning, again and again, to gaze at something that was gone the second I turned away. I was very much like Harry Potter in the second book the Chamber of Secrets. Harry comes across the very old diary of Tom Riddle, discarded in a toilet. And though there is nothing written in it, Harry inexplicably finds himself returning to the book, turning through the pages as if there were something rather fascinating written in it. I imagine the analogies here are endless, but you get the point.
Day Two Thoughts
Still no Internet or television or telephone. I keep noticing that whenever there is a lull in my life – a normal period of inactivity or quiet – that I impulsively reach for my phone, then stare at it with a realization that it can’t give me what I think I need. I’m not quite sure what I need, perhaps I crave contact, or a feeling of belonging, or some kind of mindless activity. A longing to be moved or affected. It’s a strange feeling, it really does feel kind of like I’m going through withdrawal. Yeah, it’s real – I recently read a blog post from Scary Mommy that relates to this. As a Scary Daddy, I approve of her post.
Having taken the day off for a kid school function, I was more aware than usual (because I’m being deliberately self-aware) of those little pregnant moments where I tend to reach for a Social Media fix. When the ten-year old went in to the bathroom and I had to wait outside in the hall? I instinctively reached for my phone, then realized what I was doing, and put it back in my pocket. Later that evening, I went out for chicken wings with a dear friend, and once again I was aware of those little pregnant moments. While waiting for my buddy to arrive, I sat in the lobby of the chicken wing establishment. Once again, I reached for the phone, then put it back and instead watched the people around me. There was a chubby toddler, gleefully wobbling around the lobby on shaky legs, as the young mother hovered nervously behind, waiting to scoop him up from danger. All the different people with different paces, different faces. They were all here, all along, unseen as I typically looked down at my phone. How many of those un-noticed people were potential opportunities to love and serve? Were any of them lost or hurt, lonely or desperate for authentic communication? How many of those pregnant moments have I lost, while staring down at my phone? Each of those individual moments, throughout a normal day… a week… a month… a life… spent chasing after something that might… do what? Entertain? A short burst of noise to fill the awkward silence of life?
It all adds up.
The Fios dude arrived early, and told me my ONT is DOA. An ONT is nerd speak for the Verizon box mounted on the wall of the basement that converts their fiber over to something more home-friendly like Co-ax or Ethernet. You know what DOA is, right? The box is toast, a paperweight. The kids are hovering around like vultures near a wounded stray calf, waiting for ones and zeroes to once again start squirting through the house. Our Alexa hasn’t played Baby Shark in several days, the shark gods are not pleased. Netflix, Amazon Prime, PubG, the list goes on and on. it’s all waiting like an empty car on the side of the road for some gas. How will I now tackle this Lenten fast, with the availability of social media right up and in my face? Things just got real…
Onward and Upward
So I stopped logging my notes daily, and instead decided to wrap this up with some general thoughts. I started bringing this all together on Good Friday, the single most significant religious event in the Christian religion. And Good Friday kicks off Easter weekend, and then what? Lent is officially over. So here are a few thoughts on this whole event.
I’ve noticed that no one on Social Media even noticed that I was gone. All of my virtual “friendships” were as real and impacting as… well, as something that was not real or impacting. How’s that for a lame analogy? I’ve also noted that I’m 2,000% happier. More importantly, the wife has noticed a visible change in my personality. After the first week or so, I stopped reaching for the phone all the time. I noticed and interacted with more people around me. For some reason, I also made an effort to connect more with the people around me. For example, at the grocery store, I have been making a conscious effort to look at the employee’s name tag who was ringing up my groceries, and say something like “thank you, Glados, for bagging my potato!” to acknowledge them as a person. It is always a little awkward. Real interpersonal communication often is. Through this experiment, I have also read a lot more books. In general, I have gone to bed a lot earlier, and wake up much more refreshed.
I’ve also noted that I’m still incredibly lonely for authentic relationships – but at least I understand why now. All the social media fluff that I filled my life and time up with was empty smoke… or to quote Kohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, it was meaningless – a chasing after the wind. The reality is that for many years, I’ve been gorging daily on a steady diet of social media fluff, while wondering why I was still hungry inside.
There are so many examples of what social media is like. The biggest one that comes to mind is from the movie The Matrix. In a very real sense, we are all just a simple product to be harvested by the social media. We gleefully provide our experiences, photos, emails, clicks and likes as a type of virtual fruit. What we get in return is the illusion of a virtual world around us that simply isn’t reality. That alone would be frightening enough – but Lanier’s book helped me to see that in the beginning of social media, we were just a data feed to be harvested. Recently, something more nefarious has begun – now we are being actively manipulated by the social media machine to modify our behavior. To summarize Lanier, Social Media is making us all less human. To summarize Schneier, Social Media is being weaponized against us. Either scenario is troubling, but only if we take the time to let it trouble us. As a society, I don’t think we do that nearly enough.
At this point, I don’t know that I can ever go back to Social Media – certainly not the way it was before.
Happy Easter… and Memorial Day!
So I’m trying to put a bow on this blog. It’s a bit past Easter now, and I did get back on Social Media. I spend a few minutes here and there, mostly just to upload a few Spring pictures of the kids and family. I note that the social media machine had been trundling on, just as it always had, without me. I note that no one really even noticed I wasn’t there. And I realized that I no longer cared about going back – the frantic grip of FMO (what psychologists call Fear of Missing Out) has left me completely. I have found this entire process to be incredibly meaningful and helpful. You may still see me occasionally on Social Media – but it won’t be like it was before, because I’ve changed. Sometimes, seeing the wizard behind the curtain is enough to change us.