Should We Escape the Digital?

Friend Henry is on a crusade to escape all things digital. Not just social media, but the whole shebang.

He’s deleted his blog and his profiles on Amazon, Patreon and Mailchimp. He’s even talking about scrapping his email account. “I think it will make me happier,” he says in a final BCC, “and I believe these technologies do more harm than good in the long run.”

I think he’s probably right on both counts. I took a note of his real-world address and vowed to write to him the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, this was about a month ago and I am yet to put pencil to paper.

There’s something slightly daunting about writing a letter–a fear of doing something “wrong” by messing up a nice sheet of paper–and, if I’m completely honest with myself, something unreal about it too.

And there’s the Digital Fascism in a nutshell: the idea that if something’s not online and administered by Silicon Valley then it’s not real, which is the opposite of the truth. How utterly pathetic. They’ve done a real number on us. If even I find myself thinking this way (a person who resisted smart phones for a decade and still refuses to read e-books) then the problem must be very widespread indeed.

What is to stop us from escaping this over-reliance on (or addiction to) digital technologies and returning full-time to offline pleasures like real letters? I have some thoughts:

1. The sunk cost fallacy. The idea that you’ve invested in a system makes a person reluctant to abandon that system even if it clearly isn’t working. And we’ve invested in the digital system big-time, socially and individually. We’ve moved gradually from paper and cassettes and discs into an immaterial networked world: it took ages, lots of learning, lots of head-scratching, and decades of spending on fabulous equipment. Going back to the old ways doesn’t feel profitable now even if it were logically proved as such.

2. The network effect. There are certain people who will never write to you on paper and you’ll lose touch with them forever. Some people won’t even use anything other than their favourite app to communicate. I know someone so in thrall to WhatsApp that he won’t even send text messages any more. And there were certainly one or two people I lost touch with when I killed my Facebook account it’s not in their nature to write an email. It’s a shame to lose touch with these slaves to particular technologies but the alternative is to be slave to those technologies yourself. What a sad state of affairs.

3. Too much to throw away. Many digital technologies are easy to quit because they’re rubbish or because you fall outside their demographic catchment area (i.e. you feel too young for Facebook or too old for TikTok) but sometimes they’re so perfect that you’d experience genuine loss if you left them. For me, it’s Gmail. I have a proper email address at newescapologist.co.uk and the web mail interface that comes with the hosting service is fine, but the 15GB offered by Gmail is unbeatable and I have twelve years of searchable information stored in it. It’s become almost a substitute brain for me and I run countless searches of my Gmail account every day in search of facts, links, promises, log-in details, turns of phrase, half-forgotten nuggets. It’s too darn useful to quit. But one day, I fancy, I will.

The sensible thing is probably to half-escape the digital world, one foot in cyberspace and one on terra firma. Keep what you find useful, ditch what you can. As I’ve said before, the Internet is not the problem but rather “Web 2.0.” Be a digital minimalist.

This said, “half-escape” is what precisely what I’ve done and, as you can see, there is really no such thing. I clearly struggle to write a letter so perhaps my extremist friend is onto something. In any event, his is a noble experiment. I’ll write to him now, I think, and find out how he’s spending his time. I’ll report back to you if he allows it.

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If you’d like to get offline, read one of my books in paper format. The Good Life for Wage Slaves and Escape Everything! (re-titled I’m Out) are available now.

Escape from the Work Ethic Camp

Hey, look an escape!

One early evening after supper in December 2016, the winter sun throwing parallelograms of light across the prison yard, he made a run for it. Russell was a star high-school sprinter. At 6 ft 2 in (188 cm), he easily scrambled up the nine-foot fence, and in a single bound, cleared three rounds of barbed wire and landed on the other side of the wall.

It was Christmas morning when he was captured and returned to prison, with an extra year tacked on to his sentence.

This guy, Andrew Russell, physically escaped a prison called the Work Ethic Camp.

He’d been arrested for drug dealing (after finding no solution to poverty in low-paid work) and remanded to this prison. The prison’s wacky programme was to teach inmates the inherent value of work through barely-paid 30-40 hour work weeks. Needless to say, it turned out to be boring, insulting, and useless.

The story is told by Sam Haselby in Aeon magazine as part of a broader investigation into the work ethic in America and where it comes from.

The work ethic […] is a form of resignation, a product of defeat.

Attributing our exceptional work hours to an ideology woefully mistakes cause for effect. Ideology isn’t the driver of our lived experiences, but the product of them. Our ideological commitment to work is the result of incessant and repeated activity – literally doing our jobs day in and day out. And there’s nothing we do with as much regularity, intensity and unquestioned submission as work. We rationalise our quotidian experiences by shaping belief systems to accommodate them, not the other way around.

Thanks to Reader A for directing us to this. It’s a really good piece of journalism and certainly worth your time.

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Is your job a solution to poverty or inherently satisfying? If not, read The Good Life for Wage Slaves to lament your plight and Escape Everything! AKA I’m Out to plot your escape.

Don’t Forget, You’re Here Forever

Ah, yes. Readers have reminded me that And Maggie Makes Three is a prequel episode in which Homer does in fact briefly quit his job.

He quits by riding Mr Burns through the nuclear plant while playing his head like a bongo drum. This comes after clearing his debts and lining up a low-stress dream job, so he has a decent enough escape plan too. Hooray for Homer!

Alas, all does not go to plan. When he returns to Sector 7G, tail between his legs, he’s confronted by this:

You’re not necessarily here forever though. Read The Good Life for Wage Slaves to lament your plight and Escape Everything! AKA I’m Out to plot your escape.

Mr Burns as the Invisible Hand of the Market

YouTube is bursting with neat little pop-cultural essays, isn’t it?

I just watched a good one about Frank Grimes of The Simpsons and “the cult of work.” It explains how the capitalist workplace pits worker against worker while positioning wealthy employers as the savior.

It also points out that the conservative’s routine answer to poverty is “work harder” and, when that fails, well, hard work is good in its own right so at least you can be virtuous as well as tired.

Obviously, we’re far more like Homer* than Grimes here at New Escapologist. We have long advocated for the opposite of Grimey’s values. We say that that hard work isn’t inherently or morally valuable and that hard work evidently isn’t the answer when you consider how the rich got rich and stayed there. “Nobody earns a billion dollars,” says the essay over pictures of Mr. Burns, “they steal it from the labour of those who have no choice but to take low-wage jobs in a system that previous billionaires maintained for new billionaires.”

(*though in a key way we are not like Homer. Homer continues to work, albeit ineffectively, and reaping the consumerist “rewards” of wage slavery instead of coming up with a coherent escape plan. He does try to escape in some episodes though, doesn’t he? I might be misremembering, but in the one about Maggie’s birth, his dream was to quit the nuclear plant and work in a bowling alley; he seemed to have been maneuvering himself into this position through some sort of plan before it was scuppered.)

Check it out. If you don’t care about the exploitation of billions of people for a wealthy few, it’s still just nice to think about the golden age of Simpsons. For all the flaws of the libertarian writer’s worldview, Frank Grimes’ funeral is still a great comedy moment. “Frank Grimes… or Grimey as he liked to be called.” Ahaha.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find out if Odo on Deep Space Nine was a fascist collaborator.

Are you a Homer or a Grimes? Either way, the invisible hand at least allows you a copy of The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

What Next for Work?

That feeling of deep satisfaction at the end of a working day is rare for many workers across the world. We are alienated, and have been for centuries. We have to work in order to survive, but while we are told to love what we do and that our workplaces are our families, meaningful work that also pays the bills is harder and harder to come by.

This is a great essay from Vice magazine. Thanks to Reader V for drawing our attention to it.

The essay points out that the way we work in this century isn’t natural or historically normal. It goes on to ruminate on what, post-pandemic, will happen next.

What kind of change the pandemic brings is still up for debate. Joe Biden and the British government are both fond of the slogan “Build back better”, which appeals to politicians because it could mean absolutely anything. If you’re Boris Johnson, you might think that “building back better” means handing billions of pounds of public money to companies connected to the Conservative Party. Historical advances made by workers, including the creation of the weekend and shorter working days, were all hard won. There is no guarantee the pandemic will make anything easier.

It’s good stuff. Read the article in full here. And if you like that, there’s still The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

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