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.

About

Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at www.wringham.co.uk/about.

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