#64 - on quitting the Internet
And much more presence.
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THANK YOU, LOVE YOU.
To say you are quitting the Internet is like saying you are quitting earth - the two are that entangled. What’s funny, and unsettling, is that you can’t quit the Internet even if you want to - my nephews, 8 and 4, who have never owned a smartphone, are all over the Internet. Banks, investments, and taxes are increasingly only accessible online. Political campaigns and movements depend on the Internet for reach. And soon, all your identification will be digitized. The Internet is so pervasive in modern infrastructure, that it is impossible to determine where it begins and where it ends. Yet, if someone told you they were addicted to something - sugar, opioids, alcohol, our natural response would be to try to quit. But if the Internet is just an extension of the world, and we live inside the world - can you be addicted to it?
I’ve been thinking about this since finishing the second season of Euphoria. If you haven’t watched it, the show follows a group of high school teenagers navigating drugs, sex, friendship, family, money and love in raging (and maybe a bit sensational) ways. At the centre of it is a portrait of Rui, a teenage addict, played by the multi-it-gal Zendaya as she swings between unruly self-destruction and glimmers of change. It’s hard to know if their lives resemble any teenagers today — but it certainly has hit a chord.
When observing Rui, it is tempting to draw a line between the cause and effect of her addiction, i.e. the life moment(s) that led her to chase the high irrespective of any consequences. For her, it is assumed to be the moment her dad died. But as they discuss in the show, it’s not that simple, because addiction is a disease - even though we don’t always recognize it as such. To see it as a disease is to acknowledge that addicts don’t always know why they need the hit, what exactly they are avoiding, and if the unbearable feelings and discomfort might partly be inherited.
In quiet ways, I saw myself in Rui. And how the phone is the pill I use to distract myself from uncomfortable feelings. I recognize this most when I unconsciously grab my phone while writing, having a hard or mundane conversation with C, getting bored on a Zoom call or staying awake at night to avoid the reality of time passing. I also know this is a ‘problem’ because I have tried everything to curb my appetite: moving apps into a hard-to-find folder, deleting Instagram from my phone Monday to Friday and then all together, leaving TikTok, downloading Freedom to block apps and sites and putting my phone in another room.
Nothing works. I just immediately find another way to distract myself. And when I redownload the app - the patterns resurface - which is not surprising because none of these measures address the root cause. They are hacks, not reckonings. I do find that some apps are worse than others — like IG and TikTok, which zap my brain from all the quick dopamine hits and stimulation, but the reality is I have been on a yo-yo social media diet for years. The only true solace I find is leaving the house without my phone - but that usually means relying on C or a friend to use theirs to navigate, or meditating for MANY hours (I might have to become a monk).
I don’t think anyone would label me an Internet addict. I’m not sure I would label myself that - though I am entertaining the idea as a thought exercise. My usage and behaviours are probably much less than our accepted normal. The stats on Internet usage are all over the place — some say we average about 2 hours a day, others say 24 - 59 hours a week. There are so many factors in the nature of your work that contribute to your total hours.
Maybe we realize it or not - but the Internet is the vantage point from which we live our lives. Increasingly, we understand ourselves and our experience relative to it. Our default state is to be online at all times, only notifying people when we are offline. We assume the state of the world or the collective energetic body based on the discourse online. And we have to plan and celebrate the times we can ‘detox’ from this dominant force. The Reset Retreat Centre in Toronto - which is a phone-free space - is a response to this fate that can’t be escaped, only managed (also visit the space!). There isn’t actually anything wrong with this - I mean unless cities and countries start thinking about the impact of mental health costs - but the question for me always is, is this what I want? Is this what we want?
It makes me very uncomfortable that we have normalized this addiction. Since I appear to be a relatively functioning adult, steadily contributing to capitalism (tho not much to be honest), and our bar for functioning is pretty low - this addiction is not worthy of alarm and concern. ‘Digital health’ is something that is more often featured in conversation, but my sense is that we feel collectively powerless in the nature of our relationship to social media and the Internet. There is general apathy and submission that the Internet is going to dominate most of the rest of our lives, and the only thing we can do is try to exercise some willpower. Of course some welcome 24/7 digital life, because let’s be real - there is so much to love about the Internet; it is the place where our weirdness and niche interests all have little islands to thrive on. And memes! And WhatsApp groups! And Virtual Therapy! And Docusign! It is the place where I write this newsletter! And has made connection more accessible, and sometimes, more fulfilling. Of course, the Internet is not a monolith - but sometimes it feels like one room where everyone has a Sennheiser microphone on at the same time.
The challenge is that since the Internet is now largely owned by a few corporations and platforms, there is no way to be in dialogue and articulate our needs. We are in a one-way relationship with the very thing that dominates our short lives. It has far too much power, without accountability and collaboration — which is effectively the definition of exploitation. Organizations like the Centre for Humane Technology are not in conversation with tech, but rather in a battle between human well-being and economic growth, which effectively is the essential battle of this moment. There certainly have been some positive measures taken — like removing the visibility of likes on IG and giving users the option to program timers to limit their use (which basically is just a pop-up reminder) but I’m not sure how life-changing these design features have been. I saw a tweet a few weeks ago that read, ‘ADHD brains were not meant to have access to apps like Tiktok lol.’ The lol reads as something funny - but it is a horrible reminder of the ways in which people are not disabled, but the way we have designed our world is.
I’m not sure why I am feeling so passionate about this right now. Maybe the noise and absolute absurdity of the slap discourse took me over the edge. Maybe I am feeling hungover from all the time I spent on the Internet over the last two years. Maybe because I am spending time in solitude and more aware of my behaviours. Maybe I feel disconnected and want to just hang out in parks for an indefinite time. Or maybe it’s because I am almost 40, and having an awkward mid-life crisis online about how to spend the rest of my *hopefully* 2000 weeks left on earth.
I also just finished listening to Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. It’s one of those books that doesn’t surprise you but rather reminds you and snaps you awake to examine all your assumptions and routines that feel normal but are actually all constructions of culture and systems. You already know you should be ‘more present,’ but when someone lays out the facts and philosophical considerations over 300 pages, you’re like, what am I doing???
Wisely, Burkeman does not blame social media for our lopsided lives. Instead, he sees us as collaborators in the madness, because the premise of his book is that all these distractions, whether it is the Internet or productivity hacks are simply ways to distract ourselves from the truth that we are going to die. And that our lives are dreadfully short. 4000 weeks on average, to be exact. Perhaps the only thing we are addicted to is running away from the reality that everything, including us, is temporary. So we live as if we are waiting to ‘arrive’ somewhere when we have made it. A distant place where we are recognized by something that other people think is important, have enough wealth to never think about it again, and have a nice butt, rather than accepting that somewhere is here. It has always been here and it can only ever be here.
It’s all so over-said (on the Internet!) that it feels obvious, but to truly feel the sensations of the truth of impermanence in the folds and depths of your soul, is terrifying af - especially in a world that is designed to optimize for the illusion of absolute control. So much of the way we have come to understand meaning is within a frame of permanence and legacy and lasting and leaving a mark - so how do we reconcile the two? I have been doing death meditations for years. As a generally morbid person, I think about my death all the time. And still, I know that to embody impermanence is the work of lifetimes. But I would not be in spiritual integrity if I didn’t at least try and stay on the path.
There is a scene in the second season of Euphoria, where Rui has relapsed. She is sitting at a diner with Ali, her sobriety sponsor, eating pancakes. Things with her best friend and lover, Jules, had gone awry and the discomfort of it all sent her back into the fray. When Ali asked her where she got the drugs, she shares that she had some pills stashed away for emergency purposes. Ali responds:
Ali: Fuck. So you never stood a chance?
Quitting the Internet is an extreme proposition. I am aware of that. Though, we would never tell an addict to simply moderate their usage - because we inherently believe that the euphoria they are seeking can be found in sobriety. I know the euphoria I am seeking, that I have felt and know exists, is in presence, and the real question is perhaps not about the Internet at all but how to have more of it.
P.S. Do you want more presence? What might it take to have it? Would love to hear what you think in the comments.