12.31.21

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My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VII — Staying the Course and Fake It Till You Make It?

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 1:31 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By Dr. Andy Farnell

Series parts:

  1. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part I — 2021 in Review
  2. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part II — Impact of a ‘COVID Year’
  3. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part III — Lost and Found; Losing the Mobile Phone (Cellphone)
  4. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part IV — Science or Scientism?
  5. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part V — Change in Societal Norms and Attitudes
  6. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VI — The Right Words
  7. YOU ARE HERE ☞ Staying the Course and Fake It Till You Make It?

Fake Tech VeganSummary: Dr. Andy Farnell continues sharing his ‘Tech Vegan’ experiences from this past year; this series will carry on well into the new year (2022)

Staying the course

Another theme I have dealt with this year is “tenacity versus resignation”. People have different coping mechanisms to technological
stressors, some get mad, some get even, some get the hell out of there. I began the year helping a student edit an inspiring story of how he graduated without non-free software. I was very impressed with this individual’s ability to unerringly act with firm politeness and perseverance against the kind of institutional steamroller that crushes other students.

“I began the year helping a student edit an inspiring story of how he graduated without non-free software. I was very impressed with this individual’s ability to unerringly act with firm politeness and perseverance against the kind of institutional steamroller that crushes other students.”Elsewhere I have encountered learned helplessness (see Seligman et al. Hiroto75). Defeatism is one of the greatest enemies we face in seeking digital rights, as people seldom feel able to confront what they do not understand. A disappointing number of people (wrongly) said to me “What’s the point boycotting your supermarket Andy? They’re all just doing the same”. Despite there being absolutely no evidence that other British supermarkets were violating privacy rights there’s a pervading sense around tech that a possibility once is a necessity forever, which feeds into a nihilistic refusal to resist even the most tepid incursions by technological abusers.

What I’ve learned is that small, polite but resolute gestures make big changes. Standing up for principles as a single voice does make a difference. Sometimes you need to start as an army of one and remember that all progress “depends upon the unreasonable man“. Despite every armchair theorist’s wisdom on the intractability of ‘network effects’ we successfully flipped our whole family communication circle from Whatsapp to Signal in a few weeks.

But this raises a troubling question. By what right am I an evangelist? What prophet made me an influencer and missionary charged with saving the souls of technological sinners? None whatsoever. And wouldn’t it be grandiose and egotistical to take on such a role?

How the world has changed since the ’90s when I had a T-shirt that said, “No. I will not fix your computer”, because like every other geek I was inundated with requests for help. “Help me install a new hard drive”. “Help me connect to the Internet”. “Help me build this web page”… I have yet to hear an honest request – “Please, help me get off social media”.

“Like many of the most insidious harms, technological harms are invisible, delayed, accumulative and tolerance building. All you can do is stand back and hope others see the harm and abuse they are bringing upon themselves.”I wrote several chapters in Digital Vegan, about addiction, cults, entrenched behaviour and the impossibility of proselytising others to a crazy cause. I advise against it – and indeed the book title is an ironic take on that problem. Anyone who has dealt with alcohol or drug problems knows the pain of seeing those you love harm themselves and knowing that, generally, any interventions only make things worse. Like many of the most insidious harms, technological harms are invisible, delayed, accumulative and tolerance building. All you can do is stand back and hope others see the harm and abuse they are bringing upon themselves.

Fake it till you make it?

Being a Vegan “impostor” myself I’ve developed a sharp nose for “Fake Digital Vegans” – those who say “Oh yes, how ghastly it all is”, while messaging on Facebook. They care deeply about everything, so long as changing would not inconvenience them. I’ve also noticed a slew of click-bait stories in the popular press that tease us with “I quit my smartphone for a month and you’ll never guess what happened to me next!”. Actually, I can guess… you got paid a big bag of money for lying about it. Celebrities making grand public theatre of their few weeks without Alexa (the horror) actually subtract from responsible, moderate use.

“All platforms encourage token dissenters, because that legitimises them as “democratic”.”Only this week another latecomer joined the party. Comedian David Baddiel made his own apologies on the BBC for correctly naming everything wrong with social media, including his own daughter’s distress, before admitting his hopeless addiction and crawling back to it. The point is that Baddiel is a courageous intellectual, but ultimately seemed defeated in his bid to extricate. What does that bode for us lesser beings?

All platforms encourage token dissenters, because that legitimises them as “democratic”. One cannot wholly burn-down ones own platform in protest. How did this public spectacle of failure help? And if he had been successful, who would have ever heard of David Baddiel again? So, here lies the paradox of celebrities attempting to set an example regarding social media.

I’ve come to think that fetishism of “tech-fasting” only cements addict-like behaviour. It’s flip-side is Cyber Monday bingeing on IoT junk to “reward yourself”. Do or do not, there is no try. Like Baddiel’s, these accounts are generally pessimistic in their conclusion that it’s “impossible” to stand up against Big-Tech. They are coded messages from the establishment saying, “Don’t be so silly, nobody can really live without a smartphone and social media”. Of course that’s not true. But you won’t ever hear that on social media.

“When I made video lectures criticising Google, it felt awful that the most likely outlet would be YouTube.”Thus I am ambivalent towards those conflicted pragmatists “changing the system from the inside”. I decline joining their “Overthrow The Empire” Facebook groups. Yet I have respect for their courage. It takes something to fully embrace hypocrisy, or dualism. When I made video lectures criticising Google, it felt awful that the most likely outlet would be YouTube.

Successful projects I have encountered seem advocate modest and gradual change and are not too Puritan to use the platforms they denounce to spread their message. However, many projects that attempt to address subjects like social media dependency disorder and have been active since around 2015 have not found traction. They’ve achieved only modest success despite the growing prevalence and visibility of the problem. Why is this?

“If token dissent is no longer being tolerated and disaffection swept under the rug, it means the big platforms are scared.”Amidst mounting scientific evidence and whistleblower reports, widespread sentiment on the need for society to back away from collective smartphone and social media delirium is booming. However, critical discussion now encounters suppression across all corporate mass communications systems like Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, etc.

Active censorship of social technology critique is a good thing (and quite inevitable). It marks a vital advance in the sequence “first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” If token dissent is no longer being tolerated and disaffection swept under the rug, it means the big platforms are scared.

_______

Bibliography

  • [Hiroto75] “Hiroto & Seligman, Generality of learned helplessness in man, “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology”, 31, 311-327 (1975).
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