Bonum Certa Men Certa

My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part V — Change in Societal Norms and Attitudes

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. YOU ARE HERE ☞ Change in Societal Norms and Attitudes


Alone



Summary: Dr. Andy Farnell shares his experiences from this past year; today's focus is his sense that there's some new sort of enlightenment, for people reach a high level of scepticism and fatigue over supposedly "smart" technologies that do not improve lives

Problems shared



Technology is about how we relate to each other. This year being a Digital Vegan really hit home through encounters with others. Of course our stereotype as techies is as basement dwellers. For everyone though, while we use words like social media it is anything but, tending instead to enhance individualism and our focus on ourselves.

"Is it cool to talk about tech-rights? Do you ask, "Hey mate, has your phone ever been hacked?", "What do you think of child labour in the factory where it was made?", "Do you trust contactless cards?""My grandmother said that it's impolite to talk about religion, money or politics over the dinner table. In reality, being of Northern English descent, we'd talk about little else. Talking is a vital part of understanding. Most of what we really believe gets tested against others, so we hear ideas repeated back to us in a critical and reflective way. I wonder whether we should add to that list a new item, technology?



Sure, we will make small-talk by casually comparing features. "How much RAM have you got in that iThing?", "How many mega-widgets?" In that sense, technology has joined the realm of traditional banter along with cars and football. But is there an invisible boundary around that? Is it cool to talk about tech-rights? Do you ask, "Hey mate, has your phone ever been hacked?", "What do you think of child labour in the factory where it was made?", "Do you trust contactless cards?"



It seemed common that many such conversations die early, with a sigh, a shrug and a closing rhetorical platitude like "What can you do?". However, this year I have noticed a growing enthusiasm to face-up to "awkward". "What about those kids that jump off the iPhone factory roof?", "Aren't you worried about having a "Smart TV" in the bedroom?"



"As the psychologists predicted, the backlash to pandemic isolation was enhanced proximity-seeking."We are starting to overcome what psychologist John Bowlby termed the "things we know we are not supposed to know" Bowlby79, to break what sociologist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann called the "Spiral of Silence" Noelle-Neumann73, and what documentary maker Adam Curtis dubbed "Oh Dearism" Curtis16. Turns out there is a good deal you can do (and should do), from just saying no, to turning things off, buying alternatives, and changing the way you relate to technology as a social construct. Indeed, the wealth and urgency of alternative living is why I wrote a book on it.



As the psychologists predicted, the backlash to pandemic isolation was enhanced proximity-seeking. Our human attachment needs burst back onto the scene, and it feels like a more brotherly and sisterly world. Social thawing around tech-difference helped me make a great many more meaningful inter-personal connections with new people (including reaching out to people like Roy, the editor of Techrights).



"In real life and online, digital sceptics, techno-realists or whatever you want to call us, are popping out the woodwork..."I've spent more time out in the open air, in the radical absence of technology, saying "hi" to strangers. To be clear, this isn't some wild-man escape into the woods to feed on grubs and berries, as those mocking individual efforts to live healthier technological lives might entail. It is neither romantic folly nor "white-male privilege" to make space to rebuild relationships with humanity and the wider nature of which we are a part.



Ocean turtle

If anything it's a subtle change in the tone of conversations I have and hear around me. Once open to the possibility, strangers happily initiate, and candidly share concerns about digital living and our technological society. In real life and online, digital sceptics, techno-realists or whatever you want to call us, are popping out the woodwork like in that Was (Not Was) song.



For once in a long time I feel recognised, heard and less alone. Vibrant conversations happen with other parents and teachers who are deeply concerned for the digital health of our kids. When I say "I don't have a phone", others visibly relax. Once, they used to tense up, on "weirdo alert!". Something's changed. Now I get more of an apologetic note - "Oh yes, I'm thinking of 'downgrading' too!" Now I feel a little too righteous, like I "tech-shamed" them.



"When I say "I don't have a phone", others visibly relax. Once, they used to tense up, on "weirdo alert!". Something's changed."Some people even offer "wait a moment while I switch mine off… so we can have a private conversation". Just… WOW! Symbolically, cellphones are a concealed carry weapon. We all know this in our hearts and yearn to disarm. Conspicuously switching off your phone or indicating you don't have one might now be the most powerful non-verbal signal of interest in another person.



My advanced social network system - called "walking up to people and asking them stuff", fills life with cool encounters, synchronicity, fortunate happenstance and feelings of mental well-being. Theoretically the density of potential connections in your real neighbourhood is much greater than those mediated through Menlo Park or Mountain View. Folks who knew your grandparents, or future lovers and business partners walk near you every day. The question is, if the universe wants to connect you, do you want to take the risk of reaching out to them?



"Modern etiquette seems to be that if more than two or three aren't using App-X or trying to pay by iCash then it's rude to press the matter."Being Digital Vegan can still lead to some uneasy social situations. Just like for real Vegans, a group vote for BBQ ribs at the steak-house could create a… sticky situation. Modern etiquette seems to be that if more than two or three aren't using App-X or trying to pay by iCash then it's rude to press the matter. So it's nice to go with at least one other Digital Vegan on a night out.



Funny Money

Even though my income has gone down I've felt more inclined to tip waiters, give to charity and put an extra few coins in the church collection. There was that awful time when, having enjoyed a pizza, and the staff refused to take a generous cash payment plus tip, I had to walk out of a restaurant with a free meal in my belly.



The hardest part was insisting that friends not "pay digitally for me" like I have a "disability". The manager waiving the bill may have been genuine munificence. If it was supposed to make me feel bad, I pointed out that I actually felt a little embarrassed for the staff who had been made to look foolish by "just following orders" not to even let me leave cash on the table.



"The hardest part was insisting that friends not "pay digitally for me" like I have a "disability"."That day I learned that for some people, actual reality, including hard economics, does not exist outside of their fantasy of how a "digital world" should work. A few weeks later I was interviewed for a documentary called "Cash-tastrophy", pondering the insanity of a "cashless society". My faith in human beings means I am not convinced people are really so stupid around this, rather there are hidden pressures operating behind the scenes.



"A few weeks later I was interviewed for a documentary called "Cash-tastrophy", pondering the insanity of a "cashless society". My faith in human beings means I am not convinced people are really so stupid around this, rather there are hidden pressures operating behind the scenes."Face it, cash (anonymous street money) is here to stay. Two years ago we thought Coronavirus might be spread by contact with money. We now know that fomite transmission doesn't happen. Some people didn't get that memo, because the messaging, insofar as it's influenced by private banks, is against cash. As far as I can see much of the discussion is mired in junk-science and specious theories around the costs and benefits of various systems. Stores that stopped handling cash in the pandemic must now concede, if they continue to do so, that it is for financial gain, and they are acting in a prejudicial and exclusionary manner. Wise economists have warned of the extreme dangers of removing stabilising state-backed physical currencies from circulation.



Surprising myself, I've gone from a Bitcoin disciple to a crypto-dissident. Yes, we need a way to divorce human affairs from the wickedness of the banking elites, but this isn't it. Sometimes you just need the courage to say, oops I made a mistake, back to the drawing board.



Biker

"...if tomorrow we built enough fusion reactors to eliminate all fossil fuels and provide a surplus of electricity, Bitcoin would adjust its value and expand its activity to burn-off the entire surplus."Pondering the trap that is "proof of waste" is depressing. It's one of those tragedies where we think we can solve it by "pushing through". There's some truth in the argument that, despite mining disincentives of diminishing returns, these technologies are lethally expansive. In other words, if tomorrow we built enough fusion reactors to eliminate all fossil fuels and provide a surplus of electricity, Bitcoin would adjust its value and expand its activity to burn-off the entire surplus. Have we have created a monstrous non-intelligent paperclip maximiser? I wonder why we didn't see this coming; that combining unfettered greed with a boundless appetite for energy might create a Godel Sentence for humanity already on the precipice of climate catastrophe.



My underlying enthusiasm for digital currencies is not spoiled though. Hopefully bitcoin and "proof of waste" Ponzi schemes will be usurped by taxable yet anonymous low-energy e-currency. Despite the El-Salvadorian false start (fail?), some kinds of non-corporate non-fiat electronic cash may become practical, useful and popular. Finding the sweet-spot of decentralised ownership without proof of work will be hard.



"To avoid economic fragmentation there should be no place for companies or governments to enact Method-X-Only enclaves and we may even need new laws to protect common cash currencies."We may have to live for a long time with different kinds of money, some more fungible, some more private, some very volatile, and people may find it hard to understand the advantages and risks of each. To progress, we will need to go through a period of diversity and tolerance around payment, perhaps even resurrecting electronic barter systems. To avoid economic fragmentation there should be no place for companies or governments to enact Method-X-Only enclaves and we may even need new laws to protect common cash currencies.



Digital Vegan: Is it a thing?

Finally for this part I'd like to talk about Digital (tech) Veganism as an identity. I dislike identity politics and have said in radio interviews that I don't see it as being an identity. In the same way that non-smoker isn't a cultural identity, it's a disposition or stance, because we'd hope for the best, non-malevolent technology for everyone.



Unavoidably though there is labelling and self-labelling at play. The past 10 years have sometimes been alienating for one without social media or a smartphone and no single word to explain that to others. Nipping at the heels of my self-assured confidence in taking a different life-path with computers, has always been a note of stigma and exclusion. So adopting the epithet, and "coming out as openly Digital Vegan" has been transformative.



"The past 10 years have sometimes been alienating for one without social media or a smartphone and no single word to explain that to others."In reality there are a dozen banners to stand beneath; I am a Linux User (and BSD these days). I am a Classical Liberal. I am a Philosopher of Science and Tech(ne) Critique (which goes back beyond Aristotle). I'm an Advocate for Human Rights. And so on… Most of all, as a Scientist, I object to much we've discussed in these essays as an affront to reason, the rise of Cargo Cultism, and celebration of ignorance of technical magic. And as non-secular Humanist, I lament the obvious corrosion of social bonds, love and human values.



Can Digital Veganism be a thing?, I think not. It was a cool title for a book of essays, and a borrowed fun snark that Cody Brown coined for his annoying mates who, like me, were probably causing an awkward moment with their "wrong phones".



Practically what it does do, is throw back into the faces of various non-thinkers, authoritarians, post/anti-humanist cyborgs and techno-fascists, the absurdity of their assumptions about how we should all just roll over and get-with their unexamined, parochial conceit of "progress".



"Practically what it does do, is throw back into the faces of various non-thinkers, authoritarians, post/anti-humanist cyborgs and techno-fascists, the absurdity of their assumptions about how we should all just roll over and get-with their unexamined, parochial conceit of "progress"."Anyway, I have started to feel (not just sympathise) with other minorities who provoke fearfulness and ridicule from others by merely being themselves. I've finally understood why the only practical choice is to wear it proudly.



I see also that "Identity" is at once liberating and constraining. I understand identity politics better because I can see the lure of it. Feeling empowered rather than a little worried, embarrassed and defensive is… well… empowering. For example; during those occasional acts of group techno-worship (when everyone gets out their phones in unison), I have some fun, smile and ride out the "awkward" moment by raising and tickling my own palm. Hopefully people think I just have a very small phone, but somehow, suddenly the awkwardness is no longer mine to hold.



"...during those occasional acts of group techno-worship (when everyone gets out their phones in unison), I have some fun, smile and ride out the "awkward" moment by raising and tickling my own palm."Another thought that occurred to me is that, in terms of identity, I have not changed, but the world has. It occurs to me that barring a period of geek-chic in the first decade of this century, for nerds, our otherliness never really changed. Sometime between that eternal September and Snowden we flipped from being gushing advocates of ubiquitous technology, to cautious advisers against it.



Perhaps writing my own book on the subject sensitised me to the plight of others less able to manage or understand tech, and why those people become dependent on technology. The pandemic, and the CompSci Masters students I've taught through 2021 (who have done amazing projects on digital rights and personal cyber-security) helped me see further. I get why we fall victim to bullying by employers, peers or even our own family, and are pressured into making technological choices that are bad for us, bad for others and for the planet. It is this psychology that has illuminated how we can most effectively mount resistance.





_______


Bibliography

  • [Bowlby79] John Bowlby, On knowing what you are not supposed to know and feeling what you are not supposed to feel, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, (5), 403-408 (1979).
  • [Noelle-Neumann73] Noelle-Neumann, The spiral of silence: Public opinion, our social skin, University of Chicago Press (1973).
  • [Curtis16] Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation, BBC documentary, (2016).



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