Book Review:  Two Insightful Critiques of Digital Life

I have been wringing my hands about the Internet from its very dawn, And I have agreed with other well-founded anxieties  (wring, wring, wring)

The internet is frying our brains and destroying society, the economy, and politics!  How can we remain human?  Can it be fixed?

This summer, two new books give us some more nuanced views on these challenges.

In The Next Billion Users ,Payal Arora makes clear than a lot of this handwringing is “rich people’s problems”. The global poor are on the Internet—for better or worse—and their experience is poorly understood by both pundits (such as me) and the corporate overlords who create and run the platforms the everyone, including “the next billion”, use.  Arora’s thorough and well informed research is an important counterweight to the ill informed sale pitches out of Silicon Valley, promising to solve “digital divide” and poverty itself.

Bay Area artist and pundit Jenny Odell writes about how we (rich people?) can “resist the attention economy”  How to Do Nothing aims to help regain control of our own attention from addictive digital media, and pay attention to other, more important and healthier things.  The attention economy sees such diversion of attention as “unproductive”, and “doing nothing”.  As a designer, she is searching for better ways to use digital network technology.

Together these books tell us a lot about what people really do on line (hint:  they act human), and perhaps how we can redesign digital life to be better for everyone. Well, probably not better for the blood suckers who profit from the current social media platforms.  But better for everybody else.

 

The Next Billion Users by Payal Arora

Me and a lot of other people (including Jenny Odell) have been wringing our hands about the multiple harms of the current internet and contemporary capitalism in general.  (wring, wring, wring, wring)  The internet is frying our brains and destroying society, the economy, and politics.  How can we remain human?

But these worries are based in my own experience, and therefore count as “rich people’s problems”.  What about the majority of Homo sapiens who live in the “global south”?  How do the Next Billion Users use and experience the digital world?

This is Arora’s question, and it’s quite a loaded one because technologists are laden with a lot of mental baggage about “those people”.  As in, “How do “those people” use digital technologies?”

It’s not the right question. The right question is:

What do human beings actually do with digital networks?

Hint: “They act human.”

Arora has done a lot of research including field work, and has a lot of interesting things to tell us.

“…people who live in circumstances of scarce resources are, in the most fundamental ways, just like everyone else.  They are proud. They are sexual beings. They look for love. They use humor as a powerful coping mechanism….They hunger for entertainment.” ([1], p. 49)

A Digital Divide?

Arora has quite a few insights into things that have bothered me for a long time, but I wasn’t sure why they bothered me.  The ‘digital divide’ is often a problem defined by the solution, i.e., companies wanting to expand networks, especially if they can get it paid for by the government.

But this is usually wrapped in a narrative about how expanding access would be good for “them”.  Unexamined assertions that poor people (AKA, “they”) are, as she puts it, “virtuous”, and that, if we give people access, they will use digital technology for instrumental and educational purposes (e.g., farmers will use the net to check crop prices).

These stories are wrong from many points of view (as she explains), and have been proved wrong again and again.  People are people, they will choose games, socialization, and, uh oh!, pornography over lessons and crop reports.

“The good life is not necessarily the high moral life. Therefore, let us look at the gap in digital leisure, not from an instrumental and moralistic stance, but in the direction of desire.  In doing so, let us shelve the fairy tales of the digital divide project as we explore the digital realities of a complex and much overlooked global populace.”  ([1], Pp 30)

This misconception is starkly visible in the plethora of “hackathons” that whip up apps to “fix” poverty and other “social problems”. These apps are mostly symbolic.  How could they be otherwise; cobbled together overnight (many times, literally over one night) out of whatever is freely available, by outsiders with no real experience of the problem or the solution, no research, and no plan for sustainability.

It’s called a “hack” because it’s junk.

Arora also criticizes the glorification of “jugaad” and related “innovation through austerity” concepts. The idea that the poor are superior entrepreneurs because they have no choice but to improvise is basically wrong and, by the way, implies that failure to get out of poverty is due to lack of this supposed virtue.  Can you say, “blaming the victim”?

As she puts it, “Jugaad is a euphemism for coping with everyday life.” ([1], Pp 94)

App Based “Personalized Learning”

Arora has a bad attitude about TED-star driven, “Self Organized Learning Environments” which propose to replace teachers and schools with a computer.  This concept promises that if you just let kids play with a computer, they will spontaneously learn.

This miracle sounds too good to be true, and Arora is here to tell you that it certainly isn’t true. There is extensive evidence, from more than a century of such experiments that, left to their own devices, kids will, wait for it, goof off.

Not that evidence or logic has much impact on the evergreen fascination of amateurs and self-interested hucksters. Referring to a specific nemesis of hers, she describes this as “an ideological cult of play-driven, self-organized learning as a way out of poverty. To dismantle this cult, we need to bring down the prophet.” ([1], p. 103)  Ouch!  And boy, she sure does put the boot in to this particular TED star.

Overall, “The poor do not need more innovation.  If innovation is a proxy for pilot projects, the poor are better off without them.  The should not be guinea pigs for new technology.” ([1], p. 150)

Surveillance

A daughter of India, Arora points out an interesting insight:   the surveillance society we are all worrying about today echoes nineteenth century colonial administrations.  Categorize, track, and control “them”; and, at the same time, exploit them.  “It is clear that the so-called Information Age did not arrive as a result of the digital age; it began long before. (P[1], p 161)

Like everyone, the poor must navigate the benefits and risks of digital exposure.  The global poor generally have little privacy, not because they do not value privacy (as some “experts” suggest), but because they are subjected to massive surveillance by the state, gangs, neighbors and family.  So the digital world is basically another front in the same game.

Targeted advertising is an interesting case in point.  In one sense, the intrusive data collection of online commerce is a refreshing democratic turn for the poor.  At last, their existence is recognized and valued.

At a time when the consumers in the West are demanding invisibility and the right to be forgotten, the poor seem to have earned their right to visibility. Progress is often bittersweet.” (1], p. 174)

Coupled with digital purchasing, online commerce is actually quite beneficial for underserved populations.

“Few quality brands are available to them within their vicinity. Few shops sell what they want in their neighborhood. When there is a captured market, there is little incentive to satisfy customers. The internet compels the shops in slums to improve their services and quality of goods.” ([1], p. 175)

On the other hand, targeted ads can be cruel when they push merchandise that is desirable but impossible to afford.

Teens

The majority of the global south are young people, and the digital users are predominantly teenagers.  How do these teens behave online?

Hint:  they behave like teenagers.

As everywhere and everywhen, teen culture and sex, digital or analog, are deeply threatening and invite policing.

Social media offer an exciting combination of opportunity and danger for teens.  (That sounds like teen life, to me!)

On the one hand, social networking can enable young people to meet, flirt, and hurt in virtual spaces, even when they are not allowed to meet offline.  Digital life offers a lot of tools for self-presentation, and the concomitant self-invention and self-discovery–the essential core of teen life.

On the other hand, digital socializing is dangerous.  Deception is rampant.  The private may become public, with potentially lethal consequences, especially for young women.

Around the world, there is a constant balancing of desire for romance with risk of self-exposure, “an everyday negotiation of self-preservation versus desire.” ( [1], p. 183 )

But what price, love?

“Surveillance and romance are tethered to one another. To discover more about young people’s views on digital privacy, romance is a critical lens. It is impressive how the young, even in the most constrained settings, put everything at risk for the sake of love.

“And these digital natives will find a way to trust and love.

“Today, to be young and in love is to share the most intimate things—passwords.” ([1],  p. 182)

The Bottom Line

Arora’s studies show us that understanding digital life of the global south, and I would say, to understand digital life in general, “It is essential to acknowledge the diverse forms of digital activity engaged in by the poor, as well as the digital architectures within which they perform these acts.

Human beings are human beings. We—not “they”—pursue pleasure in all its forms.

“If this book can achieve one thing, it would be this—to go beyond the instrumental and attend to the full spectrum of digital life in the humanizing of the global poor.” ([1], p. 215)

It is important to pay attention to what people really do and want, not what corporations, elites, and TED speakers fantasize, project and impose.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, I really liked this book.  Arora knows what she is talking about, and she’s talking about important stuff.

Am I less worried about the shoddy, destructive, anti-human design of brain- and society-frying digital technology?  No.  But whatever we do to try to fix it should be informed by a full picture of what people, all people, really do, need, and want.

And, as with music and everything else; when the tools get into the hands of the workers poor kids in the barrios and villages, watch out!  I look forward to see what the next billion make out of this technology I helped build.


How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

“[D]oing nothing is hard.” ([2], p. xvii )

Of course, Odell isn’t actually interested in leisure (though goofing off is certainly important, as Arora tells us).  She’s interested in “Resisting the Attention Economy,”

The book is a long personal essay, or perhaps series of essays, on what this means.

It hardly seems necessary to justify why we want to take back our attention from digital monopolistic capital. But as an artist, Odell has yet more reasons: doing art is all about directing attention in important, non-obvious and non-trivial ways.  Addictive social media are an existential threat to art.

“I am opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrines a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic.” ([2], p. xii)

What To Do

So what should be do about this?

Odell calls for us to withdraw our attention.

 “[T]there are many “systemic abuses” to be refused at the moment, but I propose that one great place to start is the abuse of our attention. That’s because attention undergirds every other kind of meaningful refusal.” ([2], p.  80)

When we withdraw attention, and pay attention to something other than addictive brain sucking social media, we stand outside their reckoning, we are unproductive. We are “doing nothing”—from the point of view of the capitalist attention economy.

But of course, we are certainly doing something, just not what they want us to.

The book is basically about how and how not to do this.

How To Do It

Odell describes three strategic aspects of doing nothing:

  1. selfcare, in the sense of working for self preservation
  2. listening, both Deep Listening and “hold[ing] yourself still so that you can perceive what is actually there” ([2], p. 23)
  3. maintenance (and “mothering”), as opposed to novelty and growth

The third point is interesting to me. She describes maintenance versus novelty (i.e. “disruption”), and complains that the latter is “routinely valorized, not mention masculinized, while the other goes unrecognized because it has not part in “progress” ([2], p. 26)

This comment really resonated with me.  Throughout my career as a software developer, there was always a romantic fixation on “coding” and, indeed, “hacking” software, But the reality is that software work is 99% documenting, checking, updating, and fixing things: maintenance.  At least , this is true for good software that actually works and lasts more than a few months.

(In this aspect, the captilast attention economy certainly seems to contain the seeds of its own demise:  many of the worst attention-sucking offenders are so shoddily built that they cannot possible persist for long.)

What Not To Do:  There Is No Where To Run To

Chapter 2 is all about “the Impossibility” of dropping out.  Odell gives some history of utopian communes and other forms of “walking away”.  She concludes that dropping out doesn’t work and isn’t really right anyway.

I’ll concur with that, and add the obvious observation that there is nowhere to run to.  No matter what you do or where you go, you are still in the same fouled up spaceship with everyone else,  Our only choice is to make a stand:  pick a place, dig in deep, and fight on forever.

Be Here Now

Withdrawing attention basically means attending to something else.

Odell talks about the importance of “bioregionalism”, paying attention to your specific place with you in it.

“I value bioregionalism for the even more basic reason that, just as attention may be the last resource we have to withhold, the physical world is our last common reference point.” ([1], p. 148)

Odell is a bird watcher, and pays deep attention to her avian neighbors.  This attention is good for her, good for the birds, and, as a bonus, screws the social media attention vampires.

More than that, she is also talking about paying attention to where you are, especially to the people there with you.  As she says, this is a common reference point, and therefore the basis of communication and meaning.  It is, of course, pretty much the opposite of what “community” means on line, and that’s the point.

Technical Suggestions

Odell has been thinking hard about how to use design to make things better. She as a few suggestions, though I’m hungry for much more than she has here.

Some samples of her suggestions:

“I think often about what an online network that attends to the spatio temporal character of our experience as humans—animals who have evolved to learn things in time and space—woutd look like….I wonder what it would be like to experience a social network that was completely grounded in space and tie, something you had to travel in order to use, that worked slowly.” ([2], p. 166)

“What if we spent that energy instead on saying the right things to the right people (or person) at the right time?  What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return—and more time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are meant?” ([2], p. 176)

“When I try to imagine a sane social network it is a space of appearance: a hybrid of mediated and in-person encounters, of housrs-long walks with a friend, of phone conversations, of closed group chats, of town halls.” ([2], p. 179)

She seems to be describing pre-Internet systems, and we know a lot about their good and bad points.  We know that slower communication means a lot more “local character”, which is both good and bad.

Village life can be very human and humane, but tribalism is usually very dangerous.  Indeed, global networks have at least one virtue:  they give wider vision and easier mixing of people—which generally counters the most primitive tribal thinking.  (Trolling isn’t new, but it used to be hidden away in local communities, not out in the open for the whole world to see.)

If I may add my own suggestion to Odell, Mixed/Augmented Reality may have some very useful properties.  Mixed reality applications project parts of the digital world into specific places in the physical world.  Done right, this might help combine the virtues of digital media (e.g., easy communication, integration of data) with personal interaction: we can interact with the digital world only when we are both here at the same time.

Various Scattered Insights

This book is full of other insights and arguments.  Ill just note three that I found memorable.

Missing Out:  She argues for a move away from #FOMO to #NOSMO: the Necessity of Sometimes Missing Out.  “Doing nothing” is a positive thing.  Don’t be afraid to miss something. As my mother would have told me, anything important will still be there tomorrow.

Personal Branding:  In fact, I don’t know what a personal brand is other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgements, “I like this” and “I don’t like this”, with little room for ambiguity or contradiction”. ([2], pp. 137-8)

Ouch!   I have long resisted the concept of a “personal brand”, mainly because I am not a product for sale.  But Odell hits an important point:  the entire concept is shallow and trivial. Which is part of why I find it so insulting.

“Manifest Dismantling”: Odell discusses the image for a painting called “Manifest Destiny”, who is represented as a white robed angel moving inexorably and blindly forward, not seeing the trail of destruction behind here.  Odell imagines an alternative image, “Manifest Dismantling”, who is “a dark-robed woman who is busy undoing all of the damage wrought by [(white-robed)] Manifest Destiny, cleaning up her mess.” ([2], p. 190)  She is marching backwards, maintaining and healing what is behind us.

It’s a gripping image.

Much of this book is full of inspiring images and interesting insights.

 

  1. Payal Arora, The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2019.
  2. Jenny Odell, How to do nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Brooklyn, Melville House, 2019.

 

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