We're addicted to the internet, says New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. And our drug of choice is our always-connected devices.
Searching for the little dopamine hits that come from new notifications, or likes, we become withdrawn in an ephemeral world in which we are constantly reminded of our own social status and its minute defects. So Douthat proposes a movement of digital temperance. We need to create, through taboo and even law, spaces where we are free of this compulsion and distraction.
In fact Douthat's reasons for resisting the internet could be stated even more strongly. The internet seems to play a role in social and political polarization. The rise of outrage-news clicks obviously helps create the condition where conservative Christians feel they are among the most persecuted in America and college students imagine a world in which threats to their identities are nearly omnipresent.
And it's not just the way the internet warps our personal habits. The techno-optimism of the late 1990s and the early years of the smartphone have given way to a desperate, dystopian fear. The very things that made the internet cool — shopping from home or discreetly sharing images or private jokes with distant friends — now makes it seem like a threat. Every week or so, it seems there is a major data breach. Your passwords, credit histories, browsing histories, documents, and photos seem vulnerable to thieves and those who would exploit them.
But resistance isn't enough. You can't just resist a bad habit, you have to replace it with a better one. One way to improve a diet is to ditch the junk food and empty calories for richer food that is more satiating. And that may be the way to solve our internet addiction. Instead of looking for distraction on the internet, we should seek out things that require attention.
Social media is dangerous because we are social animals. It's as if there's always a party, one in which gossip and new details about our social circles are constantly exposed. It's hard to leave a party like that, even if the longer it goes on, the more of a drag it becomes. So instead of killing time on distracting networks, try engaging ones. Or at least ones that encourage you to do things in real life.
As much as you can, ditch Instagram and Facebook for older forms of social networking: message boards and other exchange groups. That's where the good stuff is still happening.
Here are two examples.
If you wanted to learn a new language in the past, you used to buy expensive courses at local schools or at a Rosetta Stone kiosk in the mall. But language learning has become a community on the internet, and as its members share tips, they've mostly exposed the old methods for not delivering on their promises. And now the community is building new ones. You can trade digital flashcards for language study on Anki. Or you can connect with language learners across the world on italki.com and HelloTalk. There you can use the internet's powers to hire native speakers to tutor you over Skype. Or you can do something even more powerful for language learning: Make friends in your target language. You can trade a half hour of your English for a half hour of another person's Mandarin or Tagalog.
The flurry of exchange of ideas within hobby communities on the internet leads to faster innovation and real life creativity. Here's another example (and yes, this too is from my life): In the past decade, as computer companies phased in cheaper, lighter keyboards that use plastic domes, fans of the older type of keyboards, the ones with mechanical switches, started to find each other on the internet. Six years ago this little group of enthusiasts was mostly exchanging reviews of the few niche keyboards that were of the older type. But the speed at which these enthusiasts were able to trade information allowed a whole world of hobbyist knowledge to open up. Now new manufacturers serving even smaller niches are emerging out of the hobbyist community itself. People who post on Reddit or Deskthority develop the passion and expertise to become small-batch manufacturers, creating new products with input from customers who are more like peers and friends. Like mid-century modern design? There is a minimalist keyboard for you. Like to spread your hands in a new ergonomic layout? There are plenty of options. Or you can print parts at a 3D printing center and build your own.
In fact these message boards can become a kind of way out of distraction. People begin as lurkers, curious about their hobby. But slowly at first, and then in a rush, browsing photos of custom keyboards leads to obtaining a soldering iron, and learning some basic programming skills. Watching a YouTube video of a superior language learner can lead to new, far-flung collaborations in learning a new language, and, if you like socializing in real life, a conference in Montreal.
Or it could be a determination to read all of William Shakespeare's plays in one year, or woodworking, or mastering Korean hot wings. The best places to find stuff to do in real life is still online.
In other words, one way out of the internet addiction is to go through it. Find an ambition that you've left on the shelf for too long, and suddenly your scrolling on the internet moves quickly from a mere distraction to a compulsion to try something new.