Studies show the internet is bad for our mental health, and more people are realizing its harms.
Internet gurus encourage us to give up social media and tech execs send their kids to anti-internet schools.
But we need a more systemic solution to the internet's grasp on our lives; we need to see the internet as a factory.
P.E. Moskowitz is an author and runs Mental Hellth, a newsletter about capitalism and psychology.
This is an opinion article. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
This year seems to be the tipping point for social media users' feelings about the internet. Once seen as a liberatory technology that would usher in an era of creativity and new connections across the globe, many - from casual Twitter users to professional content creators - have turned on the technology.
You can get a sense of the shift in mood from our media output: There's Netflix's popular, dystopian reality show "The Circle," in which contestants cynically compete for money using often fake internet personas. One of the streaming site's most popular documentaries in the last year was "The Social Dilemma," which captured viewers' attention with its explanations of Facebook's privacy faux-pas. And even some of the most buzzed-about novels this year are about the darker sides of the internet, like Lauren Oyler's "Fake Accounts," and Patricia Lockwood's "No One Is Talking About This."
We're all re-analyzing our relationship to the internet for good reason, but we've misclassified what this relationship really is. It's not like a bad relationship, where you can just walk away, and it's not like junk food, where you can decide to eat less - it's an all-encompassing technology, our main economic engine, the tool we are forced to use to meet others and mediate our entire lives.
A solution to our current internet-use crisis cannot come at an individual level anymore than one person quitting their job would solve capitalism's poor working conditions. If we want any hope of making the internet less stressful, less back-breaking, and more fulfilling, content creators, gig economy workers, and even casual internet users need to push for a systemic solution.
We know the internet is rotting our brains
A growing body of evidence suggests that the internet really is terrible for us. A 2018 study of college students found that limiting social media use to 10 minutes a day significantly reduced anxiety in its participants. A 2019 study found that teens who spent more time online were more likely to have mental health conditions. Other studies find that social media users end up feeling more lonely, more isolated, and less self confident.
A veritable cottage industry has cropped up to capitalize on people's knowledge that the internet is bad for them. The web is littered with how-tos on taking a break from social media, and self-help books have been written encouraging us to unplug. There are several popular TED Talks from former internet engineers and executives telling people that the internet is bad for them and they should leave social media behind. Retreats for the wealthy which forbid phones and computers have cropped up, and, perhaps most worryingly, the very people who build this technology are sending their kids to schools where the technology is banned - a tacit admission of its potential to harm people's minds.
We're constantly reminded that the internet is bad for us and yet social media use is as high as it's ever been, averaging 145 minutes per person per day globally. We're stuck in a cycle where we know something is bad, we want to stop, and yet, seemingly, we can't.
The internet as a factory where we work, but don't get paid
We can't quit the internet because we've conceptualized the problem all wrong. Social media is not an individual addiction that can be addressed at an individual level - it's a societal problem that needs a societal fix. We need to think of the internet less as a tool we all somehow can't stop using, and more as a factory we're required to be in.
Our entire society has been reformulated around the internet, much like it was centered around the factory during the Industrial Revolution. If there's an Amazon Web Services outage, much of our society stops functioning. Without the internet, we couldn't find jobs, or, at this point, even friends.
The "gig economy" - the often underpaid and exploitative labor performed by Uber drivers and Instacart shoppers - was enabled by the internet, and now more than a quarter of workers in the US participate in this economy in some form. During the pandemic, office workers were only able to fulfil their required job duties through the internet, and college students forked over full tuition for the privilege of staring at Zoom for hours each day.
We're all required to be here - online - for our livelihoods. But even when we're not required to be here, companies attempt to make sure we still are: App and game developers use the same science that keeps people playing the slots in Las Vegas to keep us glued to our screens.
As culture and media theorist McKenzie Wark writes in her book "Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?", the internet uses our labor without us really knowing it. Unlike the broadcast era of media, during which the owners of television networks and movie studios had to at least create the content to sell to us, we now create all the content for each other, mostly without being paid.
"[Social media companies like Facebook] don't even bother to provide any entertainment," Wark writes. "We have to entertain each other, while they collect the rent, and they collect it on all social media time, public or private, work or leisure, and (if you keep your FitBit on) even when you sleep."
We produce the memes, tweets, posts, and pictures that keep us tethered to the internet, and then that content is monetized in the form of advertisements - revenue users help produce, but do not usually see a penny of.
Although a very select number of internet users can get paid for their labor - i.e. influencers or popular YouTubers - most of us do not. If the internet is a factory, it is one in which the vast majority of people are not getting paid. Instead, users often fight with each other for non-monetary payment in the form of clout - recognition that we can produce the most and best content for free.
"In some quarters [of society], this affective currency has replaced the wages of industrialization, especially for professionals who used to earn a structured living from paid content and who now disseminate their bylines far and wide in hopes of securing a niche livelihood from name recognition," the sociologist Andrew Ross writes.
This free or cheap labor has widened income inequality massively, according to some theorists. We fight for followers, retweets, and likes, all for free, while the platforms we're on profit massively. And only a few, large companies are collecting these profits; almost 70% of all digital ad spending goes to either Google, Facebook, or Amazon.
As Yasha Levine writes in his book "Surveillance Valley," the internet was never meant to be a place friendly to the average user - it was developed by the US military to spy on people during wars, and then used to spy on Americans at home too. Some of Google's initial funding came from grants from US spy agencies. When the infrastructure of the internet was sold off by the US government to private companies, the people who stood to profit off that privatization funded magazines, advertisements, and lobbying to reframe the internet from a surveillance tool to one that could liberate us culturally. As detailed by Levine, Louis Rossetto - the founder of Wired Magazine, the biggest megaphone for evangelizing the new, privatized internet in the 1990s - was an Ayn Rand fan who believed the internet would come to replace the need for a government.
Today we live in this libertarian vision of the internet in which companies exist largely unregulated, undertaxed, and able to do what they want without worry that the government will interfere.
So… What do we do?
But now, more people seem to be seeing through the hype. So, the question now is what to do with this new, collective revelation.
If the internet is somewhat like a factory, perhaps we should treat it like one. In 2014, the artist Laurel Ptak created a manifesto called Wages for Facebook in which she argued that Facebook should pay users for their content:
"They say it's friendship. We say it's unwaged work. With every like, chat, tag or poke our subjectivity turns them a profit. They call it sharing. We call it stealing."
Though Ptak's work is a piece of art, not a strategy for changing the web, it could be a starting point. Perhaps we as internet users can organize to stop giving away our hearts and minds for free so that a select few can profit off of them. Just as labor organizers have pushed to make other industries less exploitative, perhaps we need a movement to do the same with the internet.
As Levine writes, in 1969, hundreds of students at Harvard gathered to protest the university's involvement in the creation of ARPANET, the precursor to the modern internet. The students saw it as a dangerous technology that would be used to surveil the entire world. If, at the beginning of the internet, the technology's potential for harm was already obvious to some, there's no reason it cannot become obvious to us again. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before enough of us say "enough," and protest the internet's totalizing grasp on our labor and our lives.
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