Turn Off, Tune In, Log Out

How often we hear from those—including many Millennials—who want nothing more than to turn away from the technological toys they have been given, and return to a calmer, simpler time.

Specifically, I speak of the incessant complaints by many 20-somethings (and everyone else) about the increasing ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, and so forth in the daily life of virtually every person in the industrialized world, and how much they wish it were otherwise.

We’ve all heard it.  No doubt, many of us have said it ourselves.  It’s not that we wish the social networking apps that have so dominated and defined the generation now coming of age would altogether cease to be.  It is, rather, that we would have them play a far more diminished role in our comings and goings.

Indeed, it is the fondest wish of (some of) these skeptics to detach from these omnipresent websites completely, if only to prove that Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk do not completely control our lives.

To these folks I have but one question:  What the heck are you waiting for?

If you really want to leave Facebook, then leave Facebook.  If you no longer wish to tweet, then don’t tweet.

If the addictiveness and lack of privacy inherent in these resources bother you that much, then, as the English say, get on with it.

Or, alternatively, you could cop to the truth of the matter, which is that you simply cannot imagine your life without Facebook et al., that you wouldn’t know how to function in the supposedly idyllic pre-Internet universe for which you so supposedly pine, and that, in the end, you’d much rather complain about the drawbacks to these technological marvels than actually part ways with them.

To be sure, there’s nothing unusual about this conundrum.  We all feel your pain.  No one particularly wants his or her privacy compromised, and few have any great confidence that the CEOs of these companies hold their customers’ privacy as their primary concern.

The question is whether we, today, have the choice to opt out of this system.

Literally, we do.  But practically?  Well, that may be the issue on which our entire culture hinges.

By all outward appearances, my own grandparents have managed to get away with it.  They have never owned a personal computer, let alone smart phones or Flickr accounts, and are able to operate happily on a day-to-day basis more or less as they always have.  If they need to be informed of anything important, someone gives them a phone call.  When a bill comes due, they send a check in the mail.  And if they absolutely must look up something online—well, that’s what libraries and grandchildren and for.

Of course, there is a giant asterisk to this story, which is that virtually everyone they know is well aware of their technological limitations, and have learned to act accordingly.  What is more, they spend half the year in a Florida retirement community, which means that nearly all the people they regularly interact with are, themselves, roughly on the same page.  So long as enough members of this generation exist, the rest of the world will be required to accommodate them.

Those in my parents’ generation, meanwhile, seem to lie right on the cusp of old and new ways of living.  For that reason, their experience is perhaps the most instructive of all.

My mother, after years of resistance, now has an active Facebook account.  My father does not, and possibly never will.

Like the rest of us, my mom joined out of a sense that she would otherwise be “out of the loop” regarding what certain friends and family members were up to—a concern validated by, say, learning about an engagement or pregnancy several months after the fact, since the announcement was made exclusively via Facebook, and everyone who received it assumed that everyone else had, too.

My dad, who is as interested in other people’s lives as anyone, does not seem to worry that his absence from online social networks has abridged his access to such information in any meaningful way.

Maybe this is because he knows he can rely on my mom to catch him up, if need be.  Maybe it’s that, like my grandparents, he is confident that the members of his real-life social network will keep him abreast of all important developments through other, more old-fashioned means.  And maybe the day will yet come when he determines he is not sufficiently plugged in to the world around him, and has no choice but to sign the “user agreement” the rest of us have found impossible to resist.

And if that happens, should we regard it more as an act of free will or latent cultural coercion?

We are advised, from an early age, not to bow to “peer pressure” and never to automatically run with the crowd, particularly when we object to the direction in which the crowd is headed.

And yet today’s social networks are a sparkling illustration of how nearly all of us do precisely those awful things, and how prevailing cultural trends have all but forced it upon us.

There is a playful paradox at work here, as we puzzle over how the collective world population has managed to levy peer pressure upon itself.  (I am somehow reminded of Yogi Berra’s quip about some restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”)

In any case, the Facebook phenomenon is nothing if not self-perpetuating:  As more join, more are compelled to follow suit.  This means that the only way this form of human connectedness could possibly abate is if a whole mess of people suddenly and forcefully abstain, casting society back to the bucolic, antiquated days of, say, the 1990s, when you learned what was going on by reading a newspaper or talking on the telephone.

Is that really what we want?  From the way many bitch about the Internet’s imperial, invasive designs, the answer is a definite “maybe.”

If so, these naysayers can take some comfort from the reminder that millions in America and elsewhere still live precisely that way, with no desire to change course.

For those who have already ceded to the tide but now nurse second thoughts, the decision to withdraw from online social life is fraught with difficulties that the blissfully ignorant probably cannot appreciate.

But I maintain, nonetheless, that it is not impossible, and I would urge such dissidents to give it the old college try, lest they show themselves to be full of nothing but hot air.

Live as you truly wish to live.  What, apart from everything you’ve ever known, do you have to lose?

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