I toured the world twice—first in 2009–10, then in 2013–14. Only four years between the two trips, but it felt like a century internet-wise. Where I had to go wifi-hunting in 2009, in 2014 the web was absolutely everywhere—even in places with no mobile coverage, such as remote El Chaltén in Argentine Patagonia. Yet, I had the feeling this advent of a truly connected world wasn’t much cause for celebration. Indeed, I met many who struggled with an increasing need to disconnect.
I heard this line from fellow travelers numerous times, be it in Laos, Costa Rica, or New Zealand. I actually said it myself! As absurd as it sounds, it’s a perfect illustration of our ambiguous relationship with the internet.
Has the internet become repulsive? It certainly has in the eyes of Italian artist Francesco Sambo. His HyperConnection series depicts a dark and creepy humanity transformed—or tortured—by technology. Strikingly, Sambo is a savvy internet user, showcasing his work through Behance and SoundCloud.
Artists are often the first to capture the collective unconscious. Antisocial network I and II by Congolese artist Maurice Mbikayi are skulls made out of keyboards. “The […] sculptures ask questions such as to whom such technological resources are made available and at what or whose expense? What are the consequences impacting on our people and environment?” states Mbikayi. Less morbid but equally shocking is the alienation depicted in the Strangers in the Light series by French photographer Catherine Balet. In a very visual way, she questions us: are our babies born in a mad world?
Not only does hyper-connection alter our social relationships, it also makes us dumber, as pointed out as early as 2005. It threatens our health too. Twenty-first-century afflictions include digital fatigue, social media burnout or compulsive internet use.
Cures for these rising internet-related disorders include such radical solutions as rehab centers, or disconnection.
“I was wrong”
Most of the experiments in living offline have begun with the same cause and led to the same conclusion: the internet drives us crazy, but it brings us much more than we realize.
“The internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are,” says journalist Paul Miller in his famous “I was wrong” piece on The Verge. When you disconnect, you’re not just cutting the link with a network of computers, you’re actually isolating yourself from the rest of society. Miller also emphasizes that there is no such thing as a divide between virtuality and reality. To me, the best example of this is the sharing economy of “virtual” communities such as AirBnb or Kickstarter that is all about changing the “real” world.
The cure is worse than the disease
A lot of people today feel torn between two extremes. They aren’t against modern ways of interaction per se, but they won’t close their eyes to the excesses. The concern becomes even greater when the developing minds of children and teenagers are at stake. Many parents believe their digital-native offspring aren’t capable of using the internet moderately. You can’t blame them when you come across stats such as 20 percent of French young people are addicted to their mobile.
Is disconnection the only alternative to unhealthy internet use? That cure is worse than the disease. There must be another way.
Internet users are ripe for a new era, for the next step. A “more asserted, more mature” use, in the words of Thierry Crouzet, another famous disconnectee. Neither hyper- nor dis-connected: post-connected.
I see the advent of post-connected users wary of addictive or invasive tools. Post-connected users are also well aware that a social network centered on the individual, rather than on the group, inevitably leads to narcissism. They see the internet as a means for more direct human relationships—not a thing that feeds on our continual attention.
The internet pictured as monstrous should sadden us all, for it is one of mankind’s greatest inventions, one which has done so much for knowledge, education and human rights. Besides, it isn’t addictive by nature, we have turned into a drug.
We are the drug dealers
We, the web makers, have designed interactions which encourage selfishness and competition. We created tools that cause fatigue and stress. We practically invented hyper-connection.
It is therefore our responsibility to design for post-connected users. If we’ve been powerful enough to create addiction, then we must surely have the resources to imagine post-connected user experiences. How? I’ll give you some leads in my next column.
In the meantime, I would very much like to discuss this topic with you. Have you ever felt the urge to disconnect? Do you agree there is such a thing as post-connected users? Would you say addiction is the sign of a successful design? Your comments, criticism, and true stories are most welcome.