Reclaiming our lives from screens

Camden and Regent's Park area
Near our London neighborhood (May 2016).

Spring is coming slowly to Virginia. I feel fairly desperate for it, on the eve of snowfall.

I have been thinking about the season and its association with new beginnings. Recently, I was in Austin for SXSW with my team, and a subtle theme emerged from many of the presentations: Maybe technology isn’t all that good for our well-being. Maybe so much “innovation” is just making us sad and insane and lonely.

We were pondering the ways that people in 2018 are trying to become more human again. Increasingly, we’re feeling this urge to sever our ties to social media and detach from our soul-crushing dependence on digital devices.

In the midst of these conversations in Austin, I was plowing through Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. This passage kept coming to mind as a tangential example of life, the freedom of the mind and body, the particular independence that we have as liberated creatures.

“To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but to dream. Atoms of light quiver between the branches of stretching-up black trees. It is in this unearthly first hour of spring twilight that earth’s almost agonised livingness is most felt. This hour is so dreadful to some people that they hurry indoors and turn on the lights—they are pursued by the scent of violets sold on the kerb.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

What a pleasure to be alive in such a season! And all of these details, so finely observed, could only come from someone who has never gotten a crick in her neck from staring at her Instagram feed for an hour.

You can tell from my recent posts, but 2018 is my year of fighting against being hijacked by technology. I want to be alive and in the world the way that Bowen was. Following are some of the small ways I’m reclaiming my life.

Focus on print.

I’m reading all the time, all day long, but I want to read for depth and comprehension. If this is my aim, the best way to read is in print. It’s far better for our brains and eyes and memories.

I am still a print-only reader of books, but in further pursuit of this effort, I’ve greatly reduced my online news diet. I try to read a bit in the New Yorker when it comes and receive a few newsy email digests, but that’s it now. I don’t keep up with the news in this feverish way that I once did. And it’s wonderful. I’m so happy about it. (For more inspiration in this area, see Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times about how he only read print newspapers for two months.)

Treat my phone like a landline.

Guion and I have been trying this one out: When we’re home, our phones live in one place. We don’t take them around the house with us, from room to room. We deposit them on a particular counter when we come home, and that’s where they live.

This small domestic habit has surprisingly profound effects on our ability to resist distraction and read and write and talk to each other. It is both depressing and heartening, to discover that such a small behavioral shift can have such a significant impact on our evenings.

Check Twitter only once or twice a week.

Twitter is so unfortunate! These days, I avoid it as much as I can and post primarily to complain about my dogs or share a quote. I sense my anxiety, my babbling technostress, and my cynicism increasing the longer I scroll through my feed. Now, I log on mostly to see what beautiful paintings Rabih Alameddine has posted or if Lulu has any new quips. That’s it.

Wait without looking at my phone.

I’ve been working on resisting the allure of my phone whenever I’m waiting. It’s a small choice, and one that seems to reek of sanctimony, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed this new habit.

Whenever we’re alone, our necks are tilted down at our phones. I do it too. And it’s incredible how blank the mind goes when we’re looking at a screen. We just turn off to the world. We barely exist in a given environment when we’re deep in our phones.

The smartphone is a pacifier. The device is burning with heat in our pockets, and we can’t resist it: We don’t want to feel or look lonely. It’s frightening to be too intimate with our thoughts and fears and desires. The phone distracts us from our inner life, makes us feel busy, envious, mildly piqued—anything but alone.

This insignificant choice, waiting without relying on my phone to comfort me, has had such a powerful effect on my mental state. I did not expect it. It’s as if I was remembering how to see again, how to observe the world around me. I’m particularly floored by this one. It made me realize how reliant I have been on my phone to placate me when I’m alone.

Consider the body.

It’s well documented that our devices are bad for our minds (pick a modern plague, any plague: anxiety, addiction, stress, self-esteem, fake news, porn, etc.). But our phones and laptops are also bad for our flesh-and-blood bodies.

This practice of waiting without looking at my phone has also made me incredibly conscious of my body: how it works for me, how it feels, how I carry myself. My posture has been wrecked by years of peering at screens. I still need to work on this one. If anyone has any good posture tips for maintenance throughout the day, please share; I’m all ears.

Hold things in the mind.

I rely on my phone to remember everything for me. I used to have a strong memory; I used to memorize full speeches and poems, and once, in my fervent youth, entire (albeit short) books of the Bible. But now? I have to make a list even if it just contains three items. Our memories have grown despairingly weak. Because we don’t need to remember anything anymore: This is what our devices are for. Convenient props for the mind.

I’ve been thinking about memory for years, since being so fascinated by Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and I have realized how much my brain power improves when my device isn’t a mental crutch. For me, an act as small as taking notes by hand, with a pen on paper, is a tiny step in the right direction.

Cherish everything that has no digital life.

Your stupid German shepherds who dig trenches in your backyard because they’re bored. Your shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks. Your weak-limbed daffodils crushed by March snow. Your friend’s baby, who has no idea who the president is and doesn’t care about the moronic thing he said today. Your church’s community dinner that follows the service. Your grandfather. These are some of the things that can bring us back to ourselves.

Here’s the concluding hope:

People are getting smarter about tech usage. We’re all a little less naïve about the consequences of our digital dependence. In the wake of the latest Facebook scandal and just overall, more and more people are getting off social media. Surely some new, terrible platform will replace Facebook and Twitter, but I believe we could be witnessing the twilight of their popularity. Maybe we can collectively turn the tide before it’s too late for our hearts and minds.

Amid the Russian bots and fake news and conspiracy theories and data breaches, I feel buoyed by a little hope. Every sign-off, every step away from the machine is optimism. Humans are taking back small measures of their humanity.

Get off Facebook now

Lake District day two
A photo Facebook never saw (Catbells, Lake District, UK; June 2016).

I signed up for Facebook when I was a freshman in college, shortly after the platform had been opened to non-Ivy League schools. In the old days, as you’ll recall, Facebook was just for college students. It was mildly fun back then. I remember being excited to join a group for UNC freshmen and then, as I made friends in real life, add them as friends on Facebook. I signed up for events and posted photos of my friends and I lounging in the quad. But the sheen quickly wore off. Soon, high schoolers could join, which was something that annoyed a lot of us, as if we were the pure and rightful users, and then, finally, anyone with a pulse could sign up. By the time I graduated, just four years later, Facebook had already started morphing into the creepy, greedy, sadness monster that it is today.

Facebook’s monstrosity has always been there, lurking in its DNA. But the past few years have shown us the platform’s sinister nature in new and palpably horrifying ways.

If you’ve been paying attention, nothing below will surprise you. You already know Facebook is bad. But in case you needed a few more reasons to delete your account…

1. Facebook is using you; you’re not using Facebook.

Pro tip: If something is free, you are the product.

This is not something I stopped to consider when I first signed up for Facebook. What a great, friendly service, to connect me and all of my new friends at college! Um, no. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t make Facebook out of the goodness of his heart, simply because he wanted to see everyone reach across the aisle and poke one another. (Remember “poking”? God. We should have known back then that Facebook was super-sketchy.)

Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook as a horny college student, creating an app to rate girls on their hotness levels. Facebook might have been for bros then, but now, Facebook is for advertisers. They are his customers. We are what they are using. Facebook tracks everything you do online, buys additional information about you from data brokers, and then sells that information to advertisers so they can get you to buy things. This is what Facebook is for—and yet we all pretend that it’s happy and useful and connecting us with friends near and far. It’s not. As we shall see in the following points.

Additional reading

2. Facebook is creepy.

So, not only is Facebook using you, but Facebook is also very secretive about how it’s using you.

Just to scratch the surface: Facebook knows how much you make, where you live, how many credit cards you have, how much your house cost, where you shop and what you buy, who’s in your address book, and what your face looks like. Facebook also knows where you go online even after you sign out of Facebook. (They’re tracking you with cookies; this is how the ads seem so frighteningly specific. It’s because they’re watching you, everywhere, online.) And we gave them permission, for all of this.

A summary of the scope of Facebook’s operations (emphasis added):

… even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. … What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does — ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ — and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

(Source: “You Are the Product,” John Lanchester, London Review of Books)

Facebook’s intrusion into our lives is only going to grow. It’s in a grasping and depserate state, even with its outrageous market share. 1.2 billion people use Facebook every day, but Zuckerberg won’t stop until he has everyone. This is the central business proposition: Get the entire world onto Facebook so we can watch every human and sell them everything. It all sounds so grandiose and hyperbolic, but it’s what the benighted CEO is after.

What’s needed, [Zuckerberg] argues, is some global superstructure to advance humanity. This is not an especially controversial idea; Zuckerberg is arguing for a kind of digital-era version of the global institution-building that the Western world engaged in after World War II. But because he is a chief executive and not an elected president, there is something frightening about his project. He is positioning Facebook — and, considering that he commands absolute voting control of the company, he is positioning himself — as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society.

(Source: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times Magazine)

This is the goal. Facebook wants your whole life.

Additional reading

3. Facebook is bad for democracy.

You know how America is more polarized than ever before?

How “echo chamber” politics seems to be the only way we do things now, with everyone just liking and re-posting things they already agree with, and no one is capable of listening to an opposing point of view without throwing a tantrum online? Remember how liberals were so gobsmacked that Trump supporters existed in such large numbers, because (and I heard dozens of people say this) they “didn’t know anyone who would vote for Trump”? Remember the 2016 election, the one that Russia hacked?

Facebook has a hand in all of this. Even if we can’t directly blame Facebook for the 2016 presidential election, Donald, the Dear Leader, and his conspiracy theory goons, played directly into the platform’s weaknesses.

We can blame Facebook for a lot of the ills that plague our piss-poor public discourse.

With its huge reach, Facebook has begun to act as the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truths swirling about the rest of media. It sucks up lies from cable news and Twitter, then precisely targets each lie to the partisan bubble most receptive to it.

(Source: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?“)

And this:

On Russian meddling specifically, it took Facebook more than 10 months after the election to reveal that Russian trolls had bought ads through Facebook, and then it further dragged its feet on deciding to make those ads available to Congress.

(Source: “On Russian Meddling, Facebook Follows a Familiar Playbook,” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times)

Just this month, Facebook has finally owned a bit of its culpability in propagating misinformation, with the announcement that it will be demoting posts from news outlets in favor of those from your friends.

On this whole, this seems like a positive move, but it’s also too little too late. The damage has been done; the rift in decent public discourse has been made, and I’m not optimistic it can ever be repaired. (Unless everyone gets off Facebook. Which is what I’m trying to make happen. Clearly.)

Additional reading

4. Facebook pollutes and manipulates your brain.

The internet can be rich in splendor and mired in filth all at once.

Facebook is squarely on the filth side of this equation. It’s the least edifying way to use the internet.

Here’s a simplistic metaphor: We, the Facebook users, are the lab rats. Facebook, the erstwhile scientist, is force-feeding us junk food to examine how we behave.

This metaphor can only go so far (because then the scientist sells his rat findings to Mad Men??), but it gets at the gist of this point. Facebook fills our brains up with junk (ads, memes, hysterical news stories, “studies,” etc.) and then uses algorithms to control what we see, in an ultimate effort to manipulate our behavior.

… if we want to be melodramatic about it, we could say Facebook is constantly tinkering with how its users view the world — always tinkering with the quality of news and opinion that it allows to break through the din, adjusting the quality of political and cultural discourse in order to hold the attention of users for a few more beats.

(Source: “Facebook’s War on Free Will,” Franklin Foer, The Guardian)

Foer goes on to cite just one instance of Facebook’s experimentation on us:

We know, for example, that Facebook sought to discover whether emotions are contagious. To conduct this trial, Facebook attempted to manipulate the mental state of its users. For one group, Facebook excised the positive words from the posts in the news feed; for another group, it removed the negative words. Each group, it concluded, wrote posts that echoed the mood of the posts it had reworded. This study was roundly condemned as invasive, but it is not so unusual. As one member of Facebook’s data science team confessed: “Anyone on that team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behaviour.”

For me, this attempt to control users is not surprising. Facebook has SO much data about people at its fingertips; of course it’s going to use this information to steer and control us. It’s the junk and nonsense part that also irks me, which brings me to my next point.

Additional reading

5. Facebook is valueless (to you, not to Zuckerberg).

Facebook does not deliver on any of its promises to users.

You’re not more connected to people. You have an illusion of knowing more about others’ lives, but do you, really? Do you really know what’s going on? Everything you see is a curated presentation. We all do it. I refuse to believe there’s even a “genuine” way to exist on social media. Even when you post photos of your toddler crying while vomiting or one of yourself with no makeup, you’re not being “authentic.” You’re also making a statement. Everything on social media is performance art.

Years ago, Zuckerberg bombastically stated, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” and then declared that Facebook would cure this ill. Everyone would share everything on Facebook, and no one could hide anymore! The dual arrogance and hypocrisy in his statement is mind-blowing. Facebook is the very method by which we all create two identities for ourselves: the public profile me can exist entirely separately from the private, real-life me.

You’re not “staying informed.” If anything, as we’ve seen, you’re staying misinformed. You’re not reading “the news:” You’re reading headlines of stories you already agree with, and usually hyperbolic reports at that. You’re also not really reading the news deeply because of Facebook: 60% of people who share links on social media don’t even click on the links themselves. This is depressing, and also nuts.

You’re not hearing about all the hot parties and social gatherings. This is the main excuse I hear from millennials like myself, when I start ranting and raving about Facebook: “Yeah, I would get off, but then I won’t know about all the things that are happening!” Guess what? I’ve been off Facebook for five years, and I still get invited to parties. I still find out about events. Real talk: If Facebook is your primary vehicle for learning about events, maybe you need to start going to different events.

Facebook, for all its lofty and pseudo-humanistic promises, is the lowest common denominator of human interaction.

If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want — if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations — then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves.

(Source: “You Are the Product”)

Let’s be honest. What ultimate good has Facebook brought to our lives?

What are we using Facebook for, really? If you are like me, you were probably using Facebook for just two reasons: to (1) stalk weird homeschoolers that you grew up with, and (2) get hot and bothered by your relatives’ misspelled political opinions. That was it. Neither use made me feel particularly happy or encouraged in my development as a human being, which leads me to my sixth and final point.

6. Facebook makes you unhappy.

Facebook is a garbage platform that makes us all feel like garbage in turn.

This truth is borne out by all kinds of research.

In one experiment, people who were randomly assigned to give up Facebook for a week ended that time happier, less lonely and less depressed than those who continued to use Facebook. In another study, young adults required to give up Facebook for their jobs were happier than those who kept their accounts. In addition, several longitudinal studies show that screen time leads to unhappiness but unhappiness doesn’t lead to more screen time.

(Source: “Most People Are Unhappy for the Exact Same Reason,” Jean Twenge, Quartz)

The professor goes on to summarize these findings (and they apply to all people, not just teens):

Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.

But you don’t need “studies” to convince you of this fact. You know this, in your heart of hearts, just as I do: Facebook makes us all sadder.

We all know that too much screen time is bad for our brains and hearts and overall lives, but we’re not reducing usage that much. If you’re like me, and your entire job is dependent on a computer, cutting back on screen time isn’t an option during the work week. But the screen does not rule us. Not entirely. Not yet.

Significantly, we don’t have to let something as toxic as Facebook dominate our life online.

For me, personally, 2018 is going to be a year of cutting back, of declaring screen-free weekends and nights, as much as possible. I’m already happier for it. I’ve been happier about my online life for the past five years, primarily because I took one crucial action: I deleted my Facebook account.

Those who know me will cry foul, because they know I still use Facebook-owned products like Instagram and WhatsApp. I know that I’m being spied on there, too. But it’s a lower level of insidiousness, and the difference, for me, lies in the platform limitations. Instagram can’t distribute links or news stories or people’s hot takes. For me, Instagram is 80% babies, 10% people’s food, and 10% travel photos. I’m OK with that. It’s a nice visual distraction for about 5-10 minutes every day. I can watch friends’ kids grow up from afar and not read a single political opinion. WhatsApp is a wonderful way for my family to stay in touch, especially with a sister who lives abroad. I don’t have to interact with anyone but a small circle of family and friends there. Facebook controls the internet, this we know, but at least I can let it control me in slightly smaller ways.

I know people talk about this (getting off Facebook) in the hopes of garnering some sick sense of self-congratulation. I know that’s what this sounds like. But I just want to tell you about something that made my life better. I am a happier and more mentally balanced person because I don’t use Facebook anymore.

Most important link in this entire diatribe:

How to delete your Facebook account.

Facebook, unsurprisingly, makes it very difficult for you to delete your account. You can “deactivate” it, which just hides it from your friends’ feeds, but all the data is still there. If you really want off, you need to delete your account. Follow the instructions in the link above. After your deletion request, they’ll grudgingly delete your account within a 14-day period. (Even then, I’m not convinced they actually do it. But it’s worth the shot.)

Go with God, my friends, and go without a Facebook account.

Questions and answers

Wednesday afternoon | Abby Farson Pratt

What is your favorite website?

Goodreads, by far. By far! Life would be a bleak, formless void without Goodreads. It is the only acceptable form of social media (besides Instagram).

What makes you happy these days?

Not being on Facebook. Not ever reading any online comments, ever. Ever, ever, ever. That might be my only life rule: Never Read the Comments. Also: Guion, clean floors, dogs when they are sweet, iris seedlings from a mystery friend, books, our church.

How can we stop the terrorists?

Stop talking about them on Facebook would be a start. That’s what they want you to do…

Why does your hair often look ratty?

This is the Lord’s business, apparently, as the Lord has not yet given me a solution. As my mother, from whom I received my hair type, likes to remind me, “This is just the way it’s going to be for us. Because of our hair, we have to dress like hippies. We will always look like hippies.”

What is your favorite food currently?

It’s a tie between avocadoes and watermelons, straight from the fridge. May summer never end!

Which dog do you love more?

It depends on the day and which one is barking like an idiot at the moment.

How do you decide what to read next?

I have a system that waxes and wanes between order and impulse. The order is that I stockpile all of the books I own but haven’t read in my nightstand cubbies, and then I judiciously select a new title once I’ve finished a book (I try not to read more than five books at a time). The impulse is that I comb over my Goodreads list and then pick a book that appeals to me at that moment and request it from the public library. I am also strongly affected by my constantly wavering obsessions. Right now, I’m reading a lot about zen and Christianity, but last month, it was French women novelists, and the month before that, Southerners. It’s hard to say what it will be next.

How’s that yoga thing working out for you?

I don’t know, decently? I didn’t practice in the morning much this past week, as sleep seemed so much more precious, but I sneaked in a few poses in the afternoons. The other night, Eden decided to turn my (expensive) yoga mat into rubber confetti and destroy my nice, leather-bound Book of Common Prayer, so I’m not sure whose side she’s on (Eastern meditation vs. Episcopalian meditation). Aside from that, I recently tried to do a sun salutation on the deck while the dogs were out there with me, and Eden pounced on my head (like, dog claws into skull). Eden and yoga do not mix. Pyrrha, however, adorably practices a very well-formed downward dog whenever I start to stretch. (Fine, I love Pyrrha more! I admit it!)