"Disconnectionists" - the institutionalisation of non-use?

Sebastian Greger

Back in November, Nathan Jurgenson, the scholar who earlier coined the term “digital dualism” to describe (and challenge) the belief that online and offline lives are separate entities, wrote an article on The New Inquiry titled “The disconnectionists”.

The essay examines the philosophy of people promoting the benefit of consciously disconnecting from digital networks for a certain period of time:

According to this popular fairytale, the Internet arrived and real conversation, interaction, identity slowly came to be displaced by the allure of the virtual – the simulated second life that uproots and disembodies the authentic self in favor of digital status-posturing, empty interaction, and addictive connection. This is supposedly the world we live in now, as a recent spate of popular books, essays, wellness guides, and viral content suggest. Yet they have hope: By casting off the virtual and re-embracing the tangible through disconnecting and undertaking a purifying “digital detox,” one can reconnect with the real, the meaningful — one’s true self that rejects social media’s seductive velvet cage.

While Jurgenson’s text focuses on debunking the myth that the use of digital technology per se is unnatural or even an illness, his contribution is of interest from the perspective of the non-use debate due to its description of two dimensions:

  • non-use as not just conscious but potentially deeply ideological behaviour
  • intentional non-use as a behaviour promoted by mass media as well as the health and wellbeing industry

This illustrates how the dominantly promoted “use” surrounding popular technology such as social media may not only lead to individuals making a choice to resist or reject but even to the emergence of normative movements where negating use can in itself turn into a movement with its own “users” (e.g. crowds signing up for “digital detox” camps and the like):

Not only has the American Psychiatric Association looked into making “Internet-use disorder” a DSM-official condition, but more influentially, the disconnectionists have framed unplugging as a health issue, touting the so-called digital detox. For example, so far in 2013, The Huffington Post has run 25 articles tagged with “digital detox,” including “The Amazing Discovery I Made When My Phone Died,” “How a Weekly Digital Detox Changed My Life,” “Why We’re So Hooked on Technology (And How to Unplug).” A Los Angeles Times article explored whether the presence of digital devices “contaminates the purity” of Burning Man. Digital detox has even been added to the Oxford Dictionary Online. Most famous, due to significant press coverage, is Camp Grounded, which bills itself as a “digital detox tech-free personal wellness retreat.” Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal has called it “a pure distillation of post-modern technoanxiety.” On its grounds the camp bans not just electronic devices but also real names, real ages, and any talk about one’s work. Instead, the camp has laughing contests.

“Institutionalized non-use” of technology, which I interpret into this debate, is an interesting concept: when a technology has reached a critical mass of users, objecting its use may well grow beyond individual choice into a cultural or commercial trend.

Thinking about it, instances of this trend are abound: for example, while some may decide to check their work e-mail only once per hour as a personal productivity measure, others could find themselves in a company that actively promotes such behaviour as corporate policy to reduce stress.

Have you encountered situations where non-use has reached a state of being institutionalized? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts in the comments!

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.

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