Culture is future » Innovation and digital

01.13.2016

Contribution: "The pre-digital nostalgia and the Off switch fantasy" by Paul Vacca

Each era creates its own Golden Age. A glorified “before”, a consolation revisionism. It is not surprising that our digital time is producing a custom golden age in response to the torments of hyperconnectivity. A time before the Internet, before smartphones, before Wi-Fi and before social networks. A time when everyone, it seems, took their time to read books, was able to focus on one thing at a time, had a natural consciousness of long term, exchanged on interesting topics in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, expressed themselves in more than 140 characters and not only with emojis… Any resemblance to an actual period of time is obviously purely coincidental.

The hype of digital detox

What is more surprising though, is the fact that this pre-digital nostalgia is not the exclusive property of the usual “it was better before” champions, professional declinists or licensed anti-techs. It looks like this nostalgia has even infected those who are living and enjoying fully the digital golden age. Not only through the vintage imagery or the use of analog objects but via a new trend: the digital detox.

Indeed, unplugging has become the latest hype. Trendy ‘guaranteed Wi-Fi-free’ retreats and luxury hotels with no screen nor connection are delighting start-uppers. Even at the very core of the digital Eldorado, in Silicon Valley, prominent actors of the new economy are sending their kids to connectionless schools - such as the famous Waldorf School – and are banning the use of computers, tablets, smartphones or any other screen at home. As a result, these digital tycoons are starting to look like drug-dealers whose ethical principle is to never use the drug they are providing to their customers.

Psychopathology of digital life

A book published last year in the United States, entitled Reclaiming conversation. The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press) gives a perfect explanation of this “ethics of disconnection”. The author, Sherry Turkle, researcher at the MIT, is herself a digital insider. For five years, she has interviewed people to analyze the relationships they have with the new technologies in their personal, familial, social or professional daily life.

What comes out is a psychopathology of digital life: texts, tweets, posts, emails, selfies, snapchats, online games have invaded every part of their lives. The smartphone they think they are possessing is possessing them. A self totally diluted into social networks, anesthetized to all form of empathy, causes a lack of appetence for face-to-face exchanges. A living dystopia. Broken social cohesion. But the author proposes a solution. What will bring back what makes all the savor of social life, what has disappeared with our contemporary hyperconnectivity, i.e. our sense of conversation, is the digital detox.

A disconnected life or a disconnection from life?

How not to agree to the will of restoring the sense of conversation and dialogue in a hyperconnected world? And in this respect the book of Sherry Turkle makes a convincing praise for the power of conversation as a social link. It makes no doubt that it is necessary to warn against the dangers of hyperconnectivity. On the other hand, we are less convinced by the fact that switching off would settle all problems.

First, because it seems to us that disconnection as a remedy looks as useless as prescribing to stop breathing because the air is polluted. Is it really possible to durably disconnect nowadays?

Second, the idea that disconnection would bring back the lost art of conversation as if by magic seems illusory. We had forgotten that our discussions before Wi-Fi existed were at the same level as Madeleine de Scudery’s ones, or that our exchanges before text messages were better than Madame de Lafayette’s…

The ethics of disconnection appears more to be a social class fantasy – of the ultra-connected class – similar to the “desert island” or the “tax heaven surrounded by coconut trees” fantasy. And, as a matter of fact, this praise of a disconnected life suffers from being more like an approach disconnected from life.

Harmonizing online and offline

To oppose online and offline only makes the problem bigger. It is true that this fantasy comes as a reaction to the utopia of connection that has been and is still at work: The Internet should resolve everything. The real issue should consist more in harmonizing online and offline in a continuum perspective: being online must not be perceived as the opposite of life but as a useful extension to it.

To restore the conversation and the human makes senses today. Sherry Turkle is right. But we must work on it both online AND offline. This requires a better understanding of the riches, but also of the limits, of the Internet. It is a challenge for everyone working in culture. Because isn’t culture itself a disconnection – in direct contact with the world – even if we are connected? And it is also an educational challenge, with the goal of making sure life and conversation are always more beautiful than connection.  

About Paul Vacca

Paul Vacca is a novelist, essayist and consultant. He scans the social transformations related to digital technologies as well as the trends in media and cultural markets. He published articles in Technikart, Le Monde and La Revue des Deux Mondes, is a speaker for conferences at the Institut Français de la Mode and collaborates to the think-tank La Villa Numeris.

Recent publications: the novel Comment Thomas Leclerc 10 ans 3 mois et 4 jours est devenu Tom L’éclair et a sauvé le monde (Belfond 2015) and the essay La Société du hold-up - Le nouveau récit du capitalisme (Fayard 2012).

On Twitter : @Paul_Vacca