- Studies show that the internet is bad for our mental health, and more and more people are realizing the harm.
- Internet gurus are pushing us to quit social media, and tech leaders are sending their kids to anti-Internet schools.
- But we need a more systemic solution to the Internet’s grip on our lives; we have to see the internet as a factory.
- PE Moskowitz is author and director of Mental Hellth, a newsletter on capitalism and psychology.
- This is an opinion piece. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
This year seems to be the tipping point for the feelings of social media users about the Internet. Once seen as a liberating technology that would usher in an era of creativity and new connections across the world, many – from casual Twitter users to the professional content creators – have activated the technology.
You can get an idea of the mood change from our media production: there is
The popular and dystopian reality show “The Circle”, in which contestants cynically compete for money, often using fake characters on the Internet. One of the streaming site’s most popular documentaries over the past year was “The social dilemmawhich caught viewers’ attention with her explanation of Facebook’s privacy missteps. And even some of the hottest novels this year are about the darker sides of the internet, like Lauren’s Oyler “False accounts,“and that of Patricia Lockwood”Nobody talks about it.“
We all re-analyze our relationship with the internet for good reason, but we’ve misclassified what that relationship really is. It’s not like a bad relationship, where you can just walk away, and it’s not like junk food, where you can decide to eat less – it’s global technology, our main economic driver, the tool. that we are forced to use to meet others and to publicize our entire lives.
A solution to our current Internet use crisis can no more come at the individual level than a person quitting their job would solve the poor working conditions of capitalism. If we are to hope to make the Internet less stressful, less grueling, and more fulfilling, content creators, workers in the odd-job economy, and even casual Internet users must push for a systemic solution.
We know the internet is rotting our brains
More and more evidence suggests that the internet is really terrible for us. A 2018 study of students found that limiting social media use to 10 minutes per day significantly reduced anxiety among its participants. A Study 2019 found that teens who spent more time online were more likely to have mental health issues. Other studies find that social media users end up feeling more lonely, more isolated and less confident.
A real cottage industry has sprung up to capitalize on the fact that people know the internet is bad for them. The web is full of practical tips for taking a break from social media, and self-help books have been written to encourage us to take a break from social media. There is several popular TED talks former internet engineers and executives telling people the internet is bad for them and that they should leave social media behind. Retreats for the rich that ban phones and computers, and, perhaps most worryingly, the very people who build this technology send their children to schools where the technology is banned – a tacit admission of its potential to harm people’s minds .
We are constantly reminded that the internet is bad for us and yet the use of social media is higher than it has ever been, on average 145 minutes per person per day in the world. We are stuck in a cycle where we know something is wrong, we want to stop, and yet apparently we can’t.
The Internet as a factory where we work, but don’t get paid
We cannot leave the Internet because we have misconstrued the problem. Social media is not an individual addiction that can be addressed on an individual level – it is a societal problem that needs a societal solution. We need to see the Internet less as a tool we can’t stop using in one way or another, and more as a factory we need to be in.
Our whole society has been reformulated around the Internet, much like it was centered around the factory during the Industrial Revolution. If there is a Amazon web services outage, a large part of our society stops functioning. Without the internet, we couldn’t find jobs, or even friends at this point.
The “gig economy” – the often underpaid and exploiter work done by Uber drivers and Instacart buyers – was made possible by the internet, and now more than a quarter of workers in the United States participate in this economy in one form or another. During the pandemic, office workers were only able to perform their duties via the internet, and students paid full tuition fees for the privilege of watching
for hours every day.
We are all required to be here – online – for our livelihoods. But even when we don’t have to be here, companies try to make sure we always are: App and game developers use the same science that makes people play slots in Las Vegas to keep us glued to our screens.
As a culture and media theorist McKenzie Wark written in his book “Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?”, the Internet uses our work without our really knowing it. Unlike the age of broadcast media, where owners of TV networks and movie studios had to at least create the content to sell us, we now create all the content for each other, most time without being paid.
“[Social media companies like Facebook] don’t even bother to be entertained, ”writes Wark. “We need to entertain each other, while they collect the rent, and they collect it on all social networks, public or private, at work or at play, and (if you keep your FitBit on) even when you sleep.”
We produce the memes, tweets, posts and images that keep us connected to the internet, and then that content is monetized in the form of advertisements – income users help produce, but usually don’t see a dime.
While a very small number of internet users can get paid for their work – that is, influencers or popular YouTubers – most of us don’t. If the Internet is a factory, it is a factory in which the vast majority of people are not paid. Instead, users often fight each other over non-cash payment. as weight – the recognition that we can produce the best and the best content for free.
“In some neighborhoods [of society], this emotional currency replaced the wages of industrialization, in particular for professionals who earned their living in a structured way thanks to paid content and who now disseminate their signatures far away in the hope of obtaining a livelihood of niche thanks to name recognition ”, sociologist Andrew Ross written.
This free or cheap labor has dramatically widened income inequality, according to some theorists. We fight for subscribers, retweets and likes, all for free, while the platforms on which we profit massively. And only a few large companies collect these profits; nearly 70% of all digital ad spend goes to Google, Facebook or Amazon.
As Yasha Levine writes in her book “Valley of Surveillance, “The Internet was never designed to be a friendly place for the average user – it was developed by the US military to spy on people during wars, then used to spy on Americans at home as well. Google’s initial funding came from grants from US spy agencies. When the Internet’s infrastructure was sold by the US government to private companies, the people who profited from this privatization funded magazines, advertisements, and lobbying to reframe the Internet from a surveillance tool to a tool that could liberate us culturally. As detailed by Levine, Louis Rossetto – the founder of Wired Magazine, the biggest megaphone to evangelize the new internet privatized in the 1990s – was an Ayn Rand fan who believed the internet would replace the need for government.
Today we live in this libertarian view of the internet in which businesses exist largely unregulated, under-taxed, and able to do whatever they want without fear of government interfering.
So what do we do?
But now more people seem to be seeing through the hype. So the question now is what to do with this new collective revelation.
If the Internet is like a factory, maybe we should treat it like one. In 2014, artist Laurel Ptak created a manifesto titled Facebook salaries in which she argued that Facebook should pay users for their content:
“They say it’s friendship. We say it’s unpaid work. With every like, chat, tag or poke, our subjectivity pays them a profit. They call it sharing. flight.”
While Ptak’s work is a work of art and not a strategy to change the web, it could be a place to start. Perhaps we internet users can organize to stop giving away our hearts and minds for free so that a privileged few can enjoy. Just as union organizers pushed to make other industries less exploitative, perhaps we need a movement to do the same with the Internet.
As Levine writes, in 1969, hundreds of Harvard students gathered to protest the university’s involvement in the creation of ARPANET, the forerunner of the modern Internet. The students saw it as dangerous technology that would be used to monitor the entire world. If, in the early days of the Internet, the harmful potential of technology was already evident to some, there is no reason that it cannot become evident to us again. It may only be a matter of time before enough of us say “enough” and protest the Internet’s total grip on our work and our lives.