For technologies that were supposed to make our lives easier, our phones, computers and networks sure cause a lot of suffering. And the story we tell ourselves about that suffering – a story about the pain of technology adoption – only makes it worse.
We’re constantly wrestling with the devices that have invaded our homes, our handbags and even our bodies. If we’re not fighting towards Inbox Zero, we’re plunging into a digital fast. We extricate ourselves from the compulsion to check Facebook, only to binge on Netflix. We worry about the social impact of the people who are left offline, and we worry about the security risks of people who are online too much.
We cite the Industrial Revolution as precedent for this kind of upheaval, and before that, the advent of the printing press. Any new technology is intrinsically disruptive, we tell ourselves; this is just the technological disruption of our time.
But looking at these challenges through the lens of technology adoption just keeps our devices at the center of the story. We need to think less about the devices and more about the people using them; to see our social networks not (just) as technologies, but as spaces we now inhabit.
Seen through that lens, it’s clear this isn’t a story of technology adoption: it’s a story of migration. We are moving from a culture in which our day-to-day lived experience took place entirely in the analog, physical world, to a culture in which more and more of our daily experiences take place in the virtual spaces of our social networks, our phones and our computers. And like many historical and contemporary immigrants, we are experiencing the challenges that go with that kind of rapid relocation.
Migration scholars note that immigrants experience stressors like anxiety, depression, identity confusion and alienation. Most of us online voyagers have experienced that kind of confusion and anxiety when we’re trying to learn a new piece of software, or figuring out which social network we “have to” join. We experience FOMO — the legendary “fear of missing out” that stems from seeing all our friends’ exploits on Facebook and Instagram — and tap into the feeling of alienation we’d know as immigrants to a new culture. We worry about friending our colleagues on Facebook, or connecting with our families on LinkedIn, because the Internet delivers the same clash of contexts that sparks offline identity confusion.
The migration analogy also helps us think about our choices in how to adapt to this new world, even when it’s no longer brand-new to us. Second-generation immigrants adapt to their new world in one of three ways: by acculturating and assimilating, by rejecting their new environment, or by deliberately embracing a new world while actively preserving their culture of origin. We see the first of those options in the headlong plunge into 24/7 connectivity, or in the ready replacement of text with emoji; we see the second approach among people who are consciously unplugging, or committing to regular digital fasts.
But it’s the third path that’s the most interesting: embracing the online world while still working to sustain customs and social norms that have served us well offline. Norms like listening before responding (a practice that’s clearly absent from a lot of online comment threads); communicating with courtesy and kindness; ensuring that the ideas and information we share are grounded in evidence rather than rumor. These are the cultural practices we treasure, and which we dread losing as our society goes digital.
That process may be easier if we can gently, painfully acknowledge that the home we left—those of us who remember the world before the Internet—no longer exists. We may recognize ourselves in the story of Iranian-Americans, who “pine over a home they can never become a part of because the Iran of their memories no longer exists, and they reside within a state they must adapt to for survival.”
Yes, there is still an analog world: a world of forests and beaches, of warm conversations around a dining table and sharp-elbowed lineups in grocery stores. But little of it remains untouched by the digital world into which so much of our lives have moved: that forest is now home to geocaches that can be explored with your phone; your dinner table conversation shifts to the latest Twitter scandal; you can escape from that supermarket and order your groceries at home. Our offline world is now carved by the digital, and there is no going home again.
Now it is our job to move forward into the hybrid life of the digital/analog, and to transfer and adapt the customs and wisdom we have accumulated in millennia offline. We can’t do that work unless we understand the world we are moving into, so in the weeks ahead, I will be exploring different facets of that emergent world.
I’ll also be asking what we need to bring with us on the voyage: what we treasure so much about our offline lives that we can’t bear the thought of how our online existence might transform or compromise it. It’s a question we have to answer together, so I hope you will come with me on the journey, and let me know what to pack.