#152: Disconnection Notice

Several years ago, a friend told me, “I wish I was the type of person who could go 12 hours without noticing a text message” (he’d been waiting for a reply from someone else who apparently was that type of person). I agreed with him then and agree even more now, but this has obviously been a terrible year to want that—it implies having something better to occupy your attention, and even then, your phone is usually within arm’s reach, ready to reclaim that attention the moment it lapses. Increasingly, and especially this year, information—messages, posts, content in all forms—are the primary way we can engage with the world beyond our immediate domestic spheres, and at this point, believing we can escape it all amounts to either a fool’s errand or a monkish rejection of worldly pursuits. Nonetheless, my friend had a point: We are biologically wired for information scarcity but have been thrust into a world of information abundance, so the value of knowledge has collapsed, and unknowing is a precious, often unattainable resource. Living rent free in someone’s head is a phrase used to imply a form of dominance and an undesirable state for them; four years of Donald Trump made many aspire to just get through one day without thinking about him—a goal that would have been easy to accomplish in the past.

We have largely accepted by now that we’re going to consume a huge amount of information we don’t want, and know about things that we don’t care about or actively dislike. Even if we carefully cultivate our feeds, we will consume plenty of noise along with whatever signal we seek, and random internet people and memes are inevitably going to live rent free in our heads. Furthermore, a growing number of us—almost anyone who uses social media—also find ourselves on the other side of that adversarial relationship, forcing others to pay attention to us, even at a small and benign scale. This is a feature of the internet, not a bug. In 1983, Ivan Illich described how electronic communication technology represented a disruption of the existing landscape and an enclosure of the commons: “On the same boat on which I arrived (in Brač, Croatia) in 1926, the first loudspeaker was landed on the island. Few people there had ever heard of such a thing. Up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. Henceforth this would change. Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete.”

Last month I wrote that “the physical world can accommodate emptiness and silence, or at least acknowledge them; online, those voids are just filled by other people’s content, and thus vanish instantly.” Illich illustrates why the internet feels so loud and claustrophobic: The technology that mediates it ensures that every sliver of the sonic spectrum is allocated to someone, and when softer voices aren’t speaking, the loud ones simply travel further. The idea of a commons is usually understood spatially, as collectively stewarded land that the process of enclosure divides into privately owned parcels; that spatial mode of thinking supports the perception that the internet’s enclosure occurred when big platforms like Google and Facebook carved up much of the territory in the ‘00s. But the internet was born enclosed. Much more than Illich’s loudspeaker in 1926, the inherent nature of software is to amplify and increase leverage in information distribution—unlike physical space, which naturally limits its flow (and which technology seeks to overcome). Illich compares the modern information landscape to the cityscapes produced by the automobile: “Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modern means of communication.” When those commons are enclosed, we can only experience silence on space we have already claimed for ourselves; when someone or something lives rent free in your head, the problem isn’t so much that they’re not paying, it’s that the unit is on the market.

This newsletter is supported by paid subscriptions, so consider signing up to get the full experience. This week’s was about the feedback loop between infrastructure and climate change, and why the myth of digital immateriality threatens to accelerate that cycle.