If I’m driving along in my car listening to GPS directions from Google Maps, am I online or offline? How about when I’m sitting at home streaming movies on demand? Skip forward a few years: if I’m dozing in my driverless car while my smartphone screens messages and calls, do words like “offline” and “online” even make sense?
The answer, I think, is that they make about as much sense as asking me today whether I have recently had any non-electric experiences. Electricity is so much a part of our world that it makes sense to ask how we use it – but no longer if or when we do. It’s a given.
Do words like ‘offline’ and ‘online’ even make sense today?
The first time I went online, in the 1990s, it felt like a journey. I hooked my PC up to a space-age box called a modem, linked my modem to a phone line, and carefully instructed it to dial up the Internet Service Provider who would connect me to the World Wide Web. Much beeping and bleeping later, I was online in my own home: a miracle of modernity! Or rather, my computer was online – the only object in my home, and quite possible within a 10-mile radius, that had an internet connection.
Two decades later, this vanished world sounds like a kind of joke; a primitive realm of ritualised waiting and bizarrely isolated computation. You don’t really “go” online in 2016. Online is simply there, waiting. It’s what happens the moment you switch your devices on; it’s the default state of your office, your home, your vehicle, your stroll to the shops. We’ve been promised an Internet of Things for so long, now, that we’ve lost sight of what the phrase really signifies: a world in which the majority of digital chatter doesn’t involve us at all, but consists of internet-connected devices communicating with other internet-connected devices. Drop by drop, a shared ocean of data has accumulated across our world.
Amid this global context of constantly shifting petabytes, focusing on your own offline/online status is much like obsessively observing whether the lights in your house are on or off. It’s both true and largely irrelevant: a distraction from the larger question of what you are making of the network – and what it is busy making of you.
The terms mislead us by suggesting that opting out remains an option
Whether you’re gazing at email 20 times hourly or prefer to keep your phone switched off in a cupboard, your existence is being registered and logged. The things you buy, occupy, wear, eat, drink – all of these are developing their own persistent digital shadows. The systems that govern your work and leisure, that mediate your citizenship and opportunities: these are inescapably bound up in the information environment encircling 21st Century existence. Old words won’t do. Indeed, they mislead us by suggesting that opting out remains an option – and that ignorance can come without a cost.
Consider something as simple as credit ratings. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have a credit rating: a score that helps determine whether or not you can get a mortgage, afford a contract for a mobile phone, rent a room or obtain a credit card. Someone who understands how credit ratings work enjoys some substantial advantages over someone who doesn’t know they exist, or how they work. A lack of information simply restricts your freedom by hiding what is really going on.
In a thoroughly networked society, more and more systems of this type surround us. Ironically enough for those obsessed with the psychological benefits of “unplugging” from tech, switching off a phone and making yourself unavailable demands a good deal of status and control. Simply advocating “offline” time misses the point: what defines your freedom is the relationships you have with and through technology, and the degree to which you can make informed choices and negotiate systems.
It’s only by rethinking what it means to live constantly online that we can hope to take control of our lives
The point, in other words, is that it’s only by rethinking what it means to live constantly online that we can hope to take control of our lives – and address the ever-more pressing question of how we can best manage our time and attention in an age where both are under algorithmic assault. Stepping away from your computer, phone and tablet more often is almost certainly an excellent idea – but only if you can focus on a larger prize than simply recuperating the better to recharge, re-engage and repeat the same old routines.
Don’t obsess with switching off. Look to the network behind your tools, and to the social practices shaping their use: how meaningfully these connect you; what it might mean to live them more richly. Our phones may or may not be on, but the world of information in which they partake is ceaseless – and ceaselessly expanding.
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