that inexplicable anxiety

So this “The Pointlessness of Unplugging” essay has been making the usual rounds. I hate to even write this post, because it’s so obligatory from me at this point, so I’ll keep it short: if the digital life is as fulling, untroubled, and complete as these essayists frequently make it out to be, why do they respond to niche behaviors of unplugging (or whatever) as frequently and grumpily as they do? I could understand if their digital behaviors were uncommon, if they were disapproved of by the government, or if they were contrary to the needs of capitalism. But this is the opposite of the case in each instance: the exhaustively digital life is rapidly becoming the default state of people in developed countries who can afford it, and is spreading to the poor and to the global south; the digital turn is immensely useful to establishment governments, as it makes the population vastly more subject to surveillance; and capitalism is throwing absolutely every ounce of its strength into pushing digital mediation into more and more facets of human life. In that context, why do Casey N. Cep and people like her care so much? What possible threat does unplugging represent to her?

The ubiquity and cyclicality of these essays is itself the most powerful evidence I can think of that there is something people find wanting in the digital life. If criticism of the digital were so toothless, there would be no market for defenses against it.

People who are strong don’t feel the need to tell you that they are strong; the weak do that. People who are confident do not need to signal their confidence. I don’t doubt that, behind this large and growing genre, there is real passion and sincerity. But the disparity in the practical effects of criticisms of digital life and the threat essayists perceive in those criticisms remains a mystery to me. I wish the next person thinking of writing a “why the digital life is just as good” essay would instead write an essay exploring why alternative behaviors are so threatening. It would at least give us something to read that we haven’t read dozens of times before.


  1. I think there is motivation for these piece that is orthogonal to your discussion of confidence.

    Namely, the benefits of digital social tools are highly reliant on network effects. There’s also a set of skills and behaviors don’t carry over as well from one communication medium to another. I’m reasonably good with email (and social networks I can plow into email) but not great with reading twitter or keeping up with people by telephone. Facebook event invitations are a particularly striking version of this phenomenon, as even most digital savvy groups will have some Facebook resisters that will need invites by a secondary medium or be told by friends/spouses in person or the like.

    In some larger sense, most any technological or cultural phenomenon will be depend on how many people buy in. However, I think with anything based on network effect, the drive to evangelize is notably stronger as the benefits to the evangelist are fairly straightforward as are the risks of people you care about dropping out of your preferred medium.

    1. “But yea, Pinterist is really awesome, and not a waste of time I swear–you should really sign up and start following me!”

  2. i have found that, having grown up with the internet, i really just can’t unplug, even when i’m unplugged. an unplugged plug is still a plug. that’s the problem.

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