OLIVIA SUDJIC charts the history of her ONLINE BEHAVIOUR which she likens to an unhealthy, ADDICTIVE RELATIONSHIP …
My own relationship history, and the sexual liberation for my generation, begins not with the Pill but the Web. The only meaningful crush I harboured before the age of eleven culminated in a sweaty-palmed landline call, surrounded by three friends and conspirators, a fourth at the door, a fifth guarding the other telephone in my parents’ flat. I had a flowchart to read from in the event a parent picked up. The moment someone answered I hung up.
At eleven, I created my first Hotmail email address (sxy_strawberry_y2k). I did not ask permission to create it, and the family desktop was reliably mine between 4pm and 7pm. But my mother held out over a mobile, ambivalent about supplying a twelve-year-old girl with a Nokia 3210. Would I be safer with or without it? Would it microwave my tiny brain? Would someone bigger mug me for it? I’m sure she also worried over who I might use it to contact, seeing the phone (staple of her own dating generation) as the powerful threat, rather than my access to the web, weak and vulnerable as it was to “millennium bugs”. When I started taking the bus to secondary school, she proposed a yellow Motorola walkie-talkie. Fortunately for me, the two-mile range nixed her plan to stand on the roof of her office and vocally blast into my classroom in “emergencies”. So I got my first phone. I could text, rather than call, which meant I could not be overheard at home. I remember walking to school, suppressing the urge to shout FREEDOM! and throw my uniform over my head in the manner of Mel Gibson.
But in the fraught world of adolescent romance in the new millennium, online platforms were preferable to phones. Logging into MSN Messenger to see a list of who else was online did not mean owning up to any particular intention or desire to contact any one person. As at school discos, there was safety in numbers. Conversations could be made to seem accidental. Your crush happened to be online. You happened to add them to a group with your best friend who also happened to be online. You’d start a private chat and tell her to drop out of the main one.
Looking back, it was the medium itself that was as much the object of desire. The roulette rush of logging on, the bright blue, generic silhouette of a man that masked the peach-fuzzed, acne-plagued pipsqueak five miles away, jamming up his family’s landline with the sound and fury of dial-up modem. MSN was my gateway drug. Next came MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, Gchat, Twitter, Instagram, the list goes on, compassing my romantic history to date, each evolution convincing me that at the root of each, perhaps the only common thread, is an addictive relationship with technology itself. When phones became “smart”, my fate was sealed. It’s been years of highs, lows, insecurity, mind games. With every iPhone evolution, sharpened algorithm, and geo-locational tool, the stakes get higher, the double bind pulls tighter. Like living in a city, living online is a trade off between convenience and privacy.
If the internet was my first taste of independence, I am now wholly dependent on it. Every morning, it’s 50-50 whether my first glance is directed toward the face of my boyfriend or my phone. As for most people, my phone tethers me, without it, I feel the way you do when you’ve just been told by someone that “It’s over”. Not just lost, though, thanks to overreliance on Google Maps, you often are, but also as if you might as well sit on the pavement and stare blankly as purposeful feet pass by. You cease to feel like a functioning member of society. It’s like a mini break-up. What is everyone in the world doing? Do they miss you? The silence grows deafening. Surveys in 2015 recorded that 59 per cent of us are reliant on social media, even though this reliance makes us unhappy.
Smartphones make us feel powerful but then enslave us. The slot machine of a lock screen provides a dopamine rush. A newsfeed is a temporary balm for depression, loneliness and anxiety, simultaneously deepening those states. All this reminds me of my own unhealthy past relationships, specifically the pendulum swing of my most emotionally abusive one. Social media is specifically designed to hook users, just like gambling sites, and the more time and energy you pour into it, the harder it is to walk away. The unpredictability of rewards is the key. What notifications will you get today? Think of your most unstable, unpredictable ex and it’s the same.
All the while, your phone is harvesting data off you, able to predict your every move like a controlling partner. It’s literally a tracking device. Depending on where I am, Uber adjusts its suggestions for my destination from it’s list of my most visited addresses. It can make you feel loved, this kind of surveillance, but you start to realise this love is more like control. You’re being used and traded in return for your convenient cab ride. Gnawed on for metadata, the digital pound of flesh that is the price of any emotionally abusive relationship.
At the moment I’m being tailed by an advert to donate my eggs for €700. I think because I googled “Geriatric Pregnancy”, but also because it knows I’m female and 28. Sofas I was mildly interested in over a year ago, but never committed to, still haunt me. Tech companies will tolerate an on-off relationship, but do everything they can to prevent your breaking up with them. Deleted social media apps become the predatory, stalker ex, determined to get you back. “Oh, you want to read this clickbait article? Crawl back to Facebook and sign in.”
Who makes our main squeeze this addictive? Someone smart (not me) needs to start holding the (overwhelmingly male) designers behind our technology accountable. Tim Berners Lee (its inventor) has just written an open letter on the 28th birthday of his idea for the web, saying just this. Tech companies are coming under scrutiny to do better as we catch up with the impact they are having on our lives. Other industries are regulated (like tobacco and alcohol) or have ethical codes, from doctors to lawyers. Telling Google to “Do No Evil” is about as effective as sending a frowny emoji to your harassing ex. If the web is to stay open rather than a kind of sub-dom dot com, in line with Berners-Lee’s original conception of its potential – for liberating people from the confines of geography, cultural borders, even parents with walkie-talkies, it can’t be allowed to dominate the relationship like this.
Sympathy (ONE/Pushkin Press) by Olivia Sudjic is out now.
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