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pandora’s box

pandora’s box

closing the lid on the internet

Black and grey. Cold metal and cold glass. My new phone feels unfamiliar. I try to mitigate the strangeness, slippinf on a Super Mario cover that makes it bulkier, more colorful, more like my old phone. But it’s not enough. Something else is different. But I don’t spot it right away …

I am sitting in a Rock carrel when the phone beeps and a tiny green light blinks. I pick up the phone, swipe with my thumb to unlock the screen. At the top of the screen I see a mail icon. I click on it and the Gmail app opens, showing me three unread emails. I am impressed by this—an embarrassing admission, particularly for a CS major—as my old phone never had working Wi-Fi and I always needed a laptop to check my emails. I read the three emails and tap out responses to them. I then return to the proof I was writing. Ten minutes later my phone beeps again, and the green light winks at me. Glad for the excuse to take a break—the proof hasn’t been going well, I am entangled in number theory—I pick up the phone and browse through the new emails. From then on, whenever my phone beeps, I check my email. At midnight, when I pick up my backpack and get ready to leave, I glance at my laptop. I have written three paragraphs of the proof, but answered a lot of emails.

Before the new phone I was never “always on,” never permanently tethered to the Internet. I learned the dangers of this hyperconnectivity first hand: plummeting productivity, packaged bursts of emotions, both good (messages from friends) and bad (the CS department sends grades by email). I became impatient with boredom—every idle second an invitation to swipe, tap, and fly away.

Two weeks passed before I started to notice these symptoms. And when I did, I started seeing them everywhere, affecting everyone. No matter what people were doing—studying, talking to friends, exercising, watching a play—the moment their phones beeped they were pulled away. It reminded me of walking my cousin’s dog: Whenever he would try to stray too far, I would tug at his leash. With the Internet, everyone is pulling our leashes, all the time.

Recently, I attended a talk by Tristan Harris, a product philosopher at Google. Harris talked about how we all live in an “attention economy,” where products and websites fight for people’s time. Facebook’s bottomless newsfeed, BuzzFeed’s endless recommendations, and Gmail’s constant refreshing were all designed to keep us on those sites. This is why a seemingly small action such as checking one’s email can result in so much wasted time and attention —the websites don’t want you to leave.

After hearing Harris’s talk and doing some reading on my own, I decided to fight back and reclaim my attention. One of the first things I learned is that technology is asynchronous: It has no notion of time. Our lives, however, have definite rhythms and patterns.  By connecting our time-attuned selves to time-independent technology we disrupt those rhythms and patterns. Since technology isn’t time dependent, it can wait for us forever. Consequently, the first tactic I adopt is to turn off my phone’s notifications. The messages aren’t going anywhere, and this way I get to decide when to turn my attention there, instead of the other way around. But habits die hard, and even with the notifications off, I am checking my phone regularly. Next, I turn the Wi-Fi off; this way there are no new messages, and I give up my constant checking. However, sometimes even this isn’t enough. When procrastinating—nothing stokes this urge like problem sets—I take out my phone, turn on the Wi-Fi, and check my messages. On such days, I’ve taken to leaving my phone behind in my dorm. It’s the only way to avoid the siren call of the Web.

Occasionally, all of this feels like too much, and my friends have even accused me of being a Luddite. I tell them I am no Luddite. I appreciate all the benefits technology brings: instant access to information, connection with friends on the other side of the globe, future jobs for me.  “Why all the fuss then?” they ask. I never reply aloud, but I remember everything I have learned about the world inside my phone and think that if I am going to open Pandora’s Box, I will open it gently. Very gently.

Written by a member of the CS digital literacy group, DigLit, for a campaign about the effects of being always connected to the Internet.