Privilege, tech, and connection

Last week a friend tweeted out a section of an interview with Aziz Ansari where Ansari talks about not having social media or the internet or email on his phone.

Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things. What happens is, eventually you forget about it. You don’t care anymore. When I first took the browser off my phone, I’m like, [gasp] How am I gonna look stuff up? But most of the shit you look up, it’s not stuff you need to know. All those websites you read while you’re in a cab, you don’t need to look at any of that stuff. It’s better to just sit and be in your own head for a minute. I wanted to stop that thing where I get home and look at websites for an hour and a half, checking to see if there’s a new thing. And read a book instead. I’ve been doing it for a couple months, and it’s worked. I’m reading, like, three books right now. I’m putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the Internet and not remembering anything.

The reactions to the tweet fell into two categories: people either talked about how hard it is to do that, to disconnect and let go, or they talked about how Ansari is privileged so of course he can do this. And I don’t disagree with either of those things. It is hard to let go and miss things. And Ansari is incredibly privileged, which he acknowledges later in the interview, he doesn’t have to work again in his life and he’d be fine.

But I take issue with the idea that we must always be connected and checking our devices in order to further our careers, which some replies implied. Some of this comes from my own personal experience and some of this from the fact that there is no way I can keep up with everything and the pressure to try is too much.

We don’t all need to go as far as Ansari, but we can take breaks. We can realize when we are pulling out our device as we wait in a line that we may be checking for new content not because we want to read the content but because we want to see if new stuff is there. That’s the part of Ansari’s words that I relate to, that we look to look, not because we really want to read/digest/know what new things are posted.

We, as a culture, elevate being busy, being connected, being in the know. But often, ideas come from not being busy, from being bored, so your brain can process and put together disparate thoughts into something new (see Steven Johnson’s books). If we never give ourselves that opportunity, how do we process and think and come up with the something new?

Personally, I agree with Ansari. I also acknowledge my privilege in being able to do some of what he’s doing. I haven’t taken my browser off my phone, but I don’t have most social media or my work email on it. I make space for quiet and often leave my house without any device to go on walks or run errands. I’m not saying everyone should do these things, only that you may be able to, more than you’re willing to admit.

It’s easy to react to someone like Ansari talking about backing away from tech by instantly bringing up his privilege. But I think the deeper sentiment in what he says is not necessarily connected to privilege at all, but more to our relationship with tech and what is at the heart of it.