There is a war for our attention right now, and I’m worried ours will run out before we see it.
When I left for my first year of college, my parents decided to move from our perfectly fine cul-de-sac to a more remote home with apple trees and acreage. There are blueberry bushes and bubbling streams, wild flowers, and doting deer. It’s privileged and bucolic. There are, however, some drawbacks. Our house is situated in a valley that renders the internet and WiFi spotty. Rigged up with enough boosters and routers, it’s decent but vengeful, as if at any moment it can take away what we feel so rightfully belongs to us. Our entitlement was tested a few weeks back when a summer storm sent a bolt of lightning to our front yard, frying the expensive wires that kept us living our version of Green Acres and ordering Amazon packages at the same time. We were without WiFi and internet for a little over a week. No calls, texts, or email, no Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, no Google or Safari. Questions went unanswered, Netflix unwatched. Everything was dark.
It was the best! It was so amazing, a real refresh to our modern way of living that made my family closer and happier than ever before!! NO. That didn’t happen. That didn’t happen at all! As soon as our screens went quiet, we filled the silence with hysterical fights. My mother, brother, and I formed an alliance and took our father as the common enemy. The internet, computers, and printers were his purview, and he was unable to rectify the situation in what my mother deemed “a timely fashion.” Also, he was the only one working outside of the house at the moment, so we had tons of time to imagine him feasting on email and text while we sat starving at home.
Within a day “off the grid,” our behavior grew strange. My brother took to waking up at 6:00am and fleeing the house immediately. His aimless drives justified parking somewhere with internet access so he could “check on things.” After ambling around with our phones pressed up to the sky, my mother and I realized that we could get a few bars if we walked a mile or so away from our house. If things were different in the world, it’s possible there would have been easier solutions to our distress. Libraries, cafes, the houses of friends and family. And yet, with my state not enforcing mask mandates and less than half of residents vaccinated, our home had become a port in the proverbial storm, still vulnerable to the literal one.
In writing about my family’s experience, I hope none of it comes across as tragic. It wasn’t, not even a little. There is a real experience of internet inaccessibility in this country (and beyond) that prevents students from attending school, parents from finding jobs. Just like any resource, some communities have too much and most too little.
Even though our phones were unusable, they didn’t go away. I noticed us still reaching for them in silences, our fingers all but itching to swipe and reply, only to remember that we couldn’t. One night, an actual fight broke out when my brother thought he heard me on the phone and became convinced that I had figured out a way to steal any last bit of cell reception for myself. I grew even more suspicious when my mother and I persisted to take our walks to the end of our unlit street even after it grew dark, desperate to satisfy our nightly internet craving. We were addicts in withdrawal.
Social media such as Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat capitalize on our neural pathways. They reward us with distraction when our minds wander towards boredom. The moment we give access to our interior data-driven lives, they begin building us tailormade worlds to escape to. Launching a violent, deliberate, and sophisticated siege on our attention, then, is the best way for social media to maintain profitability.
But what is the cost of this profit? The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino penned a 2019 collection Trick Mirror, featuring essays on morality, self-deception, and performance in a world where social media exercises increasing power. Her critiques are scintillating, dark, and true. For those of us who grew up on the internet, our human selves have become inextricably fused with the addictive play spaces tech giants have built for us. The outlook is grim.
I sense that few of us, though, are heeding the warning signs. Wars of ideology, after all, are often harder to fight than physical ones. Perhaps the casualties are less apparent. And yet, social media is no longer operating on a solely digital battlefield. It’s moving into a scarier, three-dimensional space, capable of moving our bodies from beds into dark streets just to refresh our feeds. Our attention is worth more.