Why do I want to go offline? I have this romantic idea of a life before internet where everyone hangs around coffee shops or pubs, waiting for their friends to come by, meeting strangers, lovers, walking through streets with eyes open and looking around. I have this fantasy of being disconnected, being untethered, being able to breathe… And I know it’s at least mostly nostalgic foolishness and that it comes from a place of great privilege and internet access, but I want to give it a try to help us remember or find out what life was like before, how socializing has changed, how our mental state has changed, and how we can find balance.
Who am I? My name is Aron and I’m a student, teacher, writer, musician, researcher, and organizer. I’ve lived in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Montreal for most of my life.
What will I do with the ideas I learn from my year offline? Besides journalling and sharing updates through monthly mail-outs and (eventually) a book, I will be working with high school students to plan, create, and share short cellphilms (cellphone videos) in order to develop and deepen their relationships with various overlapping aspects of the internet and digital technologies.
Am I against the internet? No. I value the internet and believe I have made countless meaningful connections over the internet that I would not have been able to make otherwise. Also, the preparations for this research (i.e. this website) were made possible by the internet. Plus, as addressed in the following question, there are countless communities who rely on the internet in important ways.
I do, however, have many criticisms of using the internet uncritically, especially insofar as it impacts young people and students. These relate to (1) labour practices, (2) ecological impacts, (3) physical health effects, (4) mental health effects, (5) compulsion and addiction, (6) data and capital, (7) information and expertise, (8) competency development, (9) assessment and tracking, and (10) prejudice and discrimination. (There is more information on these ten areas at the bottom of the page.)
Currently, I believe that a balanced and responsible or critical use of the internet is best. We’ll see though how my thinking on this changes as I spend a year entirely offline.
What about people who need the internet? Despite focusing on challenges that the internet introduces into our world, this research comes out of a recognition that the internet is helpful and even essential for many people, often those from marginalized communities (e.g. migrant workers trying to stay in touch with their families, housebound people and those with mobility issues, or queer people in conservative environments, looking for connections and support).
Is this the first time someone has tried to go offline for a full year? No. Until the 1980s, everyone lived offline. Still today, there are over three billion people worldwide who do not have regular access to the internet.
How offline will I be? I cannot directly use the internet or ask people to do so for me. Indirect uses, like at the library, airport, and bank will be acceptable insofar as they reflect forms that predate the internet (i.e. I cannot book a flight online, but I can phone the airline to book a flight.). My goal is partially to emulate the experience of someone who does not have access to the internet. Therefore, if I’m at a store or a party and there is background music streaming from the internet, I can stay. If, however, I am at a friend's house and they put Netflix on, I cannot participate and will have to leave or at least go to another room.
Am I against the internet? (Contd.) Here is more information on the ten areas within which I will be exploring the internet's consequences and possibilities:
(1) operating online services and producing, supporting, and recycling digital tools involve exploitive globalized distributions of labour, often along colonial lines (Dyer-Witheford, 2015; Fuchs, 2014; Huws, 2014; Nakamura, 2013; Navarro-Remesal & Zapata, 2018; Roberts, 2016; Tricontinental, 2019) and sexist, racist, or otherwise inequitable labour practices and environments within tech companies (Alfrey & Twine, 2017; Andrews, 2019; boyd, 2019; Chang, 2019; Twine, 2018);
(2) the internet and digital technologies have growing environmental and ecological impacts (Ahmed, 2018; Terranova, 2007), including the material resources and energy that internet technologies use (Dayarathna, Wen, & Fan, 2016; Shehabi, 2016) and the consumerism they promote (Crary, 2014; McGuigan, & Manzerolle, 2015; Slade, 2009), especially in young people (Theodoridis & Miles 2019);
(3) many physical health risks are associated with using the internet and digital tools: thrombosis (Doctor & Seth, 2018; Lippi, Mattiuzzi, & Favaloro, 2018), musculoskeletal issues (Dockrell, Bennett, & Culleton-Quinn, 2015; AlAbdulwahab, Kachanathu, & AlMotairi, 2017), problems with ocular health (Kim et al., 2016; Zheng et al., 2016), reduced sleep quality (Demirci, Akgönül, & Akpinar, 2015; Lam, 2014), and some—many of them self-identifying as electrosensitive (de Graef and Bröer, 2012)—question the health impacts of electrosmog or the non-ionizing radiation associated with wireless connections like those used in cell towers and smart meters (BioInitiative Working Group et al., 2012; Hess and Coley, 2014; International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2011);
(4) other health concerns relate to the ways that social media and internet technologies impact young people’s confidence, self-esteem, and view of relationships (Hawi & Samaha, 2019; Mei et al., 2016; Pantic et al., 2017; Widyanto & Griffiths, 2019); this sometimes leads to bullying (Best, Manktelow, & Taylor, 2014; Smith et al., 2008), social isolation (Turkle, 2014), the gamification of social interactions (Homnack, 2015; Morozov, 2013), and a heightening of young people’s anxiety and depression (Boumosleh & Jaaloud, 2017; Demirci, Akgönül, & Akpinar, 2015; Hunt et al., 2018; Rushkoff, 2013);
(5) relatedly, the internet and digital devices can result in compulsive behaviours and addictive relationships to connectivity and digital device use (Bian & Leung, 2015; Jeong et al, 2016; Samaha & Hawi, 2016; Yamamoto, Ananou, & Sindlinger, 2013);
(6) connected to this, data that is gathered on young people as they use the internet feeds into recommender or predictive algorithms and extensive relations of capital and exchange (Nieborg, 2017; Kennedy, 2016; Kop, Fournier, & Durand, 2017; Williamson, 2016; Zuboff, 2015), sometimes at the expense of the user and their attention (Beattie, forthcoming; Hayles, 2007), jeopardizing their individuality (Grosser, 2011; Lai, 2011), agency or self-control (Harvey, 2019; Rushkoff, 2013; Van Dijck, Poell, & De Waal, 2018), and privacy (Nissenbaum, 2010; Siemens, 2013; Young, 2015);
(7) more directly related to learning, the internet can diminish students’ ability to discern expertise and credible information (Beck, Giddens, & Lash, 1994; Collins & Evans, 2017; Peters, 2017; Rainie, 2016) or engage with dissenting ideas (Flaxman, Goel, & Rao, 2016; Karlsen et al., 2017);
(8) at times, digital and online tools undermine students’ efforts to develop fundamental competencies and may lead to relationships with technologies that limit students’ engagement with the foundational knowledge and skills underlying these tools (Agbo-Egwu, Abah, & Anyagh, 2018; Baek & Ha, 2018; Fong, Lo, & Ng, 2015; Samerski, 2018);
(9) also in relation to learning, student progress and assessment are frequently tracked through internet-based portals and systems in ways that have questionable impacts on student engagement (Ashman et al., 2014; Beetham & Sharpe, 2013; Brown & Lally, 2018; Goodman, 2018; Henrie, 2016; Kohn, 2016; Robert-Holmes, 2015; Selwyn, 2016; Thompson, 2016);
(10) often influencing academic performance, students portray themselves, comment, and engage online in ways that can contribute to stereotypical understandings of self and identity (Armenta & Ryan, 2016; Dahya, 2016; Hsueh, Yogeeswaran, & Malinen, 2015; Nakamura, 2008), and online platforms reinforce these prejudices (Benjamin, 2019; Chander, 2016; Noble, 2018; Otterbacher, Bates, & Clough, 2017; Wachter-Boettcher, 2017).
*References available upon request: 4437 Henri Julien Ave, Montreal, QC, H2W-2K9, Canada