My thought experiment about the ills and benefits of being online.
As an avid fantasy reader, at some point in my life, I stumbled upon a meme that said “If they had smartphones in Harry Potter, it would have ended at the first chapter.” (I couldn’t find the original meme anymore, but here is a bonus one themed phones and Harry Potter)
As a person living in Switzerland, if you do a quick Google search on “what to do without technology?” you will soon see that almost all blog articles and forum threads that suggest offline activities agree on one thing: We use our phones too much, we should get off of them. In fact, I do agree that in some parts of the world, technology has become so pervasive that people are almost enslaved to it, bringing their phone everywhere, always knowing where it is, checking it, using it whenever possible. However, I also think that we, myself included, have the privilege of demonising technology and smartphones only because we have 24/7 unlimited access to it. If we did not have a phone to check at all times, or a laptop to use during the whole day, we would certainly feel the difference and seek opportunities to get access to it. Here is where the Harry Potter meme was right: Smartphones did change how we live life and made it definitely easier. Albus Dumbledore could have just picked up the phone, called James and Lily Potter and go “Hey folks, there has been a problem, You-know-who is on his way to your house. Run away!” “Thanks man.” And all went well.
Inspired by an anthropology teacher in my previous University, in the summer of 2018, I attempted to live one week without social media, as a social experiment on myself. I have to say that I remember it as an interesting experience that, sure, sometimes made me think “what can I do now?” but, at the very end, also made me almost forget about social media at all. Once the week was over, yes of course, I opened my Instagram and Whatsapp again, but just to check the notifications and then close the apps. In an even more extreme way, EQUALS-EU challenged us on January 23rd to spend a #DaywithoutTech. And during this offline day I had the opportunity of thinking about what big of a role technology actually plays in my life.
The day was not too difficult. As I was still at my family’s house, the time that I would usually spend on my laptop or phone, I spent it reading, walking the dog with my sister, playing board games with my family, and helping my father cook. Television has been the most difficult device to renounce to, especially as my family has a tradition of gathering on the sofa in the evening and just watching a movie or tv series together. But I managed.
Still, I can go one day without technology, but what about an entire life? I thought to meditate on this point a little more seriously:
Okay, already I need to add a caveat… I am going to imagine living with technology in all spheres of my life apart from my job, as I need my laptop for my part-time job as Web Editor. In fact, this is a job, now that I think about it, whose existence is entirely due to technology and the Internet: Without them I would not have a job in the first place. And, to be honest, even if we were talking about some other occupation, which did not directly utilise the internet, I wouldn’t even know how to go about finding this job or employment in the first place. I guess I would have to go to the city hall where there must be the employment services’ office and give them my hand-written Curriculum (no technology, remember) and wait for them to find something suitable for me.
Well then, in this alternate reality, I could only switch-on my laptop for those hours per day that I need to work. But still, I also need it for my education. As I am writing my master thesis, I need to consult online libraries and resources. And, yes, I can go to the library, but it is a solution only for those that have access to a big library. If I had still been at my family’s house now, which is situated in a town of 8.000 inhabitants, with a library composed of one single room, it would have been a disaster. Not to mention the fact that I can't even imagine how daunting it would be to write a 30.000-words thesis by hand. Moreover, all the registration for my courses, grades, announcements, submissions happen on the University’s platform online. Therefore, education too, at least for me, seems to absolutely depend on technology.
Okay, but, taking my hypothetical even further,I could still renounce technology in other aspects of life. While this is true, to have to renounce texting with my friends, family, and partner would only make me sad, and I think that it would take away more than what it adds to my life. If I hadn’t had my phone to text my friends in Geneva and let them know that I was back, or to text my family while I am in Geneva to feel connected to them, I think I would really suffer. In addition, why should I give up watching a good movie on Netflix? Or give up my daily French practice on Duolingo? Or ordering food from UberEats? I do not see how not having all these things would make my life better.
I hope that by now, you understood my point. It is easy to preach a life offline when you could always choose to have access to the Internet. However, not everyone has a choice: Out there in the world there is still almost 47% of the population with no access to the Internet, and especially almost 52% of girls and women worldwide. It is not a matter of vanity or entertainment: Technology is, nowadays, truly needed to fulfil fundamental rights, like employment and education. Indeed, it is estimated that in under a decade, 9 of 10 jobs will require digital skills. I have seen sometimes people complain about refugees or migrants who have a phone, despite maybe not having a stable house or occupation. “What do they need it for?” Well, maybe they need it to know what is happening in their country of origin, to keep in contact with their family, to make mobile transactions to their family, to check job openings, to check housing notices, to learn the local language, to not get lost in a new town, and I can think of more. Indeed, Professor Gillespie of the Open University went as far as saying that those forced to flee their homes attempt to bring with them “Water, phone, food” in that order.
So, whilst, of course, there are still huge regulatory and design issues related to many important areas from online safety to the gig economy that are complex, that need resolving, and that cannot be minimised, I hope that my thought piece has demonstrated how important it is that we strive for equal access to the online world for all. Access to the Internet should not be a commodity, it should not be a privilege, it should be the norm for everyone everywhere, particularly considering a future of work dependent on the internet, and the like.
And you? How would your life be without technology? Leave a comment or send us a message!
This blog is written by the Graduate Institute, Geneva’s YPWG group, or those invited to write for the blog by the YPWG. Content is not reviewed by, and is independent from the central EQUALS-EU project.