Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Re-engage with the actual world

Jenny Odell taught me that bird watching is actually bird noticing. We're probably not going to see them, but we can listen and notice.

When I actually listen, I hear birds all over the place, and I hear various other sounds as well. I notice a lot when I actually look, different trees and shrubs, grass growing through sidewalks.

I absolutely love How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019) by Odell because it's helped me re-engage with the physical and natural world, after giving away a lot of my life to social media, my phone and TV.

I've always resisted Google. Why just one Internet search engine? Where are Lycos and Excite? 

I held out from writing with Google Docs until about seven years ago. I just thought it was silly that I'd have to be online to write. Why? Couldn't I just save my work on my hard drive? So I wrote — and often still do — in Pages on my Mac.

In my mind, I look at Google searches as the start of the attention economy we find ourselves. Seriously, is this how any consumer, or lay person, would draw it up? Our every move is tracked so the right business can sell to us. Say what? ... And don't get me started with Google Classroom, which tracks what our students are doing.

Part of How to Do Nothing explains what we all know by now, that our Internet searches and phone lives are commodities, sold to companies, who do their best to cyber-hunt us and advertise to us. I do not like this system one bit, and, like Odell, I know my life is at its best when I'm not a part of that madness, when the screens are off and I'm exploring the actual, physical world.

Although I think "the kids today" give too much of their lives away to Big Tech and are being digitally manipulated, I guess it's not my place to scold them. However, I do like to present arguments for engaging with the actual, physical world vs. screens. The problem I run across is that many kids do not know how to engage with the actual, physical world. It's like their curiosity and humanity have been digitized out of them.

I guess I'm only really in charge of my own life and how I'd like it to be, and in the end, I want minimal screen time. How to Do Nothing offers more than that plan. It's a critique of capitalism disguised as a self-help book. Sure, I love the self-help part about re-engaging with the world, but then, it becomes a much deeper look at 21st century capitalism.

I hate to think that I'm a marionette moving my way through Internet searches and social media because artificial intelligence knows how to keep my attention. I can see how people can fall into YouTube warps, where Google manipulates them by constantly suggesting videos that fit their profile, likes and demographic.

Odell, who also plays with context as an artist, rightfully points out that the Internet strips us of time and place. But as a human being, doesn't time and place — AKA context — matter? Are we even human if time and place cease to exist?

With all the scrolling on our devices and all the images we encounter, where is context? We likely just respond to guttural impulses or what the computer already knows we'll respond to, and then the computer — and tech companies — shape us. I fear that we no longer shape ourselves and that our physical environment no longer shapes us either.

Another fear I have is that our cyber-time has become so normalized that Odell and I look like the weird ones for talking about reconnecting to the physical world and resisting the tracking parade of our online lives. But try it. Go out without the phone. See how incredible our surroundings are when we simply notice them.

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