Published on 21 July 2021
Digital minimalism seems to be the hip trend du jour. Whereas the consideration of how to engage with technology so as not to lose one's soul is definitely interesting and important, perhaps we should ask what do we get, tangibly, by refusing to submit ourselves to technology.
After all, technology is pretty cool. It feeds us, heals us, makes our lives more comfortable, allows us to move around and make new friends as well as retain old relationships, it lets us survive in difficult conditions and conquer our enemies. Indeed, the privilege of sloth is something that only few societies and peoples in history enjoyed and never before has it been enjoyed on such a global scale. Many of us have only recently started realising that it perhaps might not be a good idea.
There are many a reason why senseless engagement with technology is bad for you and many books of both digital and physical ink have been spilled over many its characteristics. The fact that social media applications are demonically designed to distract you from doing productive work and milk your endorphins and dopamine like a mangle is already very well known.
What we started to lose that is most important due to proliferation of technology is trust. Outside the internet, every productive and positive thing you do builds trust and integrity. In the world of modern, fleeting relationships, this is rarely the case.
I grew up in a world where trust was no longer a given. The rise of the internet, and especially the rise of peer to peer applications that connected people needing various goods and services, effectively killed all need for trust in communities. This, coupled with the pseudonymity of early internet that by its very nature prevented creating trust meant that you could get by without it, just on your own.
We still see this now, with residue of the peer to peer services like eBay (the middleman for commerce), Airbnb (for accommodation), Uber (for transportation). This sort of thing has been given the moniker of "sharing economy," a laughably inappropriate name because they serve more of an escrow role. Perhaps "broker economy" would be a more appropriate term.
A common issue when buying things over the internet in the early 00s over here was the issue of not getting what you paid for — you might have ordered a smartphone and got a potato. (This was far before anyone used his real name online, let alone the websites had any kind of KYC policy.) This issue was solved on various peer-to-peer marketplace portals by the introduction of a review system. This is a very simple method of creating trust: someone has a lot of positive comments, that means he is honest and you should buy from him. Someone has even a couple negatives, well, tough luck, he's probably out of the market.
Policing reviews so that they are honest and accurately reflect reality is not a trivial thing, so of course a service which provides this will charge a fee, usually as part of the value of the transaction. It is also not completely foolproof: one can think of a situation where a trusted seller loses access to an account and a malicious actor can start scamming based on good reputation of the victim. This already shows a certain cost associated with this model.
The services providing this kind of review systems eventually ended up being populated only by the biggest of merchants, capable of generating the largest amount of positive comments, whereas the smaller sellers were relegated to sites like Craigslist or OLX (which removed the necessity of trust because they are local), or required to pay more for "promoted" or "sponsored" listings.
Not just that, but the large merchants started to resort to dubiously honest marketing practices. I recall a situation where I had to buy a specific toy for my niece's birthday. I went online, picked the first thing, paid for it, promptly forgot. A few minutes later I got a phone call from the seller asking if it's okay if the product arrives in a few weeks because they had shortages. I said not really, asked him to cancel and then ordered from a different seller on the same site. Only after I had received the second invoice and a second phone call did I realise that it was the same company operating under different names, and listing dozens of the same product. All of the listings on the first couple of pages led me in the end to the same person.
This is but one instance of how technology eradicates trust. Another instance of this can be seen in the way we conduct interpersonal relationships these days. We text a lot. A decade ago, a text message's primary function was to set up a meeting in meatspace. This was, in part, due to the cost and space limitations of text messages. In 2003 the price of 160 characters of text was about 15¢, sending pictures was prohibitively expensive and there was basically no way to send any other kind of media. If you needed to have a longer conversation and it was impossible to meet in person, you'd call, both for prudence but also because people weren't as comfortable with texting as they are now.
This shows a slow and steady degradation of the quality of communication that we are accustomed to. Of course, the pandemic years did not help this one bit. They did however show that people will attempt to use technology to combat problems caused by technology. Video calls became a lot more prevalent in an effort to give isolating people a semblance of human contact.
There are benefits to asynchronous communication, the kind that does not require immediate response — such as the post or email. However, texting occupies an interesting, superposed niche, in that it can be synchronous and asynchronous at the same time, depending on the expectations and intentions of the people involved in the conversation. I have friends who reply to text up to once a day, I have other friends who get worried if I hadn't replied for twenty minutes.
In any case, the degradation of the quality of communication due to technology also caused many other, sometimes invisible at first blush, issues. We lost the ability to do small talk, at least many of us did. Very often the first thought when someone texts us or calls us is "what does he want?". Small talk fulfils a very important role of discovery, when we don't know what we want, but through the feedback loop of conversation we can reach something interesting that might fascinate us, something that maybe neither of us knew about when we had started talking.
Friendships are great because they are a self-perpetuating feedback loop of ideas. Good friendships are the ones where you wish you didn't have to stop talking at three at night because you have to get up for work the next day. And because of their inherent worth, they are also a great vehicle for tangible, economic value.
Networks of social relationships predate "marketing" in the modern understanding of the word and it is unlikely that we will ever devise something as effective at discovering and fulfilling one's needs as a good, friendly conversation. Advertising is evil and eats away your soul and your wallet. Do you ever wonder why first class airport lounges never have any advertising in them instead opting for plants and flowers, whereas the plebeian waiting rooms are filled with garish posters for things you don't need?
It takes about two cents to make a can of Coke. The rest of its price is branding. People are spending copious amounts of money to drink garishly painted cans of well-tasting poison. Branding and advertising made us trust the wrong things.
Advertising might produce value for the company, but it has no value to you. It operates on the basis of psychological gimmicks to create a need and fulfil it, or better yet, pretend to fulfil it so that people can repeatedly pay for something that doesn't work. Every single valuable thing that I own and cherish, both material and not, has come to me through word of mouth with people I trust, not through advertising campaigns.
The incentive of the players in the broker economy is to eradicate trust as much as possible, so that they can step in and act as trust brokers.
It's better for Airbnb to foster the culture of novelty addiction and frequent travels to different places because once one finds a town one likes and makes friends with a landlord there, they no longer get your service fees. Strangers not trusting each other enough to hitchhike short distances is more profitable for Uber.
The disappearance of trust also fractured our interpersonal relationships and contributed to proliferation of people in many dubious professions such as therapists and psychologists. Most people don't need therapy per se, they need friends they can trust. Unfortunately, in the trust-less era of technology the only way to approximate a trustworthy friend is to pay a therapist.
The news rely on us not trusting our friends. The internet rationalists say that the information one gets from a friend is "anecdotal" and "unreliable". However, the news one gets from pundits on the internet are "fact-checked" and "trustworthy". We read them, we suffer from Gell-Mann amnesia, and then we trust them.
We throw away damaged things and buy replacements on eBay at overinflated prices from strangers because we don't trust anyone to fix them. We rely on real estate agents to buy or rent property. We don't listen to our elders. We don't trust the right people.
We don't have to live like this.
The key to successful, stable and fulfilled life is a high trust environment. No one can rely only on himself, we have to work with others, this is how our brains work. The "lone wolf" is a popular trope, but lone wolves in nature most often die or have to adapt. In a hyper-connected, technological world, in which as long as you have a digital skill that can make you money, you can outsource the entire Maslow's pyramid. What you get isn't meaningful fulfilment, but a commercially optimised proxy packaged as a product.
This is what is meaningful. Building a friendship, a house, a family, a clan, a community, a parish, a town. This is what is real, true and valuable. This is what you lose when you get enslaved by the screen.