At some point during quarantine, our youngest child started giving us all a little nudge.
“Mama … Mom … Mom … Mom … Wake up!” he’d say to me when I was absently scrolling Instagram.
“Wake up!” he’d say to my spouse, glued to the two computer monitors he’d set up in his “home office” (i.e. the kids playroom).
“Wake up!” he’d say to the girls as they did their school work via screens.
“Wake up!” to me, again, as I texted friends, read recipes, researched emergency homeschooling techniques, worked on the stalled-out novel I’d previously been making good progress on, and scrolled Facebook to see if the world really was as crazy as it felt, and if everyone else thought so, too.
What he was saying was “pay attention to ME,” of course. He’d learned how to scramble to the very top of our hallways’ door frames, and how to physically climb our walls, and he wanted us to see. But there was something in his phrasing that carried foreboding:
What, exactly, were we asleep to?
Like everyone else, we’ve muddled through our quarantines. For a while, I made a paper chain and wrote down each day’s activities: worked on jigsaw puzzle; went for a walk even though it rained; played Yahtzee seven times, cleaned out the closets, etc. Already fairly outdoors-loving people, we’ve embraced, even more, all the open spaces that exist within a three hundred mile radius of where we live. We’ve read lots of books. We taught the kids how to play Hearts, Spades and Russian Bank. We gave them unfettered time on their devices. We bought a trampoline; we let our twelve year old go on solo runs; we granted permission for unchaperoned neighborhood bike rides. We fielded our kids’ unanswerable questions; we held non-celebrations for three family birthdays (four, if you count the dog’s), and my husband and I even went on a “date” in our garage.
We were AWAKE, for heaven’s sake. We were more awake, even, than we wanted to be; more awake, maybe, than we have ever been.
But about a month ago, knee-deep in pandemic fatigue, I took a step back. The kids had returned to school, and I’d started working again, however haltingly. Still, I couldn’t concentrate. My watch and my phone and my computer kept dinging. Every time a news story broke, I was too often propelled to social media, where a tidal wave of opinion, hearsay, fabrications, prideful misinformation, mean fun and hard news would, shamefully, ruin my day.
After a particularly testy conversation with my mother, she asked, “What is WRONG with you?”
I have a thousand answers to that question, but, quite honestly, the constant, muffled rage I’d been feeling was a bit … unnatural. So, I reassessed. I started paying attention to the way my body actually felt when I tapped that Twitter icon, or when I saw the outrageous memes, posted by both left and right-leaning “friends,” on Facebook. I took stock of the low-level depression and the high-level anxiety and the general frustration it all ignited within me.
I became more and more aware that I’ve been holding my breath rather than actually breathing. And I started wondering what it might feel like to be both less irate and less foggy, a paradoxical pairing that nonetheless seems wildly appropriate for today’s social and political landscape.
First, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, and I found that I didn’t miss it. After a Facebook post announced that no one could be a Christian, an American AND a Democrat–I mean, really?–I gave that up, too.
A few days later, my husband and I sat down and watched Social Dilemma on Netflix, and it affirmed everything I’ve been processing over the past several months. Our perspectives are distorted because we are being pushed around by algorithms and unnatural digital platforms that actually don’t “care” whether we live in a functioning society or not. They don’t value our relationships. The Internet doesn’t mind pushing conspiracy theories or sowing division, and, unfortunately for we actual people, the weaker members of humanity and politics don’t mind agreeing with distorted reality so long as it’s used to their advantage–creating a snowball effect of enormous proportions.
Now six weeks in to my social media hiatus, the itch to see what “everyone” thinks is gone. After turning off all my phone’s notifications, aside from texts and phone calls from real people, the fog has begun to lift. I know where to get my news. But rather than having it dumped on me throughout the day, when I’m in a frame of mind that can abide it, I go looking for it myself.
Which leads me here–twenty-some days out from a major election that will likely impact whether or not social media companies face regulatory oversight. What if we all decided to wake up? The internet only has as much power as we allow it. Without us, its distortions have no agency. I’m not suggesting that we go back to 1990s-era bag phones–only that we begin to think more intentionally about how these pocket-sized computers can be used as tools, rather than allowing ourselves to be the ones who are used.