In one of those blue-funk I-need-to-digitally-detox modes, I went offline for 48 hours. It was interesting to just turn the internet off — putting all the devices on flight mode and doing other things — and spend an entire weekend away from screens and home assistants. The world felt a little empty and silent without the constant chatter of all my smart devices.
When I woke up on Monday morning and brought the internet back into my life, my phone vibrated for five minutes flat as all the different apps woke up to the sweet smell of connectivity and started downloading information in an apocalyptic frenzy. Every notification sound that has ever been set on my phone and other devices, competed with another to ring the loudest and announce the world waiting at my doorstep.
I was curious to know what this extraordinary traffic could be about. My work email was more or less where I had left it before I signed out, but everywhere else was chatter. I had more than a 100 notifications of birthdays, events, and important occasions that I had missed. Despite the fact that I had not produced any content, not initiated any conversations, and not engaged with any material, I had more than 400 notifications from five main social media apps, where people had tagged me, poked me and pulled me into long conversation threads that I could no longer recognise or trace back.
An equal number of friendly algorithms had curated things that needed my attention and were warning me that I might have missed out on the most life-changing moments. My personal messaging system was filled with group messages, those from family and friends who were not talking to me but making me a witness to their conversations. There were also a few frantic messages, first checking if the messages were being delivered, then wondering why I was not responding, and then going into a rage about my rudeness for not even informing them that I wouldn’t be replying to them.
I looked at the huge volume of information waiting for me to see, sort, and store it and create my own archives and digital footprints and was left thinking: how is it that even when I was offline, my digital avatar was in a state of continued interaction and conversation? What does it mean for us to be tagged without consent, to be pulled into chats with no notice, to be asked questions and sent information at a speed and volume that is almost impossible to fathom?
This wasn’t a particularly busy weekend. It wasn’t as if something dramatic had happened to suddenly put me in the middle of a viral data stream. This is obviously the number of notifications and nudges I receive from my digital devices on a daily basis. I am just so used to checking my phone and screens continually, emptying inboxes, reading comments, replying to chat threads that I have turned this continued interruption and demands on my attention into a habit. I am an hourly slave to my devices and every couple of hours I browse, clear, reply, and empty the notifications and then they pile up again.
It took a two-day break from the automated feedback loops that I have naturalised in my daily habits for me to realise how incessantly and tirelessly I keep on feeding the constant demand being made by these devices. I realised that in order to respond to all of these things and catch up on everything I have missed, I will need at least an hour’s work. I looked up my schedule for the day and caught myself reorganising my social time — shall I reduce the coffee with a friend? Can I skype with that friend later? Maybe I will call my parents tomorrow?
When I caught myself trying to change plans with my friends and colleagues in order to make time for social media servicing, I was stunned. And then I did something I have never done before — I selected all these messages and refreshed the screens, marked them as read and went on with my day, knowing quite well that I might not find the time later to go to the information that these notifications were sending me to. I went on with my day. I got home late in the evening, after a day spent well. I know I must have missed a few interesting things, but I no longer fear that. Nothing has exploded and I have had a day filled with things that I might have otherwise missed and felt the absence of more.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.
This article appeared in print with the headline: Noises off