A blog about logging off in 2021

Rethinking "logging off," capitalism-induced dream states, and clothes

An alternative headline I was strongly considering: Can you reach me? No, you can’t.

I.

During what was perhaps the most hyped-up summer of my life, I toyed with the idea of logging off. Logging off, I thought, had to be done with intention. Steadfast intention. A "throw my cellular device in the water"-type of grandiose act with little explanation. 

I am too young to remember the genre of "logging off" blogs that supposedly plagued the internet in the 2010s. It seems, though, that we still treat this idea in rigid dichotomy with being "chronically online," despite how incredibly challenging it is to exist without a digital footprint. We romanticize the social media sabbatical, and idolize those who’ve committed to a detox.

I keep returning to this Bookforum review by the writer Max Read whenever I feel the urge to succumb to the doom-scroll. Read likened his departure from Twitter and Instagram to a typical Irish exit: "abruptly, silently, and much later than would have been healthy." There are too many good passages to pull, but Read argues that what lurks behind our compulsion for more social screen time is ultimately "a latent instinct toward … destruction [and] self-obliteration." It's a Freudian conclusion threaded with elements of pop psychology, and Read himself approaches it with some degree of skepticism. Still, he questions whether the social media giants are solely to blame for our addiction. We — the users — have an active part in cultivating this behavior. Perhaps, Read suggests, we should take some responsibility. Perhaps we should stop wasting our time.

As compelling and well-written as this proposal is, it’s an individualized solution to a widespread condition. Leaving social media is, in theory, simple, but nothing like slinking out the door for a mid-party cigarette. To build upon that imperfect analogy, I think of social media as an ongoing party held at my apartment. I can return to my room, but still hear its echoes through the thin walls, the locked door. I can also leave, before eventually returning home to hear what I’ve been missing out on, night after night. Most people never leave. They complain and stay put because there’s so much effort required to fully disconnect. The guardrails put in place to curb phone use, like Apple’s Screen Time function or the Offtime app, are often crafted by tech companies themselves. So even the concept of moderation feels futile when physical spaces and in-person interactions are directly influenced by the virtual.

The idea of prioritizing happiness and intention over ceaseless online consumption, of course, is not in the interests of Big Tech. The social networks are scheming how to keep us hooked and more dependent by the day. Facebook and Snapchat, for example, are attempting to build the “metaverse,” an immersive online space that has been described as “the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet.” One software developer described it as “virtual reality with un-skippable ads,” a kind of social media on steroids. It will be “a place you will be forced to be,” according to Real Life Mag, “where every device is smart (tracking you and charging fees and functioning as a constant advertisement for itself) and every other entity is swathed in proprietary content meant to signal its social credit.” The worst part is that tech CEOs hope the “metaverse” can become a meaningful substitute for the physical world.

I spent a lot of time this summer reading poetry. It made me realize how much I fear losing touch with the sublime mundanity of reality. The meatspace world is magical. Have you ever laid in a field and marveled at how fast the clouds move? Noticed how the intensity of the sunlight changes as summer wanes? I fear that I’m so accustomed to glancing at my phone that I’m forgetting how to sit alone and drown in the river-flow of my thoughts. I fear what art critic Dean Kissick has described as this "constant rolling satisfaction of, and creation of, more hollow, artificial yearnings." I fear this "ambient state of desiring... where everything is at once never-ending and meaningless."

After two years of thinking and writing and reading about the internet, my consumption of "internet culture" discourse has come to feel frivolous, a distraction from the flawed infrastructure of our physical and virtual worlds. (It’s a redundant phrase, “internet culture.” The internet is culture at scale; it has been for about two decades now.) Some days, I desperately want to leave the party and go touch some grass, but the individual freedom of “logging off” seems illusory and unsatisfying. It won’t change how the modern, centralized internet is run by conglomerates aiming to commodify every aspect of online interaction. Or how we’ve given more and more cultural cache to the companies and people working in the interest of capital, who’ve garnered more influence and data over our private lives and state-sponsored demands. Tech writer Paris Marx recently wrote about how “individual actions will never generate emancipatory online spaces.” Even within the virtual world, it requires “state action to fund and build the alternatives [to a corporate internet], pushed by an organized public demanding technology for the people.”

Naturally, a political solution requires time, so what of our current individual conditions on the internet? Perhaps there is some spectrum between the binary of “logged off” and “chronically online” that feels briefly liberating, that grants you some reprise from the doom-scroll’s drudgery. There is no shame in trying to log off, in deleting Instagram and re-downloading it once a day. What matters, I think, is our conscious intent.

II.

At the start of the pandemic, there was an apocalyptic urgency to staying connected. The joyless scrolling felt necessary, as did those back-to-back Zoom happy hours. On Instagram, images of sourdough starters gave way to mask selfies to mutual aid slideshows to vaccine PSAs to, finally, the vibrancy of city life: blurry disco balls, empty martini glasses, mirror selfies in dirty bathrooms. There was, briefly, no reason to doom scroll. People were touching and dancing and kissing and taking bad selfies.

But at times, this reality felt contrived. The summer's vibes felt terribly and punishingly "off." Naturally, people took to the internet to complain, despite how much better and safer our lives were as free-wheeling, vaccinated citizens of the Western world. It was easy, almost unconsciously so, to fall back into old habits and the comfortable, paralyzing grip of our feeds.

Under capitalism, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin believed that citizens were lulled into a collective dream state. He called this condition the “phantasmagoria,” which arose out of 19th century mass culture. It was a theory born out of Benjamin’s fascination with the shopping arcades in Paris, where shoppers come to be surrounded by advertisements and an endless array of buyable things. He saw Paris’s arcades as the physical manifestation of French society’s obsession with consumption and commodity. Yet, Benjamin held the oddly optimistic view that people were capable of awakening themselves from the “phantasmagoria.” They were not doomed to sleep forever.

Today, the symbol of mass consumption has shifted from the shopping mall to the social internet — and so has this dream state. In May, I wrote about how users are induced in a state of ambient shopping on social media. Users function as both consumer and commodity; they are virtual commodities (or “influencers”) in the data, advertising, and monetized interactions they provide, and consumers of the commodities touted by the targeted ads, influencers, and brands that float across their feeds. There is a passive helplessness associated to our consumer condition, this “phantasmagoria.”

But every dream must come to an end, and Benjamin believed that society would eventually awaken its consciousness by developing a sense of “empathy with the commodity.” Consumers will begin to recognize the labor that goes into producing and selling goods. And since we are, to an extent, all commodities in the social media marketplace, it requires extending empathy to our existing condition. Benjamin, in true philosophical fashion, posed no clear solution as to how we can free ourselves from the grasp of consumer capitalism.

Yet, by a very basic reading of Benjamin’s work, recognition of our place in the “system” is sufficient. He doesn’t demand for people to stop browsing, to log off. Instead, he encouraged nonchalant idleness as “an unconscious protest against the tempo of the production process” whenever possible. The individual in this state faces no pressure to work or derive monetary value from their leisure time. Interpret that as loosely as you wish. Does the internet stifle your pursuit of leisure? Or aids it?

III.

Letter of recommendation: A meditation on clothes and modernity

A few weeks ago, I came across a fascinating essay on clothes while researching athleisure and its influence on contemporary wear. The architect Bernard Rudofsky was driven to write "Are clothes modern? An essay on contemporary apparel" because he was so aggrieved by the modest, restrictive state of early 20th century dress. I was writing a trend piece on the viral hype over exercise dresses. (Disclaimer: I do not own an exercise dress; I do not need a nylon-spandex garment that has the silhouette of a slip dress without any of its sensuality!)

Rudofsky's book-length essay was published in 1947, but it remains a startlingly prescient read for anyone interested in fashion history. He predicted how athleisure, or "play clothes," could be the first true "contemporary" style of clothing, warned of fashion's potential for waste, and believed that mainstream fashion styles will be shaped by clothing manufacturers' pursuit of profit. I didn’t end up citing Rudofsky in my final draft, but his skepticism towards the mass production of clothes is relevant to fast fashion and viral fashion trends:

“The gigantic industrial apparatus which produces our articles of clothing — a novelty in the history of humanity — obliges us through its own laws of mechanics and economics to a constant process of amending our views on body exposure … Swift changes in dress fashions are caused mainly by the manufacturer's dread of economic catastrophe, and by his exploitation of the need for erotic satisfaction on the part of men and women."

And this quote on textile waste and its relation to self-expression:

"Fashion's most glaring aspect is waste. This does not impress everybody as a negative quality. The production of machine-made goods, which is not always a means to fill the needs of the consumer but an end in itself, depends on the intensity of waste. As buying of goods is more and more becoming the favorite self-expression of the individual, and esteem is based on both his willingness and capacity to acquire manufactured commodities, waste is not only regarded as perfectly legitimate but assumes the significance of a patriotic duty."

I've spent the past year ruminating on my complicated relationship with clothes. Specifically, my tendency to buy clothes as a vehicle for self-expression and, as Rudofsky suggested, for erotic satisfaction. That has inspired a series of consumerism-adjacent stories: on the pricing of secondhand clothes, why Gen Z can’t out-thrift fast fashion, and the rise of fast fashion giant Shein.

It’s not an exaggeration to claim that most young women dress like their social media feeds, something I’ve tried to grow out of this year in my quest for personal style. Yet, the concept of individual taste feels so elusive in a world bombarding us with subtle and unsubtle advertising. Most mainstream fashion styles are determined by algorithms and algorithmic tastemakers — influencers, regular people chasing virality (in the case of the exercise dress), and brands seeking profit.

A recent edition of the style newsletter Blackbird Spyplane questioned the need for "optimization mindset" clothing. (The Goods has also produced several pieces of journalism tackling our endless pursuit for the "best of everything” in 2018.) Exercise dresses are quite literally the best example of this genre of clothing. I would try to pull a quote, but the newsletter is written in a... highly specific, highly entertaining, yet highly unquotable manner, so I will do my best to summarize. Why are we conditioned to seek out products that claim to be the “best”? Why do we apply that utilitarian logic to something so individualized and imaginative, like clothes? What is the purpose of optimization, and does it present more problems that it seeks to solve?

Take it from Rudofsky, who believed clothes should “ultimately become as non-essential as art” once Western society sheds its Puritanical concerns over modesty. “At the end of its evolution, dress, cleansed of its dregs, will stand as a sublimation of its first motive: decoration … In fact, only then shall we find justification for calling it an art.”

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