Montreal·First Person

My year offline taught me that drastic changes to internet habits are easier than making moderate ones

In my internet-less year, I learnt about the exploitative labour and environmental harm associated with digital tech. I also read about surveillance capitalism, the "New Jim Code," "fake news" and the mental health effects of social media. But all that knowledge and time away seemed to do nothing to lessen my appetite for clicking and scrolling.

A less harmful internet is possible, but only if we work toward it together

A man sits on a couch, surrounded by papers and letters.
For an entire year, Aron Rosenberg stuck to letter-writing and phone calls to stay in touch with people. (Submitted by Aron Rosenberg)

After spending 2020 offline, I thought I would have been excited to use the internet again. But as Jan. 1 approached, all I felt was anxiety.

I was worried about being so available to people, and about everything I'd be expected to read and watch. I also felt stressed thinking about all the environmental and human rights issues involved with producing, supporting and disposing of digital technologies.

When I opened my email and saw 2,836 unread messages, I immediately closed my laptop and went for a walk. When I got home, I went through my inbox but only found two emails that actually required my attention. Neither were very important.

The first few days of being back online weren't so bad. Every new web page felt fresh and exciting. I sent some long overdue emails, paid tuition, read a couple new articles, but I didn't use the internet too much. I tried to watch some new TV on one of my partner James's streaming accounts, but it said I had to update my web browser and I couldn't figure out how, so I continued watching the same tapes and DVDs from when I was offline.

Then something in my head switched, and I started carrying my laptop around my apartment constantly. I don't have a smartphone, so I think that saved me from diving too deep, but it was still suffocating. For a week, I didn't even try to control myself, but I don't think I would've been able to if I tried.

After a year of being offline, I'd forgotten how to self-regulate. I was completely out of practice. During that week, I felt a bit depraved but I embraced it — TikTok videos and all.

However, when I was ready to exercise some self-control, everything fell apart. I couldn't stop scrolling on Twitter, or I'd find myself checking my email over and over again even though I knew there was nothing new.

I had dozens of tabs open but instead of reading any of them, I'd just click between them and mindlessly look at the images and headlines. Spending a year offline helped me realize how much easier it is to make drastic changes to my online lifestyle than more moderate ones.

In my internet-less year, I learnt about the exploitative labour and environmental harm associated with digital tech. I also read about surveillance capitalism, the "New Jim Code," "fake news" and the mental health effects of social media.

But all that knowledge and time away seemed to do nothing to lessen my appetite for clicking and scrolling.

With the help of my journal and setting intentional limits, I feel like I'm getting things under control now, but I'm still online more than I hoped I would be. Although I've been doom-scrolling on Twitter and worm-holing on Wikipedia, I've managed to cut out most of my other compulsive online indulgences. I'm trying to dedicate my time online to community organizing.

A man wearing a light jacket and backpack stands outdoors under a blue sky, taking in the scenery in the distance.
Faced with a pile of unread emails, Aron's first instinct was to leave the house. But he soon realized few actually required a response. (Submitted by Aron Rosenberg)

Since I've been back online, I've joined a working group organized by "All Tech is Human" that's been meeting weekly to draft a resource to support changes to social media, and I've attended an assortment of webinars and workshops on Indigenous tech, human rights in the Middle East, anti-Blackness in Canada and disability art and activism.

When I ask at these webinars what role the internet plays in activism, I always get the same answer: it's an important tool, but it's only a tool. I have to figure out how to focus both online and off, so that I don't get lulled into an armchair-only kind of activism in the long run.

Now that I'm back online, I've joined the now ubiquitous world of video calls — with friends, family, colleagues, classmates and for all the webinars. That's fine for social calls, but for work or class, I get distracted by my own face.

One of my professors enjoys calling me out when I accidentally make funny faces, like when I'm concentrating or confused. I've taken to monitoring my facial expressions as a way to stay in control. It seems to work, but it makes it much harder to concentrate on what other people are saying.

While I am online, I am trying my best to avoid the biggest tech companies: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. I switched from Gmail to Protonmail, I'm using DuckDuckGo instead of Google, I've got the Brave browser instead of Safari or Chrome and I'm using a Lenovo ThinkPad with a Linux operating system. However, if I could go back in time, I would buy a laptop that was entirely refurbished.

I know that smaller tech companies share a lot of the issues faced by big tech, but these companies have to be more competitive so they often are more customer-centered and concerned with privacy, transparency and the well-being of users.

If we want the internet to be more sustainable and fair, we'll need to work together. The internet is a collective. It's just a bunch of interconnected computers, including ours.

Back online, Aron tried to watch TV using a streaming account belonging to his partner James, but his browser was too out of date for it to function. (Submitted by Aron Rosenberg)

Although big tech companies have the top psychologists and engineers working for them, we are collectively in charge of the internet. We control whether we have social media on our phones, which websites to go to and what we do there. We have the final say on whether we accept Amazon's impact on small businesses and undocumented migrants, or whether we support other companies instead.

We may just be a small piece of the whole, but even small changes have material impacts for real people.

Our power has been hidden due to intentional strategies that big tech companies use to make money — or just due to the increasing complexity of the digital tools playing an ever larger role in our lives. The problems with the internet are so big, it sometimes feels like we can't play a part.

But if we play individual roles in collective change, that just might save the internet.

It's not our job to transform the internet on our own, but we must consider who is benefiting if we ignore the power we do have.

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Aron Rosenberg is taking a break from working as a high school teacher in Vancouver to complete his PhD in education at McGill University in Montreal. His research focuses on developing critical digital literacy practices with students by investigating the social and environmental justice implications of using digital technologies.