There are posters up about an approaching campus contest that challenges us to go without smartphones for an entire 24 hours. 24 of them. It seems to have been created by some high-minded people who want to rub it in our faces that we can’t handle the non-digital world for more than a few hours without shriveling into ourselves or having mental breakdowns from the overstimulating feelings we get when we pay attention to our immediate surroundings. What a snarky contest. I don’t need anyone reminding me that I wouldn’t survive if I were sent back to the 90’s.
I don’t have a smartphone, but it’s more out of laziness than taking the social high ground, and we’re all tired of patronizing lectures on how the individuals of our generation have lost touch with each other despite being constantly connected. Having grown up with and having created internet culture for ourselves, it’s our reality. A bunch of people glued to their phones don’t constitute some Matrix-y, dystopian nightmare. If you want to live without a smartphone, go for it, but you’re not living as a lonely human amongst zombies. “Smart” technology has enabled those who can afford it to interact with each other in radically different ways – many of them good.
But if we allow ourselves to spend hours of our days on the internet, passively browsing or posting, we need to acknowledge our responsibility to treat the World Wide Web as part of the real world. We’ve heard this over and over. Our teenage selves were told not to cyber-bully. Parents were alarmed at the new, anonymous forums we had for putting other people down. Our government and official justice systems have been slow in adapting laws to address the crazy, mostly-anonymous internet. With no police force in place to control us. What do we have? A new frontier of free speech! A wild west, where we can all live out our dreams of vigilantism and claim territory as our own through blogs and video channels! And we don’t even risk getting dysentery!
The fact that everyone can have a platform is one of the cool things about the internet. It also allows us to constantly engage in war with each other. The language we use to talk about arguments on the internet is often war-related (“flame wars” in Youtube comment sections and whatnot). But though we’re all aching to engage in these wars – to assert ourselves, use the platforms we have – we look upon internet battles with a certain amount of disdain. We do this even if we’re the ones battling. The term “social justice warrior” is used to belittle people who make attempts at activism of a certain kind. To be identified as an “SJW” means that you’ve been throwing an unreasonable, hyper-politically-correct fit about some made-up oppression – usually, just for the sake of getting attention or justifying your own sense of victimization. People plugging feminist and civil rights causes are often called SJWs. Their opponents argue that their arguments aren’t justifiable, that they’re too sensitive, or that they cowardly accuse those they disagree with of “political incorrectness” and try to shut them down. They are frequently accused of making false accusations.
But if you’re on the side that feels that real “social justice” entails shutting down SJWs before they shut you down, you’re being a social justice warrior yourself. And it’s increasingly popular to drag cases of “real world” justice into the internet realm, where “social justice” can manifest itself in full force. For instance, when online articles are published about sexual assault, it usually doesn’t take much time for their comment sections to be full of opinions that reflect a lack of patience with the official court system. The forces of the internet decide who is guilty or lying, and they unleash their wrath upon them without hesitation. When you’re anonymous, it’s very easy to call someone a lying whore or threaten them with violence. Imagine someone doing that in a real court room. There would be consequences that are completely avoidable on social media.
People involved in court cases and public conflicts have always been subject to reputation-smearing and gossip, but the internet has made the effects of those things much more severe and widespread. If you don’t think that’s a problem, fine – no one is stopping you from participating in inflammatory conversation on Yik Yak, Reddit, and the like (in the “real world”, we might call these conversations gossip). But I would ask you to think about whether or not you have a responsibility to make your internet behavior mirror your “real life” behavior. You’re entitled to free speech (an often misconstrued notion itself), but it’s all just, like, your opinion, man, and you’re supposed to be responsible with it. The people who get to pass judgment in the real world are either serious students of law or (theoretically) impartial members of a jury. We have formal institutions to try to make things fair. If you’re a person campaigning for justice on the internet, it’s likely you’re not a certified authority, and while we tend to love it, vigilantism is pretty romanticized and definitely not always just. You may be convinced you’re doing a better job creating justice than the actual justice system – which is possible, since the system is flawed – but justice is a complex thing, and deciding that you know better than everyone else is presumptuous.
So please, if you’re someone who’s always glued to your phone, spending several hours a day engaging in public, uncontrolled arguments about real-world issues, do it responsibly. Consider the consequences of your actions and whether or not you are entitled to bring them about. We know that in the real world, we can’t just say whatever we want without being held responsible for it. That can be a positive function of society. If you need to get off your phone for 24 hours to exist in a reality that holds you responsible for your words and actions, do it. The ASU may even give you a prize.