Now, as the stress of the pandemic is beginning to recede, our relationship with the internet might be renegotiated. President Joe Biden has promised to deliver so much progress against the coronavirus that by July 4, “Americans will have taken a serious step toward a return to normal.” The word normal seems to describe parties and sporting events and cross-generational hugs—but a step toward these implies a step away from where we’ve lived since last year’s awful spring. Airline travel is already coming back; could airplane mode be next? As vaccination rates tick up, and IRL social life resumes, it’s getting easier to imagine that we’re on the brink of something big: a coordinated withdrawal from swiping and streaming, a new consensus that staying home to watch Netflix is no longer a chill Friday-night plan, but an affront.
Could this be real? Are we about to start the summer of a Great Offlining in America?
A few signs that this movement could be upon us: Netflix reported its worst first quarter in eight years, after seeing historic growth in 2020. Tinder conceded that more than half of its Gen Z users have no intention of using its videochat features ever again. Clubhouse downloads dropped significantly in April, prompting worry that the app was always just “a temporary salve to being stuck inside.”
On The Cut, Safy-Hallan Farah has predicted a post-pandemic future in which our culture prioritizes, among other things, “earnestness,” “communism,” and “being extremely offline.” The writer Luke Winkie forecasts a 10-week period of everyone abandoning the internet, adding that “offline is going to hit like a drug.” Discourse’s Patrick Redford put it best, writing that “the idea of further screen-only interaction with my friends and loved ones after a year overstuffed with them makes me want to toss my phone into the Pacific Ocean.”
For me, the Atlantic Ocean is more convenient, but saying so evokes some déjà vu. I realize that I’ve had this conversation before—as many of us have—and in the not-so-distant past. Rumors of a Great Offlining were in the air in the months before the pandemic started, when the cultural conversation was dominated by talk of what to do about our sick obsession with the internet.
In April 2019, Jenny Odell published How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, a New York Times best-seller (and a Barack Obama “Favorite Book”) that outlined the many ways in which commercial social media drives us away from one another and into silos of anxiety. This distraction, she said, “appears to be a life-and-death matter.” Just a few months earlier, the former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff had released The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, a 700-page New York Times notable book (and Barack Obama “Favorite Book”) that had the receipts to prove that companies such as Google and Facebook were deliberately extracting and monetizing every conceivable aspect of their users’ humanity. Zuboff framed the battle against Big Tech as a global conflict with absolute moral urgency; her work was compared, widely, to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I do not remember seeing the latter as an exaggeration. I do remember breathlessly live-tweeting as I read Zuboff’s book at a dinner table.