For years, I felt that some screens were more worthwhile than others. I always clung to the virtuous options, or at least the ones that seemed virtuous at the time: message boards, Wikipedia, random informative articles, peer-to-peer file sharing, and social media. I’ve invested and thrown away probably hundreds or thousands of hours mindlessly scrolling, tugging at the top of my screen to refresh my feed whenever I got uncomfortable, like a self-soothing tic.
Slowly, these online spaces became not only less virtuous, but less safe. As I got more attention on social media sites, it became a more stressful space to occupy. It’s not that I had a specific fear of anything happening to me, but private and public space is differentiated for a reason. Although I was scrolling on my couch, there is a dissonance one feels when occupying public, non-physical space while in a private physical one. That sensation, compounded by my inability and refusal to log off, eroded much of my sense of real, logged-off life, and only accelerated as my professional life migrated to the same online spaces I once sought refuge in.
The internet is not a safe place. I had heard this, the arguments about surveillance and the creep of dystopia, concerns which repeated so often with little solution or alternative, that the valid criticisms levied against the internet began to sound like the drones of a nagging parent. Worse, those arguments were lumped in with trend pieces about how millennials were self-centered, dumb, and way too online. Social media was painted as a self-centered pursuit (which: fair) instead of highlighting the connections and conversations that these platforms, at their (admittedly rare) best could foster. It is ironic how platforms primarily used to escape one’s isolation, both physical and social, were dismissed as a solipsistic narcissist’s paradise.
I learned the internet isn’t safe once, and then again and again and again. There are things you can’t get back, the personal information that you reveal or is taken from you. What’s most insidious about the internet’s lack of safety is the difficulty of connecting actions within a physical space and a physical body in distress or real pain. Can we definitively quantify the number of anonymous accounts that must harass a person before real harm has been caused? The plausible deniability of being but one in a Twitter pile-on, the ability to scoff at those we don’t like who get doxxed, telling ourselves, It’s not like anyone's going to use that information to actually do anything. When the harm is the lack of control, the trauma comes from exposure and threat.
My threshold for whether something is worth my time, or a better use of my time, is informed by how long I can spend doing it away from the websites and apps that have baked addiction into their code and business plan.
The winter I got sick five times, and during each of the recovering processes, I retreated to the New York Times’ Crossword app. I stared at my phone, for once at solving a puzzle and not immersing myself in on-the-fly tweets and manufactured online drama. I felt as if I had escaped. (Though I have to admit, the bar is extremely low.) I was excited that I had turned on my television and actually watched something, instead of ignoring whatever was on while scrolling the internet. My threshold for whether something is worth my time, or a better use of my time, is informed by how long I can spend doing it away from the websites and apps that have baked addiction into their code and business plan.
To the best of my ability, I completed nine years of the Times’ Monday crossword puzzles during those five colds. I didn’t finish them all, because I was still learning, and depended on the training wheels of autocheck, which lets you know when you’ve put in the right letter. After a few hours, I remembered why I had banned any and all games from my phone. I had lost time in college to even the most pathetic games, posting up in my dorm to beat every level of Cut the Rope, a game I had learned about from the six-year-old that I babysat. I remembered the weeks before finally deleting Sonic from my iPhone, when my entire commute and after-work hours had become devoted to zipping through the pixelated world as an adorable blue hedgehog.
After I accepted my powerlessness in the face of the crossword, I downloaded a Sudoku app. For a couple weeks I oscillated between absentmindedly completing the puzzles and giving them my full concentration. But between the banner ads and the boredom of numbers, it felt lacking. I knew I had to return from whence I thought I had finally left: Tetris. I had Tetris for flip phone, and spun tiles to kill time during my high school commutes. I had, like with all the other games, become unable to limit my time with it, and would see those floating tiles when I closed my eyes to fall asleep.
In moments of boredom, I could open the app and focus on piecing together all those jagged tiles. If I’m addicted to tapping at my phone screen, better I play with blocks than further poison myself on a toxic timeline. I do this while listening to the radio, while on the subway, in particularly boring meetings, or just to increase my auditory focus. I considered getting a Twitch account so people could watch me drag Tetris blocks down as I ranted about the declining quality of New York City iced coffee (do NOT sell me old coffee on ice), but this felt like a bridge too far.
The line between my time spent and wasted has blurred. As we’re expected to monetize every hobby or whim into a grassroots brand bolstered by participation on social media platforms, either as advertising for the service or as the service full-stop, there’s little to do that someone won’t suggest using as a way to create material or social capital. Knitting? Start an Etsy. Cooking? Document your progress, write recipes, figure out a way to incorporate it into your pre-existing online life. Spend too much of your life playing phone games? Maybe someone will ask you to write about it.
Plus, I’m too neurotic to be comfortable with the idea of fun or playing for fun’s sake. Playing games is an activity not even exclusive to humans, a fact which highlights the joy and fun of pointless play. But the other side of this is existential despair. The thought, This is fun because it doesn’t matter or It doesn’t matter, so it is fun leads to Dear god, what is the point of anything and how is my low-stakes occupation of the real world any different from a simulated reality? Plus, I once saw a YouTube video of footage from Red Dead Redemption 2 and couldn’t stop thinking about whoever’s job it was to make the grain on the wooden fences so accurate. The world is too big, and I am so small.
It’s difficult for me to conceptualize the internet. It’s this imagined space that we all occupy together, which then intersects with the more “material” world. This is weird and confusing normally, but as someone who dissociates (diagnosed) it’s particularly difficult to nail down. There have been a few studies tracking the link between internet use and dissociation. This one notes, “Significantly higher levels of depression and dissociation were furthermore found in a sample of 25 patients with internet addiction as compared to a matched healthy control group.” There isn't enough data to declaratively or definitively align the behavior and symptom, especially as a lay person, but suffice it to say that I hope this research might one day solidify into something more.
Conversely, there have been studies correlating video games to increased concentration, a finding that I buy with the caveat that no screen blasting light into my pupils can be considered a genuinely good thing. But then, is anything good for us if our bodies are rotting sacks of blood forever churning towards a certain death, breaking down collagen as our skin draps more dramatically into a sagging skin bag? So, I bought a Nintendo Switch. Immediately, I threw at least 12 hours into cosplaying as a goose causing mischief in the charmingly titled Untitled Goose Game.
I had heard about the asshole goose in one of those Twitter cycles where my timeline was united in churning out tweets about a single subject, and learning about the issue begins with a deluge of context-less jokes and strong opinions about whatever’s going on, reaching a slow understanding through context clues and googling. Never did I think one day I would be the asshole goose, creating mayhem as I mischievously snatched items from unassuming townspeople. For decades, I played games but told myself that I wasn’t a gamer, just someone who spent too much time playing games on her phone, as if this were somehow more virtuous than finding solace in games played on a dedicated device. But now, the veil has been lifted, and I have discovered that I love life as a goose, especially because as I live it, I am blessedly, happily not online.