Is Building Digital Escapes Ethical?

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@jadJad Esber

Digital escape is the idea of escaping the ‘real world’ through consumption of online content. In my piece on 2019 predictions, I wrote about how “in everyday life, you’ll take a stroll, but in electronic life, you take a scroll”. Since the beginning of time, humans have found escape in stories, art, games, human contact. In today’s world, we’re finding digital escapes in the form of scrolling through our Instagram feed, playing online games or even watching others play them on Twitch. Either intentionally or unintentionally, many social media platforms today have become spaces for digital escape. By building for user engagement and retention, platforms are incentivized to maximize the time users spend — essentially, building deep wells for digital escape. In this piece, I will explore the argument that building for digital escape, within clear boundaries, is not morally objectionable and can be value additive and creditable.

Is there such a thing as a healthy digital escape?

How many times have you turned to texting a friend to recoup after a long day at work? Or binged on SNL videos on YouTube or that new comedy series on Netflix for some laughs during a stressful time? Digital escape can provide spaces for healing. However, there’s a fine line between creating healthy spaces that cultivate positive interactions between users, build community and encourage moderated content consumption, and spaces that pollute the mind and lead to digital reclusion.

It comes down to the balance between digital escape & reclusion

Many argue that social media platforms have become time sinks, and that social media addiction is rife. Nowadays, many are trapped in their phone screens, removing themselves from society. Scenes of young people in social gatherings staring at their phones instead of engaging with each other have become commonplace and are reminders of the potentially disruptive, and reclusive, attitudes these platforms encourage.
I would argue that these behaviors have come about because of the way that platforms have been architected, and should not refute the efficacy of a well-purposed platform that cultivates healthy digital escape. Today’s platforms center around algorithmically-curated public spheres, the social feed, where users are pushed to create content that will keep us clicking, tapping, and scrolling down a bottomless feed. It’s what Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, calls “a social-­validation feedback loop.” One might argue that the social engineering these platforms are carrying out is actually leading to net negative effects from a utilitarian perspective, as well as infringing on human dignity — Harari talks about how platforms could “know how to press our emotional buttons better than our mother does and use this uncanny ability, at the behest of a human elite, to try to sell us something”.
Society is starting to recognize this and platforms are responding. We’re seeing a movement from public social feeds to more closed communities, the removal of public-facing engagement metrics and movement away from success metrics focussed on time spent to measures of interaction quality and user satisfaction that cultivates more responsible practices of digital escape.

What about self-expression vs. self-protection?

Against the echo of traditionalists bashing social media, young people overwhelmingly vote in favor of social media positively impacting their ability to self-express. Social media platforms have enabled us to find digital escapes that allow us to build strong social relationships “based on efficiency, instantaneity, and mobility.” Our digital worlds have shortened the path to finding a community we associate with — finding ‘your people’ has become infinitely easier, enabling greater embeddedness and a generation to feel less isolated (despite being more isolated?).
In addition to an ability to self-express, digital escape has seen an increase in self-protection — being avoidant of, or unaware of emotions. From a recent NYT Magazine article: “for teenagers today, the internet is both a stage onto which to step boldly and a minefield through which to step gingerly — a double bind that has given rise to whole new habits of living online, in which self-expression and self-protection are inextricably linked.”
Digital escape can lead us to numb ourselves from our emotions and this sometimes causes us to lose track of time, which may be an explanation for binge culture and the time sink that these platforms have become. Digital escapes providing a more ample source for self-protection can be helpful. For example, in dealing with trauma, self-protection and its avoidance patterns help us heal. Distancing ourselves from our emotions can help us feel safe, but also causes us to be vulnerable in other ways. We become more subject to manipulative and mistrustful influences, and in a digital universe littered with these, it can cause many to go astray. Additionally, Dr. Brenner writes about how “opening oneself up to feelings of tenderness and self-recognition permits us to connect more deeply with others” and with the decreasing vulnerability brought about by self-protection we may be seeing a less ‘connected’ people despite our exponentially more connected society. It is vital that we build platforms that enable degrees of self-expression and self-protection, but we must place guardrails to ensure we’re encouraging positive behaviors.

The new cultural paradigm: digital escape and Metamodernism

The most profound shift brought about by digital escapes is how the internet generation identifies. It is human to have multiple identities — to “contain multitudes”, but it wasn’t until the internet generation that we’ve been able to truly explore and own them. Cultural theorists call it Metamodernism — and Luke Turner describes it as “a kind of informed naïveté, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp.” Digital escape unlocks huge opportunities for identity formation, which is very powerful. However, in the end, it is important to realize that digital escape can be problematic — which is different to being good or bad. It’s for this reason that it’s morally reprehensible to curtail digital escape, but also vitally important that we build healthy digital escapes that are dignified user experiences that cultivate positive attitudes.

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