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How Connectivity Made Us Miserable

Written by Samuel D. James on

Is connectivity bringing you happiness or misery? Is digital connection real connection? Samuel James will speak at our THINK|23 conference on navigating the challenges of living in a digital world. Samuel reminds us that “There is a world beyond the screen. Can we find it again?”


At the risk of generational hubris and a very obnoxious kind of nostalgia, I would like to submit to you that circa 2008, Americans were, if not happier, at least having more fun. I would further like to submit to you that the dampening of this joviality is directly related to what I am calling connectivity: both the way that more and more of our life is mediated by the Internet, and also the transformation of nearly all of our tools and pastimes into vehicles that mediate an ambient world wide Web.

Connectivity describes both a technological progression and a cultural state. Connectivity happens to people as well as devices. It has happened to nearly every American adult via the smartphone, and it has permanently transformed mediums such as film and music. If an American in their late 20s or early 30s were to have fallen into a coma in 2008 and woken up in 2022, they would find not only that the culture has changed in the way that all cultures do (new personalities, new technologies, new fashions, etc.), but the way they experience that culture has transformed in a way they may not have a category for. It’s that transformation I am proposing to call connectivity, and I believe connectivity can be illustrated efficiently in the lifespans of three particular cultural artifacts, all of which ascended into cultural dominance in the latter half of the 2000s. By 2008, all of these cultural artifacts were powerful and profitable, but also by 2008, all three were poised to undergo fundamental changes that would prove irreversible—changes brought about primarily, I will argue, by connectivity.

The three cultural artifacts I have in mind are Netflix, the iPod, and Facebook. I’ve chosen these three not just because their substantive transformations intersect around the year 2008, but also because they represent three major sectors of connectivity. Netflix is an entertainment company that supplies customers with movies and television shows to watch. The iPod was a piece of hardware designed to contain and play an owner’s music (and later, their visual media). Facebook is a social networking site intended to put users in proximity with their friends and family. An entertainment company, a hard device, and a social media platform: these three different cultural artifacts represent three huge, arguably all-encompassing categories of digital culture.

Netflix

Netflix is the oldest of these cultural artifacts. Its mail-order video rental business began in the late 1990s but its best growth happened in the first half of the 2000s. The logic of Netflix was startlingly simple: combine the ease of online shopping with the cost-efficient novelty of renting movies. By 2008, however, the company had already started its on-demand streaming service and began the pivot away from focusing on renting out physical copies. According to one source, Netflix now boasts over 220 million subscribers to its streaming service. Interestingly enough, the company still offers movie rentals by mail. About two million people still receive this service…barely a fraction of the streaming base, but enough for journalists to write articles with the title, “Why Do Two Million People Still Rent DVDs from Netflix?

For Netflix, the abandonment of their core business model was simply and wholly about connectivity. There was a time when it made sense to pay money so that a company can take 3-4 days to ship you a physical disc that requires a physical player which may or may not be able to read the disc in its current condition. That time was the era of pre-connectivity. Connectivity renders this model nonsensical. If the movies you would order in the mail can be viewed instantly, with no wait, effort, or risk of unreadable material, why not stream instead? Further, the logic of connectivity with regard to Netflix has led to smart TVs that have Netflix buttons built-in, further eliminating even the effort to navigate to a website or download an app.

Connectivity reorients the values of Netflix. It’s important to understand that the transformation of Netflix from a DVD rental business to a streaming business is not just some kind of evolutionary progression, it’s a radical change to the logic of entertainment, and here’s why. Netflix’s streaming service features much fewer options than their movie rental business did. At no time has this discrepancy led to a rejection of streaming and a re-embrace of DVD rental. Why not? Because in the age of connectivity, the ability to choose from a larger array of options is weighed against the value of not having to wait. The rise of Netflix’s streaming service is directly linked to connectivity’s values of immediacy and incorporeality. You might think that what matters to movie fans most of all is being able to watch what they want to watch. But what Netflix believed, correctly it turns out, was that the age of connectivity inverts this. In the age of connectivity, it’s not being able to have what you want that matters, it’s being able to have it in a certain way.

What’s most fascinating about Netflix in the age of connectivity is that the pivot from more choices to more immediacy seems to have resulted in much less choice. Netflix now relies almost entirely on its original programming, while its library of popular films (and, to a more moderate degree, television) ranks as one of the smallest, most uninteresting out there. In fact, part of the reason for that is that Netflix started a connectivity revolution in entertainment that is systematically against choice. Major studios such as Disney, Paramount, and NBC (Peacock) now offer streamers their own platforms which contain exclusive access to these films. A Netflix, Disney, Paramount, and Peacock premium subscription will cost a streamer nearly $100 every month. A subscription to Netflix’s DVD service—which allows customers to watch features from all those studios and more—costs $9.99/month. By almost any measure, a Netflix subscription is a less valuable thing to own now than it was a 15 years ago. But the measure that wins out in the end is connectivity.

iPod

The second cultural artifact I’d like to consider is the iPod. Apple began manufacturing the iPod in October 2001. For the first seven years of the iPod’s existence, it could not connect to the internet whatsoever. The iPod was an artifact of ownership. It was designed and marketed according to the principle that people who like music want to own music and they want greater access to more of the music they own. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs intended that the iPod and the iTunes store would coexist as an end-to-end repository of owned music. You could transfer the CDs that you already own onto your iPod, but even more importantly, you could purchase downloads from the iTunes store and keep them on your iPod. The story of iTunes is fascinating; it only happened because Sony’s music division decided not to partner with Apple on a shared coding standard for digital music and instead formed their own music service in the early 2000s:

…Sony joined with Universal to create a subscription service called Pressplay. Meanwhile, AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, and EMI teamed up with RealNetworks to create MusicNet. Neither would license its songs to the rival service, so each offered about half the music available. Both were subscription services that allowed customers to stream songs but not keep them, so you lost access to them if your subscription lapsed. They had complicated restrictions and clunky interfaces. Indeed, they would earn the dubious distinction of becoming number nine on PC World’s list of “the top 25 worst tech products of all time.”  (Steve Jobs, 395)

If that description of one of the “worst” technologies of all time sounds strange to you, that’s because the streaming, non-ownership model has actually become the dominant model in our time. Spotify, the most influential music streaming app in the world, does not allow free users to choose their songs; they can only shuffle playlists. To be able to hear the song you want requires a paying subscription, the lapsing of which will eliminate access. Musical culture has become a streaming culture rather than an ownership one. Sales of physical CDs and vinyl records are barely a fraction of streams. In the last few years, Apple has discontinued the iPod and junked the iTunes store. They have redirected resources into Apple Music, a streaming service that does not resemble iTunes but does resemble the companies that iTunes once triumphed over.

The effect of the streaming era has been to disseminate music more widely than ever, while diluting it in the process. For one thing, many have noticed that their streaming services tend to turn music into background sound for work or exercise. Enjoyment of music—the kind of focused, reflective enjoyment that tends to generate affection and inspiration—is in decline. Another loss is what some have described as “the serendipitous encounter” with new or unexpected music, encounters that are often part of creating memories around certain songs or experiences. Lack of control over what music is playing (like over FM radio) cultivates a deeper appreciation of the music you love, and an unexpectedly strong reaction to new music is part of how most of us become fans of our favorite artists. By contrast, the streaming service demands users to exercise their choice. Even if you choose a truly “random” shuffle, the algorithms of the software will use your previous choices to try to give you a tailored experience. The odds are very good that you will hear what you’ve heard before, and your psychological or emotional response to what plays will be diminished due to the predetermined expectation of hearing “your” music.

The iPhone destroyed the iPod. The former rendered the latter obsolete and unnecessary, because of connectivity. The failure of the iPod to be an efficient streaming device was a fatal flaw. But we could also say that the success of the iPod to be a device of ownership was likewise a fatal flaw. The failure and the success are two sides of the same coin. Ownership cuts across the values of connectivity. The German philosopher Byung-Chul Han observes that the digital age has undone the realm of the private. “When distance proves lacking,” he writes in In the Swarm, “the public and the private become confused.” Connectivity is the state of permanent publicity, permanent spectacle. Connectivity confers identity onto the self only so far as that self is projected somewhere else, and confers identity onto others only so far as they too are projected elsewhere. Ownership, on the other hand, is the realm of the private. To own a collection of music is to shut off the projections to the outside and encounter music in embodied temporality. No company in California can suddenly decide that my CD or my Mp3 download should stop working. No one in the world gets information they can use to build my commercialized profile if I put on an album in my house. There is a profound difference between the physical act of choosing a particular album or song that I own again and again, and choosing to stream a particular album or song again and again. Either I will pay the streaming service a fee for the right to re-encounter that music, or advertisements that interrupt my listening will fund those encounters on my behalf. Connectivity does not change the content. It changes me.

As the iPhone replaces the iPod, the rules of connectivity shape how we listen to music. For one thing, the iPhone is a distraction machine. Listening to music is now prone to disruption from incoming emails, text messages, notifications from hundreds of apps, etc. As a medium, the iPhone communicates that un-distracted listening is a bad thing and the good and happy life is one where we are never brought too far out of ourselves. For another thing, the iPhone is not economically viable as a music player. In 2009, a new iPod Classic with 120 gigabytes of storage cost $240. By contrast, a new iPhone 13 with identical storage costs $800. Of course, most people would reasonably respond that the iPhone is worth more because it can do more. That’s the point. Apple’s decision to phase out the iPod reveals how completely the values of connectivity have won. There is no longer any thought given to a person who may simply to want to own and access a library of music. Now, you must want everything an Internet-connected smartphone will deliver to you. That is the economic and cultural power of connectivity.

Facebook

It may sound strange to say that a social media website was transformed by the values of connectivity. After all, isn’t connectivity intrinsic to what Facebook is? In a sense, yes. But there’s also a sense in which the logic of connectivity has radically reshaped Facebook from what it used to be into what it currently is. I would argue that connectivity is what changed Facebook from a network to a platform. Almost everything problematic about Facebook from a personal or cultural standpoint can be traced to this transformation.

Many younger Facebook users have no possible way of understanding how different the site was around 2008. Once upon a time the experience of Facebook was very much a social experience, a place where people really were put into contact with one another. There was a time when the structural logic of the website was to facilitate some kind of mutuality. This was evidenced by Facebook’s requirement in the beginning that new users join a preexisting college group as part of their registration. This process mapped Facebook users into a specific location and helped the website’s users cultivate something genuinely local. The network requirement proceeded from a decidedly analog philosophy: this was a tool to connect people who were already in proximity with one another, so the tool begins by establishing that proximity. The requirement that new users join a local network did not last very long. Soon, the only membership that mattered on Facebook was membership on Facebook.

Consequently, as Michael Brendan Doughtery points out, what Facebook most resembles now is a multimedia publishing company, except one not bound by the same laws as actual publishing companies. It’s a tool for individuals to bolster themselves in a digital economy. This can be literal, as in the cases of people who use Facebook professionally and flood the newsfeeds of those who “Like” their page; or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of normal Facebook users who nonetheless use the page almost exclusively to initiate some sort of self-serving interaction with others (I confess that for at least the past 2 or 3 years, this is basically how I was using the site). In the not too distant past you could scroll endlessly through your Facebook “feed without any clicking—or even seeing—any external links. Multi-level marketing, bloggers, and sensational “fake news” headlines have obliterated this experience beyond recall.

Connectivity inevitably reroutes individuals toward systems rather than people. Consider Facebook’s notification system. In a previous life, a notification from Facebook was almost always to let you know that something meaningful had happened on your page: Someone asked to be your friend, someone wrote on your “wall” (an appealingly spatial term that has been replaced with ephemeral Big Data jargon, “timeline”), someone tagged you in a photo, or invited you to an event (that wasn’t a sales pitch).

Somewhere along the road Facebook decided it would use its notification system to drive us insane—or, more accurately, to drive our attention and our money into the waiting arms of third party developers. We started getting notifications when someone we didn’t know commented on a photograph three days after we did, or when a “friend” we barely spoke to needed to send invites in order to get fake tokens for the game they were playing, or (my personal un-favorite) whenever someone was merely “interested” in attending some event within 100 miles of you. In 2008 a notification on Facebook meant something happened that merited a response from you. In 2022, a notification means that Facebook thinks you should spend more time on the site.

Facebook’s free fall toward connectivity-fueled dehumanization is evident yet again in another landmark change the site implemented. When Facebook introduced Chat around 2009, there was a difference between receiving a chat and receiving a message. A chat was like a text message, a way to communicate in real time with someone whom you could see was “online.” An inbox message was more like an email—more personalized, thought-out, and less spontaneous.

Facebook eventually eliminated this distinction from their system. A chat is now automatically archived as an inbox message, and an inbox message appears (if the recipient hasn’t turned off the chat feature) as a chat. This may seem insignificant at first, but it’s actually a very revealing feature. Facebook’s developers decided that it wasn’t in the site’s best interest to assume that people might use an instant messaging feature differently than they use an inbox. Why not? Because such a distinction assumes that Facebook can be used differently for different purposes. That’s not what Facebook’s developers want to happen. They want a Facebook that is creating and dictating the user experience, not serving it. Collapsing the distinction between an IM and an email is a good way to encourage people to always be reachable on the platform.

All of this is simply the outworking of connectivity. The values of the distracted, ephemeral Web demand that physical networks are really harmful barriers, that notifications are about your relationship with the software, and that all interpersonal communication should be instant and fluid. This is the moral logic of computer systems, and it is imposed on human brains. The idea is that it is best for Facebook when people behave more like programs, so they can plunge deeper into the platform.

But none of this has made Facebook a more habitable place. In fact, it is nigh unbearable, a fact that Facebook that recently acknowledged with an apologetic ad campaign that promised users it would do better by them in the future. Facebook has failed to cultivate relationships, a failure reflected in unprecedented rates of social isolation and loneliness. Facebook has failed to truly democratize information, a failure reflected in its being taken hostage by malevolent actors and manipulative strategies. The early charm of Facebook is gone beyond recall. What remains are the values of connectivity.

Conclusion

We may not have been happier in the mid-to-late 2000s. But it is certainly true that our cultural artifacts did not actively undermine our happiness in the way they do now. Underneath this regression is connectivity. Simply put, the idea that maximum access to the Internet, the utilization of all our culture and all our spaces to bring us closer to the ambient Web, has made our art less enjoyable, our relationships less accessible, and our experiences less meaningful. Americans today pay more money to get less out of their tools and less out of their art. Connectivity is making us miserable. Resisting connectivity can be done, but it requires investment. This is not simply about rejecting the Web, as if such a thing can be done. It is about reclaiming the goodness of ownership and the physical, the positive health that temporality and privacy bring. There is a world beyond the screen. Can we find it again?


Learn more about THINK|23.

Samuel D. James

Samuel James is the associate acquisitions editor at Crossway. He is the author of Digital Liturgies, a regular newsletter on Christianity, technology, and culture. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife Emily and their three children.

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