Law in the Internet Society

The Right to Disconnect: Reclaiming Leisure and Mitigating Coercion in the Attention Economy

-- By AdamLawson - 4 Jan 2021

Could I interest you in everything, all of the time?

-Bo Burnham, ‘Welcome to the Internet’


To most users of the internet (which is almost everyone in the US - 96%-99% for ages 18-64 per Pew Research) it likely comes as little surprise that we live in an age of what philosopher and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism”, where our attention, online interactions, and personal data are collected and commodified for the purpose of profit - to various levels of alarm about possible effects on autonomy and democracy.

This surveillance capitalism is facilitated by an online world of overabundant information, immediately available, and designed to attract your attention as much as possible. Growing recognition that “if it’s free, you’re the product” is not a recent development but integral to the internet’s overall attention economy, in which human attention - time and focus - is the limiting factor in consuming information, generating content, and harvesting the data points collected.

This commodification of attention through electronic devices has raised alarm bells about stolen focus by our electronic devices, and (as noted by legal scholar Eben Moglen back in 1997) this centring on fighting for the “market for eyeballs” even metaphorically amplifies a passive consumer model and deprioritizes the idea of active intelligence.

But advertisers and Big Tech are not the only ones fighting for our attention and wanting to keep us online. The ubiquitous nature of mobile devices and access to the internet (and the widespread pandemic acceleration in work from home) has widely blurred the lines between work and leisure, leading to a culture where workers are ‘always-on’ and their attention is expected to always be available.

I am less immediately concerned with voluntary enslavement as passive consumers and insidious addiction to our devices (some psychologists even suggest they function as attachment figures or ‘adult teddy bears’) instead of coercive or enforced usage combined with constant demand for what was once leisure. Nowhere is this compulsion and pressure for availability more present than the modern workplace.

The Death of Leisure

The Oxford dictionary definition of leisure is “opportunity afforded by freedom from occupations” or (broadly) “the state of having time at one’s own disposal; time which one can spend as one pleases; free or unoccupied time”. Such unconstrained time is increasingly at a premium.

This is contrary to historical predictions. As noted here, Karl Marx argued technology would free workers from harsh labour and lead to a “reduction to working time”, and in the 1930s the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that automation may enable a shorter working week of less than 15 hours.

Notwithstanding ever-increasing automation and the entry of women into the workforce, we have not progressed in either increasing or valuing leisure time. The majority of workers are still “Waiting for the Weekend”, where (writing in the 90s about the so-called Protestant work ethic) “leisure, equated with idleness, is suspect; leisure without toil, or disconnected from it, is altogether sinister.”

Enslavement to Work and the Busy Trap

There is substantial pressure on the part of employees to always be available and reachable, despite such access being typically unpaid. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, with pre-pandemic data suggesting somewhere between 50 percent and 78 percent of employees earn just enough money to pay their bills each month. Despite this precarious scenario and concomitant pressure to remain employed, there is the more recent suggestion we are living through a ‘Great Resignation’ where employees are more likely to quit their jobs than previously.

While being connected is often seen as a sign of being a high-performer, extended work availability - being ‘on-call’ - is both bad for you and bad for your recovery from work. In research involving the Australian university sector, out-of-work-hours communication was both ubiquitous and harmful, leading to increased psychological distress, emotional exhaustion, and symptoms such as headaches and back pain. These symptoms were nearly doubled in those who felt they had to respond to work messages from colleagues or supervisors outside of work hours as compared to those who did not.

A majority of cell phone users also appear to experience ‘phantom vibration’ or ‘phantom ringing’ syndrome (a.k.a. ‘ringxiety’, the hallucination that one’s mobile phone is vibrating or ringing when it is not) at least once a week. A leading hypothesis is that expectancy and hypervigilance to notifications are the root causes. Phone users expect to be ‘instantly available’ and are hypervigilant to the dings, pings, and chimes of our devices.

Exacerbating the problem is a culture of ‘performative workaholism’ and celebration of “hustle” or a “rise and grind” work life. The weekend is dying. To be “busy” is a status symbol, a boast disguised as a complaint and a hedge against existential dread. While social media has turned being a workaholic into almost a golden calf for worship, the problem is hardly new as evidenced by Japan’s long-documented phenomenon of karoshi. However, there is speculation that the pandemic, remote work, and the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ is leading to a reevaluation of work above all else and towards avoiding burnout.

The Right to Disconnect

Several jurisdictions have explored a so-called right to disconnect from work and not engage in work-related electronic communications after hours due to concerns with rising levels of burnout, and recognition of the necessity of mentally disengaging from work (particularly remote work) for your health. Examples where legislation exists include France, Portugal, Spain, and Ontario, though none barring Portugal appear to have explicit statutory fines for non-compliance.

The internet gives us access to almost everything, all of the time. But this should not be a two-way street, where employers can unceasingly access us. Protecting a right to disconnect and disengage from the machine - including fines for non-compliance - is the bare minimum for protecting our ability to disengage. Leisure and the freedom to do nothing is the most immediate defense against expectations of constant engagement.

Once again I find myself with little to recommend by way of improving the existing draft, which seems to me a finished version of itself. But I might find some sympathy from you, I think, when I say that it feels to me polished rather than new. If the right to disconnect means not having to answer email after hours, it is less than meets the eye. Actual efforts to defend the dignity of work and the intellectual self-development of workers require something else, which you have not invented here.


Webs Webs

r3 - 06 Feb 2022 - 16:44:06 - EbenMoglen
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