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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Westneat: Turning off the internet

By Danny Westneat
Published: June 19, 2024, 6:01am

You might not guess that a 900-kid middle school in Seattle and a 2,000-member tribe in the Amazon jungle would have much in common.

But when it comes to the greatest distraction machine ever invented, it turns out we are all together, struggling as one … (Sorry, I was gone for a minute there, had to check my email.)

The tribe part of this story, the Marubo people of the Brazilian rainforest, just made international news as one of the last offline places on Earth to get the internet. The tribe put up four Starlink satellite antennas to join itself, for the first time, to the digital world.

What followed, though, sounds like any American household in the past decade: “teenagers glued to phones; group chats full of gossip; addictive social networks; online strangers; violent video games; scams; misinformation; and minors watching pornography,” The New York Times reported. “Everyone is so connected that sometimes they don’t even talk to their own family,” one elder said.

Sound familiar?

This echoed here when parents in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, home of Hamilton International Middle School, made a surprisingly similar plea. Despite being people with cars and plumbing in a high-tech city in the planet’s richest country, their story sounded very Marubo.

Like a lot of schools, Hamilton has a policy that phones should be turned off and stored “away for the day.” Yet kids were finding ways online anyway.

All of this was prophesied in the best account about the compulsions of modern America, the novel “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. It’s about addiction — to pot, booze, hard drugs, sex, fame. But the ultimate obsession is “the entertainment,” a video so compelling that its viewers lose interest in anything other than viewing it, over and over. Until they eventually lose all agency and die.

He wrote this in 1996, long before people were carrying dopamine-release rectangles around right in their . . . (Excuse me, I was off doomscrolling X for a minute, back now.)

The best part about the Amazon tribe story, and the Seattle middle school story, is what they both did next.

In the Marubo village, they decreed that the satellite transmitters could only be turned on for two hours in the mornings, a few hours in the evenings and all day Sunday.

At Hamilton, the school announced this past week it’s hiring a company called Yondr that sells a lockable pouch system for smartphones. When the kids arrive at school, they’ll lock their phones into pouches that can only be unlocked at special stations. Presto — no more mainlining inane videos or posting embarrassing photos of frenemies on the toilet.

Also, everyone hopes, there will be more focus on school.

“My belief is we need to carve out spaces in modern society for things like learning, and participation in the creative acts and art,” said Graham Dugoni, CEO of Yondr.

Or, talking to one another. Or, just remembering to eat … (Sorry, I flitted off to check the Mariners score. And my notifications. And my email again.)

I tried and failed at curtailing phone use at home with my kids. Nothing worked — mostly because I chafed at the restrictions. Once my kids observed that I was phone-jonesing more than they were, it turned into a free-for-all.

Story of parenting. The bigger story though is how we have built a machine so pervasive and intoxicating that we’re in a war of wills against our own creation. Kudos to the Marubo, and to Hamilton Middle School, for recognizing that the struggle is real.

It’s remarkable how far gone we already are. Consider that Yondr now sells, for home use, a “signal-blocking lockable box” lined with “faraday fabric.” It’s so you can quarantine your phone away from you, where notifications can’t buzz and “apps can’t listen.” You need a key to free your dopamine-release rectangle. It’s kind of like a gun safe for phones.

Now suitable for newspaper columnists all the way to Indigenous tribesmen.

Keep an eye on Dad, though. He may get the jits.