Reality and maladies: daily life ruled by digital technology

By YANG LEI / 01-19-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

An employee rushing out orders for elevator panels in a digital workshop in Hai’an City, Jiangsu Province Photo: Gu Huaxia/CNS

With the rapid growth of intelligent technology and the accelerated upgrading of mobile terminals, people are benefiting from the convenience and efficiency brought by digitization. Meanwhile, we are also trapped by the bondage and suppression of life by the digital network. 

As the platform economy erodes people’s waking hours, contemporary laborers are becoming economic automatons who must keep working endlessly. Big data and algorithms make life transparent. While cultivating user stickiness, they also invade privacy and shackle one’s thinking. 

Algorithm-ruled lifestyle 

In the era when everything is interconnected, vast amounts of data are being produced rapidly. As online users conduct their activities in cyberspace, such as searching, posting, socializing, shopping, ordering food, etc., algorithms transform the massive data generated by users in the digital environment into information and knowledge. Personalized content that meets their needs and wishes are thus offered, which in turn shapes the way users observe the world and view themselves.

Everyone’s slightest movements within cyberspace are exposed to the gaze of the digital system, recorded and surveilled by the platforms.Smartphones are becoming an invasive technology that dominates one’s body, mind and spirit. The ability to concentrate and silently meditate is encroached upon soundlessly.

When algorithms detect people’s thoughts, actions and social relations, command people’s desires, preferences and psychological states, and even influence people’s decision-making as well as their perspective of cognition, they become a kind of dominant power, manipulating our lifestyle and way of being.

Blurred work-life boundaries 

Under the baton of efficiency and performance, the “996” work schedule (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) is now espoused almost ubiquitously, and unpaid overtime has become the norm. In today’s digital age, the entire society has become a workplace of production and manufacturing. People must comply with absolute laws and decrees imposed on them by capital. Once a task is assigned, the digital worker has to break the limits of time and space and thus place themselves into the overloaded and uninterrupted state of the job, with their lives trapped under the discipline of capital-dominated logic.

As everything tends to be conducted online and work increasingly becomes more mobile and instantaneous, one’s state of freedom may be disturbed and disrupted anytime and anywhere. The digital mode of production permits work to haunt over one’s head closely, and employees’ minds are always ill at ease. It seems that invisible pressure and anxiety hang over them from time to time. Physical and mental relaxation as well as mental coziness have become extravagant luxuries that are unattainable. Non-stop production and consumption does not cease for a moment. People have to keep in line with the pace of the cyber network in order to expedite their working rhythm. They are thrown into an accelerated state that demands them to work faster, act faster, think faster and live faster. Deferment is gradually being removed, and life becomes an endless series of sleepless nights.

As the all-day work system has blurred the boundaries between day and night, reality and dreams, the public and the private, and there is no pause or off button, going offline is becoming more difficult.

‘Information replaces knowledge’ 

In an age dominated by fast flowing images and information tsunamis, it is hard for consciousness to be at rest. Most of the time people are just whizzing from one website to another, one online environment to another. The consequence is that shallow browsing replaces deep reading, information replaces knowledge, the virtual supersedes the real, and data buries truth. 

As the German philosopher Byng-Chul Han warns, we are obsessed with digital media today, but are unable to comprehensively judge the consequences of our obsession. Such blindness, and the numbness that comes with it, constitute the crisis that we are now facing. 

The smarter and the more sophisticated intelligent technology is, the more people lose their unique acuteness for discernment in gaining insights. The ability to reflect on things and make criticism is stifled in the hustle and bustle. More and more people perceive the outside world through the screen, which exacerbates the formation of a barren and withering perceptual world. 

Yang Lei is from the School of Philosophy at Beijing Normal University. 

Edited by BAI LE