by Laura Drake, Ph.D.
Everyone by now is aware of the well-documented harmful effects of smartphones and social media on our cognition, our ability to lead private lives, our personal dignity, and the scope and depth of human life more generally. We argue that this pair of ubiquitous technologies belongs to a new class of technologies that differs in qualitative ways from other types of technology. We further argue that this class of technologies has special properties that are responsible for the unwanted effects we are seeing.
It is possible to distinguish these new technologies from other technologies, for example, tool technologies, and service and exchange technologies, by grouping them into a new category of tethered technologies. The term “tethered” was first used by sociologist Sherry Turkle to describe someone who could not resist the overwhelming pull of the technology to attend to it; she referred to such a person as “the tethered self.” In our expanded conception, the bearer of the technology is not tethered to the inanimate device or software algorithm itself, but through it, to its human makers.
How tethered technologies work
How does this work? Tethered technologies are not standalone technologies. Each includes an algorithmic extension that functions as a kind of long arm or tether, a fishing line with bait, that attaches itself to its customers. A technological tether takes hold of some personal part of the customer, grabs on hard, and doesn’t let go. Once people are hooked in, these technologies dynamically convert them into suitable products capable of being used remotely, and without further effort on the part of the technology’s makers. Human beings so attached become renewable analog free energy resources to be harvested by the people who invented the technology, who are its real users, and who now assume a standoff posture. Tethered technologies are dynamic, self-replicating products with an intrusive, hidden agenda. They have invisible strings attached.
The tether itself may be envisioned as an invisible string or tubule, which functions initially as a grabbing tool, or a lasso, and later as a streaming conduit. Technologies that tether are so compelling as to be irresistible to their recipients, a feature that allows them, through tethering, to deepen their hold on people’s activities and minds over time. Tethering stimulates and manipulates the pleasure centers of people’s brains and works on their personal psychology, scattering thoughts and weakening minds, and thus permitting the technology to progressively draw out of recipients increasingly valuable things that they cannot afford to lose. The presence of tethers allows the makers of tethered technologies, intentionally or not, to draw human value out of recipients from a distance, and to make off with important pieces of their humanity in the dark of night.
One of the strategic marketing ploys used by the makers of tethered technologies is their promise that people can use them to “connect” to other “connected” people. In reality, the tethers, once attached, connect recipients not to other “users” of the technology, but rather, to its makers. The social media connection, via the smartphone, is not really a connection between one real person other real people. Rather, it is a one-way data conduit from each real person to the technology’s makers in exchange for simulated connections with other real people. Real connections among real human beings, whether personal or business related, are bidirectional or multidirectional, and minimally mediated. Real connections are structurally free and opt-in. They don’t require technological gatekeepers or filters, as they embody relationships that are undertaken and maintained by people on purpose.
Tethered relationships, by contrast, are one-sided affairs that happen to people in the background, hidden from sight. People don’t allow them to happen on purpose. They happen to people who want to be connected to a particular product because everyone else is, but the truth is that everyone else just swallowed the same bait a little earlier on. Tethered relationships happen because the technology is presented to the public as a tool for it to use, but it is really a tool for its makers to use vast numbers of people. The one-sidedness of the tethered relationship between a handful of companies and an entire populace reflects the vast power asymmetry that has been allowed to emerge between the technology makers on the one hand and the people on the other. The real purpose of this class of technologies is surveillance and dossier-building on people and populations, so as to turn them into pure commodities. Edward Snowden noted this when he called social media companies surveillance companies disguised as social media companies.
Core characteristics of tethered technologies
Tethered technologies have special properties or characteristics which, either by themselves or in combination, make them different from other technologies. We will collectively define tethered technologies by the attributes they all have in common.
Their core feature is that they are not one-off purchases, but have other strings attached. Their makers insist upon, demand, or even oblige their customers to accept a long-term, one-way, personal connection from them after the initial purchase or adoption of the technology has been consummated. They then use that personal connection to collect data or intelligence on their customers’ personal and inner lives and thoughts, in order to compile permanent files or dossiers on what have now become hundreds of millions of people.
Additionally, it is possible to recognize a technology as tethered if it has one or more of these other characteristics:
The technology takes over active responsibility for some aspect of people’s existing lives, or offers to mediate it for them. It is able to do this because it contains irresistible attractors that exert a “pull” to action. Through these attractors, the technology manufacturers impose ongoing obligations and compulsions onto recipients that were not there before. People come to feel it necessary to attend to the technology constantly, to perform frequent and repetitive actions on it, and to be responsive to it at a second’s notice, in order to be able to reasonably live their lives from the point of acquisition forward. It demands from them a heightened level of activity and energy expenditure than was required previously to do all the things they once did in their lives without it, for instance, engaging in human relationships or participating in the economy, in civil society, or in politics. At the same time, it gradually substitutes the priorities of its makers (tending to the demands of the technology) for what was formerly people’s core activity (the building and deepening of worthwhile interhuman relationships). In this way, the technology interferes with the substance of people’s real lives and communities in ways that suit the best interests of its maker. A good example of a technology with this characteristic is the smartphone.
The technology uses its connection to actively repurpose recipients’ objectives, and major aspects of their personal lives, from what they were before. Tethering implements the objectives of the technology’s makers onto people, through them, or with their unwitting assistance, while changing, usurping, redirecting, or squeezing out their own preexisting objectives. Specifically, it insistently shapes, guides, nudges, and prods them in ways that drive them to hand over large quantities of intimate knowledge of themselves to its makers, as well as to everyone else on the planet. The technology is not their possession, nor is it in their service. Rather, it turns its human recipients into the possession of its makers, and places them at their service. The quintessential example is social media, especially the personally intrusive versions that aren’t just for diversion or entertainment, but which demand and consume large portions of people’s real lives.
The technology uses its personal connection to perform functions without direction from the people at whom it is deployed, functions that affect them in personal ways, but which they aren’t allowed to turn off or say no to. These functions are never opt-in, nor are they opt-out, except at the periphery. There are many examples, but a particularly good one is the DNA extraction and analysis kits, whose core purpose is the facilitation of human DNA trafficking, which apparently is still legal. The makers of the kits dangle people’s curiosity about their ancestry as bait, and then charge them a nominal sum of money to have their DNA analyzed. However, little known to them, that is not the technology’s core function. DNA kits serve their manufacturers and various cooperating third-parties by transferring permanent practical ownership of human DNA from the people to whom it inherently belongs to the makers of the kits and their partners. Human DNA is thus repurposed to become that part of their customers they now permanently own.
The technology costs little to no money, because it isn’t “for you.” The cost incurred is, in some cases, your life’s gold. The costs, like the agendas, are hidden. Many tethered technologies have this characteristic, but the best examples are the snooping search engines and, of course, the identity-based social media sites.
The technology carries the label “smart,” but it isn’t able to perform its purported core function on its own without a connection back to its makers. Such a device is not self-contained, and it has no capabilities of its own. Rather, it is a physical shell casing with electronic parts and a wireless network connection, a “dumb terminal” capable of projecting instructions, or code, from the maker’s server into the customer’s home. Instead of controlling the devices themselves, customers are allowed to send requests to the manufacturer’s computer server. The technology’s real function is not to serve its customers’ needs, but to use their needs as a means to collect and transmit private data from their persons or their homes, based on their requests and other surveillance it conducts invisibly, back to its makers.
The prime example is the category of “consumer-facing” Internet of Things (IoT) devices. An IoT thermostat is not a thermostat; it is a network transmitter in a box that looks like a thermostat, but which can’t perform that function without a permanent connection to its makers. In return for its “service,” the sensors on the IoT device send back intelligence on various aspects of customers’ living situations, habits, and routines. All personal IoT technology functions in this way, and all of it carries the label “smart.” The smartphone was its initial prototype.
Once people bring tethered technologies into their lives, they are aggressively pressured, or even obligated, to stay connected to and play human host to its makers, and over time, to deepen the one-sided connection to them. If this relationship sounds parasitic, that’s because it is.
The solution: disconnect the tethers and enjoy the benefits
People who want to disconnect or opt out of tethered technologies can use untethered variants to perform the needed functions. It is therefore important for such people to be able to recognize untethered as well as tethered technologies.
Untethered technologies are one-off purchases with no undefined strings attached. No personal connections are either demanded or offered from their makers after the transactions are completed. They do not extend tentacles into customers’ individual lives, nor do they collect information on them. People purchase them, or in the case of websites, whatever is being sold on them, and then use their purchases to implement their own preexisting objectives. Untethered technologies do not set about to alter people’s objectives, gain access to their private lives, or redirect their ordinary routines.
The products, or the licenses to use them, in the case of intellectual property, are the customer’s possessions. Their primary functions are the same as what their customer originally bought or otherwise acquired them for. What purchasers do with the technology afterwards, presuming their purposes are legal, is their own business. The technology itself remains fully under its customers’ control: it does what its customers intend, and nothing that they don’t, unless it is malfunctioning. It doesn’t do its own thing behind its customers’ backs, because it has no agenda other than to be sold, or to facilitate the sale of other products, to willing buyers. Three examples of technologies that do not attach tethers are standalone laptops, accounting software, and ticket purchasing systems on major airline websites.
The only way people have to fully reclaim their lives in the face of these tactics is to cut away the tethers and stop feeding the technological beasts. Tethered technologies feed and become more deeply entrenched by people paying attention to them, wasting significant amounts of time and energy tending to their demands, and by the continued ability of their makers to deploy them to “get to know you” ever more intimately.
Disconnection from tethered technologies, however difficult, is the only solution to their further proliferation and entrenchment. If people don’t want to go through life with technological tethers attached to them, if they don’t want to be harvested in this manner, they have to take action to remove the tethers the same way they took action to acquire them. Disconnection entails cutting the tethered connections emanating from the companies that attached them and going with untethered alternatives that perform the same functions, only better, more directly, and without the data tracking, monitoring, and harvesting. This is the only practical and meaningful way people can exercise their refusal to consent. If enough people allow it, the makers of these technologies will have a strong incentive to further deepen their tethering reach until such time that they see a sharp line has somewhere been drawn. Individual people are ultimately responsible for deciding whether they want to be in charge of, or passive passengers in, their own life and thoughts.
Contrary to the strenuous efforts of the technology companies’ marketing departments to convince the public otherwise, the act of disconnection is not about disconnecting from the world or from other people. Rather, it is about declaring our independence from the makers of predatory technologies and reconnecting with other people, including family, friends, and business associates, in quintessentially human ways. It is about a chance to build new civic institutions, and to reinstate political and economic accountability. It involves people cutting off the invisible tentacles attached by corporate strangers who have deployed their innovations into the public realm to gain continuous access to, updates of, and undue monopolization of people’s private lives.
The good news is that those who disconnect from tethered technologies for a while find that their attention spans begin to come back, together with renewed abilities to focus on people, activities, and endeavors that are substantively meaningful to them. Post-disconnection, it no longer seems reasonable to play host to these arbitrary, alien forces that are constantly interrupting, or squeezing out, our real-life time, relationships, and human priorities. It no longer makes sense to sacrifice real-life human currency for the sake of instantly redeemable fake gratifications – digitally addictive specks of fairy-dust – doled out by distant entities that do not have our best interests at heart. For many, what takes a lot of effort at the beginning becomes easier as time goes on, as the full range of human functions, cognitive and otherwise, begins to return to normal.
Many of those who make tethered technologies, for the most part, themselves live untethered lives. A basic philosophy of disconnection, though without that label, is something that some of the world’s most famous technology makers long ago imposed on themselves, their children and families, and even the schools in their own hometowns. The abstinence of technologists from their own inventions has been compared to drug dealers being careful not to become habitual users of their own products, or of the products peddled by adjacent dealers, because they understand the destruction they cause to the human and social fabric.
Thinking people outside of Silicon Valley considering whether or not to disconnect their human selves from tethered technologies should ask themselves if being moved through every detail of their lives by an elite, disconnected group of Silicon Valley technology magnates in ways that serve those people’s financial interests is a sufficient way to realize life’s blessings.
 Since Turkle wrote, the people on the other end have admitted that they do this deliberately. The original conception is in Sherry Turkle, Alone Together (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
 The text of Edward Snowden’s Twitter post of March 17, 2018, was as follows: “Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as ‘surveillance companies.’ Their rebranding as ‘social media’ is the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense.”
 Chris Weller, “Silicon Valley parents are raising their kids tech-free – and it should be a red flag,” Business Insider, February 18, 2018. Weller notes that the Waldorf school in Silicon Valley doesn’t allow technology in the classroom; instead, “kids use chalkboards and No. 2 pencils.” He notes that many Silicon Valley technology workers, including top-tier technology CEOs, do not use these technologies, nor do they allow their children to spend time on them. Indeed, a great many of the rich and famous, including a number of celebrities and high-level politicians, do not even use e-mail, much less smartphones or social media.
 Alex Hern, “‘Never get high on your own supply’ – why social media bosses don’t use social media,” The Guardian (London), January 23, 2018.