In Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement: In Search of the Opt-Out Button – available open access from University of Westminster Press – Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake explore digital disconnection across fields including health, the welfare system, citizenship and education. This urgent book uses a suspenseful narrative to understanding of the impacts of enforced digitality, writes Trine Syvertsen.
Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement: In Search of the Opt-Out Button. Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake. University of Westminster Press. 2022.
There is no opt-out button
In a 2016 film by the British director Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake, we meet a 59-year-old carpenter struggling to get benefits after a heart attack. The hapless carpenter is forced to make his claims online according to the British government’s ‘digital by default’ policy and ultimately fails the tests (traps) designed to keep him poor. I am reminded of the film when reading Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement, not just because the themes overlap but also because Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake convey similar urgency and a tone of deep concern. Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement is an analysis but not really a ‘discussion’; it reads more like a manifesto, a warning and, at its best, a crime noir thriller as the authors go searching for an opt-out button that is almost impossible to find.
The book kicks off from the expanding field of digital disconnection studies, but its interest lies not in the motivations and strategies of individuals taking breaks from social media. Instead, the book explores the type of arenas where more is at stake, such as health, the welfare system, citizenship and education. The authors scrutinise apps, terms of service, instructions and policy documents in search of how citizens can avoid entrapment in compulsory digitality. They search mostly in vain. Mazes of confusing information obscure the view of the escapes that are supposed to be there, opt-out buttons are hidden in labyrinths and behind mirrors, and the possibility of using them is socially stratified. For most people – and indeed for the marginalised and underprivileged – opting out is constrained by social, economic and technological forces to the degree that it appears to be an illusion.
The book is structured in two main parts; the first deals with potential opt-out buttons in health, government and education. The second deals with the consumption and labour of digital disengagement through offers such as digital detox holidays, unplugging days and detoxing apps. The authors do not perceive these latter options as escape routes, but rather commodified data traps embedding users deeper into forced digitality. As many have pointed out, unplugging can be hard work! A chapter towards the end analyses the environmental hazards of constant connectivity and criticises the lack of awareness and action among those who should be apt at detecting media toxicity.
Theoretically, Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement positions itself within the field of collective digital justice, a field concerned with both the right to be adequately represented against discriminatory data and flawed algorithms and the right to withdraw and define the terms of engagement. Calling for individual justice will always be flawed in the authors’ view; legal frameworks like GDPR, which protect individuals’ rights, can obscure the very rights they are there to protect.
Conceptually, the book engages with digital solutionism (after Evgeny Morozov, 2013): how the internet and digitality are seen as the ultimate solution to most social issues. Already in the preface, the authors state their position that ‘digital saturation needs to be challenged and denaturalised – and possibly even refused’ (xi). The critical concept of digital disengagement challenges the premise that social engagement is always digital and draws disparate analyses into a common framework.
The most important contribution of the book lies in the first part. Chapter One, ‘Digital Health: Data traps at our fingertips’, is an intriguing analysis of how privately owned health apps are increasingly intertwined with the UK National Health Service (NHS). The apps are there to reduce the workload of health professionals in an overstretched system and promise instant and affordable services to patients. However, the terms of engagement are difficult to make sense of for patients as well as health workers, despite safeguards to protect patients’ rights and opt-out guides presumably showing a way out.
The second and third chapters offer parallel analyses of e-governance and education. In the second chapter, ‘Automated Governance: Digital citizenship in the age of algorithmic cruelty’, we are back in the bleak world of those who stand eye-to-eye with the government’s ‘digital by default’ policies. Again, the promise of e-government is more streamlined services and less bureaucracy, putting more power into the hands of citizens and improving the speed and accessibility of services. The result, however, is a blurring of government services and social media logic, discriminatory data and AI-led decisionmaking processes with unclear implications. Again, the opt-out button is hidden and accessible only to the most privileged: requiring digital literacy and class, race, wealth and citizenship privileges. Those depending on the state for survival can wave any chance of opting-out goodbye.
Kuntsman and Miyake have written an engaging book. It offers a readable critique of enforced digitality and broadens the scope of disconnection studies. The detailed analyses of complicated documents are elegantly structured and thought-provoking. Still, there are aspects that I wish would have been given more space.
One is history. The analysis is set in the present with few attempts at historicisation, but this leads to an array of new questions as I read. As a simple example, the book refers to ‘the chilling example’ of a professor teaching digitally ‘from beyond the grave’ through recorded lectures (71). Historical contextualisation could have added nuance to such examples: indeed, contributions beyond the grave are nothing new but rather a core tenet of the cultural industries which constantly serve us digital films, books, recordings, photos, art etc, by dead people from several centuries ago.
I would also have enjoyed reading more about agency and politics. The book provides examples of resistance but little analysis of the room for manoeuvring for stakeholders such as concerned politicians, trade unionists, lawyers, workers or citizens. There are calls that ‘we’ need to restructure our analyses and our thinking, but I am unsure of the power of this collective ‘we’ to tackle the forces at play. Since the book’s core argument is that the digital should be denaturalised, I would also have expected more profound engagements with the issues and arguments about a digital backlash.
Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement uncovers a bleak landscape. The authors deserve praise for engaging with crucial aspects of the (welfare) state and expanding knowledge of how datafication, automation and platform capitalism colonise social life. At times, there are too many clues pointing in the same direction (there is no opt-out button!), and the reading becomes repetitive and somewhat claustrophobic, but this is perhaps intended. Above all, I congratulate the authors on the dramaturgical device of ‘searching for the opt-out button’; it adds suspense and provides the narrative with a nerve rarely found in academic analyses.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.