We all know technology is making us miserable but haven’t worked out a solution. Now the biggest counter-culture movement since vegetarianism is forming.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It’s time to call it: The internet has stopped being fun. Like all good love affairs, it started exciting. We used to stay up late and laugh together, now it’s just helping us to argue for longer. The long idle summers of Albino Black Sheep and Chris Crocker turned into a gray unceasing winter of big data billionaires and live-streamed tortures. We’re under surveillance, unable to concentrate, we’re not present, we can’t sleep—we can’t even cross the street anymore. It’s the reason you can’t finish a book and why department stores already know that you’ve been thinking about buying a Nutri-Bullet. Yet—like so many terrible relationships—despite all of the energy-sapping, data-mining exhaustion of it all, we can’t quit.
What’s worse is: we know all this. You hardly need another book, another inflamed headline, another podcast to detail the multitude of ways in which your phone is ruining your life. Yet despite all that, we only seem capable of taking the conversation halfway. We’ve diagnosed the problem, but for a generation that prides itself on being “woke, of course, ” we’ve been surprisingly nonplussed about coming up with a solution to what is surely the most universally pervasive issue of our lifetime.We’ve failed to address the problem mostly because we don’t know where to start. As we see it, the internet is like a life support system. Deciding one day to pull it from our veins would leave us gasping frantically before plunging into an endless, lonely abyss. We can’t return to a world without it, and to remove ourselves from the world with it—by becoming Amish—feels like a stretch. We could delete all of our accounts, but how would we find out if we’ve been invited to get birthday drinks?
The continuation of the current slide is not inevitable. After all, the iPhone is only a decade old, and the worldwide web only 25. What we’ve broadly come to consider as the beginning of a decline could equally turn out to be a period of technological naivety—the time before we truly grasped what we were prepared to sacrifice and what we wanted in return. Tech, of course, shapes the future, but it’s also totally conceivable that a struggle to redefine the role it plays in our lives will take place.
Small but meaningful changes are already taking place. Policy-makers are debating whether or not smartphones have a place in the classroom, restaurants are banning them at dinner tables and businesses are demanding they stay out of meetings. The battle between music venues and smartphones is a long and storied one—notably tech company Yondr have even created phone cases which lock once people enter the venue’s designated “phone-free zone.” As of March this year, driving while texting will cost the driver a $250 fine and six points on their license in the UK. All across public life, the assumed omnipresence of technology is being challenged.
Individually, we’ve been addressing it as well. The idea of a “digital detox” dates back to the days of the Blackberry. Classically they’re centered around idyllic, phone-free retreats, but most organizations also promote ways of building a positive relationship with technology in the real world. When I contacted Tanya Goodin, founder of the digital detox organization Time To Log Off, about her retreats, she said they were similar to other kinds of rehab: People know they’ve got a problem and want help. “At the end, when we give them their phones back, there’s always one person who says they don’t want it,” she says, laughing.
Crucial to their success is how digital detoxes have married the spheres of technology and the burgeoning wellness industry. With the rise in popularity of mindfulness apps like Headspace, the fashionability of meditation has brought with it a keen interest in the benefits of going phone-free. There are now—somewhat ironically—a wealth of apps designed to help people use their phones and computers productively—from Self Control, which allows you to block certain websites for a certain amount of time, to Stay On Task, which simply nudges you to check that you’re getting on with whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. Silicon Valley has led the way elsewhere, pioneering the idea of a literal “Digital Sabbath”—insisting employees take a day of technology-free rest on the weekend.
Individually these policies, trends, and fads don’t amount to much of a revolution. Yet they point to a potential. So far they are disparate ideas, hanging threads waiting for a broader intellectual movement to collect them. Yet the blueprints are there for that as well. Making a big deal about leaving Facebook used to be the preserve of high school art students who stayed offline so nothing could distract them from listening to introspective acoustic guitar music on their parents’ record player.Yet, increasingly, as ideas of technology addiction have become normal topics of conversation—as publications ranging from the Guardian to Breitbart have reported on the links between social media and loneliness—leaving social networks, temporarily or for good, has become a more conventional decision for young people to take.
If “I’m not on Facebook” used to be a hipsterism, it increasingly looks set to become a mainstream concern. By 2013 the number of adults who said they’d taken extended or permanent breaks from Facebook sat at around 61 percent. As Facebook continues to raise eyebrows over its privacy policies, the ground for a continuing exodus grows more fertile. It’s totally plausible, if not logical, to see how quickly leaving social media could be adopted by some as a counterculture.
There is a transgressive quality to being a young person in 2017 and turning your back on your phone. In his book Solitude, Canadian writer Michael Harris positions living without the constant distraction of notifications as a spiritual awakening waiting to happen. He defines internal thought as an art; a discipline that needs to be cultivated in a world figured against it. “Radical is the word,” he tells me over Skype. “You have to be comfortable with a certain quality of rudeness if you’re going to remove yourself from group culture.”
Harris’ book isn’t preachy; rather, it recasts small lifestyle changes as part of a struggle to regain that sense of self. For example, Harris tells me, he pushes back the moment he first checks his phone, giving himself as long as possible at the start of the day before entering the cloud. It’s a small gesture, but it’s the sort of practical change that points to how control can be regained. “These are the ways we have to curate our hours,” he explains. “I think it’s indicative of the level of addiction we’re stuck with. You can’t just go on a digital detox and then be fixed. We’re so marinated in this, we have to struggle against it on a daily if not hourly basis.”
It speaks to a long overdue conversation we still haven’t properly had in our society—one which understands that cultivating a healthy relationship with your phone is as important as using condoms or eating your greens. “If you look at the 1950s and 1960s food culture in North America, there was this super-abundance of food,” Harris continues, “but we weren’t smart about how we ate, and then as diabetes and obesity levels shot up we had to stop and think. In the same way, we’re not going to eat Kraft dinner every night for the rest of our lives, we are starting to say: What’s a healthy media diet?”
What’s required for that to happen is for people to start thinking about technology use as a public health issue—and is that really so hard to imagine? Campaigners are already fighting to make mental health education compulsory in UK schools; managing compulsive social media use is surely a logical extension of this. You only need to look at the increasing popularity of mindfulness exercises in British schools to see how effective ideas of wellness can prove.
Dr. Richard Graham is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Around 12 years ago he began dealing with unprecedented cases of young people suffering from mental health issues as a result of excessive technology use. In 2010 he launched the UK’s first specialist service for technology addiction, and in the years since he has become a leading expert on dependency and rehabilitation. When I speak to him over the phone, he agrees our relationship with technology is problematic but is less sure we’ve reached a breaking point. “I don’t think we know what our limits are yet,” he explains. “I started out in the era of a single platform. Now it’s wearables. It’s so entwined, it’s far more complex.”…
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