These are uncharted waters. Relentlessly, the technological titans of the 2020s are pressing on with their agenda to connect, to simplify and to automate. ‘Get smart’ is the consumer’s plea to every tool and technology in his arsenal - or face getting left behind.
Data is the new currency of power, standing by to extract every cause of friction from our lives. With a whisper to that ghostly assistant nestled in the corner of the room, we are being trained to anticipate the arrival of seamless intelligence on-demand, silently participating in our most intimate moments and digesting every iota of our personal information; bit-by-bit, gleaning its most lucrative pearls.
It is a legitimate question as to whether this vast array of accumulated information held by the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook are a worthwhile ransom to liberate the technology they have created to so ably make our lives simpler and more effective. I do not take for granted that there are risks to security and privacy — both as individuals and at a societal level — from too much control being held by so few organisations over my data. But there is likewise no question that the offer of a ‘smart world’ — a sea of artificial intelligence, foaming with inter-connected things— represents the tantalising prospect of a healthier, safer and more prosperous world than ever before.
I would stake money on a prediction, that the regulation of data (it’s ownership, gathering, processing, analysis and use, and the transparency thereof) will become one of the top issues for government over the next few years. Its implications transcend the boundaries of national security and defence, education, health, justice and even the integrity of our democratic processes themselves. While liberty remains the immortal battle-cry of innovation, there is no space for unchecked libertarianism in this arena — much as I instinctively hoped there would be.
Just as government should not be complacent about the powerful impacts of all-pervasive technology in society, so I recognised a while ago that I should take back control (to coin a phrase) of my own digital life.
To mark the start of the new decade I began a month-long ‘Digital Detox’ or ‘Digital Declutter’ (as Cal Newport puts it) at the beginning of January. I wrote about my plan just before the new year which you can read here.
It was something I was cautious about. I had considered myself prudent to the worst excesses of technological paralysis, but my phone, laptop and tablet still had me in their grip. I felt as though my daily routines, productivity tools and communication were all inextricably intertwined with tech and that in distancing myself from it I would be severed from my engine-room of productivity.
A month later, a few expected things had happened; a few things had surprised me; and a few things opened my eyes.
What I found
According to my estimation it would have taken a couple of weeks to get used to having much of my tech out-of-reach. Yet to my surprise, within just a couple of days I felt a huge weight lifted and found that it was fairly quick to adjust to a more ‘tech hands-off’ approach and there were some happy benefits which I quickly realised.
1) Easier to focus
It became slightly frustrating not to be able to complete small tasks after 7pm (sending messages, looking things up etc.) which I would have just got on with without thinking beforehand.
For the first couple of weeks this felt like a huge amount of needless added friction. It was only half-way through that I realised it had forced me to focus on what really matters. I was more focussed at work, more present at home and more relaxed on the weekends. Knowing that I couldn’t access tech except in certain circumstances created the space for me to be fully immersed in what counts.
2) Lower levels of anxiety
Another happy consequence of distancing myself from my phone in particular, is knowing that 90% of the time I would be unreachable. Taking myself offline reduced the hum of background anxiety: being at the beck and call of the world at its discretion.
Initially, I felt guilty about this. After all, I don’t like not being able to get in touch with people myself. But as I sank into this new mindset, I was reminded that I own my own time. Outside of work, my time is mine to control and I am responsible for ensuring I exercise, spend time with my family and enjoy the blessings of active rest, free from the attention-on-demand economy. When someone approaches me on social media, email or phone, they are requesting my attention, which I am at full liberty to delay — or deny altogether.
3) Better relationships
One of the most beautiful implications of this was how it helped me to enjoy my relationships more deeply. I sat at the dinner table to eat and talk with my housemates and fiancé, rather than zombie-like watching empty entertainment on Netflix. I gathered my thoughts about the week ahead, rather than stimulating my mind with mindless browsing.
I found that it is in those spaces in time, created by simplicity, which trigger spontaneous apprehensions. Those mental clearings give license to the kind of generosity which comforts the soul, energises the mind and deepens relationships. It is those silent moments which seem to demand a kind of intentionality from its participants which is conducive to self-sacrifice, kindness and hospitality.
4) Productivity gains
The typical week for me is pretty full-on. I work Monday-Thursday working in cyber security and spend Friday’s working on my PhD. I’m a local politician in Southampton, UK, and spend 10 or 20+ hours a week on case work, policy research, committee meetings and campaigning activities. Alongside ad hoc meetings, voluntary commitments, side-hustles and investing activities, I might work 60+ hours in a typical week.
Much of my work relies heavily on technology and that’s something I allowed for in my ‘Digital Detox’ plan. But I still assumed that distancing myself from technology for a month would impact my ability to get stuff done.
I found quite the opposite to be the case. By time-blocking email and social media, I was able to get far more done, distraction-free, during the day. By banning TV and social media, I lost almost nothing, yet gained literally hours of my week back.
In all, this process has helped me to work smarter, rest better and focus more on what really matters to me.
The vast majority of the boundaries I’ve put in place will stay there in the weeks to come. They mostly revolve around my phone and making sure that it remains on the back-foot in its obsessive attempt to recapture that portion of my attention throughout the day.
In that vein, I will continue to
- Keep my phone in the car while I’m work
- Keep DownTime set on my phone (active from 8pm onwards)
- Keep bookmarks bar hidden in Chrome
- Keep almost all social media off my phone
- Keep (almost all) notifications off
- Keep phone tidy and minimalistic
The lesson of the month has been that technology is a terrible master.
In perfect irony - and in keeping with their long-term intention to fully absorb me within its data-hungry ecosystem - during the first week of my Digital Detox, Google had the generosity to send me a free Google Home Mini.
After a brief pause to reflect on the decision I was taking and a moment to check the rules, the court ruled that it wouldn’t contradict the explicit restrictions or the intention of my detox to open the box and have a play.
As a result, over the course of my month-long Digital Detox, I have become a fully-fledged Google Home user.
Here’s the justification.
The Google Home Mini, which doesn’t have a screen, doesn’t interrupt me throughout the day and is as small and inconspicuous as a mantlepiece ornament, has served to facilitate my separation from technology more than it has hindered it.
After all, the point was to take back control of my time, energy and attention — not to arbitrarily vacate myself from the benefits of technology.
As I finish this blog post on my iPhone, from the powdery summit of Männlichen, Switzerland, 7687 feet above the Jungfrau valley, and tap Publish, I am reminded of one thing more:
Whilst technology is indeed a terrible master, it is a fantastic slave.
Having eradicated the attention grabbers, it’s time to chase these slopes.
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