In many ways, the natural social response to strong feelings of technology oversaturation is to demand experiences that create an opposite feeling, to create spaces where technology is neither required nor permitted. These experiences have been named digital detoxes, to actively create physical and digital spaces where the technology that people feel overburdened by, is abstained for a given period of time.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the move towards digital detoxing came from the work of authors such as Nicholas Carr or Sheri Turkle who asked whether we are all ‘alone together’, However, popular fears surrounding the potential for technology to adversely impact human attention, and the need to take breaks from it, originated a millennia ago. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other major religious traditions have mandated a single day of the week to be taken for rest and worship.
Fast forward to the present day and the same ideas that initially inspired people to dedicate one day of the week to the service of God, are now being applied to the act of taking Digital Sabbaths, and days of unplugging. In the last article, I explored how the dawn of the digital age inspired technologists and academics alike to investigate the interrelationship between human attention and information abundance. Once that overload became a reality, in the form of mobile computing, popular discussions about digital detoxing became far more widespread
When pocket-sized 3G connected supercomputers fit into our pockets and became cheap enough that everyone could own one, the popular desire for time away, has increased. However, while it is tempting to think that this demand has originated from a desire to resist information overload, the reality is that digital detoxing has been demanded from very different quarters:
Health & Wellbeing
The dominant inspiration for taking digital detoxes to create a meaningful space between humans and technology is primarily for health and wellbeing reasons. Health professionals and celebrities all over the world have extolled the benefits of taking digital detoxes as a means of helping people to improve their sleep, spend more quality time with loved ones, and reducing the anxiety that comes with being always available – although this last benefit is being challenged.
Perhaps the most important health motivation for practicing digital detoxes is the reported improvement of mental health. When the discussion is coupled with compulsive digital gaming or compulsive use of social media, the neuroscientific, pediatric and psychological literature outline that help to improve human wellbeing.
Other organisations and prominent thought leaders have highlighted that digital detoxes can do much to improve productivity due mainly to the findings that levels of attention and productive work deteriorate the more time people spend task switching and exposed to numerous information flows. In the previous article, we covered that involuntarily checking email has a negative impact on productivity and attention. Other studies have backed this up, with the finding that once someone is distracted from a task in the workplace, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain that previous focus.
Some thought leaders like Georgetown’s Cal Newport claim that for people to maintain deep focus on a specific task, where high value work and productivity takes place, it is beneficial to abstain from digital distractions.
The digital detox discussion has also been framed around specifically decreasing stress levels, particularly from people who spend the majority of their time online and advocate greater work-life balance. Discussions around digital detoxing are supported by people who have suffered burnout and attribute the pervasiveness of technology and always-on culture, leads to increased experiences of stress. These types of discussions can be seen in particular from people who make their livings online such as YouTubers and gamers who are expected to produce high-quality content on a near-daily basis.
In addition to this, findings from the employee experience literature have found that because we use the same apps, services and devices for work as we do at home, we often bring the office home with us. In effect, we very rarely if ever leave the office and because of this, set unrealistic and unhealthy expectations between ourselves and our employers. As a result of this constantly connected life we lead is causing people to look into digital detoxing solutions.
Finally, it is evident that digital detoxing is becoming increasingly fashionable, particularly in industries where live in-person experiences are important. The growth of phone-free restaurants and festivals are proof of a growing group of institutions, and more importantly, the demands of people more generally, that devices and attention-intensive technologies are not always necessary at every occasion.
In an age where respected commentators claim that technology is poised to replace many jobs currently performed by humans, the reality, through the prism of digital detoxing, is that technology’s potential to influence people is not absolute. The digital detox phenomenon is a clarion call to humanity’s desire to reassert its non-digital needs and desires, and as a result people are influencing the impact of technology in their lives by their choices and autonomy.
It appears that unfettered digitisation is not something people want, in either their professional or personal lives, and express this by simply putting technology to one side to create space. It’s an important movement and an important sentiment to acknowledge.
Digital detoxes and the idea of creating periodic spaces between humanity and technology raises a particularly thorny challenge. To completely remove technology from our lives is not possible, but a life of constant digital stimulation is equally undesirable and unhealthy. The solution appears to be that intelligent engagement with digital is an interesting avenue to pursue. There are numerous challenges to this potential future that are simultaneously inspired by engineering, psychology, design, business and organisation disciplines.
To meet this challenge, there is an increasingly large group of creators who believe the same thing and are actively creating solutions to intelligently create spaces between humanity and technology, only appearing when it is required and staying for as long as necessary. It is this challenge that is ultimately shaping the next wave of global technological innovation.