This summer, I questioned our possible future addiction to robots. With autumn comes the time to tidy up our homes. As I just moved into my new place, I’m starting to reconsider the space I dedicate to screens in my daily life. How about a big cleaning?
The hit of the 40’s
A few weeks ago, I turned 40. I’m ok (thank you for asking) but still, entering a new decade kind of hurts a little. It’s like climbing a mountain and arriving to a pass. It’s the time to review the progress you’ve made, before the next escalation. Without looking down, if possible.
My life path shouldn’t have been be the way it is, if I had followed the rules. We are taught the traditional pattern: in your 20’s you build your career, in your 30’s you build your family. The truth is : there is no order. Let’s introduce an element of chaos in this, if you don’t mind.
I have traveled the world for 10 years, passionate about all the technological innovations and their impacts, all around the planet. I became almost a caricatural version of the digital nomad, without really wanting it. Traveling a lot means instability, and believe me, I can review more AirBnB then it’s healthy.
In this mountain pass of the 40’s, I decided to “fix” my life – for a time only, far from me the idea of settling down and gaining weight.
My position as an innovation researcher, business leader, TED speaker and tireless traveler requires, in return, to have an anchor. It’s essential for personal balance. I’ve always been convinced that everything is about polarities, between travels and roots, between movement and rest, between the energy of the outside world and focusing on yourself. There is no light without shadow…
So here I am, at day 1 of this new life, after a decade living in hotels. In the process, I found myself invited to a party at a friend’s place, who practices minimalism to the extreme. Picture a duplex of 120 square meters, with just a table, two chairs, three plates and a lamp. I felt as lonely as this apartment. The irony of the story is that I was sleeping on the floor for a week, then. It’s nice to have a new space of my own, but it must be furnished now. Despite myself, I was even more minimalist than my friend.
However, a somewhat ridiculous contrast struck me. As an entrepreneur, at the head of a growing group, I am surrounded by artificial intelligence and algorithms. This is what my life is filled with. I’m handcuffed to my three phones and my two computers, night and day.
That I let myself go when it comes to my intake of chocolate or apples, it is absolutely certain. But I started to wonder : am I also “addicted” to screens, as we read everywhere?
Fall is the time for good resolutions : people go back to the gym, refresh their wardrobe or repaint the kitchen. In the same way, my grandmother always taught me to do a big cleaning in autumn, as animals do to prepare their burrow before winter. Here, the only thing I had to rearrange was my use of technology.
What if Granny’s principles were still valid for our digital lives? What would it look like to apply the same cleaning methods to our closets and our smartphones?
Are we really addicted to screens ?
We open Instagram as we would light a cigarette : because of stress, boredom, at a break, waiting for the bill at lunch and even after sex, for some of us.
It is true: the time we spend on our phones – social media, YouTube, dating apps and so on – is a business value. We know it well, we are in the economy of attention. There are dealers for this: we call them the designers of attention and at Google, for example, their mission is crutial.
Even the vocabulary evolves to diagnose us. We are talking about nomophobia now, namely the phobia of being with “no mobile”. The anxiety of being without battery or connection. And guys, still being a big nomophobic in 2019 is unacceptable.
However, I think we have to be cautious when it comes to using the expression digital addiction.
It’s a medical term, that describes a much more terrible condition than feeling the irrepressible urge to open Facebook on the toilet. Let’s try to take a step back, anytime a word is used too often and too lightly.
Of course, screens impact our daily lives, our balance, our physical and mental health, our relationships to others. They also affect the cognitive development of our children, their learning processes, their sleep quality and their weight : not a week goes by without a study being published on the subject. This is not the point of this article, but rather to question :
Did we really lost control? Is grabbing our phone and opening an app really stronger than us ?
OK, attention designers (and their algorithms) have a true responsibility in keeping us “addicted”, dopamine and all. Internet providers, phone manufacturers and Google itself are now offering solutions to limit the time spent on screens. You can cut the connections when it’s dinner time, or schedule the minutes you want to spent on Instagram per day.
Therefore, the brands have perfectly measured the problem. It’s easy to say that they themselves created the “addiction”. Does it mean that we are not responsible for our own screens consumption though?
Technology overall goal is to make our daily lives easier, to provide us tools (humanly and intellectually speaking), to facilitate our work and communications. It is also, simply, a tool to make us happy. Our music, our movies, our podcasts, the discussions with our loved ones, all of that is supposed to make us feel good.
The challenge for everyone is to set their own boundaries. No one forces us to launch YouTube, and no one is there either to babysit us and tell us when to stop. Therefore, setting a timer or not, still it’s up to us to delimit our use, if we judge it becomes problematic (if it makes us nervous, stressed, depressed, harms our productivity or our social life, and so on.)
Everyone has a different level of tolerance, just like everyone holds liquor differently.
I refuse the Manichean vision “screens are good, screens are bad”. The notion we have to go back to is always balance. Not having a cell phone isn’t better than having three : we are in a digital world, and anyone who swims against the tide will soon be exhausted. The question for anyone is: where is my balance?
When does my use of technology do me good, when does it hurt me?
Once again, this is a very personal question for everyone.
Reclaiming our time
Over the course of my career, I became more and more aware of one thing : the value of my time and energy. At 40, believe me, you spend these two resources differently than at 20, as they become rarer.
Since screens suck a crazy amount of time and energy out of us, defining the principles of a digital sobriety definitely makes sense, right?
Let’s be practical: what’s the first thing you do in the morning? For many of us, it’s opening our phone and letting a tsunami of news, social media posts, messages and emails flood us before we even have the time to open our eyes properly. As Mel Robbins once said, you wouldn’t let 300 people invade your bedroom in the morning, so why let your phone have the same effect?
We don’t binge eat ten hamburgers every lunch, so why binge on pixels? If we talk about slow food, as opposed to the soulless fast food, we can also talk about slow tech.
According to some new “gurus” on the subject, digital sobriety could consist in practical decisions, such as banning connected objects, smartphones, computers, Amazon Echo and others, from the bedroom for example. To sanctuarize a room in the house, in a way. Or to put our phone in airplane mode one hour a day, and one day a week. For the purpose of dedicating more time spent doing something else with our hands (that is to say: something else than scrolling). Everyone has to decide how to fill the sudden void left by the absence of screens, just as I now have to furnish my new apartment.
Because it’s not only about organizing space, but also time.
We only have 24 hours in a day. In 2019, we spent an average of 3 and a half hours on our phones daily. It means 30 hours a week and 50 days a year, on entertainment apps such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and so on.
We don’t consider enough the value of our time, and how we use it. When we say “I don’t have time”, in fact we say : “I prioritized something else”.
Less time interacting with screens means more time having fun elsewhere, differently. Progressing on a project, playing sports, learning a language, cooking, meditating… In short : something that stimulates the reward circuits in the long run, not just the endorphin shot of the little red notification.
This is even truer when it comes to the brains of our children, at the top of their plasticity and capacity to learn. Tech big names like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley personalities have all advocated a screenless education for their own children. Employees of Google, eBay or Apple massively educate their kids in schools with learning methods that exclude smartphones and tablets.
As for us, the time we spend online could just be more nourishing. Why do we still follow these accounts that annoy us, or make us feel like being behind in life, if we compare ourself? Why are we still answering to people who, as soon as we see their names, we know straight away they won’t bring anything good today?
Once again, it’s all about energy: every single action on our phones (reading a message, answering a text, reading an article, analyzing a picture) is a drop of gasoline we burn from our tank. At the end of the day, of course we are dry. No wonder the ultimate promise of digital assistants with artificial intelligence (like Siri, Alexa and others) is to relieve us of those micro tasks that, put end to end, cause us macro exhaustion. For the record, we make an average of 20,000 decisions per day, from which pair of socks we are going to wear, to whether or not we will look at our screen when the notification hits.
Does this contact, this photo, this conversation, this Instagram account or this YouTube channel really make me feel good or not? Fundamentally, what brings us joy or not, in all this?
We constantly have screens in front of our eyes, our phones almost grafted to our bodies. They are our scenery. This is what we look at most of the time. The importance of choosing what we watch is not a detail.
Let us apply to our digital life the common sense our grandparents used to have in the “material” life. Because, guess what? There is no more difference between one and the other.