Digital detox

One of the things I was most looking forward to when hiking the John Muir trail last year was the opportunity for a digital detox. Like other members of my generation I was an early, enthusiastic adopter of the smartphone, but like Jonathan Haidt, over the intervening decades I’ve become increasingly skeptical of them. The digital world’s enabled fantastic things, and is convenient and entertaining beyond all reason, but its totally ubiquitous use is producing negative byproducts of world-altering magnitude – isolation, depression, division – and we’re only starting to acknowledge the dark road they’re leading to.

So getting to the trailhead, I happily stuffed my phone into a deep pocket, and didn’t take it out again until we’d left the forest.

I was surprised that my compatriots didn’t feel the same way. Like, at all. Not only were they not looking to get away from their phones, but they’d pull them out at every opportunity, looking for signal every time we reached a high ridge. Smartwatches were paired with the phones so that one would never have to be parted from a screen for too long. With hiking poles involved it takes a modicum of effort to push them aside and yank a phone out of a pocket or pouch, but a watch? Easy. Those can checked once every minute or two with barely a flick of the wrist. The symbiotic relationship between computer and human grows ever more intense, trending to a place where the two are inexorably intertwined.

By the end of the trip I felt like my detox was successful. I was having novel ideas and thinking freely in a way that’s escaped me since my pre-phone days of the 90s and early 2000s. But this momentary victory quickly turned to defeat as it only took a day or two back in civilization for it all came rushing back. The idle scrolling, the YouTube rabbit holes, the outrage machine.

I’m still working on an overarching thesis for what to do about it, but my general sentiment is that technology is good, computers are good, and the internet is the greatest tool in history, but the ways in which we casually relate to technology are bad. I think my ideal is to have intense, timeboxed sessions with fixed objectives in mind, like my objective to finish writing this article, or finish a project at work, and with longer periods of non-technology between, with the phone mercifully silent, left charging in a distant room.

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