Of digital holidays

The Luddites are misunderstood

Technology is great, right? We live in an era of miracles. The mere act of me writing this and you reading it—wherever you are in the world—is a thing that would have been orders of magnitude more difficult for the bulk of human history. And now it just works.1Well, when wordpress behaves itself.

It is easy to forget that technology by itself is neutral; it has no intent or agenda; it is a tool. We spend too much time focusing on the technology and not the intent and objectives of those that create the technology.

Thus, when people identify the addictive nature of technology, they often target the application or piece of technology itself as being responsible. When, of course, an application has no goals or desires of its own. The creators of that application, however: well, they want your attention. Desperately. We know in this era of the digital economy we are not the audience but the product: things on the internet are free because our data and digital identities are commodities to be sold, traded, and exploited.

And so our suspicion should centre on the people creating the technology, and not just on the technologies themselves. I am convinced of a chilling conclusion: the people creating modern technology do not have our best interests at heart. They have no actual duty of care because, of course, the notion of a creator having such a duty in our hyper-capitalist society is naïve . The only duty a modern company has is to maximise shareholder value. This is more easily done without worrying about what is best for people, either as individuals or in a broader sense of humanity.

As a result, my relationship with technology has been changing: while I still appreciate its benefits and delight in new innovations, I am more worried about the costs of using technology. The costs to myself and my functioning in this world, the costs to the environment, the costs to the world and its people. It is hard to get quite so excited about a new iPhone when you are conscious of the role of, say, the child labourer digging cobalt out of the ground with their bare hands.

I have an interesting vantage point. As a child of the late 80s, I was born into the prelapsarian world before everyone had smart phones, before high-speed internet access was ubiquitous, before life was so connected. As I grew, I had a front-row seat in watching the world change: the proliferation of, at first, dumb mobile phones, then the explosive growth of smart phones, allowing us to bring the internet with us.2I can still remember the first time I used the internet, my parents having succumbed to my pestering and dropped me off at a local internet cafe (which in a case of irony that was lost to me as a kid was in a historic post office building). I spent a very pleasant afternoon on the online official Pokedex. It feels, especially compared to what kids growing up now have access to, rather quaint and sweet. It is hard not to have nostalgia for a time where using the internet was an event and not something we do hundreds of times a day.

From this vantage point, it becomes easy to see how significant the change in our daily lives that technology has delivered. Having this perspective makes the current state of technology in our lives all the more incredible. It does, also, make one curious about the intentions of those pushing technology on us—when seen through this lens, the transformation of society does not seem as benign.

And so when I stumbled upon two books, I was primed to receive their message. These books are The Power of Fun by Catherine Price and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. These books crystallised an inchoate question: what role did I want to have in the ongoing war for our attention (and indeed for our time, the single most precious resource we have)?

On the side of the tech-bros is the world of quick hits of dopamine; of having little slot machines in our pockets that randomly kick out little pellets of information. We have the feeling of connection with the world, albeit with none of the depth of actual connection. We have an illusion of being informed when we’re receiving information and messages at a rate far beyond our ability to meaningful process and digest. We have the anxiety and impact on our mental health that all of this produces in aggregate.

On the other side we have the so-called attention resistance: those arguing for a renewed and reassessed relationship with technology. One that lets us maximise the benefits while protecting us from the harms and consequences, only some of which are known.

There’s a good gut test you can try to see how you feel about this all—next time you’re riding a train or bus, put down your device(s) and look around you and observe how many people are bent over their phones, tapping away, faces lit up like ghosts. I did this and felt discomforted. Are machines our tools, or perhaps have we become their servants?

Towards a bit more balance in life

An observation from Price’s book has stuck with me:

We only experience what we pay attention to. We only remember what we pay attention to. Your choice of what to pay attention to in any given minute might not seem like a big deal, but taken together, these decisions are deeply consequential.
Catherine Price, The Power of Fun

In my case, something must be done. I do not think my current approach is compatible with the values I want my life to represent. I am concerned about the part technology plays in my life. I never once sat down and thought, gee, I should pick up my phone over one hundred times a day—and yet, and yet.

The question of what to do is honest and simple, at least on the conceptual stage: Use technology less. Reclaim time and your attention by being intentional about our decisions. Of course, in the same way one cannot tell an alcoholic to stop drinking, the way forwards needs a little more thought to it. Newport’s book has done that thinking for us. Enter the idea of a digital declutter:3Bravo, Mr Newport, for not calling it a ‘digital detox.’ The whole notion of a detox is based on harmful and inaccurate pseudo-science.

The Digital Declutter Explained

Step one: “Put aside a 30-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.”

Step two: “During this 30-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviours that you find satisfying and meaningful.”

Step three: “At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximise this value.”

What makes Cal’s protocol (protocal?) appealing as it is quite realistic. It is not so dogmatic as to say it must be done in a certain way, rather he suggests approach this process in a way that is tailored and responsive to one’s individual concerns and situation.

And so, I will do a digital declutter next month, April 2024. Here are the initial guidelines for my declutter. I am going into the experince expecting these to grow, mutate and evolve as I gain the space to examine my behaviour more closely.

Part of the reason both Price’s and Newport’s books stuck with me is they make the case that you cannot just cut-out device use and leave it at that. Instead, the authors counsel you to have a bevy of high quality plans for how you are going to spend the reclaimed time. Here’re my initial thoughts:

Reading. Reading is a real joy of mine, and while I already read a reasonable amount, the pile of books I’m curious about always grows bigger, never smaller.

Writing. The more I write these essays, the more meaningful I find it. I want to dedicate more time for writing, both for myself (journaling and morning pages) and for others (these essays).

Hobbies. I want to finish my first amigurumi project and get comfortable with the basics of crochet. I have a lego model or two I want to build. I have been curious about learning the basics of calligraphy since playing the brilliant Pentiment. None of these things happen when one is using devices constantly.

Walking. April is often the best month of autumn, my favourite time of year. I want to remember this autumn in all of its infinite richness.

Conversations. As I noted above, technology is good for connecting, but there is a real different in a connection and a conversation. I want to have more in-depth conversations with people face to face.

Nothing. Lastly, and more importantly, I want to do more of nothing. I have this feeling of everything being too much that I suspect can only be cured by simply sitting and being and (re)connecting with myself. And so I want both unstructured nothingness and also to do more guided meditations.

I will post short weekly updates and wrap up the experience once it’s all done. If, dear reader, you’ve made it this far, I encourage you to consider doing a digital declutter of your own. I am sure there isn’t a person alive that wouldn’t benefit from (re)examining their relationship with technology, even if such an eximination does not end up in a full-on digital declutter.


  • 1
    Well, when wordpress behaves itself.
  • 2
    I can still remember the first time I used the internet, my parents having succumbed to my pestering and dropped me off at a local internet cafe (which in a case of irony that was lost to me as a kid was in a historic post office building). I spent a very pleasant afternoon on the online official Pokedex.
  • 3
    Bravo, Mr Newport, for not calling it a ‘digital detox.’ The whole notion of a detox is based on harmful and inaccurate pseudo-science.

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