A bizarre new fad in the world of technology is, ironically, to stop using technology. The stigma exists that anyone with a smartphone is over-connected and inundated with endless, useless information. And that might not be far from truthful.
No one can deny there is a cornucopia of information on the web, and being able to access it so easily, people must learn how to use it to their benefit. “What information consumes is rather obvious,” Herbert Simon, the 1978 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, commented. “It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
A pitfall of around-the-clock connectivity through numerous apps is the distractions presented. Concentrating on an important task, at home or at work, becomes nearly impossible with emails, texts and bazillions of notifications constantly materializing on every device.
Many people believe they are productive when they bounce from one activity to the next quickly, and some even list multitasking as a skill. Dr. Clifford Nass, an author and professor at Stanford University, remarked in an NPR interview, “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
A movement of people is now realizing that too much information can be bad, especially when engaging in analytical or creative tasks that require high concentration. The temptation to check every email or notification that comes in is strong. “It hits the same dopamine centers in the brain when you answer email as when you snort cocaine. It’s an addictive pull,” said Tony Schwartz, founder and CEO of The Energy Project. “So, the problem is that our technology has gotten way out ahead of our ability to manage it skillfully.”
Many believe embarking on technology-free sabbaticals is the answer. In an online article he wrote for The Verge, Paul Miller tells about the year he went without using the internet at all. He said at first it was great. Since he couldn’t use the internet, he used his free time socializing with people and breathing in fresh air, throwing Frisbee and reading Greek literature. But at the end of that year, he said he was back to his old antisocial self, sitting on his couch, watching movies and listening to audiobooks all alone.
Miller discovered the internet was not the source of his problems. His bad habits persisted online and offline. By removing the internet from his life, he actually talked to his friends and family less.
Evgeny Morozov of The New Republic, says unplugging is a “racket,” made up by folks who want to take your money. He observed many of the people who promote unplugging are the very people who sell technology designed to help you unplug. He specifically pointed out the Huffington Post’s app “GPS for the Soul,” which is devised to help a person unwind by watching soothing videos they create with photos, quotes and music. Arianna Huffington commented, “[P]aradoxically, one of the biggest growth sectors for tools to help us deal with technology is…technology.” She mentioned apps to help get rid of distractions, such as Anti-Social, Nanny, Self Control, RescueTime and Freedom.
But not everyone is buying into the idea that we as a society need to disconnect from the internet. “Few who unplug really want to surrender their citizenship in the land of technology; they simply want to travel outside it on temporary visas,” wrote Casey N. Cep for The New Yorker. Cep said there are two camps in the unplug movement: those who unplug for efficiency and those who unplug for enlightenment.
Those yearning for more efficiency try to limit their time online so as to make it more productive, such as Huffington, who spent a week over the holidays “unplugged.”
By contrast, those seeking enlightenment believe their true selves are waiting for them offline. At the beginning of his internet-free stint, Miller would have been in the enlightenment group. He even said his plan was to “find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.”
Although most acknowledge that we need breaks, the internet is a major part of our lives that is not going away. And ultimately, it seems most who wander away from their connected lives eventually return.
Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, asserted, “I refuse to accept that the only good response to an imperfect technology is to abandon it.” Rather than imagining the internet is the reason we lead crazy, unmanageable lives, instead let us learn not to tap every notification as it appears. In a world of distractions, let us exercise some self-control.
Cody Crawford holds a degree in software engineering from Middle Tennessee State University and is Director of Digital Innovation at Validity Publishing.