I recently got an email from a reader asking, in a perfect world, what does your relationship with technology look like, and I like this question a lot because it gives me the chance to envision, contemplate, and work towards a perfect world in which I don’t feel controlled, oppressed, constrained, manipulated, trapped, undermined, and demeaned by the devices, screens, and notifications of our digital world.
The email continues, “I often find myself wishing for all the screens and noise around to disappear. Every other month I feel a now-familiar urge to just drop my phone in the bin and run away.” I sympathize remembering a time, when I was much younger, idealistic, and radical, I tried to flush my phone down the toilet. I wanted to be freed from the obsessive, compulsive, hopeless dependency I felt on my phone. That was over a decade ago, and our obsessive, compulsive, hopeless dependency on technology has only gotten worse; and there is even an app for that.
I want to be wrong here, but I’m afraid it is too late to do without the devices, apps, and notifications that inform most of our days. Technology has become nature, and “whether it’s Pandora’s box or the genie in the bottle, there is no going back to how things were.” Once upon a time, I seriously considered switching to a flip-phone, but I realized I liked the convenience of having a GPS tell me to make a left, then a right. “The convenience,” the email continues, “of controlling my banking in my pocket wherever I go, the ability to call an Uber if I’m in an unsafe encounter, these are major benefits that I find hold me back from truly cutting the cord.” I understand. Over the years, I have learned, or maybe I had to accept, technology isn’t bad or good; it is bad and it is good. So I go back to the question, in the perfect, or at least my perfect world, what role does technology play in my life? How do I reckon with the dilemma of Uber-is-great-but-not-an-hour-wasted-on-Reddit?
So, I imagine a perfect world with technology.
In a perfect world, technology serves me, I do not serve it.
In the current attention economy, technology is designed to harvest as much of our attention as possible to be sold to the highest bidder. I serve technology when I give away my attention, time, and energy freely, indiscriminately, in spite of my best self-interest. Technology serves me as a tool to make my life convenient, and I get to choose the technological conveniences I consider important to me.
Technology serves me when I can text to make plans with friends to hang out. I serve technology when I ignore people around me scrolling for a quick dopamine hit from my home feed. Technology serves me when I call my sister and talk for hours about life, and I hang up the phone feeling heard and understood. I serve technology when I spend hours scrolling through anonymous message boards for advice because it feels safer than opening up to someone in real life. Technology serves me in many other ways; an Uber ride after a night out, a text reminder for my credit card bill, and I can just pay it from the banking app, to check if I need an umbrella before leaving the house, and get directions to the restaurant I’m going to meet a friend at. In a perfect world, I utilize technology to serve my best interest, and I decide what interests I want technology to serve in my life.
In a perfect world, I spend the majority of my time offline.
I no longer track my Screen Time, fuss too much about waking up to my phone, or feebly attempt to limit the time I spend online to a certain magical number. Instead, I focus on filling my days up with plans and activities that naturally make me ignore the digital. Most mornings, I spend an hour or two reading and journaling, with no device in sight. That’s an hour or two spent offline most mornings, and it adds up. Fitness is important to me, but what’s even better is an hour or so, 4-5x a week, I spend sweating on the gym floor instead of scrolling through my phone. I have become very diligent with planning in-person hang outs with people; Nothing beats a few hours, a couple times a week, spent lost in lively conversations. It helps to make your smartphone dumb. The trick I have found to work the best is to leave the house as much as possible; to stay out and about, to keep a distance between you and the digital noise: Out of sight, out of mind. Go shopping, walking, crying; but do it away from the screens. For the days I don’t have the mental bandwidth nor the energy to care, I forgive myself and join in on the noise.
In a perfect world, I don’t use technology to escape.
It is easier to get lost in the sauce; easier than fighting against the current of what surrounds us. Technology gives us easy access to escape 24/7/365, and despite my best efforts, the ease to escape at a click of a button has the strongest hold on me. There is so much one can do, plan for, fight against before you simply run out of the energy, the mental capacity to care and things to do, and you ran back to oh, sweet, sweet digital escape! If there is a better way to escape, not think, not feel, not care, not give a shit, I haven’t found it.
But I know better. Just because it’s an easy escape does not mean it’s a good escape. I want a better escape, a dignified escape, to escape better. There is something so lame about sitting still for hours with only a few fingers moving; tapping, scrolling, typing for a dopamine hit. I want escape that requires a bit more effort, a little more movement, less self-loathing. In a perfect world, I escape through literature, creative pursuits, more in-person connections, and time spent outside and in nature. In a perfect world, I welcome boredom, and I make myself aquatinted with her presence.
It’s tempting to start the complaints now. I so badly want to moan and complain about how hard it is, how much effort it takes to go against the new normal, to attempt to hold onto reality, to fight for a little relief from the noise: Whaa, whaa, whaa. But it is worth to dream of, and then make a little bit effort each day, towards a perfect world where technology and the individual can co-exist in harmony, and that we feel a sense of dignity, autonomy, and freedom while existing with and through the digital noise.
In a perfect world, technology serves me, I do not serve it. In a perfect world, technology is a simple tool that helps me function in my day to day life, like the shoes I wear, or the pots I cook in; but never a replacement for the love, companionship, connection I seek, nor an escape from reality; perfectly fit, and good enough, for me. In a perfect world, the war over my attention has been won, and I claim victory.
Until next time,
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