My life feels out of control lately: I rush from one thing to another and feel like I'm always "on". My morning starts with checking my phone before I'm even out of bed. I get about 200 emails and find myself checking email at work even while I'm on the loo. Evenings aren't much better: my husband I recently counted 16 devices between five people, and we spend our evenings in separate rooms browsing. My work and my life seem to have disappeared into some weird digital twilight zone. I can't just log off for the rest of my life. What do I do?
This technological adolescence we are enjoying, in which we are all online, all of the time, is based on the pretence that we humans have no limits: that we have the same resources for endless availability as technology, and that an unchecked habit of getting lost online can ever add up to the life you dream of. Humans with no limits, about to hit it big or be on Oprah someday maybe, constantly scanning for information, addicted to the dopamine hit that comes from responding to someone else's panic. Oy vey.
Let's survey the upsides. Tech is everywhere. It makes all kinds of things possible: flexible work arrangements, mobile careers, remote collaboration, group problem solving across worlds and disciplines – in real time – to crack the increasingly complex dilemmas of our age. Don't get me wrong: I'm an avid fan of technology, and believe a harmonious relationship between humans and artificial intelligence will create marvels we can hardly yet conceive of. Such beautiful dreams, and such terrible nightmares.
In that harmonious relationship, however, we won't be endlessly available. We're not built to thrive by compulsively checking out of direct experience of our families, workplaces and physical bodies. In that future, our schools, workplaces and families will have grown cultures of optimal, rather than constant, availability. We'll all be much better at diagnosing how much online is too much or too little. Our devices will be designed with this in mind, and we'll look back on today's personal tech and its endless clamours for attention with the amusement of parents regarding children running off a red-cordial euphoria. It's possible that technology will support us as individuals to be slower, not faster – and more fully attuned to our limits – while our collective capacity for calculation increases exponentially. The potential in that calculation depends on the kind of deep, human thinking that emerges from undisturbed quiet. For a compelling exploration, see Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneham.
Ideally, we'll have uncoupled our sense of worth from a sense of being responsive to the promptings of our devices; and we'll have a pretty canny scepticism, supported by a mature public discussion and a lot of research on the human brain, about how great it really is to be in a permanent state of IT-driven stimulation. We'll exercise choice about the soundtrack to our lives: sometimes, we'll choose the electric thrill of getting lost online; sometimes, we'll opt for downtime that accepts human limits, and involves edifying and hard human experiences like boredom, intimacy with unpredictable humans, love, rejection, failure and empathy.
Time lost online in a state of trance, in which you gratify your interest for hours, following one thing after another without really noticing the passage of time or the itch in your life that you just ain't scratching, has a cost: it disrupts your capacity for focus and complex thinking, and it creates habits of permanent availability that add up to feeling guilty when you're offline (what if someone needs me?), and guilty when you're online (where the hell did my life go?).
So let's set some limits. Your time is finite, and so are your energy and attention. First, design your ideal routine, at work and at home: how often you'll check your email, for example, and between what hours you'll be available online. Then withstand the disapproval of your frenzied peers and do it. Some folks check email between 9am and 10am, and 3pm and 4pm only. Do this with a buddy: at work, as a team; at home, as a family. Being available is not the same as being loved, so stop taking your phone everywhere. Switch your devices to greyscale to make them less compelling, and create a life, your life, with all the time you're now pouring down the drain of your digital addiction. You might start by reading (the paper version of) Speed: Facing our Addiction to Fast and Faster – and Overcoming our Fear of Slowing Down, by Stephanie Brown.
Fundamentally, the urge to get online is an urge to escape your own experience. This urge to get away from yourself has been around a lot longer than email, though technology makes the possibility of escape only as far away as the 16 devices in your house. Some curiosity about the pull of technology, rather than a blind obedience to the habit of automatic on-lining, might yield clues about what it is in your life that you're hiding from, or having too much of, when you're feeling the need for your phone again.
The thing that's missing in IT addiction is choice. Choice is created in slowed-down moments that add up to lives lived at an adequate pace rather than a frenzy. You feel yourself reaching for your phone, you notice the pull, you let yourself feel it, and you make a choice. You receive an email, and you make it a rule to pause a day or two before responding. You pause, and teach your colleagues and your children how.
Boredom is the first stage of everything in human experience that's creative, audacious and worth living for. If you want to let go of something painful, you'll need to let yourself feel it first, rather than escaping it by plugging into your inbox or your browsing. So let yourself be as bored, sad or lost as you are – and let yourself feel what that's like, in the manner of children, saints and the digitally optimised. Truthful lives are hard won, and ask for sacrifice. The whole spectacular mess of human limitation awaits you, smiling.