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Finding the off switch

How we can control our technology habits.

It’s rare to find someone who is completely at ease with their internet use. Who can look without flinching at a record of how much time they spend online – 24 hours a week, on average, according to a recent Ofcom report – and think: “Great, I am spending my precious time on Earth wisely”? It is common to speak of feeling “disconnected” in this hyper-connected digital era. We feel that our social interactions are becoming shallow and empty, that we have traded proper conversation for text messages, Facebook likes and Twitter banter. We believe that constantly updating social-media feeds and 24-hour news are killing our attention spans.

In December 2016, Mark Boyle, the author of The Moneyless Man, an account of the three years he spent living without money, set himself a new challenge: he wanted to start living without technology. By learning to survive without running water, electricity or any other mod con, Boyle wanted to “put [his] finger on the pulse of life again”, to experience real “intimacy, friendship and community” and to reconnect with nature. More than that, he wanted to find a way to opt out of the modern economy and everything he sees as wrong with it, from the degradation of the environment and social inequality to reality TV, social media and other non-stop digital distractions.

The Way Home, Boyle’s memoir of his first year off-grid, is fascinating. There’s something irresistible about an account of someone building their own house from scratch and then surviving mostly on road kill, fishing and vegetables grown with the aid of their own “humanure”. When his writing is at its best it is a poetic meditation on the almost-mystical benefits of falling in sync with nature, of submitting to the light and the seasons rather than to the clock, of noticing the wildlife all around us and respecting our place within it. But Boyle’s sanctimony soon becomes wearing and eventually, infuriating.

“I wanted to feel cold and hunger and fear,” Boyle writes of starting his experiment. This fear is sought out. You may feel real fear on a rollercoaster ride, or while free-climbing, or after enlisting in the army just because you want to feel the life-affirming thrill of a close encounter with death. The danger may be real too. But there’s something fundamentally different between these experiences and the fear and cold and hunger felt by, say, civilians whose homes are being shelled, or migrants on perilous journeys across deserts and oceans.

 I imagine that Boyle relishes the discomfort and insecurity of a life without technology because subconsciously he knows that his ideological purity and pig-headedness are the only things preventing him from checking into a warm hotel or visiting his GP. It’s the difference between a miserable, rain-sodden camping trip and living in a refugee camp. Boyle owes a greater debt to the 21st century’s rapacious, post-industrial economy than he is willing or able to acknowledge.

This doesn’t mean that his experiment isn’t worthwhile, but one would hope that after all the meditative wood-whittling and barefoot rambling, Boyle might have grappled with such issues and come to a more nuanced understanding of the meaning of his endeavour. By the time he recounts seeing a young Indonesian child transporting buckets of water up a steep mountainside and reflects that a scene he once thought of as primitive might, in fact, offer him new life lessons, I wanted to throw my Kindle (sue me!) at the wall.

While people in some parts of the world are only now experiencing the thrill and opportunity of internet access, citizens in the wealthy West are learning how great it can feel to have all this and then switch it off. Unplugging is not a return to some golden, pre-internet age, it’s a 21st-century lifestyle choice, premised on modern ideas of what counts as meaningful connection.

“People tell me to be careful not to romanticise the past. On this, I agree. But I tell them to be even more careful not to romanticise the future,” he writes. You can quite easily avoid romanticising either. You can share Boyle’s concern about environmental destruction, our fraying social fabric, harmful consumerist culture and the insidious influence of big tech firms – and still not wish to turn back time. While Boyle worries about rising rates of cancer, mental illness and other symptoms of “affluenza” such as diabetes and obesity, I feel gratitude that women can reasonably expect to survive childbirth and celebrate their children’s fifth birthdays; that fewer people will have to suffer the crushing loneliness of a mental affliction they can neither name nor hope to see treated; that so many of us are living long enough to become doddery and cancer-ridden. (By far the biggest contributor to rising rates of cancer is longevity: cancer rates peak between the ages of 85 and 89.) There is a lot wrong with our current global economy, but there’s also a lot wrong with Boyle’s rationale for dropping out.

The Georgetown computer scientist and self-help author Cal Newport shares Boyle’s concern over digital distraction and the way the internet is damaging our ability to form meaningful friendships and robbing us of the emotional and cognitive benefits of solitude. The two might also agree that many people tend to overestimate the usefulness of the tech they use. But, rather than unplugging completely, Newport believes we need to become more thoughtful and strategic about how we engage with digital technology.

His latest book, Digital Minimalism, offers a blueprint for how people can regain control over their online lives. He quotes Bill Maher’s memorable description of social media tycoons as “tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children” and argues that when the devices and apps we use are designed to encourage compulsive behaviour, it’s not enough to develop a few “life hacks” to try to stop yourself from wasting hours at work on Twitter or embarking on five-hour Netflix binges: you need a “philosophy of technology use”.

This philosophy, digital minimalism, involves reducing the time you spend online to only a few activities, selected because they strongly support your values, and then ignoring everything else. To help you find out what those values might be, Newport recommends a 30-day digital “declutter”, during which you only use the internet or your phone for things that are absolutely essential to your personal or professional life.

Often, we delude ourselves as to how much we need the apps and websites we use. Perhaps you consider Twitter an important way to network: but if you spend an hour a day on the site, mostly procrastinating, would you be better off setting up regular coffee meetings with professional contacts instead? If Facebook charged you per minute of use, how many minutes a week would you spend on the site – perhaps 20 or 30, Newport suggests, but the average Facebook user spends 350 minutes a week there. Having a clear idea of why you want to use a particular platform, and then using it only for that purpose, is helpful.

Newport offers few firm rules, because we all have different priorities, though he does suggest a total ban on social media likes and comments: instead of tricking yourself into thinking you’re keeping in touch with an old friend because you liked her holiday snaps, why not call her instead? Alongside long walks, quiet contemplation and fulfilling hobbies, one of the most important things that Newport suggests doing with the time reclaimed from a tech addiction is holding real conversations, whether they are on the phone or face-to-face.

Like many self-help books, Digital Minimalism can feel repetitive, and readers with an interest in the social impacts of technology will likely be familiar with many of the thinkers and studies he quotes. His arguments are compelling, however. A few months ago, my toddler deleted Facebook from my phone and it’s embarrassing how liberated I felt. After finishing Newport’s book, I set strict rules for how often I check social media, my emails or my text messages, and even these baby steps made a surprising difference by improving my concentration span. For purists such as Boyle, such efforts might seem pathetic and quietist (certainly they do nothing to address his very valid economic and environmental concerns), but when you accept there is no returning to a past golden age, you need to find a way to feel comfortable in the present. 

'The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology' by Mark Boyle is published by Oneworld (288pp, £16.99)

'Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology' by Cal Newport is published by Portfolio Penguin (304pp, £14.99)

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes