Thursday 13 December 2018

Digital detox: is it time to take something back?

It will be 25 years next week since an indifferent public first heard of the World Wide Web. Now the internet dictates all aspects of our lives. But some people are trying to get a bit of their lives back. Can it be done, asks our reporter

Hijacked: Many phone apps are designed to become habit forming
Hijacked: Many phone apps are designed to become habit forming
Chris Flack, founder of Unplug.ie Photo: Martin Maher
John Meagher

John Meagher

Every Friday afternoon, hordes of stressed out Millennials travel to peaceful Co Westmeath for a weekend retreat. But this is no ordinary minibreak. They have come to Grouse Lodge to detox from technology and to learn how best to live lives that are not utterly dependent on smartphones, tablets and laptops.

It is the brainchild of a company called unplug.ie and there's significant demand - and not just from professional couples and families: corporate Ireland is using their services to help employees who feel overwhelmed by information overload and the sense of always being 'on'.

Such a retreat would have made no sense in August 1991, when the notion of an 'internet' was understood by only a small proportion of tech enthusiasts. Although the net, in an exceptionally crude form, had existed since the 1960s, it was the preserve of agencies like the Pentagon and selected universities. It had no impact on our everyday lives and the closest the man or woman on the street might have come to the concept was in an item on the BBC future science programme, Tomorrow's World.

But that summer 25 years ago marked the beginning of something that would change our lives forever. On August 6, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee published a short summary of a project he called the World Wide Web and the internet as we understand it today was born.

As one of the most visionary scientists working at the Cern research facility in Switzerland, Berners-Lee did his utmost to help the public understand just how far-reaching the web could be, but even he could hardly have envisaged how transformative it has been. It is difficult to think of any aspect of our lives that has not been touched by the internet and something that not so long ago felt strange and novel is now so engrained in our worlds that we hardly give it any thought. It's as fundamental to our being, seemingly, as the air we breathe.

Chris Flack believes the web has been a source of extraordinary good, something that has enriched our lives and helped educate us. But he is adamant that many of us have simply become too attached to our phones, to social media, to 24-hour breaking news and to apps that are designed to hook us. It was this belief that encouraged him to co-found unplug.ie and the response he's seen has convinced him that such a service is necessary.

"The internet is with us everywhere, all the time," he says. "The arrival of the smartphone seven or eight years ago has made sure of that. Now, many people find it impossible to shut it off. They feel they always have to be contactable and they're bombarded with information, much of which is of no use to them whatsoever."

Flack used to be one of them -constantly checking social media and emails and being interrupted by notifications, WhatsApp messages and texts. Now, he rations his use carefully - limiting himself to a strict half-hour for social media every weekday - and deliberately turning off his phone for stretches of time. They are small steps, he says, but they have helped greatly improve the quality of his life. There's very little mindless browsing any more.

There are three steps in the unplug.ie programme, according to Flack. First up, 'Awareness' - becoming conscious of something that's not normal, and that might involve taking a long hard look at the amount of time we spend online. "The true extent of the time," Flack argues, "would probably shock most people."

Secondly, 'Filter' - deciding what we want to browse. The issue isn't information overload, he says, it's learning to prioritise the stuff that's important. Lastly, 'Focus' - being mindful about the time we spend online and the quality of our interactions on it.

Simple procedures, such as switching off social media notifications, or using an app which temporarily converts a smartphone into a 'dumb phone', can free up time and help us live in the real world.

"There has to be a societal change too," he says. "We have to try to get away from the idea that we should be contactable all the time." Many modern workplaces have created a culture where employees feel they must always be at the end of an email, but Flack points out that some companies are actively trying to ensure that their staff can switch off when they leave the office. "Volkswagen have a policy of not emailing employees between 6.30pm and 8.30am which makes it far easier for them to 'unplug'."

Joanna Fortune, a clinical psychotherapist specialising in child and adolescent counselling, believes the unplug sentiment is just applicable to today's children as it is to adults. "While nobody could dispute how much we've all benefited from the internet, I am concerned that young people in particular are connecting with others in a way that is increasingly virtual and decreasingly real," she says. "There's so much talk that we're all more connected than ever, but the quality of human relationships have been diminished. And it's not just children: so many of the relations that adults have are with people on social media whom they will never actually meet."

Fortune saw for herself the allure of the virtual world on a recent holiday to the US. "I was in the Natural History Museum of Chicago and they've got one of the largest skeletons of a dinosaur anywhere in the world but I saw a two-year-old child who wasn't interested in it and just wanted to browse on an iPad." The skeleton may have dated from Jurassic times, but for this child it couldn't compete with the CGI-version he might have been familiar with.

"Then, elsewhere in the city," she says, "I was mesmerised by the sights but you had people who were missing what was real around them because they were favouring imaginary Pokémon on their phone screens."

It's impossible to know if this augmented reality game will be simply a fleeting sensation or something that's here to stay, but for Joanna Fortune it's yet another example of the erosion of real, inter-personal contact. "I find the justifications that Pokémon gets the kids outside utterly bizarre," she says.

"It's another thing that has helped us lose the value of the idea of 'me in the now'. Rather than be fully engaged in something, we're addled by distractions and young children are seeing this too. Is it any wonder that from a young age they can seem so easily distracted and hard to please? They're often not getting the sort of engagement they need from their parents because those same parents are too engrossed with their phones or tablets."

And there's a good reason they are glued to their phones. Some of the most commonly used apps today have virtually hijacked them, according to ex-Google executive Tristan Harris, who argues that app designers "play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention".

Harris, founder of Time Well Spent, says: "Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make "free" choices, while we ignore how those choices are manipulated upstream by menus we didn't choose in the first place. This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose."

Anyone who might consider Harris's words to be fanciful, should consider Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Israeli-American web-designer Nir Eyal. According to Eyal's official website, the book is "a guide to building habit-forming technology, written for product managers, designers, marketers, and start-up founders to provide practical insights to create habits that stick; actionable steps for building products people love and can't put down and behavioural techniques used by Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and others."

"It's virtually impossible, for instance, to leave Facebook," Chris Flack says, "because you'll keep getting notifications about which friend liked a picture and so on." Twelve years ago, Facebook didn't exist: now 60pc of Irish adults have a Facebook account, while two-thirds of those engage with it every single day.

Joanna Fortune also felt she had let the internet impinge too much on her life and has reaped the benefits of taking decisive action. She tries to stick to a no-internet rule in the hours before bed and when she went on a two-week holiday, she switched off email notifications. "People feel they can't do without it, but of course they can. It becomes self-perpetuating, this idea that we need to be switched on all the time, but there's rarely anything that's so important that it can't wait.

"And we need to go back to living in the moment, to enjoy a concert in real-time rather than watching it through the screens of our phones. Of course, one of the underlying messages of taking all those photos and posting them on social media is to show how 'with it' we are, that we're doing something to make others envious. And yet, we're missing out because we're not truly in the moment."

Her message is stark: "We're running to stand still."

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