The first mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000x, was introduced to the market by Motorola in 1983. At $4,000 and weighing almost two pounds, the 8000x stored thirty phone numbers, gave users thirty minutes of talk time, and had eight hours of battery life. If you need a visual on this object of 1980s luxury, you need only imagine the brick Michael Douglas made oceanside threats into in his Oscar winning performance as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. “Money never sleeps,” he said. “The most valuable commodity I know of is information,” he said.
Much has changed in the last forty years of mobile technology, but Gordon’s truisms haven’t wavered—if anything, they are more deeply engrained and simultaneously normalized. The digital age has ushered in an endless “feed” (previously, an antidote to hunger) of information available at all times of day from a screen no bigger than an index card. Today, even the word “phone” is a misnomer. Like it or not, “digital appendages” may be a better term for the slim and complex computers that rarely leave our skin.
A Pew Research Center survey published in May of 2021 revealed that 31% of American adults say they are “almost constantly” online. Nomophobia, the fear of being separated from your mobile phone, is an actual medical diagnosis, as is “ringxiety” (the uncanny feeling that always, somewhere, your phone is ringing) and “technostress” (the stress of adapting to new technologies, and/or the overidentification with them).
Technological advancements have fundamentally altered human life across the globe, and there aren’t any signs of it slowing down. But—that’s not to say you can’t.
“If we have such an urgent need to block out the world,” writes Kyle Chayka in his book The Longing for Less, “something must be seriously wrong.” Chayka is reflecting on the growing popularity of digital detox events, recalling his experience at a weeklong tech-free retreat in rural Switzerland. “It culminated in a joyous epiphany one day…but all told it wasn’t an experience I would choose to repeat (too many mosquitoes), nor was it particularly convenient to drop out of the rest of my life in order to do it.”
Chayka is right to point out that the answer to a healthy relationship with technology (or anything) is not a binge and purge cycle. Detoxes and cleanses are great for abruptly interrupting undesired behaviors, but again, in their very name they imply that we are living with toxicity most of the time.
Instead of moving from one extreme to another, why not make the whole of everyday life better? Here are a few ideas in the spirit of equilibrium.
Less is more
- Bookend your day with one hour of tech-free time after waking up in the morning and before sleeping at night. Remember what an interval feels like.
- Leave your phone at home for short walks and bike rides, especially if you’re using the time to connect with your partner, kids, a friend, and certainly yourself!
- Make a concerted effort to stop phubbing the people you love. In an On Being podcast episode, host Krista Tippett interviewed acclaimed couple’s therapist Esther Perel. Perel didn’t address phubbing by name, but she did drop “ambiguous loss” (the grief of having physical presence with emotional absence) as a common affliction in contemporary partnerships. You don’t need a psych degree to see how that syncs up with said phubs.
- Hold fast the boundary between inspiration-seeking and consuming. What begins as an innocent dip into the feed to get ideas flowing can quickly stymy any and all creative energy. If you want to make something, make it. Make it new. Make it yours. Make it without the omnipresent algorithm.
- Consider adopting a weekly day of tech rest. You don’t have to be religious to benefit from a sabbath. If filling your time with non-virtual activities feels daunting (no judgement), check out the resources from Screen-Free Saturdays. Just don’t forget to print them out or write them down before the day begins!
- Don’t take your phone—and its accompanying threat vigilance—to bed with you. Sleeping is better, and waking up will be too. Right this way, please.
A few years ago, a friend told me human anatomy was evolving so that the C7 vertebrae at the base of the neck would soon (how soon?) become a horn—an extension of the skeleton to counterbalance the head-hung-low stance of our “almost constant” scrolling. The image of it chilled me, literally to my bones. Not surprisingly, we couldn’t trace my friend’s digital footprints back to whatever source on whatever site in the infinity to confirm if this hypothesis was anything more than unscientific sensationalism (i.e. the internet once again serving up the anxiety of a very clear and certain maybe??).
That it could be speculated was enough for me, seating something deeply unnerving that needed attention. With the scaffolding of global life completely reconstituted by technology, why do we expect to be unchanged? We are and will continue to be. But, we can always readjust our posture. Gordon Gekko was a villain, let him grow the horn.