The prophets of technology overload

We were warned!

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For the past year, we at Getaway have been doing a deep dive into the data on technology overload. What we have discovered has been disturbing.

Take your normal day: 16 hours of waking life. If you are an average American, you spend half of that day — eight hours — consuming digital media. For three of those eight hours, you are staring down at a smartphone screen. And these numbers are going up every year: we spend about one more hour per day staring at smartphone screens today then we did in 2012.

We are not just staring at screens — we are hypnotically switching from one screen to another. We check forty websites a day and switch applications 36 times an hour. We turn to our smartphones about 150 times a day, swiping open our lock screen every six minutes.

Our digital addiction is hurting our relationships: when phones are close by, we feel less connected to our loved ones, have shallower conversations, and become all-around worse people. It’s hurting our work: productivity-wise, research has shown that we are better off smoking pot before work than being inundated with distractions from our phone. It’s hurting our memory: since our brain stores memories when we take breaks from new stimuli, when we fill our breaks with social media feeds and cell phone games, we fail to store memories. And it’s hurting our health: digital age maladies are popping up everywhere, like screen apnea (not breathing while answering emails) and text neck (strain put on our neck muscles from staring down all the time).

Digital delirium’s canaries in the coal mine

Why did we let this happen? Most of us — myself included — were like the proverbial frogs in the boiling water: we did not notice or respond to how bad our addiction to screens was getting because it creeped up on us so slowly.

However, one of the most surprising findings of our digital deep dive has been that we were, in fact, warned…over a hundred and fifty years ago.

The first major warnings come in 1854 from Henry David Thoreau in his famous Walden. Could not this same excerpt be found in an essay on Twitter?:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.

Or this in one on smartphones?:

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.

Or this in one on the latest useless app?:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.

It was not just Thoreau sounding the alarm. The Wall Street titan and Congressman William E. Dodge gave the following remarks in an 1868 speech, which — read today, in the age of smartphones — is almost eerie:

“Reports of the principal markets of the world are published every day, and our customers are continually posted by telegram… The merchant goes home after a day of hard work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London… And the poor man must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send off his message… The businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump… he must use the telegraph.

Little did Thoreau or Dodge know how much worse “becoming the tool of our tools” or “being continually on the jump” could get!

Technology solving technology’s problems?

Fortunately, there might be hope for disconnection through technology, too.

Take Yondr for example. California entrepreneur Graham Dugoni has figured out a way to temporarily disconnect a space without having the entire space being always disconnected. He does it by providing venues with “disconnection in a box” … or, well, a bag. His Yondr product is a special, portable bag that you can lock cell phones in. When a venue wants to become its own Radio Quiet Zone, they can set up “Yondr locking stations” where attendees can lock up their phones in Yondr bags and carry the bags with them. That way, guests can hold onto their phones without being able to use them. When they want to leave, they can unlock their Yondr bags and get their phone back. Dugoni compares what Yondr does to venues to old-time smoking and nonsmoking sectioning: “if you’re waiting for a call from the babysitter, for instance, you’ll still feel your phone vibrate in your pocket and then you can step out into the phone-use area and unlock it.”

Celebrity performers have fallen in love with Yondr. Sick and tired of having their concerts being experienced through thousands of screens, they are signing up in droves to have Yondr de-phone their venues. Lumineers singer Wesley Schultz recently told The Washington Post: “it’s better than telling [fans] to leave their phones in their cars or forbidding it.”

Parents and teachers are excited by Yondr too. “They are worried about unbridled smartphone use and this can keep the integrity of the learning environment,” Dugoni told reporters. One teacher who uses Yondr reports that he hopes, “by separating something that’s primarily for their social life…it brings [students] more in the moment” during class.

Thoreau could see that some of our tools could make us their tools… but what he might not have seen is that some of our other tools could free us from them!

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