On excessive digital consumption

Many people today are talking about how uncomfortable they feel about their dependence on devices, and more specifically the content they consume via their devices. Whilst this theme is certainly well established, I have observed very few experimenting with ways of adapting to this trend in a positive manner.

What is interesting is how, in a market where devices are sold on the basis of how they can be depended upon to provide a solution to our needs (and they do), it is often an entirely different kind of dependency which emerges as the dominant factor in our relationship with our devices. Specifically we are using our devices to medicate boredom and anxiety, and later choosing feeds over friends once the dependency has been established. This is not a healthy dependency, in many circumstances probably as undesirable as the long term use of alcohol or recreational drugs for the treatment of these states of mind. Like drugs and alcohol it probably doesn’t feel like a problem until it is too late. But unlike drugs or alcohol, the consequences are less direct, more emergent.

Our devices have quietly inserted themselves into our lines of communication with friends and social circles, into the time and space which we spend with our friends, and thus into the fabric of our relationships. And they are so effective at entertaining, and at incentivising further consumption, that unassuming victims begin to choose, consciously or unconsciously, their devices over their relationships. Think of the husband on the sofa, scrolling through twitter rather than acknowledging his wife’s needs, or the teenage girl, one of many looking at each other only through the lens (literal or otherwise) of what might make a popular post on snapchat or instagram.

As our minds adapt to the growing strength of each hit, so the systems evolve new means to keep us engaged, and in a zero-sum game, our attention on people and relationships slips away, slowly at first, but the snowball is gaining momentum.

For me, the time has come to acknowledge this phenomenon and act. My children deserve my undivided attention, my wife deserves the best of me, and my relationships with wider family and social circles would benefit far more from a phone call than from a rushed WhatsApp message. And so I’m running an experiment. I will switch to a feature phone for a month or so. I’ve selected a device with enough features to ensure the impact on my ability to do my job is not impacted, but with enough compromises in user experience to be an undesirable channel through which to consume, regardless of its theoretical capabilities.

This experiment requires concessions, but I had in mind some capabilities which would help me strike the right balance between convenience and addictive consumption. On my list of considerations were:

  • No qwerty keyboard – if I really need to type, I can take the time to pull out an ipad or laptop
  • Small screen – if the phone happens to have a twitter app, let’s make sure it’s a crappy experience
  • 4G with hotspot capabilities so I can continue to work remotely from my ipad
  • Basic maps so I can navigate if I’m in a tough spot
  • MP3 player and bluetooth – I can live without Twitter, but not without Bill Evans…

Some concerns I have going in to this experiment are around the ways in which a mobile phone has become so convenient for tasks which aren’t about consumption. For example, I use my phone to manage task lists, to write stubs of blog posts, to take and edit photos, to manage and respond to emails, to pay using Apple Pay, to manage bank accounts and make payments, to hire electric scooters, to study on Coursera or Memrise, to plan routes on public transport, to hire cars… The list of what I am likely to miss is endless, and that is part of the problem.

My hope is that, with a handy partner device (the ipad on which I am writing this post), I will be able to enjoy enough of the convenience of this long list of capabilities without the excessive convenience which so easily leads to a slip in to mindless consumption. Because it leaves me numb, burns my time and feeds my anxiety, and that ain’t good.

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