That initial enthusiasm, says Burke, has turned to weariness. Using technology is “kind of addictive, and it’s pleasurable for us, but I think a lot of us have gorged on it so much. I hear from a lot of people who are sick of Zoom calls and just want to actually have an experience properly again.”
In March and April, when the torrent of Covid-19 news was at its most vigorous and alarming, Burke spent Saturdays and Sundays offline. These days, she takes one day offline per week, and recommends that people working from home emulate her in turning their devices off at least an hour before bed.
“Looking at emails, scrolling through Twitter and checking a work document just before bedtime does not make for a restful night’s sleep!” She offers tips such as changing your device’s home screen to a picture of something you’d like to be doing if you had more time: the image might be you playing with your children, or you doing a form of exercise you find fulfilling.
She practices and prescribes something she calls “wait training” – gradually increasing the time you spend without your phone, working up from short walks to spans of several hours. If this sounds mad to you – if you think anyone should be capable of spending an afternoon without technology, let alone go for a short walk without your phone – think about how this ecosystem works.
Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are designed to hijack your attention. Their financial model, which requires users to see as many ads as possible, demands it. Their enormous resources enable it.
In his book Irresistible: Why You Are Addicted to Technology and How to Set Yourself Free, the psychologist Adam Alter describes a vast power asymmetry between those who create our communication and entertainment systems and those who use them.
“The people who create and refine tech, games and interactive experiences are very good at what they do. They run thousands of tests with millions of users to learn which tweaks work and which ones don’t – which background colours, fonts and audio tones maximise engagement and minimise frustration. As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponised version of the experience it once was.”
Whistleblowers such as Tristan Harris, Google coder turned design ethicist, have described smartphones as “slot machines”, which is an apt analogy given what the technologies have in common. There is a reason that social networks require you to swipe to update your feed, appealing to the same human taste for tactile cause-and-effect as a slot machine lever.
There is also a reason that social networks briefly withhold the notifications caused by people interacting with your posts, thus inducing anxiety in order to assuage it. There is a reason that likes, retweets and shares are publicly enumerated on every post: millions of years of evolution have made us as fearful of social rejection as we are of serious injury.
There is a reason the “like” button became universal: it is the most frictionless way imaginable to persuade social media users to hand over data and to bestow or withhold the approval we all crave. Different types of technology use different techniques. Netflix’s autoplay feature, now industry standard for video streaming, seems quaint when compared to the company’s investment in artificial intelligence that customises trailers to suit the tastes of individual viewers.
Games manufacturers have mastered the balance of difficulty and reward that most appeals to human minds. Email inboxes, by design or not, have become never-ending quests that, combined with our failure to emulate stricter continental norms against all-hours emailing, exert a terrible magnetism on our time and attention.
Nobody knows exactly how this bombardment affects a human brain, particularly a developing one, in the long term. We are living in a real-time experiment, and the speed of that experiment is picking up. As Alter writes, addictions arise when the brain learns to use a substance or behaviour as a salve for our psychological troubles. Think about the momentary states of mind that prompt you to check social media, email, and so on. Boredom? Anxiety?
The more you respond in this way, the more myelin builds up in the neural pathways that enable this activity. Over time, the behaviour becomes more automatic and less fulfilling. And speaking of boredom and anxiety, how would you describe your experience of the past few months? In all kinds of ways, the pandemic has created ideal conditions for technology to strengthen its grip on us.
Cal Newport aims to loosen that grip. “Now is the time to think about reclaiming focus,” he tells me over Zoom. Newport is an American computer scientist whose book, Digital Minimalism, outlines how its readers might reclaim their sanity and leisure time by stripping down their technology use to a mindful minimum. Naturally, he is hard to contact. I feel a frisson of guilt for asking him to sit in front of his computer for me.
The coming of autumn, he says, is a time “where you get your act together with work. And from a timeline perspective, we’re at a point in the pandemic where we’ve gone through the initial period of lockdown, not knowing what’s going on, to a more steady-state period.” Now that the early panic and chaos have subsided, says Newport, “it’s time for people to think, ‘OK, I need to shift to a new cognitive mode. How am I going to rebuild my life for what we’re going to face for the next six months and beyond?’ ”
Newport, whose advice for people working from home is below, now reads news only in the morning rather than grazing on stressful little gobbets all day long. He doesn’t use services such as Twitter and Instagram, but recommends that people who can’t get by without using them restrict their use to pre-scheduled periods on desktop computers rather than mobiles. He has maintained his habit of treating his phone, which has no social media apps, as a wired landline rather than a constant companion. Both of these are behaviours he recommends in the same way that Burke recommends “wait training”.