The challenge of finding fulfilment in an age of digital distraction

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By Yelena Gaufman, Strategy Partner

I wrote half this post with my phone on the desk, and half with my phone in my drawer. Can you guess which was written more quickly?

The fact is, we can’t ignore the promise of a new notification, or on the other hand the uncertainty of a blank screen (surely there’s something waiting for me in there?). We tap. We check in. One more time. Just in case.

Whether it’s feeling a phantom buzz in our pocket or the reflex to Google things we know to be true, most of us can relate to feeling not just connected to but increasingly dependent on smart devices and the services they provide.

For a long time we’ve accepted these things as par for the course in today’s world, but increasingly we’re learning that these might be symptoms of a damaging trend.

Now, a movement to shield us from the negative effects of this ever-connected world is building steam. Scroll-free September is well underway, with participants motivated to spend less time on-screen by a raft of findings measuring the impact of tech – socially (restriction of informed debate by online filter bubbles), mentally (social media use linked with increased anxiety and depression), physically (increased rates of near-sightedness blamed on a proliferation of small screens) and emotionally (last week, addiction to Fortnite was cited as a significant reason for divorce).

This month Ofcom added its latest findings to a growing pile of evidence to show we’re becoming less enamored with our digital lives.

In particular, its survey found 79% of UK adult internet users have concerns about going online which include privacy, security, harassment and content. Overall, 66% of respondents were concerned specifically about the quality and intent of online content, with disinformation, pornography, violent material and terrorist propaganda all cited as major concerns.

It seems not only do devices and platforms cause us problems, but some of the content we find through them isn’t doing us much good either.

It sounds like switching off, disconnecting and logging out for good is the only way out. But is that true?

The mounting body of evidence against digital technology could, perhaps, trigger a pendulum-swing of social attitudes towards a digital detox. But I believe this would be short lived; we know that there is great value in connectivity, smart devices and the services they provide us.

There’s no question we need to readjust and find balance in our lives, not just away from tech but in the course of our tech usage.

For me, the big question is: what services could survive a readjustment of our digital priorities?

Those apps which must decline are those that propagate addictive effects, described by Tristan Harris (ex-Googler, now digital campaigner) as: constant visual stimulation, a never-ending wave of on-screen notifications and random reinforcement mechanics which apps and devices use to keep us hooked. The same elements which lead me to believe my phone has a new notification every two minutes.

On the other hand, tech which rewards us meaningfully for our time spent with them should be flourishing.

So, where are they?

The Center for Humane Technology, Harris’ non-profit organisation driving the burgeoning ‘Time Well Spent’ movement, conducted research to understand which apps a survey of 200,000 iPhone users found to make them most and least happy, and how much time was spent on them each day.

No surprise that utility-driven apps like calendars, weather forecasts and maps top the happiness list: we open them for a job to be done and our needs are fulfilled simply and quickly by the experience they offer. By the same stroke, of course the apps which leave us most unhappy are those which suck up loads of time to achieve very little – endless puzzle games and infinite social feeds in particular.

More interesting – and heartening – is to look at the green column and find platforms for enrichment among the utilities. Those include apps like Headspace which allow us to mentally declutter, but also services for immersing ourselves in thoughtful material through music, literature and discourse on podcasts, reading apps and streaming services.

Yet even these apps occupy a relatively small proportion of our time compared to the most unfulfilling experiences out there. Audible was the ‘happiest’ content provider on the list, yet time spent with it was a fraction of that spent on the unhappiest apps in CHT’s study.

The fact is bad apps dominate the tech conversation – whether they’re advertising proactively or taking a beating for their effects on users. The apps we should be using more of aren’t nearly so vocal.

Our latest campaign for Audible, ‘Mindful Moments’, seeks to redress this imbalance, by tackling mindless tech head-on. Because why should users feel compelled to scroll, swipe and tap their precious time away when they could find themselves not only entertained but also enriched by taking in a great book?

We hatched a campaign to turn all this anti-tech momentum into a positive message – to remind audiences that there is an alternative to that list of unhappy apps. That our time can be well spent with tech without the side-effects.

Because as we become more aware of the side-effects of online life, and find more ways to shield ourselves from it, we risk stripping all the great stuff out too. The vibrant social networks, the quality content and the immediacy of everything can all add a great deal to our lives if the right platforms provide it.

A life without tech isn’t the answer, but if the worst platforms out there dominate the conversation we risk heading that way. Instead, worthwhile and humane tech platforms must speak up to state their case and stand against their mindless cousins to promote the balance we need.

This article first featured in The Drum

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