We’ve all been encouraged to ‘get off our screens’ in a while. Many articles on the Internet (ironically) have echoed the sentiment of putting your phone down and connecting with others in real life; many more encourage you to do so for the sake of productivity. Furthermore, Apple has released Screen Time for users to track and monitor their own phone use. With everyone pushing for digital wellness, it’s important to have a conversation about the goals of balancing our time online.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that 77% of Americans owned a smartphone. The magnitude of smartphones around us is undeniable; we need them in our professional and personal lives. Smartphones can be like a personal assistant of sorts; they help us to connect with our bosses and friends, they keep track of our appointments and plans (and remind us, if need be), and they help us find what we need on the Internet. Not to mention it’s one of the main ways we connect with our loved ones, especially those who live far away from us. Smartphones also serve as music players, step trackers, and alarm clocks; in short, smartphones are now an integral part of our day-to-day activities.
A way of life
That’s where digital wellness comes in. A paper from IGI Global defines it as “a way of life, while using technology, that promotes optimal health and well-being in which body, mind, and spirit are integrated by the individual to live more fully within the human, natural, and digital communities.” Many articles have mostly focused on the fact that social media is disruptive towards one’s self-esteem and wellbeing; even universities such as the University of Washington has set up a Digital Wellness 101 webpage in an effort to spread awareness on how to live a more balanced life alongside our technology.
Much of the focus on digital wellness is centered around mindfulness and spending less of our time on our phones. For the latter, productivity is emphasized as the overarching goal; for professionals, it meant increasing productivity and concentration at work, while productivity may manifest in ‘useful’ activities such as working out, socializing offline, or finishing things off our to-do list in our personal lives. However, much of the rhetoric centered around our digital wellbeing reinforces the idea that our time is worth money, and that our productivity is the be-all and end-all of our endeavours towards wellness, digital or not.
In a 2017 talk, artist Jenny Odell proposed an alternative approach towards digital wellness:
There are certain people who would like to use technology to escape their own mortality. Ironically, this desire is a perfect illustration of the death drive from the Maintenance Manifesto (“separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path — do your own thing; dynamic change”). To such people I propose that a far more parsimonious way to live forever is to exit the trajectory of productive time, so that a single moment might open almost to infinity. As John Muir once said, “Longest is the life that contains the largest amount of time-effacing enjoyment.”
Her proposal of eschewing productivity for doing nothing is, frankly, unheard of. With every emphasis upon working towards productivity during our time offline, Odell introduces an opportunity to slow down and do something that we enjoy, instead of something that would be productive for us. In her book, she further elaborates this as part of the “attention economy” where social media companies compete for our attention; this attention is then further monetized into engagement rates and advertisements for us to see and pay attention to. To refuse to fill our waking moments in life with productivity is an extension of refusing to engage with the attention economy; as a result, we would feel less attached to our smartphone (and social media).
None of these solutions require one to completely forswear our smartphones
Nonetheless, it’s important to note that none of these solutions require one to completely forswear our smartphones. There’s no use in denying how impactful technology can be when it comes to our careers and our lives. Regardless, it’s time to look at why and how we use our smartphones more than we’re supposed to, and to hold discussions around what digital wellness strives for.
Cover: Unsplash/Giles Lambert / Final Editor: Fabian Bais