Taking a Digital Holiday: Are We Digital Natives or Addicts?

Shattered Smartphone (image by robertnelson, CC, Flickr)Seeing the shattered surface on your smartphone begin to fade (mine started going a dark blue) before finally giving up is usually an event punctuated with profanity.  At first you find yourself wondering how you’re going to keep track of work commitments, or what you’re going to do when commuting on the bus or waiting for a friend who consistently arrives fifteen minutes late.

Of course, the phone is covered for accidental damage and could be replaced very easily – and yet, here we are six weeks later and I still haven’t gone through the process of getting a new one.  That’s partly down to my own capacity for laziness, but it’s also because a new sense of freedom quickly replaced the remorse of losing a synthetic friend.

Interestingly for a futurist, a category who self-identify as technological visionaries (I use the term very loosely), I feel no pressing desire to replace my smartphone.  Instead I carry with me an old reliable object of utility that has been neglected for the past decade, a strangely comforting collection of syllables that point towards easier times: No-ki-a.  The first thing I noticed was how well it actually works as a phone.  Turns out older models used to be really good at being phones, an art form we’ve lost somewhere along the way.

The next thing I noticed was that within days I found myself less stressed, less distracted, and for a short period of time entered a kind of blissful state where I floated through a sea of other people constantly using smartphones.  Free from the hypnotic hold they have over us I felt almost ethereal, suddenly noticing just how prevalent these little black rectangles are in the hands of others.  I swear my posture even improved almost immediately as I no longer had a reason to hunch over at every possible opportunity to check my work email or social media streams.

Okay, maybe that last one is an exaggeration – but the truth is that the line between my professional obligations and personal life was blurring to the point of non-existence, and rediscovering the ability to detach myself from the constant demands of accessible information certainly has contributed to a far happier and content state of mind.  It’s noticeable, and I like it.

But does this make me a hypocrite?  As someone who gets giddy over announcements of smartwatches or augmented reality glasses, could I really turn my back that easily on one of the most positively influential human/technology interfaces that humanity has ever seen?  I’ve often taken up the cause of the Digital Native, those who have grown up in the rapidly advancing world of modern technology where the question ‘do you think you spend too much time on that thing?’ seems like a quaint throwback to VHS and rotary telephones.

We hear the criticisms that social media is no match to the true value of face-to-face relationships and undermines our privacy; the arguments that our attention spans are getting shorter because of our reliance on instantly accessible information and bite-sized content; the decrying of how our ability to relate properly to one another sexually is being undermined by the prevalence of pornography, with its bluntly articulated (often degrading) visual language of gender roles.  Every optimistic discussion on our digital lives is met with a terse, critical statement of how we are losing sight of what it means to be an empathic, caring society.

I’m always ready to argue that we can’t place such a narrow definition on human expression and activity but must instead try to embrace this newfound capacity to adapt as individuals in a rapidly changing social context.  That to dismiss this transitional period as detrimental to the core of our being is to over-sentimentalise our way out of recognising flaws that have always been prevalent in the human condition.  Socrates was famously critical of the written word, arguing in the fifth century BCE that it led to the kinds of detrimental impacts to memory, communication and wisdom that we are used to hearing about our modern technologies today.

At the very least, we must admit that a fundamental change has occurred and there’s not very much we can do about it but try to craft an identity out of the exponential variety of ingredients that seeks to place creative goodness at its centre.  Utilising the hyper-connectivity of our world to hopefully influence others to do the same.  I’m a utopian at heart, a shameless optimist that recognises the dangers we face but believes wholeheartedly that we can overcome them with little more than the right frame of mind.  This blog is all about a future conscience, after-all.

So why does it feel so good to be taking a smartphone holiday?  Maybe I should extend it to the many other forms of digital technology in my life and get rid of them all…simplify things to the point where a rush of calming serenity floods my being with the tranquil stillness of an ashram in Spring.  This kind of asceticism has little appeal, however, because I am a firm believer that true spirituality engages with the world.  Works with the tools and modes of being that we are gifted with, and does not seek to dismiss the new as out of place; as an unnatural abomination that can only serve to corrupt us.  Everything is an expression of natural processes, and we must learn to relate to the modern world as such and therefore bring the appropriate degree of mindfulness to the ongoing conversation on what it means to be human.

Binaural Man (image by digitalbob8, CC, Flickr)It was quite clear that I had become habitual in my smartphone use over and beyond its capacity to enhance my lifestyle, mindless in my use that allowed impulsive behaviour patterns to lead the way.  I was a digital addict, and my paraphernalia of choice was manufactured by Samsung working in tandem with those Android peddlers over at Google.  In the days and weeks after (accidentally) placing myself in rehab, I would reach for my breast pocket impulsively – surprising myself with just how frequently this would happen.  You start to notice these things far more often when there’s nothing there for your hand to grasp hold of…and therefore no valid, conscious reason for me to be doing the action in the first place.

I had lost all sense of digital discipline, a slave to my emails and their call for professional perfectionism; an addict seeking the next hit of validation with those bright red indicators of Facebook popularity; a vain narcissist who felt that if there weren’t photos then the event never happened, because life is real only when others can be shown how much fun you are having.

So my accident became a digital holiday – or, more accurately, a smartphone holiday.  I’ve got no desire at this point to take up my habit again.  It takes more than six weeks to truly break an addiction, and I need to admit to the fact that an addiction it truly was.  Which brings me back to our digital natives – a term which seemingly has a limited shelf-life as it quickly becomes the norm.  Are those who grew up with smartphones in their hands (they sell toy versions for 6 months and up) addicts?  Are you addicted to your car?  Or your dishwasher?  Those are probably trite examples, to be sure, but it’s obvious to say that we can use a tool all the time without it being detrimental to our wellbeing.  One key indicator is anxiety, and the capacity to honestly assess how our digital interfaces contribute to (or alleviate – videogames, anyone?) our levels of stress and concern over often trivial aspects of our lives is a skill that we need to collectively learn.

It’s worth taking a digital holiday, maybe even a series of holidays that isolate different items (scientific method, yay!) one at a time to better judge the impact each one is having on your daily routine and how you formulate your sense of identity.  We might not have been raised as such, but most of us are digital natives now and we need to learn to proactively explore what that means.  Developing our ability to identify and correct those areas in which these fantastic new tools of human expression and development overcome our autonomy and creative potential.

The impetus for taking a digital holiday might come accidentally or through circumstance, or it might be a decision you actively make.  In the best of worlds, it will be a bit of both – because we are infinitely capable of overlooking those aspects of our lives which are causing us the most grief.  Just as we are equally prone to forget to appreciate the miraculous and beautiful expressions of the human condition that inspire and sustain us, and that our digital world can help manifest in new ways.

Both sides of this coin are as valid for the digital landscape we have found ourselves in as they are for anything else.  Which is why it’s so important that we learn to read the language of this landscape, to take a step back and listen to the messages it is sending us about ourselves and the way we are evolving as a species in an infinitely expressive universe.

estupid ego (image by !unite, Flickr, CC)Taking a digital holiday of your own is a worthy excursion if only to see what happens, because when you return it is likely to be the brighter path that catches your eye.  The harbingers of happiness and contentment become more clear, making it easier to follow through with the obvious realisation that the most important steps any of us can take are those that follow such brightness and allow it to feed into who we are.

Digital or not, anything that can encourage a greater degree of clarity is worth pursuing.  So if the opportunity arises – for whatever reason – make sure to enjoy that holiday and see what insight awaits for you upon your return.


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