The anxiety of the inbox

When communication is constant and ubiquitous, switching off becomes more and more difficult – with potentially dire consequences for our mental health.

Like every knowledge worker, I’m a slave to my inboxes, and I have a few of them now:

  • Email. I have three accounts, one theoretically for work and two for personal stuff, but people who want to contact me rarely bother to make the distinction.
  • Social media. For some reason, the Silicon Valley tech wizards have seen it fit to put a messaging system in every single social network. This means that if you just signed up to a new social platform, your number of inboxes is now n+1.
  • Slack. Slack was invented to solve the problems of email, yet somehow it’s ended up being yet another collection of inboxes.
  • Trello. Colleagues can and will @ you on Trello too, and assign work tasks to you on there. This can be more efficient and less intrusive than email, but it’s still another inbox.

Taking all of these into account, I have about a dozen inboxes where people can and do contact me as often as they want. Most of these inboxes are open to the public. Of course, there are even more ways for people to grab me if they want to: phone, text message, snail mail.

The volume of communication aimed in my direction every day is a bit insane, when you stop to think about it – and I’m by no means Mr Popular. I go through quiet spells just like everyone else, and much of my work can be carried out with minimal communication for lengthy periods. I’m very average. This is not a boast about how busy I am, and it certainly isn’t a criticism of any of my clients or colleagues, most of whom are concise and considerate when it comes to emails.

We can never truly escape. Email never ends. Twitter is bottomless

Nevertheless, I have to deal with hundreds of individual communications in the average day, and most are completely pointless. For every email from a client or colleague discussing a worthwhile task, there could be 10 fishing expeditions from SEO ‘experts’, 5 press releases from brands trying to trick me into giving them free publicity, a similar number of collaboration requests from people who just want to churn out machine-optimised content of no value to anyone, and maybe 10 blatant ads. That’s not even counting the spam folder.

I delete most emails without doing more than skimming them, because otherwise I’d never get anything done.

On Twitter, it’s much worse. I manage one account that regularly gets as many as a thousand notifications a day. Every time I log in, I see the notification counter maxed out at 99+ in attention-grabbing crimson. I’d estimate that no more than 1 or 2 per cent of these communications are of value, relevance or interest, but the rest have to be waded through anyway. Fortunately direct messages on Twitter are a lot less frequent, but don’t be fooled – your @ replies list is an inbox too.

Notifications are not the answer

Smartphone notifications were supposed to make sense of all this, but switching on notifications for any of these inboxes feels a bit like thousands of needles being continuously fired into my brain. I switched them all off in 2014. Even back then, when work was pretty quiet, I found smartphone notifications a cruel and unusual form of punishment that annihilated any pretence at a work/life balance. Today I would find them intolerable; I suspect it’s no exaggeration to say that they would take years from my lifespan.

Our technological surroundings are designed to disrupt and confuse the linear mind, not nurture it

Notifications on your smartphone take the messages from all your other inboxes and put them in an uber-inbox that you carry along with you everywhere and never switch off. It constantly pings and chirps, interrupting what you’re doing and incrementally wrecking your attention span, creating false urgency for messages that are mostly irrelevant. No – smartphone notifications are not the answer, and will only make the problem significantly worse for most people who struggle with this.

What is the problem, really? The sheer volume of incoming communications might be easier to deal with if an escape were possible. Maybe that’s at the heart of it: we can never truly escape. Email never ends. Twitter is bottomless. Messages, demands, pitches and everything else continue to accumulate whether we’re looking at them or not, and they’re always just a tap or two away because software developers believe that everything should be efficient and easily accessible at all times, whether or not this is what our fallible human nature wants or even needs.

The email monster

We all have different ways of dealing with this, of course. Some of us try to partition email into specific timeslots with varying degrees of success; I usually fail at this because unread emails whose subject lines I have glimpsed will fester at the back of my mind for hours, contaminating my ability to focus on whatever it is I’m supposed to be getting on with (which almost certainly has nothing to do with email).

There are blocking apps that can work well, but require reserves of willpower and discipline that the harried and stressed worker, fighting to regain concentration, can’t always muster. There’s always the prospect of missing that truly important email that can’t wait, because an email that isn’t replied to in a timely fashion gets buried and forgotten about (one of the side effects of instant, effortless and free communication). There’s also the dopamine addiction cycle, which taints our inboxes as surely as it does our Facebook account.

At one point or another, most of us fall into the trap of monitoring our various inboxes semi-continuously, bouncing from one to the other, replying to messages as they come in (and hence training others to expect instant responses), unable to focus on anything of value and ending the day with a gnawing, buzzing sensation of restless tension and incompleteness.

Technology was meant to reduce our working hours but has only extended them indefinitely

That’s me on my worst days: overwhelmed by the tide of incoming communications, and even if most are soon deleted, I have to waste precious, finite mental energy deciding what to do with each one. It’s exhausting and a complete waste of time. It shatters my ability to concentrate on the skilled work that actually pays the bills: writing and editing, tasks that require long periods of intense, unbroken focus. Such a flow state is impossible to achieve under the oppressive glare of a rapidly filling inbox. Our technological surroundings are designed to disrupt and confuse the linear mind, not nurture it.

On my better days, I spend ten minutes reading and replying to email first thing in the morning while I’m composing my task list, I’ll check it again after lunch, and maybe once more before finishing work. On the good days, I have the energy to resist and find the focus I need. But it’s hard, and human nature is weak; after a few days of discipline, all it often takes is some unrelated stressor to break those defences down and leave my attention in bits again. I go through phases of being more and less able to cope with this.

A repetitive strain injury of the mind

I can only think or care about so many things in a day. The internet is infinite but the mind is not. I’m convinced that we simply aren’t capable of working at our best under such conditions – that easy communication via multiple inboxes is a curse, not a blessing, acting against our best interests and stifling our ability to perform work of real value.

My inboxes contribute to the constant anxiety I feel when online. It’s a low-key anxiety that with hindsight I now know that I’ve felt for around 15 years, but over the last couple of years it has begun to assert itself more strongly, and I’ve been able to recognise it for what it is. Matt Haig’s ‘repetitive strain injury of the mind’ is very real.

Is there a solution? I don’t know. I am actively trying to reduce the number of ways in which people can contact me. Maybe in an ideal world email would be rationed, by invitation only, or social media wouldn’t exist, but the true underlying cause is simply the overloaded and overwhelming nature of modern life. We all have to do so much more, and so much more quickly. Technology was meant to reduce our working hours but has only extended them beyond all limits. As David Graeber writes in ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant’, ‘technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.’

Slack isn’t the answer to fixing email. Slack is just another inbox. The problem is that everyone wants to contact you all the time, and you can’t get away from it for long. The problem is that communication is free and easy and therefore worthless.

How people react to this pressure depends on the individual and their role. I suspect most of us think we’re fine with it, even feel quite capable of handling the pressure much of the time. On the rough days, we convince ourselves that everyone else is dealing with it so we should just get our shit together – until stress, overwork, or one pointless email too many tips the scale too far in the wrong direction, and we realise that email, Twitter and all the rest are having a negative effect on our mental health. Maybe even our competence at doing the thing we’re supposed to be doing.

Most micro-communications are pointless and unnecessary. We can only accomplish a few tasks of real value in a day. I am convinced that most of us would be better able to face these tasks if we weren’t constantly pestered by trivia and irrelevant demands or queries.

So I’m afraid I don’t have any real answers, but if you find your inbox overwhelming and wish it would all just go away, you’re not alone.

Resistance is futile

Why think for yourself when a machine can do it for you? That’s the message being pushed by mobile network ads in 2018.

Here in the UK, mobile networks are being advertised in a way that makes my skin crawl.

If you’re looking for evidence of a hypothetical ‘smartphone dystopia’, look no further than every time Martin Freeman pops up on your TV screen pushing Vodafone’s digital wares. While not all network ads are this bad (Giffgaff is taking a completely different approach, for example), I find the current campaigns of EE, Vodafone and Three downright obnoxious.

Let’s look at some examples.

EE

Of the three, Kevin Bacon’s EE ads are perhaps the least potentially harmful (albeit still cringeworthy). In this long-running series, actor Kevin Bacon encourages you to choose EE because you can consume more pointless digital stuff all the time and anywhere you want. ‘Consume more’ is a key message in most advertising, of course, but especially in mobile advertising, where – with a few exceptions – the products are framed almost exclusively as consumption platforms. EE’s ads are typical in that they try to convey a sense of breezy excitement in new technology, that by participating you’re joining something big.

EE actually stands for ‘Everything Everywhere’. If that’s not a direct command to consume I don’t know what is.

Vodafone

Vodafone’s current TV advertising campaign in the UK features actor Martin Freeman. Many of the earlier ads weren’t so bad – some were even a little charming. We saw the character’s girlfriend presenting him with a new phone, and another in which he was getting frustrated trying to ‘break up’ with his old network (but guess what, Vodafone has a cooling-off period!).

But I find the most recent Vodafone ad highly disturbing. Martin Freeman is on a commuter train packed with passengers watching videos on their phones. He tries to strike up conversations but is ignored; the expressions of those jacked in to the network become increasingly aggressive and hostile as Freeman’s character becomes more and more agitated. He soon discovers that everyone is watching the same show. Finally, he yells ‘What is wrong with you people?’ before turning away and cringing, as if realising that he is the only one not participating in this shared experience, facilitated – the implication goes – by Vodafone.

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But here’s the thing: this ad fails to communicate any of the positive aspects of smartphone use, instead focusing on the negative sides. The Vodafone users are depicted as mindless drones whose attention has been stolen by the passive consumption of content. None of them looks happy or calm. Most look distracted at best, or angry at worst. The attention-robbing nature of smartphones is emphasised by the fact that none of these people seem physically capable of tearing themselves away from the glowing rectangles in their hands. They look exactly like the junkies they are.

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This ad plays the peer pressure card big time: you are the only one not consuming this presumably gripping content, the ad’s message clearly says. Resistance is futile. It concludes with their cute little tagline, ‘The future is exciting’, but I don’t think this ad conveys any excitement whatsoever – only numb conformity.

Three

I’ve left the worst until last. Three UK has recently launched a campaign called #PhonesAreGood. This campaign is a direct attack against the current and growing humane technology counterculture.

The first ad (presumably of many) begins with a woman scrolling through headlines such as ‘Phones are bad’, ‘They’ll end humanity’, and ‘Life was better before phones’. She looks shocked and worried… but then her phone is sucked into a wormhole and zapped back through time so that Three can prove that phones would have solved all of humanity’s problems throughout history.

We see the Titanic saved by a data readout on the smartphone’s display (‘Phones 1, haters 0’, apparently), Eve ignoring the serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden because she’s scrolling through pictures of Adam on Instagram, Henry VIII using Tinder (‘Phones save wives’), and a starving band of Neanderthals ordering a pizza with a tap. Moses divides the Red Sea while a follower videos it.

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Finally, the hashtag #PhonesAreGod appears for a split second before changing to #PhonesAreGood.

I find this advert troubling on several levels. Most importantly, it dismisses the growing mental health concerns regarding smartphones and social media in the most flippant manner possible. I get it – it’s supposed to be funny and cute, but this will only serve to make people who struggle with this stuff wonder if they’re the ones at fault, not the technology, when in fact the opposite is true.

You wouldn’t see an advert in 2018 glibly making fun of depression or anxiety, so why is this considered ok?

The ad presents a world in which human agency and ingenuity are worthless. Why think or do anything, Three says, when a smartphone can solve all your problems with a tap? This is even worse than the message of mindless consumption promoted by EE and Vodafone, because in Three’s world human beings are relegated to mere smartphone operators, slaves to the machine god. And while adults will have the necessary perspective to avoid taking that message literally, children and teenagers will be watching this. Is this a message we want to implant in young minds – that your intellect and creativity don’t matter?

On a deeper level, it’s even possible to argue that this message is an attack against humanity itself. Humans are messy and imperfect. We fail and we die – but these are priceless aspects of the human condition, things that make us who we are. Technology cannot eliminate failure or death. Would we want it to? And if it did, would we even be human any more? I can’t help but think a war is starting to be fought against our very humanity, and perhaps we’re seeing the first hints of it.

Resist

As the anti-Entanglement pushback gathers pace, mobile network ads are becoming more aggressive in their drive to further entangle and enslave us in the world of passive digital consumption. They use the age-old advertising tactics of peer pressure, technodazzle and the lolz to get us to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on stuff that we do not need (and, in most cases, had no idea we even wanted until it was shoved in front of our faces by Kevin Bacon). So far, so capitalism I guess – except that no object in the history of the world has the power to capture and mould attention like the smartphone.

The tactics being used in 2018 take things much, much further. They push an agenda of relentless, ever-increasing, unquestioning consumption

Years ago, when I worked for Carphone Warehouse, I came to believe that we were using unethical tactics to sell smartphones. Back in 2011–12, most of our customers did not want them; they wanted something inexpensive, familiar, and simple to use that did the basics (calls, text, and photos in those days). But smartphones were more profitable for us, and so we pushed our digital drugs, convincing people that they wanted email and Facebook in their pocket even if they did not need these things. During the ‘Walk Out Working’ period we even signed people up for new Google accounts during phone setup without taking the time to explain what consequences this would have for the rest of their lives. I didn’t know then what I know now, of course, but I look back on those years with shame.

The tactics being used in 2018 take things much, much further. They push an agenda of relentless, ever-increasing, unquestioning consumption. They teach us to stop thinking for ourselves because the machines know best. They want us to spend more and more on crap we do not need, solving problems that don’t exist. And most of all, they whisper in our ear that resistance is futile – that this is just the way the world is now, so get with the programme.

It’s time to resist.

Digital Wellness is a trap

Apple, Google et al. may present the appearance of caring about the mental health of their users with the current ‘digital wellness’ trend, but it’s a trap. Here’s why.

Here’s something I’ve come to realise lately: digital wellness has little to do with humane technology and everything to do with consumerism.

Like many things that have subsequently been assimilated by whatever flavour of consumerism they originally opposed, digital wellness began as an authentic counter-culture. Ever since computers have been in everyday use, people have been figuring out ways to stop them from butting in to their lives quite so much. As networked technology has expanded its sphere of influence into ever-increasing areas of our lives, people who found their productivity, creativity or happiness negatively affected have come up with new ways to cope:

  • Switching off notifications, either at certain times of day or entirely.
  • Not looking at emails or social media at evenings or weekends.
  • The so-called ‘digital detox’: self-enforced periods without networked technology.
  • Experimenting with going back to dumbphones again.
  • Quitting social media altogether, or (perhaps more commonly) quitting one or two platforms while remaining active on others.
  • Etc.

This counter-culture against the negative aspects of the Entanglement has grown rapidly. There are now many books, podcasts, blogs, and – ironically – social media channels devoted to it. And here’s the thing about authentic trends: they’re highly marketable. Witness the hipster aesthetic that seems to have infiltrated every coffee shop in the world. This example teaches us that not only is authenticity highly marketable, but the authenticity is destroyed when it’s assimilated by the market – and becomes just another tentacle of the octopus of consumerism (there’s an image for you). Perhaps more accurately, it becomes a simulacrum of its former authentic self, and people can’t always tell the difference.

Digital wellness may have started out as an authentic counter-culture, but its rapid adoption by the tech industry is just a way to make us even more dependent

You might be wondering how this relates to the anti-Entanglement counter-culture. I’ll tell you. We’re at the point where tech companies – especially Apple, Google, Facebook, and hardware manufacturers – have figured out how they can profit from this while trying to convince us they’re looking out for us.

It’s a trap. Digital wellness has been weaponised and is now part of the attention-harvesting infinity machine it originally opposed.

How the tech giants have adopted ‘digital wellness’

In 2018, both smartphone platforms introduced software updates with features ostensibly designed to put users back in control:

  • The iPhone has Screen Time. This looks great at first glance: it lets you track phone usage in great detail, set time limits for any app or website, and schedule downtime away from the screen.(1)
  • Android has Digital Wellbeing, which is pretty much the same thing.

Then there are all the lucrative hardware products on this particular bandwagon:

  • The Apple Watch. As well as a health platform, this is positioned as a device to free users from their phones. Recent models can even work on a cellular connection so you can leave your iPhone at home without being disconnected (think about that for a moment).
  • Modern dumbphones such as the Light Phone and the Nokia 3310 are expressly marketed as devices for people who want to escape from smartphones.
  • The new Palm phone takes this a step further – it’s positioned as a more minimal companion to your main phone, so that you can be a little bit less immersed and distracted from time to time… by spending time with a different phone. Again, think about that.(2)
  • You can even buy ‘distraction-free’ writing devices that claim to solve the problems of digital distraction on modern computers. Products such as the Freewrite pair a simple text editor with a high-quality keyboard, a monochrome screen, and more than a hint of hipster aesthetic.

The problem with all these would-be solutions is that they don’t cure the underlying disease. At best they apply a temporary sticking plaster, and at worst they’re just new and more evolved ways to harvest your attention or your cash.(3)

The nature of the trap

Let’s take a look at some of the examples above:

  • Screen Time can be useful in that it provides hard data on the extent of your smartphone use. However, if you feel there’s a problem and decide you want to cut back, you’ll soon find that Screen Time’s restrictions are laughably easy to bypass. Unlike genuinely useful desktop anti-distraction tools such as Self Control, which makes it impossible to circumvent restrictions, Screen Time’s warnings can be bypassed with a tap. And the distracted mind gets what the distracted mind wants. Don’t forget: this is a system that has been specifically designed to bypass your willpower.
  • All the Apple Watch does is provide another, even more intrusive interface for the same stuff – yet another glowing screen to dick about with, only this one can literally tap you on your wrist when it wants your attention. Far from helping users to escape from their phones, the Watch will ensure that they can never escape (while conveniently opening up a new revenue stream for Apple).
  • Handsets positioned as modern dumbphones can be of benefit when used in certain ways. I have a 2017 Nokia 3310 in a drawer, and I sometimes use it for a few weeks or months when I feel the need. But let’s call these things what they are: they’re just crap smartphones beneath a thin veneer of digital wellness marketing to help convince a certain type of user to buy them. Virtually all of these devices can get online, and often have non-removable apps pre-installed such as Facebook, Twitter and even games. The one clear upside is that they’re so slow and difficult to use that going online is downright painful.
  • Devices such as the Freewrite don’t really solve the problems they claim to either. They can’t be used without cloud storage and a peripheral smartphone or PC to do something with your text files – they’re very much inside the system, not outside it. The original Freewrite doesn’t even have arrow keys, which proves this is not intended to be a serious writing tool. People need arrow keys when they compose digitally; I get that the whole point is to switch off the internal censor, but if you want to do that just use pen and paper and save yourself several hundred points.

It is not in the interests of tech companies to reduce the use of their products – and certainly not to do anything that investors could interpret as reducing demand for sales. Apple may claim otherwise, but think about it. They can only increase prices so far, and consumerism demands infinite growth. The conclusion here is obvious.

Simplifying and switching off will take you far – but you won’t see tech companies promoting this anti-consumerist message

Our reliance on networked digital technology is unprecedented, as is the growth of that technology. Tech companies are continually seeking to extract more value from their markets (us) and more data from their primary resource (also us). So when Google introduces a digital wellbeing tool or Palm launches a ‘companion phone’, ask yourself why. Is it a genuine move to help you break free from addictive technologies – and they’re addictive because they were designed to be – or is it a cynical, thinly veiled way to convert more of your time and attention into cash?

Digital wellness may have started out as an authentic counter-culture, but its rapid adoption by the tech industry is just a way to make us even more dependent. It will make us spend more money on hardware, it will entrench our positions within our tech ecosystem of choice, and it will soothe our wounds just enough to make us feel we’re doing ourselves some good – while in fact further enslaving us.

Digital wellness, as sold to us by tech companies, is part of the Entanglement.

So what can we do?

The Entanglement is all about increasing complexity and proliferating problems(4), so if you feel some aspects of your tech use are personally problematic, it’s a good idea to seek simplicity.

  • Switch on Screen Time by all means, but a better option is to delete apps you don’t need, deactivate all notifications, and switch the phone off completely from time to time. Do this while you still can; your next iPhone might not even have a power button.
  • Don’t buy an Apple Watch. You don’t need one. Nobody needs one. The only reason you’re thinking about buying one is that marketing has told you to do so.
  • Do not buy a secondary ‘companion phone’ (see above). If you want to buy a dumbphone, go into it with your eyes open – you might find that being without certain apps is a genuine disadvantage, and throwing money at the problem won’t solve it if you just displace the problematic activity to another device.
  • If participating in a certain social network or platform makes you unhappy, anxious or depressed, stop fannying about with content restrictions and scheduled downtime – delete your account. Not everyone can do this, of course. If your job relies on Twitter use then deleting your Twitter account would probably reduce your overall happiness (this is why you can still find me on Twitter!).
  • Distraction-free writing devices are a waste of time and money for most writers. You can improve your own computer by removing games and apps you don’t need, quitting your email program, and using a blocking app like Self Control. Going back to basics, nothing beats pen and paper. It may sound old fashioned but it’s actually close to perfect, and having to type it all up afterwards is a huge advantage because it gives you another chance to improve your prose. Fast writing does not always equal good writing.

In short, resisting the negative aspects of the Entanglement is something you can do without spending money. Simplifying and switching off will take you far – but you won’t see tech companies promoting this anti-consumerist message. So when Apple, Google or Facebook announces their next initiative to free us from our screens and help us ‘reconnect with what’s important’, look for the hidden agenda.


  1. I was originally quite enthusiastic about Screen Time based on my early experiences of it, but my opinion has since cooled. I‘ve also had more time to think and read about Apple’s approach to attention and device usage. My original claim that ‘Apple is not in the business of getting you to use your devices as much as possible’ doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
  2. Just look at it. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to Palm OS devices from previous decades, many of which were genuinely useful computing tools, and free from most of the problematic aspects of today’s technology.
  3. This is a constant arms race: “today’s weaponized attention is tomorrow’s ghost ad.”
  4. I have a working document that aims to build a definition for the Entanglement. It’s hazy at the moment, but the more I read the more I understand its scope.