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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- This is a constant arms race: “today’s weaponized attention is tomorrow’s ghost ad.”
- 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.