Earlier this year, I went to Indonesia with my family. On arrival in the airport on Lombok, I turned my phone on and received the reassuring message from my provider to tell me that I could use my phone as per usual for an extra 5 bucks per day. And then, as our taxi drove out of the airport gates, my phone inexplicably lost signal, and did not reconnect again until we arrived back at the airport 2 weeks later. For a few days I’d traipse up any elevated place I could find, arm outstretched, offering my phone up to the heavens, but to no avail. Eventually I gave up and resigned myself to a state of disconnection. Urgent business was attended to via phone calls from borrowed phones and during frustratingly slow WiFi sessions in cafes, or relegated to non-urgent.
This is where I tell you how gloriously refreshing it was to be forced to disconnect for two weeks, and how you should all shun your phones, right? Wrong. It was highly frustrating. I had stuff to organise, plans to make, and a functional phone would have been very useful.
But, despite my frustration, I found that my anxiety levels were noticeably lower. That gnawing feeling that I should be productive, that I should just quickly check that everything is ok, dissipated. I couldn’t upload photos on social media, so I didn’t. Many moments were experienced, but not documented. I had time. Time to play with my kids, time for naps, time to read (yes, on my iPad), time to be non-distracted. No surprises there.
Two weeks after getting home and I’m fully hooked up, main-lining the world though the multiple devices more or less implanted in my brain. And I’m anxious. Irritable. Which makes me pick up my phone looking for some relaxation and distraction. Like a Staffordshire Bull Terrier chasing its tail, not because it needs the tail for anything, but simply for the little dopamine hits that provide momentary relief from its staffy-ness.
This experience has confirmed to me what I already suspected and has made me take a long hard look my relationship with technology. As a member of that weird in-between generation that grew up blissfully tech-free for the first half of our childhoods, only to fall deeply in love with technology as it blasted us with its fire-hose of innovation in our adolescent years, I am ambivalent. I am no Luddite. I appreciate the extreme usefulness and fun to be had through a nifty combination of zeros and ones and screens, but I also remember the joy of a day spent in reality. So where is the balance?
Steve Jobs famously described technology as “a bicycle for the mind.” It was not meant to BE the mind, but rather a means to make use of our minds more efficiently. Like a bicycle allows your body to propel itself at speeds far beyond that which you could achieve using just the tools that evolution had provided for us. I love this idea, and I’m trying to figure out how to use technology to allow me to fly down the road of life with the wind in my face, rather than sweating pointlessly on a stationary bike at the gym.
To help with this, I ask myself two simple questions every time I’m tempted to reach for a screen:
Am I about to use this as a tool or as a distraction?
In other words, is my phone aiding me in achieving something, or is it getting in the way of achieving something?
Let’s be clear: using technology for entertainment or leisure has it’s place, but using it for this purpose has to lead to the next question:
Is the thing that I am doing with my tech for leisure helping me to relax , or is it adding to my anxiety?
Is scrolling through Instagram proving me with inspiration and ideas, or is it making me feel jealous and frustrated? Are there better things on my phone that I can use to relax, like a book, or some music? Or should I put the screen down and go for a walk or talk to someone?
Being sensible about technology is something that our generation, and a few after us, will take a while to figure out. A good place to start might be by simply being intentional about how we use it.