There is only online and reaction to online.
We talked to Alex Pang—whose book The Distraction Addiction explores how to balance the role of technology in our lives—about De-teching, one of the macro trends explored in our latest report, 10 Years of 10 Trends. “We’ve moved from a period of thinking that technologies always bring big, inevitable and unavoidable changes to recognizing that we can use technologies mindfully,” Pang noted in discussed consumers’ changing attitudes toward digital tech, our growing awareness of the downside to over-connection and how brands can tap into this trend. He also outlined a tangential trend, a growing emphasis on the importance of rest and mind-wandering.
We spotlighted De-teching in our 2007 “10 Trends” report, and the idea has continued to pick up momentum. How do you see the evolution of this concept?
I see a few important things happening. First, we have a better appreciation of the cost for individuals, as well as for families and organizations, of over-connection and of technology-driven distraction. At the personal level, the appearance of books like Nick Carr’s The Shallows and Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, Catherine Steiner-Adair’s book, The Big Disconnect—which is more about kids and families—have helped tally up the cognitive costs of our always-on lives and the impact of technology use on personal or social and emotional development.
We’re also getting a better accounting of the hidden price of connectivity for companies. A recent Bain survey on the costs of connectivity—the costs of being always on and always connected for companies—found some remarkable stuff about how much time is spent these days simply managing your inbox, dealing with the 43 “reply alls” about whether the meeting should be at 3 or 3:15, and the amount of time that now gets absorbed doing stuff like preparing PowerPoints.
They found at one company, for example, that a single weekly executive meeting turned out to absorb 1,500 years of labor from people doing background research, working out presentations and so on. This is not entirely the fault of our devices, but technology makes it easier for bosses to instantly contact subordinates even at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, and that enables behavior that ends up consuming substantial resources and time, and contributes to a culture in which it’s never OK to be offline.
Not all these impacts are negative, of course. There has been some terrific work done on kids who are on the autism spectrum and the way in which they relate to technologies. Judith Newman had a very lovely piece in The New York Times about her 13-year-old son, who is on the spectrum, and the way Siri has become his best friend. He knows, of course, that it’s a piece of technology, but he can ask it questions endlessly, and Siri, being Siri, is infinitely patient. For kids who have serious trouble communicating with other people, tablets turn out to be transformative, because they are far cheaper than traditional assistive technologies—$150-$200 for an Android tablet with special apps, compared to $3,000 or more for a custom-designed device. And they don’t look like assistive technologies, so kids are more comfortable using them in public.
So we have a better sense that there are costs as well as upsides to being always on. We’re better able to quantify those costs and benefits. And we’re starting to recognize that there are things we can do to minimize the costs.
What do you see as the biggest change in our relationship with technology over the last year or two?
We’ve moved from a period of thinking that technologies always bring big, inevitable and unavoidable changes to recognizing that we can use technologies mindfully. A few years ago we were dazzled by the idea that the Internet is changing our brains and that new technologies have had these kinds of effects since the printing press and even the invention of writing. The implication we drew is that worries about digital devices are really short-term and small-minded, the modern equivalent of complaining that kids no longer memorize scrolls because of all these damn books, or that the quality of illuminated manuscripts has declined because of the stupid, ugly printing press.
We’re now coming to the realization that, actually, there are things we can do. We live in a world that tries very hard to convince us that resistance to new technology is futile and that if we want to use new technologies, we have to accept them on companies’ terms. But in fact we can design strategies that allow us to explore other ways we can relate to these devices, other places we can find for them in our lives.
We do this despite the fact that there are a few people who have made fairly sophisticated intellectual arguments that there really is no longer any such thing as going offline, that disconnection is simply a myth. Nathan Jurgensen is the most eloquent exponent of this argument, which boils down to, the Internet is so pervasive in the lives of people in the West that when you go offline, you are still thinking about the fact that you are not connected to the Internet. You are creating this time as an explicit alternative to being online, and therefore there really is no such thing any longer as offline as a natural state. There is only online and reaction to online.
Finally, there are some other interesting things that are starting to happen with newer technologies like wearables. For example, there’s the MEMI, a wristband that alerts you only to calls from people who really matter to you—your close friends, kids, school, parents, that sort of thing. That is not quite unplugging, but it is a design that reflects a sensibility that—not just at a weekly level or at the level of an annual vacation, but moment by moment—it is possible to design and use our technologies in ways that keep us connected, but in ways that matter to us. That sort of everyday thoughtfulness about how we use technologies and what place we allow them in our lives, in our attention, in our consciousness will only increase our desire to develop ways that help us disconnect when we want to.
Along with wearables that help you be more mindful about tech usage, a number of apps now help you track smartphone usage. Do you think these efforts are effective overall?
They certainly hold the promise to be effective—but only if people are thoughtful about using them. One of the things I found in The Distraction Addiction was that people who use things like Zenware, Mac Freedom, LeechBlock or other tools that work mainly on laptops and desktops is that people want them to work. The fact that these are programs you have to buy, that you’ve got to set up, that require a little bit of thoughtfulness, nudges the scales in their favor.
We do have a challenge when it comes to interpreting the data these tools sometimes provide us. I tried out something from the makers of Calm—the iPhone meditation app that tracks how many times you interact with your phone—and it was interesting, but I realized that because I didn’t have a baseline, I couldn’t figure out what counted as too much interaction or, for that matter, too little. At the end of a week, when I was looking at the graph of the number of times I picked up my phone, it wasn’t clear to me whether this number was a healthy one or an unhealthy one. It’s kind of like having data about your blood pressure but not knowing what blood pressure is or what it means. Higher is worse and lower is better, but if you don’t know what constitutes healthy and unhealthy, the data is not necessarily that helpful.
Do you see more companies encouraging their employees to de-tech?
Certainly, there are companies that are trying to encourage smarter email usage, and are experimenting with policies that back away from ubiquitous over-connection. We’re seeing more of these formal policies in Europe than in the United States. Daimler and Ferrari, for example, now have a policy of shutting off the email servers in the evening for many employees. I don’t know why car companies are at the vanguard, but these things sometimes take root in unexpected places. And if these policies inspire drivers to stop texting while driving, I’ll count that as a win! The German Ministry of Labor has also done something along these lines.
Companies are also recognizing that there are real psychological benefits to workers of being able to leave work at the office. A growing number of studies have documented the hard costs of what psychologists refer to as ego depletion, the mental and psychological exhaustion you have when you leave the office some days. People who have the opportunity to live their own lives, it turns out, do better at work. They’re more productive when they’re there; they’re happier when they’re there; and the productivity benefits of being constantly connected drop really, really quickly. If you’re in an industry that allows it, it is much better to have people focus really hard for several hours a day than to be in a state of work-related semi-attention for 16 hours.
Not as many industries are genuinely 24/7 as we think; not every client call is an emergency, and not every employee has to be always on. CEOs get paid plenty of money to invest their time and lives in their companies, and they’re supposed to thrive on the excitement of always knowing what’s going on, always competing, always striving. But for the rest of us, is it the case that we live lives that require that level of connection? We’re actually going to be better employees, and we’re going to be better people, if we take our foot off the pedal for part of each day.
Companies are struggling to figure out how to manage this. We’re so accustomed, after decades, to thinking in terms of billable hours or measuring commitment by the amount of time people are in the office and the number of late nights they’re there. It’s going to take us a while to figure out how to measure productivity and commitment using other kinds of tools.
Can de-teching be effective with a top-down approach, or does it need to come from the individual?
Within organizations, leadership from the top is essential—people respond to social signals in the workplace pretty clearly. People are not going to unplug or not check their email if the company treats it as a sign of lack of commitment or disloyalty. So making it clear that the company wants you to do this, in exchange for really being present and focused in the time you’re in the office, is essential. There is this assumption that because it is possible for us to be on 24/7, we should be on 24/7, and that if we’re not, it’s proof we could be replaced by an intern or a robot or have our jobs outsourced to China—and this is really unhealthy.
It is one of the pleasures and burdens of leadership to live a life in which very little of your time is your own, but that does not mean everybody else has to work this way. In fact, the company will be better off if that burden is shared by a few people, not many.
Culture and practice coming from the top is really important. Learning how to both incentivize people to lead lives that will make them more productive when they’re present, and giving them greater space to restore themselves, replenish their energy, and to reward that, has definitely got to come from the top.
Using devices like smartphones is essentially unavoidable today. What are some of the newest ways that people are taking breaks from tech, or changing their relationship to digital media?
The things I’ve seen have been in the home—a growing number of people do things like set up a family charging station for everybody’s devices, and at 8 or 9, all the smartphones, the tablets go there. It’s partly a way of keeping track of things, so your kid’s tablet doesn’t end up at the bottom of the laundry, but it’s also a way of enforcing good behavior, not just on the part of kids but also—just as critically—on the part of parents. Turning that kind of practice from an individual one that requires personal will—and becomes a moral failing if you slip—into a social one that everyone does is a good thing. It’s always easier to do something you don’t want to do when everyone else is doing it as well.
Another thing we’re seeing is a greater sensibility about things like constructing phone whitelists. There’s the idea that phones are really cool because anyone can reach you at any time—that was really neat in 2005 when it was still novel, but we’re realizing that, just as in real life, it’s really good to be connected to the people who matter to us and the number of people who really matter to us is not gigantic. As anthropologists have known for decades, we can only really have significant social interactions with about 150 people at any given time, and of those 150, only a handful really have the need and the right to interrupt us when they want.
The slow rise of unplugged vacation spots is pretty interesting—the idea of disconnection as luxury, which you see in everything from Hilton Getaways to Mika Brzezinski and Arianna Huffington’s books about how awesome sleep is when you’re a super busy television co-host. The idea that rest and disconnection are not just important, they’re almost like the hip new status symbols. We’re not far from the point where you will read in Fortune or Businessweek about the return of the afternoon nap as the hot new status symbol among executives. It’ll actually be a retro thing. Winston Churchill slept two hours every afternoon, and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson imitated him when they became presidents.
The youngest generation has been entirely immersed in tech since birth, so will they still feel a need to de-tech?
Yes. I’ve been doing some stuff with kids at independent schools, so they are smarter and more privileged than the norm. They’re more likely to have iPads than the average kid, and what strikes me is how interested they are in dealing with problems of digital distraction. Our assumption tends to be that kids today are like the X-Men—they’re mutants who are different from previous generations—and that’s not the case. They have not all turned into dopamine-addled click monkeys who, because they have no experience of sitting by themselves reading War and Peace, have attention spans no longer than the length of a YouTube video.
Instead, what I’m finding is that kids who are ambitious, who want to make an impact on the world, recognize that you don’t do that by being perpetually distracted. At several schools I’ve visited, there have been programs for unplugging in the classroom, or for having particular times when devices are off. At one school, the students led a policy to have no device use while you’re walking, so you don’t get out of the class, immediately open up your smartphone and start texting, because you run into people. And the sensibility was that your friends are right here, they’re right in front of you, so you should talk to them rather than text them.
While our propensity for self-distraction is one that is deeply human and universal, so too is our craving for the opportunity to concentrate. I don’t think this is something that has evolved out of the next generation. If anything, the smarter kids are thinking about issues of attention, of time management, about technology use, in ways their parents did not. The answer for them is not always “More is better.” The answer is figuring out how to make this stuff work in my life, is where they take it.
Just as the automobile changed the way courtship happened in the ’50s and ’60s but did not profoundly change the way in which Americans met and dated and got on with their lives, so too will these technologies not permanently alter either the way in which kids grow up and live, nor will it short-circuit their desire to be able to focus, to do good things with their lives, to be resilient and present and deal with life’s challenges.
What role can brands play in facilitating or encouraging de-teching? Are there particular brands that are doing this well?
There is a space for some brands to step in and to essentially take the anti-Facebook position of: Your time matters to you, and when you are in those periods where you are paying attention to what’s in front of you, when you’re spending quality time with family, we can be part of that.
We’re past the point where a campaign of that sort would obviously be like a Luddite sort of thing. Brands now could craft campaigns that play a positive role in helping legitimize those kinds of practices and provide support for them. I think it’s going to be a while before we see technology companies moving in that direction, just because there is so much money to be made by distracting people and commoditizing their attention. It’s more likely we’ll see more of this in places like the resort and hospitality industry.
Just as Starbucks did a great job early on in its life promoting the idea of going to Starbucks as a 20-minute vacation, so too are there opportunities for brands to associate themselves with the idea that they can help you get back your attention, that can help you when you’re in the middle of one of these tech breaks, that they’re a great thing to have because they may reconnect you with people, that they have a non-digital physicality or deliciousness that puts you in the moment. You can imagine high-end ice-cream makers doing something like this.
One place to watch is the intersection of fashion and technology. Wearables that help you manage your device, and manage distractions from your technology, could make the case that serenity is beauty, that focus is always attractive; no one looks good when they’re frazzled.
In the automobile industry, there’s an obvious campaign to be made around anti-distraction technology. For family cars, the value proposition could be, “For decades we’ve helped you be safe from external dangers. Now, we help you be safe from internal dangers as well.” For sports cars and luxury vehicles, the value proposition could be, “We help you become one with the road, in luxury and style. We let nothing get in the way of this experience—not even a text message.”
Finally, what’s on your radar for 2015?
I recently signed a contract with Basic Books to write a book titled Rest: Why Working Less Gets More Done. My last book, The Distraction Addiction, was all about the benefits of focus and mindfulness; now, I’m looking at the benefits of mind-wandering.
The book starts with a paradox: Some of history’s most creative and prolific people—Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Ingmar Bergman, Steven King—worked at their desks or in the lab only four or five hours a day. What I’m exploring is why rest is important in these lives. The project taps into, and I hope extends, a conversation happening in places like Fast Company, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, about the importance of a good night’s sleep, the cognitive benefits of structured mind wandering and the role those things play in the lives of creative, busy people.
The conversation about the psychological and creative importance of allowing ourselves space for creative distraction or mind-wandering or rest is a really interesting trend. We’re taking this from our conversations about devices and information technology and email, and beginning to apply it to the rest of our lives.