I know it’s a little late, but – Happy New Year! There is something invigorating about welcoming in a new year. It may be an arbitrary change of date, but when the sun comes up on January 1st it feels like the slate is being wiped clean. A new year means anything is possible – time for some resolutions!

Just go to your local gym in January to witness the galvanizing power of the new year’s resolution. The place is full, the air heavy with the smell of sweat and good intentions…

And just go back in March to witness the typical life span of a new year’s resolution. Usually the place is virtually empty again, the staff kicking their heels as the cross-trainers gather dust.

The ‘digital detox’

Similarly, right now there are millions of people around the world fighting the urge to check Instagram as they struggle through a ‘digital detox’. Many of us, it seems, are uncomfortable with the role that technology has come to play in our lives.

A survey of British adults last year found that 38% thought they were using their smartphones too much. Among 16-24 year olds that number rose to more than half. In response to this there’s a growing sub-genre of books devoted to helping people change their relationship with technology. There are apps designed to help people track their smartphone use, and incentivise them to spend less time staring and swiping.

It’s all about dopamine

But, just as those who pledge to get themselves fit at the gym frequently fall back into old habits, so will many of those who seek to withdraw from the online world. Because the pull towards modern technology is indeed a habit, with all of the connotations that word implies. In the same way that addictive drugs hijack our brain’s reward systems and rob us of our autonomy by stimulating the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, so does much modern technology.

And, it should be pointed out, this is not just a happy coincidence for the millionaires of Silicon Valley. There is a company called Dopamine Labs which bases its entire strategy on the understanding that apps, games, and devices can be designed specifically to manipulate the brain into a state of pseudo-addiction.

The founding president of Facebook, Sean Parker, has explicitly acknowledged that in developing the site “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” To achieve this goal, Facebook’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology”, explained Parker. Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, he said, “we… give you a little dopamine hit”

This can sound alarming, and it might seem like the only answer to this is to go cold turkey and eliminate technology from our lives. Indeed, a number of high-profile figures, including Simon Cowell and Ed Sheeran have spoken publicly about how they have got rid of their phones entirely. But, for most of us, our ability to live our lives and do our jobs is highly dependent on technology.

Drugs aren’t bad!

Global Warriors team member, Jon Hill reflects on his own experience of working in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation world:

“I’m firmly of the opinion that drugs are not ‘bad’, and that portraying them as such is unhelpful. Drugs are neutral! They are just some powder in a bag, some leaves in a roll-up, some liquid in a glass! How we use them, and the relationships that we form with them are what have the potential to be either good or bad.”

It’s the same with technology. Notice how Sean Parker’s aim with Facebook was to consume as much of our “conscious attention” as possible. Here is where I think he has misunderstood how people have come to relate to their virtual worlds, and how we as individuals can free ourselves of our addiction.

It is in our unconscious use of technology that most of us feel uncomfortable – when I find myself bored and mindlessly open Twitter on my phone; when I am trying to focus on some work and open up my web browser for another tour of the same six or seven websites.

The fear of the technophobes is that modern technology is eroding our ability to connect and relate and, if this is true, then it is through this type of unconscious use. If someone asked you a question to your face you wouldn’t blank them and then answer in three days, but many of us think nothing of waiting this length of time to respond to a text or email.

My father is one of the warmest, funniest people I know, but his messages are frankly perfunctory to the point of seeming rude.

And that is the problem!

It seems rude to me, because I have different expectations about how electronic communication should be. As far as he is concerned he is just being efficient, but to me it seems cold and unrelational. And haven’t we all responded to a message at some point with a terse one-liner when – had we been a bit more conscious – we could have added at least a line or two to soften the message and add some warmth?

Conscious communication is key

Perhaps the key to coming into a better relationship with technology isn’t to junk it entirely but rather to bring more consciousness to that relationship. As you enter 2019 why not consider some of these questions:

  • Do you check your phone first thing in the morning, before you have eaten breakfast or used the loo?
  • Have you ever had a misunderstanding with someone because of a difference in electronic communication etiquette?
  • Is there a marked difference in the tone of your ‘electronic voice’ and your real-life voice?
  • Does the idea of reducing your phone use make you feel uncomfortable?
  • Are there things that you used to do, but now spend time on your phone or on the internet instead?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ then perhaps now is a good time to make some conscious decisions about your relationship with tech. Maybe a digital detox? Maybe setting some boundaries about when and where you use your phone or laptop? Maybe some simple new habits will help – such as pausing before sending an email and editing it to make it sound more like ‘you’?

The truth is that communication and mobile technology is here to stay. We face a simple choice – do we want our relationship with it to be life-enhancing or life-draining?

As it so often is, consciousness is the key.

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