On the urge to unplug. What is the true cost of our "always on" digital lifestyle?

iphone prison ad image
© I MAKE PHOTO 17/Shutterstock

On May 14, 2013, a 24-year-old employee at an advertising firm died at his desk following a month during which he reportedly did not leave the office before 11pm.

This week, a 21-year-old intern for Bank of America died after reportedly working 72 hours straight.

While the medical cause of deaths like these is often heart attack or stroke, in Japan they call it ‪Karōshi‬, which means "death from overwork."

I suspect it was avoiding an ending like this that has led David Roberts, Baratunde Thurston, Paul Miller and other writers and media workers to temporarily abandon - or escape - the constant churn of the internet. If you ever feel like the news, social media or the internet itself is simply too much to handle, you're not alone.

Since quality of life and happiness are key components to creating a sustainable, healthy life, it is important to identifying the source of the problem and the best ways to cope.

What the Internet is Doing to Our Minds

"News is bad for you."

That's the argument Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions made in a recent op-ed at The Guardian. He lists ten reasons he thinks it is better to avoid reading the news and this one resonates with me:

News works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore.
The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It's not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It's because the physical structure of their brains has changed.

"I quit the internet and I liked it."

I suspect this point would resonate with Paul Miller, as well. Miller is a tech writer for The Verge that just returned to the internet (in May) after taking a year off. He wrote about the ups and downs of the experience .

I learned to appreciate an idea that can't be summed up in a blog post, but instead needs a novel-length exposition. By pulling away from the echo chamber of internet culture, I found my ideas branching out in new directions. I felt different, and a little eccentric, and I liked it.

Without the retreat of a smartphone, I was forced to come out of my shell in difficult social situations. Without constant distraction, I found I was more aware of others in the moment. I couldn't have all my interactions on Twitter anymore; I had to find them in real life.

Sounds great, right?

But Miller soon realized that the internet wasn't necessarily his only problem. He began to feel overwhelmed even from analog tasks like writing letters or going to the post office to deliver them. Keeping up with all the responsibilities of real life can be a challenge with or without the internet.

"We are prisoners of our phones."

Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo made a similar point in his post about the image at the top of this post.

We are prisoners of our phones and tablets and all our digital crap. I am. You are. We all are. We get sucked into these stupid machines, see reality through them. Instead of empowering us, we insist on giving them our power.

I know it wasn't the phone's fault. The technology is never to blame. We are.
Instead of using our phones and tables as tools of empowerment, we are increasingly turning them into prisons that consume our time and attention. Through them we have access to vasts islands of information, but that information is trapped in oceans of mud. We choose to dive in, and then we find it hard to get out. These devices allow us to create a permanent nexus between ourselves and our family, friends, and lovers. That's good—in a way. The dark side is that we place too much importance on the digital bond, increasingly choosing to ignore the real world around us.

Again, this resonates with me, but I also know that the iPhone has given me a lot of pleasure and improved my way of life, in certain areas.

"With a smartphone, your office is...everywhere."

Here on TreeHugger, for example, Lloyd has written a number of times about how the iPhone changes the way we work, giving us flexibility to work from a coffee shop or while traveling.

Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities recently wrote about how this new way of working is going to change how we design our cities.

For decades, cities have reflected the neat separation of work and home, with residences in one part of town, offices and industry in another, and infrastructure (highways, parking garages, hub-and-spoke transit systems) built to help connect us between the two around what has been for many people a 9-to-5 work day. But what happens when more people start to work outside of offices, or really anywhere – at all times?

Suddenly, we need WiFi in parks, and certainly in underground subway systems. We need more physical spaces that serve this new lifestyle: co-working offices and live/work apartments.

I find the opposing extremes in these stories interesting. On one hand, I think Badger is right that we do need more access to public WiFi. The benefits the internet can provide to business, learning and convenience are undeniable.

But at the same time, so many of us are having this realization that this constant access is too much. If "your office is in your pants" as Lloyd puts it, your office is everywhere. You can always work, always be "on" and you'll suffer the stress and anxiety that comes with this lack of down or "offline" time.

Moderation is the key to digital happiness.

As both Miller and Diaz conclude in their articles about the digital lifestyle, a life without the internet isn't the ideal. Moderation is the key to digital happiness.

Following Dobelli's piece that news is bad for you, Madeleine Bunting at The Guardian made this argument for moderation:

It's good to question the craving for immediacy: what do we really need to know about in real time? Dobelli argues that real insight and understanding is never instant. It takes time to piece together complex causality, and the global news machine of bite-sized nuggets doesn't do complexity. At one level Dobelli's bestselling book The Art of Thinking Clearly is a manifesto for slow thought. We have had the slow food movement, now it's the turn for slow thinking.

Calling Dobelli's anti-news ideas "dangerous", Bunting concedes we face a problem, but not the one he identifies:

He has chosen the wrong target: it's not news per se that is the problem, but the formats in which we now consume news and the habits of constant interruption and brief attention they generate.

The whole point of news sites and newspapers has always been to introduce you to events and ideas you might not otherwise encounter. Cut yourself off from all of that and you limit your understanding and engagement in life. You isolate yourself from the collective conversation that news sustains and inspires. In the end it closes down your world to a very small space of who you know and what they know. It denies curiosity, one of the great human appetites that news both satisfies and feeds. It restricts your understanding of the huge diversity of human experience.

"It's doing things to my brain."

On Monday, David Roberts surprised his readers by announcing he was "burnt the fuck out" and he'd be taking a year off from the internet, from Twitter and from his job. His post explaining the decision hit on a lot of the ideas and problems with the internet laid out above:

I enjoy sharing zingers with Twitter all day; I enjoy writing long, wonky posts at night. But the lifestyle has its drawbacks. I don’t get enough sleep, ever. I don’t have any hobbies. I’m always at work. Other than hanging out with my family, it’s pretty much all I do — stand at a computer, immersing myself in the news cycle, taking the occasional hour out to read long PDFs. I’m never disconnected.

It’s doing things to my brain.

I think in tweets now. My hands start twitching if I’m away from my phone for more than 30 seconds. I can’t even take a pee now without getting “bored.” I know I’m not the only one tweeting in the bathroom. I’m online so much that I’ve started caring about “memes.” I feel the need to comment on everything, to have a “take,” preferably a “smart take.” The online world, which I struggle to remember represents only a tiny, unrepresentative slice of the American public, has become my world. I spend more time there than in the real world, have more friends there than in meatspace.

Thoughts like this are not new to Roberts. In May, Roberts had revisited his classic post on living what he calls the Medium Chill lifestyle.

We Americans schlep to jobs that 70 percent of us don’t give a sh*t about. Then we come home and watch TV — 34 hours a week of it. The very idea of living a life of aesthetic and moral quality, of developing our passions and finding our best selves, of contributing something of worth to humanity … it all seems far away and silly. We just work to keep existing, and exist to keep working.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world,” Wilde says. “Most people exist, that is all.” That’s what I was getting at with the medium chill — not just chilling out and working less, “taking it easy” or whatever, but trying to live, to break free of the soul-numbing expectations and routines of late capitalism and instead construct a life rich with relationships and experiences rather than, y’know, bigger and bigger flat-screen TVs. A meaningful life.

I raise this point because I still think the concept of the Medium Chill is the right approach for a lot of people. It is essentially an argument for moderation. But, for some people it is a better idea to take a real break, especially if, like Roberts, it is to spend more time with your family, helping around the house and taking care of your physical and mental health.

For another example of how appealing this idea of disconnecting from work and the internet and reconnecting with friends, family or nature is right now, consider this:

Baratunde Thurston took 25 days off of the internet in December and it landed him on the cover of Fast Company magazine.

Upon returning to the internet, Baratunde came to some good conclusions:

I am still a creature of my technological time. I love my devices and services, and I love being connected to the global hive mind. I am neither a Luddite nor a hermit, but I am more aware of the price we pay: lack of depth, reduced accuracy, lower quality, impatience, selfishness, and mental exhaustion, to name but a few. In choosing to digitally enhance, hyperconnect, and constantly share our lives, we risk not living them. We have collectively colluded to take this journey, but we’ve done so inches at a time, not realizing that we have traveled leagues in the process.

While few of us would be able to manage or afford a year long break like those taken by Roberts or Miller, the model of Baratunde's shorter break from the internet is one we should all try.

Living a healthy, balanced life is not easy, but it might be easier to create if you can hit pause on a few things and build the routine around what really matters instead of trying to tweak a work habits you've developed over ten or more years.

What does this trend of disconnecting mean for society?

In closing, I want to zoom out and ask what this trend of "disconnecting" means for society? I think that it is even a trend at all implies a bigger problem than with digital work, alone.

In August 2011, Mother Jones magazine had an excellent issue on overwork, which is worth revisiting. In the cover story, All Work and No Pay: The Great Speedup, Mother Jones' editors, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, wrote about all types of workers that just seem worn out.

They write:

In fact, each time we mentioned this topic to someone—reader, source, friend—they first took pains to say: I'm not lazy. I love my job. I come from a long line of hard workers. But then it would pour out of them—the fatigue, the isolation, the guilt.

There's so much more in there, so do read the rest. But this chart has remained with me.

This chart, from Mother Jones' 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil, shows that worker productivity has soared, while wages for 99% of the population have remained relatively flat.

Their issue on overwork also featured Harrowing, Heartbreaking Tales of Overworked Americans

There are some really heartbreaking stories in there and they make those of us complaining about too many emails and tweets and blog posts to read look pretty darn weak, but it doesn't matter if what is mentally exhausting you is housework or surgery or keeping up with the news. When you're done, you're done.

So, what's the solution? Moderation? Sure. Taking breaks? Absolutely. But that can't be all, right?

How do you maintain a healthy balance of work, life, news and quiet? Are there policies you'd like to see, like parental leave, mandatory vacation, etc. that would help people avoid burning out? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

IMAGE: Felipe Luchi illustration for Go Outside Magazine

On the urge to unplug. What is the true cost of our "always on" digital lifestyle?
David Roberts, Baratunde Thurston, Paul Miller and others have taken public breaks from the internet. What does this trend of needing to unplug say about the sustainability - or lack thereof - of our always on lifestyle?

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