Go offline for a week in a world that is always online. Philosopher Hans Schnitzler imposed a week-long ‘digital detox’ on his students and wrote about their experiences in his book ‘Kleine filosofie van de digitale onthouding’ (‘A short philosophy of digital abstinence’). In it, he warns of the impact of companies like Google and Facebook, which aim to harness your life to their ends. Next week Schnitzler will be giving a lecture at the Erasmus Pavilion about the leading addiction of our times.
“I wasn’t swiping, something that sort of paralyses my mind.”
The detoxing students went without Facebook, WhatsApp and Tinder for a week. What sort of changes did they notice?
“My students described the detoxing period as ‘more real’, ‘more beautiful’ and ‘more conscious’. Students indicated that they slept better and found it easier to concentrate. That they finally had time to process their experiences. And that you can once again become captivated by a simple walk in the park, or get the feeling that you have more empathy for other people.”
Sounds good, this digital detoxing. But what’s the toxin then?
“A lot of apps and platforms have been purposely developed to draw you in for as long and often as possible. You become addicted. A digital detox allows you to reflect on your behaviour: what are the things you really want or need to do? A world dominated by little screens that are constantly vying for our attention is actually counter to our interests as individuals. In companies like Facebook, the key objective from day one has been to take advantage of the dopamine injection your brain receives with each new ‘like’.”
Who’s feeding our addiction then?
“The products of these technology firms have been designed to lure you into staying on their platforms as long as possible. Google’s products, for example, have been developed so that you become dependent on them – find it difficult to forgo them. One of the interviewed students always arrived late to appointments. But during the detox period she noticed that suddenly she was showing up on time – because she was no longer distracted.”
“I gained a clearer idea of my plans for the day, of the fact that you yourself are responsible for structuring it. I felt smarter, was able to put more thought into things.”
“That fucking telephone is usually a pain.”
So is the answer to this attention industry that simple: put your phone away for a week?
“No, absolutely not. Of course awareness and changing your behaviour are important. But if these products are really that addictive, they’re also something our governments should be concerned about. They also share a responsibility for warning people – and particularly young people – about the dangers.”
Similar to a warning label on a pack of cigarettes?
“Exactly. I would argue for a label on interest industry products. We already have labels for sustainable products, so why don’t we have labels that say to which extent your data are shared with third parties? As far as I’m concerned, we should view the attention industry with the same critical eye as we do the tobacco or gambling industries.”
What would a label like that solve?
“Your data is the starting point for the revenue models of companies like Google and Facebook. It’s all about getting us to click, swipe and like as many times as possible. A label could force these platforms to adopt a different design, in which it’s no longer about collecting as much data as possible. It could help us make more conscious decisions when choosing to buy a particular phone or download a specific app.”
The millennials grew up in a digital world. Their whole life is interwoven with it as a result. Isn’t this a rear-guard action?
“That’s very difficult to say. We are unable to – and indeed don’t want to – return to the old days. We do, however, observe growing unease about our relationship with those little screens. A detox can help raise our awareness, but the root of the problem is actually the underlying revenue model. To take on that model, we need politicians who are not afraid to challenge the power of technology companies and intervene.”
Are you afraid of that too: being written off as a conservative or Luddite?
“It’s a familiar allegation, which frankly is starting to wear thin for me. Of course technology represents progress and hope. As soon as you cast a critical light on it, you tend to be viewed as someone who opposes progress itself. We should stop characterising people as ‘techno-pessimists’. Let’s mainly try to understand what’s going on right now, and ask ourselves whether things are moving in the right direction.”
You can find Hans Schnitzler’s book ‘Kleine filosofie van de digitale onthouding’ at your local bookshop. On 21 November he will be giving a lecture about the ‘digital detox’ project at the Erasmus Pavilion.