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What is the Cost of Our “Always On” Digital Lifestyle?

What is the Cost of Our “Always On” Digital Lifestyle?
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Written by Chris Tackett

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.

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock

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65 comments

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8:51PM PST on Dec 25, 2013

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1:20PM PDT on Aug 31, 2013

sorry:
...unless I had a doctor's appt or to get food. I was addicted.
Luckily I didn't need an intervention, just a few well-placed kicks and I backed off. Possiby it's because I haven't had the internet for long and I'm not a product of the information age.
Much more relaxed now.

1:17PM PDT on Aug 31, 2013

First of all, very tech-challenged here. Landline phone, no smart phone - they're usually smarter than me! My TV dies over 4 yrs ago and didn't have money to get a new one...and I've never missed it...except orr the evening news, and every few months I got sick of he crap on there so I'd go without for a month or so. Seems I just missed watching while eating meals.

No ereader - love the feel of books, turning pages, the whole experience of Real Books. That said, did get a Kindle app for my PC from Amazon, it's Free. So many authors now put out enovellas that go with their series and I got frustrated that these short stories were referenced in series and I had no idea what they were talking about - even dropped a few authors because they didn't seem to care whether their fans could read these or not.
My first computer was an oldie, refurbished. It got me into the computer age slowly and without the internet...had internet just over year and a half. When I got that it felt like part of the new century...then last spring I discovered C2 - was broke and looking for free ecards.
Soooo easy to get caught up in articles here, soooo addicting to write comments, time slips by sooo fast. Found I was spending way too much time here that I wasn't getting anything else done - was afraid I might miss an article, felt I was behind others who knew what was going on in the world and needed to catch up. Didn't help it was too hot for me to get out and walk every day, unless I h

2:05AM PDT on Aug 28, 2013

thanks for the article

8:15AM PDT on Aug 26, 2013

Thank you for the reminder.:)

3:03PM PDT on Aug 25, 2013

Thanks

9:41AM PDT on Aug 25, 2013

employers' 24/7 access expectations with cell phones deserve the label electronic leash

7:05PM PDT on Aug 24, 2013

The costs? You make out with robots.

9:40AM PDT on Aug 24, 2013

Thanks for sharing

8:15AM PDT on Aug 24, 2013

Most interesting. Hope my children read this article which l uploaded to fb.unfortunately my husband seems to be a list cause, for the last eight months he only leaves his digital friends on his screen to eat and sleep. I quit, as of yesterday l am looking to move on with my life without him, just days to go to thirty years marriage, but l can't take it anymore. Yes use the internet, obviously l do too, but to ignore all else in life??

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