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

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Its 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.


© Mother Jones

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.

This post was originally published in TreeHugger.

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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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