How much digital clutter do we need?
For many years, it was fashionable to devote January to a detox, normally from alcohol and often from coffee.
This year, for the first time, my friends are devoting January to a digital detox. The idea has much to commend it, but where to start and how to survive?
For a digital dinosaur like me, the task is simpler. I don’t play computer games, nor have any passion to share curiously decorated photos of myself. I have always avoided Facebook, not just because my daughters never wanted me peeking in on their social lives, or because I’m uncomfortable with the loss of privacy, but because I discovered early that the viral power of Facebook can consume all waking hours – and then more.
I have also always been disdainful of Twitter – not because Donald Trump uses them so indiscriminately, but because I rather snootily believe that nothing important can be coherently conveyed in such a tiny quota of characters.
I know there are some exceptions, like when Obama tweeted “Four more years”, but I still stand by my general conviction. I am much less interested in “Likes”, or “Followers” than in communicating meaningfully with people I know and care about.
So my detox is easier than for some. But it is challenging nevertheless. While I am a digital dinosaur, I am also a digital pioneer, being trained to write and file my FT news and features back in 1981 when each computer cost US$10,000.
I was only too happy to abandon the typewriter forced upon me as a trainee journalist (when I dug it out from the back of a cupboard a few years ago, my finger muscles had so atrophied that I could not even press the keys down).
I was also happy to file reports from hotel rooms in Sri Lanka, India or Malaysia, where my early experience in journalism involved hunting down the nearest post office, and queuing to punch out thousands of holes on long telex paper strips.
This was before the era of serious digital addiction kicked in with smartphones, cheap or free telecoms, and serious 3G capacity. There is no underestimating the revolutionary impact on our lives of email, internet search engines, GPS apps, and high quality digital cameras that let us share photos instantly with anyone, anywhere in the world for free.
One of the key merits of a digital detox is the opportunity to check what apps are truly indispensable, and what is simply “nice to have”.
“It’s only after you put down the electronic rucksack overflowing with digital possibility and stroll off unencumbered that you’re in a position to make a sensible decision about whether you really want to carry it around all day long”, noted the FT’s Tim Harford when he began his digital detox early in December.
I would argue that a search engine, email, Google Maps and the digital camera are truly indispensable, while keeping control on their use is reasonably manageable. Even here, Harford warned that “trying to get some work done with an internet-enabled device is like trying to diet when there’s a fridge full of beer and ice cream sitting on your desk.”
I would argue that you could dispose of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram without extreme pain. After ignoring Facebook for six weeks, Harford returned to find that it had fallen totally silent: “People had worked out, it seems, that Facebook was not a good place to reach me.”
Trimming back to just one texting service also makes sense, and I would choose WhatsApp or Skype over WeChat, which always seems so cluttered by random marketing pitches from strangers.
As for texting, Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, is right to remind us that “people initially used texts as an add-on to face-to-face conversation, but the texts soon became a substitute.”
She recalled a school senior who complained that the problem with real conversation was that “it takes place in real time, and you can’t control what you’re going to say”. Perfectly put, and exactly why the two should complement each other, not abandon proper conversations.
While I think the digital purge should spare my Kindle, I vacillate here. I could not do without it, but I still find real books immensely more pleasurable to read, and I remember stuff much more clearly.
It seems easier to remember that a particularly good quote was in the upper half of a left-hand page about three quarters of the way through the book, than to remember that it was 47 per cent in.
The digital purge should include e-commerce shopping sites, and airline booking sites. Booking airline tickets has become a nerve-racking nightmare as you discover how many flight choices there are between any two cities, and how scarily ticket prices rise and fall in the weeks before a journey. Give me the good old days when you simply called your friendly travel agent.
The digital detox is valuable not just because it forces a careful audit of what is important, and what is not; it frees up a huge amount of time to use your day in different ways.
Harford wrote letters to friends he had come to neglect: “Some old friends seemed genuinely touched to receive a letter: nobody has ever been touched by a Facebook “Like”.”
Finally, the digital detox is invaluable in preparing for that dreadful day when you break your smartphone, or drop it (as I once did) in the sea. So much of our life is now embedded in it, that an annual pause to think through a survival guide must surely have merit.