Some worry the wellness movement and its focus on personal responsibility let the tech industry off the hook
At 9.30am on a Wednesday morning, I received a notification telling me Id already picked up my phone 30 times that day. 11 left until you go over your goal of 41 pickups, my screen read. Put your phone down until 9.52am! Enjoy your time living in the moment.
These updates were sent via Moment, an app that tracks my screen time.
Moment was created by Kevin Holesh in 2014 to combat his own device addiction. He was working as an independent app developer, spending hours each day staring at screens. After work, Holesh found that he was scrolling mindlessly through Twitter instead of talking to his wife or taking his dogs for a walk.
I wanted a way of seeing how much time I was sinking into my phone, he told me. So I hacked something together that could monitor my screen time.
Holesh found that he was spending 75 minutes on his phone a day. He added a feature to the app that notified him whenever his screen time exceeded 40 minutes. My phone would buzz, and Id go and do something else, he said. It was like a little angel on my shoulder nudging me in the right direction.
Holesh figured that if the system worked for him, it would work for others, and later that year he released Moment as a free app. To date, it has been downloaded 8m times.
As well as tracking device use, Moment now has a coach function, which offers guided programs to help users focus and be more productive, for $7.99 a month.
I signed up for a week-long course called Bored and Brilliant that was supposed to help me regain creativity, but after five days I had made little progress. By 10.30am on Wednesday morning I received another notification informing me I had gone over my 41 allotted pickups.
Yet, Moment is popular, and many online reviews are positive. I am so much happier, I sleep better, I read more, I take better care of myself, and most of all I am present in my day-to-day life, one reviewer wrote, only heightening my sense of personal failure.
Moments popularity reflects a growing consciousness around digital wellness, the name given to lifestyle practices that encourage healthy device use. Wellness trends reflect the anxieties of the era in which they arise; this one is about time being stolen from us. If being on the phone 24/7, or having tech-savvy kids, was once a signifier of productivity and affluence, now device addiction signifies a loss of control.
Many digital wellness books, programs and apps encourage commonsense behavioral changes say, leaving your phone outside your room when you go to sleep aimed to help people regain control of their time in a digital economy designed to drip-feed information and dopamine in return for our data and attention.
But as this burgeoning movement becomes an industry, some worry that the wellness approach and its emphasis on personal responsibility is whitewashing deeper structural issues within the tech industry.
Academics have been concerned about the addictive potential of computers for decades. As early as the 1970s, pioneering computer scientist and technology critic Joseph Weizenbaum warned that people had become addicted to modern technology and that there was a need for withdrawal therapies.
While these critiques were often overshadowed by prevailing techno-optimism a belief that a more connected world was a better world the narrative began to shift at the turn of the last decade with the rise of smartphones. As we became increasingly tethered to our screens, a growing number of experts and social commentators, like Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr, published grave warnings that we were spending too much time on them.
As trust in the tech industry has atrophied over the past few years, this critical perspective has become commonplace. Countless articles, studies and books now tell us how our screen addiction is making us more anxious and depressed, incapable of thinking deeply and too distracted to engage in meaningful relationships or self-reflection. Concerns are particularly acute in relation to young people and how it may affect their development.
Born out of this cultural anxiety is the digital wellness movement. Unlike earlier tech criticism, which sought to diagnose and raise awareness around tech addiction, digital wellness aims to provide solutions, often in the form of step-by-step programs.
Science journalist Catherine Prices bestselling book of last year, How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Your Life Back, draws on cognitive science and philosophy to show how phones and social media platforms are designed like slot machines to lure us in. She then offers an action plan involving mindfulness strategies, like putting a rubber band around the device as a reminder to take pause before plugging back in.
Cal Newports Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World examines real-life practices of Amish farmers, high-performing Silicon Valley programmers and others to identify digital decluttering strategies. This has earned Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, the title of Marie Kondo of technology.
Another popular format is the guided digital detox program. Jocelyn K Glei, who hosts a productivity-related podcast called Hurry Slowly, recently launched Reset, a four-week online course aimed to help push back against the toxic habits of technology. Her customers receive video talks, reset rituals (including daily victory dances) and meditations to learn how to become empowered rather than overwhelmed, appreciative rather than critical and intentional rather than scatter-brained.
Switching off, in this context, is an aspiration marketed directly at busy people, those for whom productivity and focus is key, but who can still ultimately afford to take time off. For this reason, many digital detox programs and retreats are associated with luxury.
Time To Log Off offers retreats where participants give up their smartphones, go for hikes, and talk about the pressure of being on 24/7. Villa Stephanie in Germany provides guests with an option to disconnect their room from the electrical grid via copper plates and signal blocking paint as part of a $570 a night detox package.
For Holesh, part of the appeal of Moment is that it democratizes digital wellness by meeting people where they are. Many of the apps newer functions like family mode, which lets you monitor family screen time are still free, and new customers get a one-week free trial for the paid coaching programs.
But as with other successful wellness products, the apparent altruism is underpinned by a business model and a bottom line.
Last year Holesh hired Tim Kendall, a former Facebook and Pinterest executive known in Silicon Valley for taking ice baths and wearing a T-shirt that says Focus, to help grow the business.
Kendall, now CEO, told me that he sees the digital wellness as a growth area in the broader health and wellbeing industry, comparable to meditation apps, which in the first quarter of 2018 bought in $27m in worldwide revenue.
At this stage, Moment generates revenue through the subscription-based coaching programs. Kendall believes that as they come to understand user behavior better, they will be able to provide more personalized programs to help people switch off more effectively.
In the same way that Fitbit has a lot of information in aggregate that puts the company in a better position to make recommendations about how people can change behavior to be more active, were able to use our data across millions of users to help the customer gain control of their time, he said.
A similar tactic is now also being deployed at scale by big tech companies. Just last year Facebook and Instagram released time-management tools and an option to mute push notifications. Google announced new wellbeing features that help remind yourself to take a break from YouTube, limit notificationsand clear clutter from your phone. And Apple introduced Screen Time, which lets you track how much time you spend on particular apps.
For many stalwarts of the digital wellness movement, big techs embrace of their ethos is seen as disingenuous. Tech companies love the idea of digital wellness because it puts responsibility on us, Catherine Price told me. It gives them an excuse to be like tobacco companies and just say, well if you dont like us, you dont have to use our product.
Price also pointed out that Apple has been making life harder for independent digital wellness developers (some have even been suspended from the App Store.) If they were concerned with our wellbeing, why would they do this? she asked. Frankly it all just seems like a PR exercise.
Manoush Zomorodi, a journalist who has been writing about digital wellness since 2015, also questions whether companies that have become rich by designing mediated dopamine-driven feedback loops can be part of the solution without changing their business model.
People say, just turn off your phone, whats the big deal? Well, were up against multibillion-dollar corporations who know how to manipulate you, Zomorodi told me. Its not a neutral issue of me just needing to have healthier habits. What tech needs is design ethics.
While Price and Zomorodi acknowledge these structural problems, they also believe that digital wellness practices can be useful tools. We should be using everything at our disposal, Price told me. If you want to see change immediately you have to have the personal responsibility approach because it means we can change right now.
Yet Jenny Odell, an artist whose book How to Do Nothingis a personal meditation on how to disconnect from the attention economy, is concerned that the digital wellness industry, with its emphasis on regaining lost time and productivity, reinforces a deeper cultural problem.
Weve been trained to think of ourselves as marketable objects with 24 potentially monetizable hours, she says. Within this paradigm, the problem with addictive tech is that it is sapping us of our time that could be more productively spent capitalizing on our skills and waking hours.
I think there has to be a distinction between having meaning in your life and being more productive, Odell adds. Theyre not the same thing. But theyre often being conflated by these digital detox products.
In her book, Odell traces how her desire for tech-mediated connection began to ease as she became interested in the birds living in her neighborhood, which then became a full-blown birdwatching hobby. I found that infinitely more grounding than any digital detox program or app is going to be, she told me. I dont have to actively wrestle with technology. I put my phone down because Im going for a walk and theres something I want to look at.
Odell acknowledges that birdwatching wouldnt work for everyone, and that many of the step-by-step digital wellness programs can be useful in providing people relief, but questions how sustainable these solutions are.
Instead of following a program to get back focus and productivity I made myself open to idleness, she says. But the human desire for the quick fix is so deep that if you tell someone you have a number of steps with which they can remedy this really big structural and cultural problem, they will ignore the bigger picture and just take whatever they can get.
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