You Give the Devil the Little Finger and He Takes the Whole Hand - A Manifesto on Technology Addiction
Originally Published on the 19th of September 2018
As many of you know, I have spent a considerable amount of time outside of the realm of present day “digital normality”, and chose to live in a kind of analogue exile for an extended period. When I returned to the world of technology I wanted to be more available for contact with the “outside world”. However, I had not anticipated the degree to which contemporary communication technology is intentionally designed so that you bite off more than you can chew.
As the old saying goes, you give the devil the little finger and he takes the whole hand.
In addictions you simultaneously are drawn to, and unable to tolerate, the behaviour or substance you are addicted to. Once you start you cannot stop.
According to the 12 steps and other recovery programmes, the beginning of recovering from an addiction is realising you are powerless over it – that willpower alone is not a sufficient defence against it.
For the purposes of this essay, I will be use a definition of addiction which encompasses addictions which both include and do not include externally produced chemicals.
“A disfunctional attachment to an experience that is harmful to a person but is an essential part of the persons ecology, and that the person cannot relinquish.” – Stanton Peel
In contemporary understandings of addictions, there is actually little underlying distinction between a “behavioural” and a substance addiction, seeing as all substance additions are based on behaviours. Neuroscience backs up that the brain activates in a similar way in both cases. For this reason I will be using the terms “addiction” and “behavioural addiction” fairly interchangeably.
From here on I simply refer to contemporary communication technology simply as “tech”, despite that the word “technology” embraces stone tools, clothing and the wheel as well as smartphones and the internet.
The Bigger Picture and Silicon Valley
On the other side of the screen is a sophisticated endeavour to break your willpower down. Even if you attempt to set healthy boundaries, it can be almost impossible to follow them through.
Money millions of dollars annually is poured into breaking down your willpower and desire to extricate yourself from this entanglement. The major players in Silicon Valley Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon etc have long had specialist “user engagement” departments with an intentional understanding of addiction psychology.
In the mid ‘00s there was a famous conference where some of the elite of Silicon Valley met with some of the top addictions psychologists. Their aim was to understand how to get people hooked on their platforms. They learned a lot about dopamine circuitry and as a result Facebook began an experiment with their users as the lab rats. This experiment was centred around producing unpredictable rewards, which they called likes. The experiment was very effective and it was a major factor in Facebook learning to refine its mechanisms to get you to spend as much time on it as possible.
The tide, thankfully, has not entirely been moving in one direction. Over the years, there have been a number of high-level Silicon Valley whistle blowers attempting to draw attention to this phenomenon and calls for tech companies to self regulate. As a result of growing pressure, this year Apple made a decision to introduce a new “Screen Time” function into their upcoming iOS update.
Interestingly Steve Jobs refused to ever let his children use iPads because he realised that it would have a detrimental effect on their developing brains and personalities. Adam Alter, in his book “Irresistable” compared this with a drug dealer who is rigourously clean and sober, following the maxim to “Never get high on your own supply.”
I was introduced to tech addiction from a very early age. My father was one of the first tech addicts and we would joke that if he left the house without his devices – in those days a 1990s Psion – he would be without his “brain”.
He was obsessively documenting and recording every detail in his digital storehouse in such a way that we found, at the time, eccentric if a little crippled. He rationalised, as all addicts do, how this was a healthy and forward thinking behaviour – just as Freud famously was in his time one of cocaine’s biggish advocates and addicts at a time that nobody realised the damage that cocaine inflicted.
My father understood that he was looking to the future and that the world would catch up with him. Now his tech addiction is no longer visible because it has become so normalised and institutionalised.
The combination to this socially institutionalised and familial technology addiction has left me with poor role models, defences and resilience against the addictive lure of tech. To compound this, I have a naturally highly sensitive nervous system, which is very vulnerable to sensory overstimulation which makes this a very dangerous combination.
I have made various attempts at digital detoxing. My first significant attempt was in 2008 when I had an entire month without any computer use.
The first few days hard but I quickly grew used to it. At this time, in the summer before my first year at university, I was in a position where I did not have to worry about monetary survival. Additionally it was relatively easy and normal to stay in contact with people with a “button phone” that could only do calls and SMS.
My second major attempt to extricate myself was in 2011 and lasted for nearly 5 years until February 2017. This resembled a recovering alcoholic going sober. Not a drop.
I did not have, in most of this time, a mobile phone, email address, computer or any other digital communication devices. In much of this time I also did not use of any computers at all. Towards the last year of this period I started using email again at the library and developed the beginnings of a new online presence.
Towards the end of this period I had become extremely reliant on others for managing some socially and economically unavoidable digital interactions. This dependency, not backed up by monetary compensation, was causing friction. I explored hiring a PA for a few hours a month but this proved unsuccessful and financially unsustainable.
It became obvious that living entirely tech free in 2017 was effectively similar to having a disability in terms of being excluded from participating in society in a normal way. This is something I find deeply concerning, seeing as it effectively means that you normally have to be online in order to be “a person”. Where does that leave the substantial number of people who either aren’t able to participate in this way or would prefer not to?
In February 2017 I finally succumbed to the social pressure to be back online and, with the financial support of my family, bought my first “device” since 2011 – an Apple iPad. One month later, I took out a contract to have an iPhone too.
The first night of getting my iPad, after over 5 years of minimal tech use, I opened the box at approximately 8pm, excited to play with my new toy and justified that I would only turn it on to set it up. At 8.45 am the next morning I put it down after a nearly 13 hour binge and went to work without having slept.
I quickly realised I had picked up exactly where I had left off. I was familiar with some addictions psychology at this point including some 12 step literature. In the A.A. “big book” there are stories of alcoholics who, after decades of sobriety, have a tiny drop of drink and they found themselves on extreme binges which left many hospitalised, bankrupt and in many cases dead. I suddenly related to this situation in an immediate and frightening way.
Over the coming months I reasoned with myself that I would develop more a more healthy relationship with the new tech in my life, and not succumb to its addictive capacities.
To a limited extent this has been successful – I now no longer binge to the extreme that I first experienced when I first opened the packaging of my iPad. It still might happen occasionally that I stay up until 4am and I am able to recognise the patterns leading up to it better. I have begun to define, even if I cannot follow through, what the “right amount” looks like.
However, this is a very far cry from feeling like I have developed healthy boundaries and almost every time I switch on my phone or tablet I have distinct feeling of being completely out of control.
In the 12 steps, the first is admitting powerless. Right now, I am attempting to admit my powerlessness over technology and the limitation of my will-power in setting and maintaining healthy limits.
Now I live in a world where jobs demand using WhatsApp and the like. Communication with potential clients includes a skilful use of email and other communication channels.
Due to this, I cannot at this stage, contemplate a full “cold turkey” plan of extrication. I realise that I could only do this by increasing reliance on others around me to manage a difficult to avoid digital life.
I may some day get to the point where this no longer is an issue. For I example I might have reliable access to a landline and am able to hire a PA or VA and where I have the structures and resources in place to ensure that my important relationships can flourish. In this case I may, once again, make a full retreat from direct digital interactions. For now, I am not there.
Because of this I am experimenting with implementing a thorough digital detox plan, utilising the “Screen Time” feature implemented in the Apple’s new iOS update. In effect I am calling in the help, ironically, of a power greater than myself to restore me to sanity.
I have iOS 12 on both my devices and this is the full extent of my personal digital landscape. What has shocked me in the last week and a half since using the Screen Time tool is how quickly screen time adds up. Even days when I feel like I have barely used my phone – an SMS or two here, check the map there etc. – I usually use at least 1 hour 30 minutes of screen time minimum.
Bearing in mind that is a “barely using it day” on days when I am more actively using it 4-5 happens very quickly.
Seeing these numbers objectively makes me see how flimsy the myth is that tech is a tool to make our lives easier, when in fact it is an enormous intrusion into our lives.
The recommendations from the neuroscience field suggests that 2 hours per day is really the maximum that is tolerable for the average person without detrimental effects physically or psychologically.
I will limit myself to a maximum of 1.5 hours of total screen time per day after which my all apps will be be inaccessible except those which exclusively do voice calls and messeges.
These apps will, for now, be WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime but I’m the future I may adjust these settings.
I may allocate additional time during week where I have “office hours” and MS Word, Pages and email can be used for a relatively extended period.
A Method of Extrication
In order to override or adjust the settings I have a passcode. Right now I am experimenting with trying to figure the exact calibration of permissions which is both boundaried and healthy whilst still being sustainable. By the beginning of October, I will stop experimenting and commit to the settings.
At this point, I will stop using the passcode and this will be taken fully out of the realm of my personal willpower.
The method is simple:
I will get someone else, not myself, to set the passcode.
They will write this passcode down on a piece of paper and place that paper in an envelope.
This envelope will be given to an entrusted person to whom I must be accountable if I wish to change the settings.
Any changes I make must be approved by the passcode holder. The passcode is only to be used for making approved changes and the passcode afterwards is reset according to the steps above.
This acknowledges my powerless and lack of sufficient will power to resist the lure of the screen.
While this may sound restrictive it feel to me like a big act of self love. I am giving myself permission to cease codependent people pleasing and to use tech on my own terms, rather than on the terms I feel I have to submit to, be enslaved by and the expectations that are apparently “normal” in today’s world.
This idea of normal is obviously extremely new and I hope will be very fleeting in the grand scheme of things.
This is only one step in a bigger process. This does not address the wider collectivised pressure to be addicted to technology nor the personal or collective emotional healing required to address underlying issues surrounding the addictive process. A metaphor I found myself contemplating is like being a former crack addict being clean but still living in a crack den.
I have a lot of emotional holes to fill but I am one person and this is an epidemic problem. Until this is part of a more widespread social movement to establish these healthy boundaries and to heal on this level, I will be an unusual voice swimming against the tide.
When I see people walking around being glued to their smart phones it is a strong trigger for me – it reminds me of being a child while my father escapes into his solitaire puzzles on his 1990s Psion and reenforcing his emotional unavailability. I see how fragmented and lonely our collective environment becomes and how this seems to get more accute every day. In my pocket is the perfect escape from this pain – a smartphone. And so the cycle continues.
This is the perfect storm of epidemic level behavioural addiction.
My closing thought is about todays children. Growing up in the environment I did, it was unusual at that time for fathers to be tech addicts, though perhaps not unheard of. Of course, parents had other ways of playing out emotional unavailability.
Now I see so many scenes of babies whose parents are attending more to their phones than to their children. I don’t want to be the purist that says you should never ever be on your phone in front of your kids. However it seems obvious that where we are going is not a good basis for healthy, attuned attachments. As children of addicts we are prone to play out the same addictions that we see growing up, as I can testify.
If I, as a child in the 90s, am so affected by this now then I wonder how the current generation of children will fare. Nintendo 64s and Gameboys look comparatively innocent, compared with the weaponised versions of their equivalents today.