[SCMP Column] Digital Detox

January 21, 2019

For many years it has been fashionable to devote January to a detox, normally from alcohol and often from coffee. This year, for the first time, I have friends devoting January to a different kind of detox – 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 and because I have always been uncomfortable with the loss of privacy, but because I discovered early the viral power of Facebook to consume all waking hours – and then more.

I have also always been disdainful of Twitter – not because 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 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 terminal cost US$10,000. I was only too happy to abandon the manual typewriter I was forced to buy as a trainee journalist (when I dug it out from the back of a cupboard a few years ago, the muscles on my fingers had so atrophied that I could not even physically press down the keys).

I was also only too happy to be able to file reports from my hotel bedroom when my early experiences filing reports from places like Sri Lanka, India or Malaysia involved hunting down the nearest post office, and queueing to punch out thousands of holes on long paper strips on telex machines.

And all of this was long before the era of serious digital addiction kicked in with the arrival of smartphones, cheap or free telecoms, and serious 3G capacity. There is no underestimating the revolutionary impact on our lives of email, search engines, GPS apps, and high quality digital cameras that allow us to share photos instantly with anyone, anywhere in the world – and free.

But 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” clutter. As the FT’s Tim Harford noted as he began his digital detox early in December: “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

Obviously entering into contentious territory, I would argue that a search engine, email, Google Maps and the digital camera are truly indispensable, and keeping control on their use reasonably manageable. Even here, Harford warns: “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 Fcebook, Twitter and Instagram without extreme pain. After ignoring Facebook for six weeks, Harford returned to discover 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 rather than WeChat which always seems so cluttered by random marketing pitches from people you have never heard of.

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 she interviewed 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 on balance spare my Kindle, I vacillate here. Nowadays 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 the E-Commerce shopping sites, and in particular the airline booking sites. Booking airline tickets has become a nerve-racking nightmare as you discover how many choices there are in flights between any two cities, and how scarily ticket prices rise and fall in the weeks ahead of a flight. 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, but it frees up a huge amount of time to use your day in different ways. Tim Harford, for example, 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 drop and 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.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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