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Digital Literacy

Digital Detox 2020/1: The Problem with Digital Detoxes

By Dr. Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning

Every year, as DLINQ’s Digital Detox nears, I reflect critically on digital detoxes. From the start of our Digital Detox initiative, we have emphasized looking beyond mindful approaches to technology to ask difficult questions about the complex entanglements of digital technologies in social life (e.g., surveillance, hard-coded biases, misinformation). But as I observe the upswell of interest in digital detoxes more broadly, I can’t help but worry. Do digital detoxes focus on the wrong things? Do they propose that the solutions to our serious digital attention and connection challenges are temporary disconnections from technology, instead of addressing how and why digital platforms operate in the ways they do?

I am especially wary of digital detoxes that seek to capitalize on our problems with digital attention and connection. At Camp Grounded, for example, people pay upwards of $500 to disconnect from technology for several days. Intrepid Travel offers Digital Detox trips to Ecuador, Thailand, and Morocco. Silicon Valley tech folks have launched organizations like Center for Humane Technology to provide “thought leadership” on the perils of digital addiction (focusing primarily on individual action to address addiction) caused by the interfaces and tools they created. Camp Grounded provides a Digital Detox ® Certification (price tag not included) for K-12 teachers. App stores offer apps that monitor and in some cases shut down screen time. Advertisements for automobiles, alcohol, and even digital technology/products now cater to our interest in digital detoxing. There is big money to be made, it seems, on our need to take a break from technology.

Beyond my wariness about the big business of digital detoxes, I also wonder if they really only help those who have the privilege of affording or participating in that kind of “healthy” disconnection. In her study of Camp Grounded, Sutton noted, “I observed that Camp Grounded attendees tended to be white, in their 20s and 30s, able bodied, well educated, and financially comfortable” (Sutton, 2017). With the high price tag associated with many detoxes and related technologies/services, you can see how many folks cannot afford to participate in such initiatives.

Now, I know that you do not have to attend an expensive camp or pay someone/an app to help you detox. Staying off of Facebook or Twitter for a few weeks is free (and I recommend it!). But it’s helpful to remember that in many parts of the world, Facebook provides free or lower-cost access to the Internet; it is the way some people access the web, find opportunities, read news, learn, and more. Self-employed individuals rely on digital platforms to reach customers. And most detoxes do not address the needs of folks with disabilities who may need technologies and digital services to survive and thrive (and most detoxes do not tackle deeper issues of exclusion and bias hard-coded into digital spaces–see our 2019 Digital Detox). Being able to disconnect from digital platforms for our own benefit is great, but it’s also a privilege that many others cannot access or afford (see also #98 on Audrey Watters’ excellent list of The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade).

While detoxes might be helpful as short-term recalibrations for some of us, raising awareness of just how entangled we are with the digital world, they may also distract us from the hard work of looking deeper at what they represent. Grafton Tanner wrote:

“technocrats [promoting digital detoxes] never mention capitalism. They rarely talk about the surveillance state or the problems with data privacy. They fail to attack the attention economy at its roots or challenge the basic building blocks of late capitalism: market fundamentalism, deregulation, and privatization…Solving tech problems with tech solutions only continues to position Big Tech as the savior of us all. Unfortunately, what the public learns from this worn-out myth is that, even when technology is used for the common good, the larger structures of power must remain in place, unquestioned.”

As we focus this 2020 Detox on attention, I invite you to help us look beyond individual tasks and strategies (though we will certainly share those!) and turn our attention to demanding change from the digital platforms and social systems that have helped to create the problems we are facing. Jenny Odell calls this “standing apart,” which she defines as “tak[ing] the view of the outsider without leaving . . . It means not fleeing your enemy, but knowing your enemy, which turns out not to be the world — contemptus mundi — but the channels through which you encounter it day to day.” (p. 61) During this detox, beyond exploring detoxing strategies, let’s also explore strategies to stand apart in the digital world– refusing its attention demands and holding platforms accountable. We will dive into “standing apart” as part of self-care in our next edition of Digital Detox 2020.

Take Action

Read How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, the book that inspired the 2020 Detox theme

Reflect on and explore what “standing apart” looks like for you. For example:

  • Reflect on what “listening” looks like when you’re online. How might I show listening to others in ways that do not feed the attention economy?
  • Avoid “zombie scrolling” (mindlessly scrolling through apps and services on screen) for a week and instead focus your attention deeply on a friend on social media.
  • Use your digital devices and social media for intentional purposes, as digital minimalists do, and avoid reverting to your technologies because you’re bored or looking for a distraction.

We’d love to hear about your reflections and explorations with “standing apart.” Share them on our blog or click the blue button to share them just with us.

What did you do with this Detox? Want to share some resources or ideas? Click here to submit a reflection!

Keep Reading!

Digital Detox: Big Tech’s Phony Crisis of Conscience, by Grafton Tanner
Disconnect to Reconnect: The Food/technology Metaphor in Digital Detoxing, by Theodora Sutton
The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade, by Audrey Watters
The Center for Human Technology Doesn’t Want Your Attention, by Maya Ganesh

Did you miss our 2019 Detox articles? View them on the Digital Detox webpage

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Practicing Self-Care in the Attention Economy
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