Earlier this month, I spent my last days of notification-free vacation by KonMari-ing my closets. The sun was hiding, burnout was in the air, and the winds of change shoved me toward self-optimization—pack light for the apocalypse, purge my way to an uncluttered mind. Marie Kondo’s maxim—keep only items that spark joy–promised a sense of agency. Unlike anxiety baking , bath bombs, sheet masks, it was a not retreat from the world, but a chance to prep for some inevitable fight. But the truth is I threw myself into Tidying Up , her ubiquitous new Netflix show, as a spiteful protest because I have no such control in my digital life.
On the internet, which is everywhere, notifications pop up as fast as I delete them. Easy-to-reach shelves are filled with distraction. I can’t sort through my data because I don’t control it. There is no way to opt-out of surveillance capitalism’s grand experiment . With iMessage and Instagram and WhatsApp and Slack, anyone can barge into my house at any time.
Besides, I can barely trust my own brain: After a decade of dopamine feedback loops, pull-to-refresh can feel like joy. Worse, we all know this by now, but the advice stays the same. Inbox zero only leads to inbox infinity. Unsubscribe, auto-delete, unfollow, but your boss can still ping you any hour of the night. Digital detox feels futile when five companies set the terms of service for the internet. Only tech billionaires can afford the luxury of reclaiming their time.
I suspect I’m not the only one that substituted one purge for another. The millions of viewers autoplaying the show heard Kondo say, again and again, that the point of her method was to clear space for your ideal life. Yet in their less-than-ideal lives, American adults now spend half their day consuming content on one screen or another.
If we learned anything last year it’s blame the business model, not the software. But companies have still successfully conflated the things we love about technology (mind-blowing convenience, human connection, a fix for our loneliness, ubiquitous information) with their platforms.
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Cal Newport, author of the new book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World , says he’s had to convince younger users that connecting with people oin the internet is not the same as Facebook or Instagram. If you want to be informed about the news, Twitter is not well-vetted. Newport, who has never had a social media account, says a 30-day tech detox and some better habits will do the trick of getting us unhooked.
But if all roads to wellness lead back to Sunday morning with a newspaper, that’s just not realistic.
“There’s no such thing as quitting Facebook or Instagram or Google,” says Anil Dash, an earlier web pioneer and CEO of Glitch, a community for developers. “They’re sufficiently advanced that if you were to close your account, they would still have a pretty good approximation of your data.”
Journalist Manoush Zomorodi , author of the book Bored and Brilliant , who gave a TED Talk about information overload in the attention economy, says the public debate around technology’s impact on our personal lives is just beginning. To achieve digital peace, she says, we need to confront the power of big tech companies over privacy, AI, misinformation, and algorithmic discrimination, as much as putting down devices and taking up yoga.
“There’s a sliver right there in the middle and that is our life right now,” says Zomorodi That is where the conversation is going. We’re just getting organized.”
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But neither company has done much to address the persuasive design of those apps, or help people move beyond what was already possible to do by manually changing a few settings in your phone.In other words, Google and Apple used the banner of "digital wellness" to re-package tools that already existed, without changing much of anything about your phone."Time Well Spent was never about giving users features to set time limits on their phones, it was about changing the game from which companies compete," says Harris.