A few weeks ago a colleague in the Library chanced to remark that she had decided temporarily to put off getting an Internet connection after a recent house move. At about the same time I happened to read of holiday camps where people are effectively prepared to pay to have an excuse to switch off their smartphones. Today I see that, according to GlobalWebIndex, posts by Facebook users dropped by 22% in the third quarter of 2015. With the phrase digital detox having entered the Oxford Dictionary and Wikipedia, I wonder, are we reaching saturation point?
I asked if my colleague would be willing to be interviewed about her experiment and she kindly agreed. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
R: Can I start by asking you whether there has ever been a time when you didn’t use the Internet or digital technologies per se, at home, at work or at school?
S: I didn’t have the Internet at home as a young girl. I remember when we got it – it was a novel thing. I was about 8 or 9 or 10. But I grew up with technology. I’ve always had it around me because my Dad was into it. So it wasn’t scary but I remember it being novel. I have distinct memories of it being slow though. You had to plan what you were going to do. You’d think, this is going to take ages to happen! I remember it becoming part of my life but it wasn’t a big thing.
R: Did it feel like a natural thing to have because of your Dad’s interest? And are we talking specifically about the Internet? What other kinds of digital technologies would you include? For example, memory chips in devices like washing machines and phones have been around for a long time.
S: Yes, my Dad was always interested in technology. There was always a computer in our house. There’s never been a period in my life when I’ve not used some kind of digital device. My younger sister and my Dad were more interested in technology than I was. I resisted getting a mobile phone for a time. I was in my teens before I had one and even then it was a hand-me-down! I didn’t really like using it. It wasn’t a smartphone either. So for a long time, I had just a mobile phone. Even when my Dad got a smartphone, I wasn’t that interested in it.
R: So maybe there are three generations: mine, for whom there were simply no mobile phones or personal computers or Internet at all; people like yourself who grew up perhaps with a PC and mobile phone but no Internet and now a generation that has grown up with smartphones.
S: Yes. For me the Internet, when it arrived, was a big effort to use and costly. And it felt as if the things people were doing online weren’t that interesting to me anyway until much later on. I remember thinking why are people so excited about this? You can do all this stuff anyway.
R: So there was always a PC in your house. What did you use it for?
S: My parents were very good at using the computer to help my sister to understand things. We used it for education as well as entertainment. We did play games and things like that but we also did our homework on it. I remember to begin with there weren’t that many good search engines. I used to use a lot of directories and that’s how I found out things.
R: You’ve always been interested in finding things out, always been curious?
S: Yes, that’s what I used the Internet for. When search engines came along, I didn’t like them at first because I’d been using directories for so long, things like Yahoo. When Google came out I thought, there’s nothing on here! This is probably how I fell into working in libraries – I like things organised!
So it was a very active thing – going and looking for things and thinking carefully about what I was doing. It was only when things like videos appeared online that I started to use Internet for entertainment and maybe started looking at it as a social thing with message boards and the like. But I wasn’t that interested in Facebook when it came out.
R: Had you already constructed a social life around yourself without the need for that?
S: Yes, I had all my friends; I could see them whenever I wanted. We never really needed other ways to stay in contact.
R: Has that changed? For example I heard a colleague say recently that she was going to have to join Facebook because otherwise she would feel cut out of her family. She wouldn’t know what was going on in her family or among her friends. Have you had that feeling? Have you engaged a lot with things like Facebook or not as much as other people you know?
S: Well, I did have that feeling – that I had to be on Facebook because all my friends were. But I never got on with it, so came off it again. If I wanted to talk to my friends it would be by phone or email. I took against it. I’ve never really got on with the social media side of things.
I am back on it now because it’s nice to have a way of getting hold of people. It’s just there. You’re part of a network. So I like the idea of it and have an account but I don’t really use it. I don’t participate.
R: But you like the fact that it’s there?
S: Yes, I like to know that if something’s happening, people have different ways of getting in touch with me. Also, as you said about family, my sister lives in the States and she has found Facebook a really useful way of sharing things. I respect that that’s her way of doing things. I’m on Facebook so that I can keep up with her.
R: Is it a bit like Skype – a cheap way of keeping in touch over long distances?
S: Yes. What I like about all these things, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and so on, is that you can find something that works for you and use it to share things in the way that suits you. My sister for example is a very visual person and Facebook allows her share things in a visual way that would be more difficult with email. She’s less interested in writing. So we can have conversations but using different tools. I’ll use email, she Facebook.
R: That’s positive, isn’t it?
S: Yes, though it took a while to get into that. Not being on Facebook, which is her preferred way of communicating, I was feeling a bit cut off but we’ve compromised – I follow what’s she’s doing on Facebook, but respond using email. Being connected is more important to me than the medium we use.
R: Are there differences between the way you use social media in your personal life and at work?
S: Initially I felt pressure to be on social media but found I didn’t take to it. Then, after listening to colleagues who were big advocates of it and physically going to staff development talks and workshops, I understood that I can use it in different ways. I re-engaged with it, thinking I would use it for professional reasons. I experimented with using Facebook and Twitter purely for professional development. That’s helped me get back into it. So long as you know why you’re using it, what you’re using it for, it’s not so scary.
R: So you feel you’ve found an equilibrium. You don’t feel obliged to use it.
S: No. A lot of it has been about learning how each tool works and working out how I can use it – what I can get from it. I went through a stage when I was trying all the different things out, working out whether I could get on with them or not. Then I kind of stuck with some things and not others but anything I haven’t stuck with, now I know why I haven’t. And I can appreciate why other people do use it, to engage with different people in different ways.
R: Can we talk about your digital detox now? Is that too strong a phrase? Can you tell me how that happened, how you decided to be without the Internet? How long ago was it and are you still disconnected?
S: Detox is a good way of describing it but it’s not a true detox because I’m not completely without it. I moved to a new place where I knew I wouldn’t have wi-fi. At the time I wasn’t sure what my financial situation would be, so I decided to see what my budget would be and work out my options based on that. I thought I would take the opportunity to see whether I could live without the Internet. I’d been thinking about doing that for some time but hadn’t had the self-discipline. I’ve been in my new place for about a month now. In terms of how it’s gone, it’s been fine because of the novelty of moving to a new place. I’ve had other things to think about. I haven’t thought, oh my god, I need the Internet, though there was a period when I did have kind of withdrawal symptoms! It felt as if something was missing.
R: How long did that last?
S: About a week. I felt quite anxious. That was kind of the physical effect of it. I still have a mobile phone but because I’m on pay-as-you-go, I have to think carefully about how I’m going to use it to look something up. At work, obviously I’ve got access to the Internet but I know that if I’ve got anything personal or private to do, I should do it in my own time. I have a routine at work whereby I go for a walk at lunchtime and at first I thought I might as well check things online then but I haven’t done that because I like going out. After work, I’m tired and want to go home; I don’t want to stay too long to use the Internet. So the way it’s worked out, if there’s something that requires me to go online, such as online banking, I’ll schedule time for that. I don’t procrastinate, whereas before I’d probably have gone and checked my email or had a look at this or that shop. If you do that though, before you know it, you’ve been sitting there for an hour and not done what you originally intended. I’m not doing that now. I just get on with what I have to do so that I can go home. That’s been really nice.
R: Do you have a landline?
S: No, I haven’t got a landline, just a mobile.
R: Are you using the phone to do things you would have done online?
S: I don’t think so. No, that’s not true. I did call a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a while. Before, I would probably have just sent an email instead. That was the first thing I noticed; I realised I could actually choose to talk to someone.
R: Were they surprised?
S: No but it had been a long time and it was good to talk rather than just exchange emails.
R: Do you think you’re making more social calls in general?
S: I don’t think so, just setting aside time to use the Internet more purposefully, in a more focused way. I think I’m talking more to my parents though. Like finding a good time to call them for a quick chat.
R: Would you have emailed them before?
S: Well, I still email them but now I call them as well.
R: What about private, non-social business, like contacting a company or having something done on your house? Has that changed at all?
S: When I moved and needed to contact the agent, I could do all that by email at work. So that was fine. I haven’t got to the point where I’ve needed to check something online out of hours. But I have had that moment when I’ve thought how will I do this? Say I need a telephone number; before, I would have just looked it up online. How will I do that now? But then I’ve realised I can just call a friend and ask them to look it up for me. Cheat a bit! And then I end up having a conversation with them!
I quite like the challenge. I have thought, what did people do before the Internet? But at the same time it’s good not to have to spend money on expensive premium telephone numbers so much nowadays.
R: I’m wondering why, if we can’t do without the Internet, we should have to pay for it. Let’s come back to the cost later. Have you missed anything? For example, has anything that you were expecting not arrived because people haven’t known how to contact you?
S: I don’t think I’ve missed anything important. Because I know I’ve got to keep track of things, I think I’ve been making more of a conscious effort to make sure everything’s in order. And I’ve told all my friends. I’ve made sure they know I’m not online regularly. None of them are saying why are you doing this? They’ve just accepted it.
R: And as you said before, you and your friends are of a generation that didn’t initially have Facebook and so have other ways of communicating anyway.
S: Yes, we’re all very similar in how we think about technology. We all use it in different ways: some contact me directly, some text me, some email. I would find it difficult if I were in a circle of friends in which there was pressure always to be online.
R: Have you made a decision as to when or whether you’ll get an internet connection at home?
S: At the moment I’m not thinking of getting it. I’m doing more of the things which I had been wanting to do but never got round to because I got tired and distracted by the Internet.
R: Can you give an example?
S: Well, like reading a book. For a long time I haven’t read a book in the evening, only on holiday or at the weekend. Now, I’ll just sit down in the evening and read a book.
R: I confess I’m in a similar situation. When I go on holiday, I read more because there’s no Internet. I do other things as well – I’m active and I use technology but purely to support what I’m doing – nothing more.
S: I think that’s where I want to be. So when I do get the Internet again, I’ll have all these other things that I’ve started doing and I’ll use the technology to support them rather than get distracted by it.
R: Before this interview you told me you thought the way you looked for and used information had changed.
S: I’ve become more active, more purposeful. I used to go online and quickly become quite passive. I miss just stumbling on things that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about but I do like the feeling I have at the moment of knowing that I have something to find and having to think about how to find it. If I’m using the mobile phone, I have to think carefully about how to use it because I have a limited data plan. And at work in the lunch break or after hours, I have to ask myself what’s the most effective way of finding something out.
R: And helping people to find information is part of your job, isn’t it.
S: Definitely yes. That’s partly why I wanted to do this. As an information professional, I should be aware of how we behave when seeking information.
R: You seem to be saying that it’s so easy to become distracted that we forget what we’re looking for; that we’re curious about all the stuff out there, but most of it is irrelevant to us and we get lost.
S: That I still like, you know, finding things out you didn’t know about. I think I’m more concerned about the effect the Internet has on how we behave – how we can become very passive. You’re not really thinking about what you’re taking in.
Detox is a good term for what I’m doing. There’s a book I haven’t read yet but which likens surfing the web to the temptation of junk food. I thought a lot about how social media made me feel but wasn’t maybe so conscious of how other things about the Internet made me feel. The ease with which you can find things and the frustration if you can’t, the impatience when you don’t get the answer you want immediately. All that affects your behavior. I was feeling that a lot and thought it would be interesting to see what effect it would have if I cut the Internet out and had to think more about I was doing.
R: Do you feel you’ve become more purposeful and patient in the way you look for information as a result?
S: I’m trying to become so, yes. And to be more aware of how I think and feel about other things in my life.
R: You said you still envisage getting an internet connection at some point. So you will go back.
S: Oh yes. I can definitely see the value of having access to the Internet. We’re heading in a direction in which if you don’t, you can get cut off. But I want to treat it more as a tool. I want to be more aware of what I’m using it for.
R: You mention the risk of being cut off if you aren’t connected online. That’s becoming a government agenda; more and more services are being offered online and sometimes it feels as if the reasons for this may be more about making savings than about offering better services.
S: For me the whole thing about working in libraries and information services is accessibility. Information should be available in any format. It’s good that libraries offer internet access but I’m very conscious that some people can’t easily get to them or have to go to internet cafés. When that happens, you’re in a very public place. If I wasn’t working in a place where I have access to a computer, I’d have to go to a public library or internet café and would struggle with that. I would want more privacy. It isn’t fair for people either to have to have private internet access or expose themselves.
R: Is there any such thing as a private PC nowadays?
S: No, logging in to something and putting in your private data is a security risk whether you’re at home or not. But I mean I wouldn’t want to have a private video chat in an internet café. You don’t want people looking over your shoulder all the time, able to see things that are of private interest to you.
R: That sort of brings us back to the question I postponed earlier, which is whether this should all be free. If we are obliged to carry out our daily business online why should we have to pay for access to the Internet?
S: I’m not so sure that it should be free. Someone has to pay for it. I recognize that behind the Internet there are people who are trying to make a living. I don’t see the Internet as a faceless thing.
R: Should we be taxed rather than pay companies? Should the Internet be a public service? Wouldn’t that place it a little more in our control?
S: Yes, I know some councils provide free internet access across the city, which is paid for out of council tax. Norwich I think has done that and I know there’s talk of doing it in parts of London. That’s quite interesting but whether it should be paid for via council tax or personal taxation I’m not sure. The question is whether it’s an essential public service, like clean water or safe roads. I’m not convinced that’s true of the Internet. It’s convenient definitely but you can live without it.
R: As you’re proving, pretty much!
S: Yes, so long as there’s an alternative. Like, if there were no safe roads, how would we get around? There’s no alternative, unless we all start flying! There are essential services we all benefit from and to which there are no alternatives. We’ve got other ways of communicating and getting information. It’s just that they’re not as convenient as the Internet. I just see the Internet as an alternative.
R: Governments want us to believe that Internet is an essential service. I tried the other day to think of a service which is still being provided without any kind of digital communication and drew a blank.
S: Yes but I nevertheless think we could function fine without it.
R: The trouble is do we know we could?
S: I wouldn’t want to do without it. It’s given us so much freedom and it’s enabled us to do things that would have been difficult before. And it’s helped people who would struggle with other forms of communication. It’s just that we need to be aware that it’s just another tool and not allow it to take over. There are people who become bullies online, who believe they can say things online they wouldn’t say in public. They forget probity. If you put information online it becomes public and you lose ownership. People need to be more conscious of what they’re using the Internet for and how to use it appropriately.
R: You’re obviously thinking a lot about how and why you’re using the Internet and the effect it has on your and other people’s feelings and behaviours in many areas of personal, professional and social life. You’re setting a great example for others with your digital detox experiment!
S: I highly recommend it!