I really liked Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, and today I stumbled across one of his new blog posts thanks to another NoSurfer.
“Digital Wellness for Grownups” is mentioning the current rising trend of tech giants realizing their responsibility, and implementing techniques and apps to mitigate them - like the new tracking and blocking feature both Android and iOS have in their new versions.
One way to view it is to be grateful: Finally, awareness is rising and people have made enough noise about the harmful effects of too much social media or phone usage. And the tech giants are taking responsibility and helping the end user take control of their habits! Of course we need shiny, easy to use, playful apps to convince people to use them, so it’s easier for them to go through with the changes!
Cal Newport has a different view, something that’s really worth thinking and discussing about. Do we really need apps to limit us from apps? He writes:
I recognize that digital tools have a useful role to play in productivity. I’ve long advised, for example, that people use internet blocking software like Freedom to help jumpstart deep work training.
But something about this growing digital wellness movement makes me uneasy, and I think I’ve finally put my finger on the source of my concern: it’s infantilizing.
I’m a grown man. If I’m checking my phone every 5 minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits, I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say “get your act together.”
He argues apps like them can be downright infantilizing, treating us like children that are at the mercy of their parent’s parenting blocker, and having to entice us with cute images and softly reeling us into the reality of limiting our use, instead of us being consciously following this path while training our discipline and willpower and having social support at our side. It’s like we rely on technology to keep us away with similar addictive features, instead of doing so many good, focused, exciting and important things that we are so immersed that we don’t need blockers to stay away, and having actual human intervention.
I’m arguing instead that many of the “solutions” of the digital wellness movement don’t take the problem seriously enough. If I’m wasting away hours every day on digital randomness, this is a big deal. I need more than some helpful apps. I would want “someone I respect” to pull me aside and impress on me that this is serious; that I need to make serious changes.
I’m advocating an approach for digital issues that matches what we have seen work for other health and lifestyle issues.
If someone has a drinking problem, for example, it’s not enough to hang a warning about liver damage on their beer fridge, or put up an inspirational poster at the bar; you need people they trust to intervene. To say clearly: This is a problem. Stop with the little fixes. You have to change your life.
Cute apps, plug-ins, and OS features is not a solution for grown ups with real problems. The real solution is the stand up and resolve to make real changes in your life. This is hard. It helps to have support. But it’s the way we should be talking about these issues.
I think both views have a lot of merit; it’s right that too many times, we just rely on apps to take the job of discipline and willpower. Willpower is limited and we should use it for good, but we sometimes end up expecting too much of the blocker and tracker apps and change nothing else in our life.
Our focus should not only be to block, it should be to change our life and habits which starts at the brain and what we do! We also need a much bigger intervention than just our apps; we need community (as lined out in our other Community thread) and we need people who mean a lot to us to support us.
On the other hand, I am personally glad things are designed to be easy to use, integrated now so people don’t have to go through the first obstacle of installing them, and have imagery and work with feelings of guilt sometimes as well. We are talking about people that are addicted to sleek user interfaces and seeing lots of cute new content all the time that are used to being drawn in and manipulated - just discipline or a straightforward design and blocking could be averting someone trying to make a change. And sadly, not everyone has so many great, immersing things to do, especially not all the time; and a lot of people are surrounded by people exactly as addicted as them, or no one they would respect. There is no one to intervene. So change has to come through them entirely, which can be hard without blocking software holding them accountable.