The digital detox has reached its inevitable “getting a Banksy tattoo” or “private jetting a hat to Italy” stage of celebrity. What started as a question – are we spending too much time looking at screens? – swelled until it was a holiday option, a wellness solution, a position of moral superiority and (according to an advert in my inbox this morning) a £38 face mist containing “energy-cleansing Frankincense and purifying Magnesium salts”. And that was before anybody had quite answered the question.
I am a person on an endless scroll, through paintings, holidays, politics, coats. My phone is my girlfriend, analyst, flower shop, bank, bully. It’s a library burned down by a petty arsonist, then rebuilt overnight in butter for fun, it’s a shopping centre where everyone knows my name. It is a place of sex and war and radical relief. And yet, there is an overwhelming consensus that phones – that technology itself – are inherently harmful.
Recently, to mark Digital Detox Day, BBC Morning Live hosted a “digital detox expert” who repeated a doubtful piece of research that suggested simply having your smartphone on the desk in front of you lowers your IQ, a claim swiftly debunked on Twitter by Dr Matthew Sweet. Elsewhere, studies into the horrors of tech use rarely distinguish between the techs they monitor, when of course each kind is vastly different; how should we compare the experience of talking in a group chat on WhatsApp to using a period tracker, or learning Polish on Duolingo to putting a cute little baby effect on an Instagram selfie?
Many of the studies say spending too long on your phone might lead to depression, anxiety and sleeplessness. But it is almost impossible to say for sure which way that river flows. Do people get anxious because they’re on their phones, or are they on their phones because they’re anxious?
For the many businesses that have bloomed in order to ride the digital detox wave, it doesn’t matter. The feelings we associate with our phones, of sloth, guilt, pleasure, are enough to send many of us in search of solutions, whether self-help books, wellness retreats, dumber pieces of brickish tech, branded stationery or scented candles. It should surprise nobody at this point that, in its digital detox kit, Goop sells bath salts containing activated charcoal which, presumably, just sucks the screentime directly from your pores. £36.
But the industry, for me, is not the problem – . Buy what you want, gals, if it makes you feel nice for a moment, if it makes you feel like you’re in control, buy the face mist, have the bath, enjoy it, a storm is coming. No, the problem, to me, feels stickier. I bristle at the word “detox”. Some people may be addicted to their phones, but most of us aren’t.
Most of us have a level of control over our actions, are able to make choices about how long we want to spend fantasising over vintage sofas on eBay or basking in the glow of an influencer’s 14th holiday since Christmas. So the idea that the only way we can rescue ourselves from technology (if indeed, we need rescuing) involves surrendering it completely seems over the top, unprogressive and infantilising. Especially as, post-detox, when you float back from the rural retreat or very long bath, or turn off the app you paid to download in order to block the apps you got for free, you are rewarded with the treat of your phone. The word suggests it’s something pathological and difficult when in fact, if you feel too wedded to technology, there are very simple adjustments you can make to the routines of your day (like: don’t pick up your phone as soon as you wake up) rather than grandly, sadly, chucking a slice of your life in the bin.
My phone doesn’t hurt me. Sometimes what I see there does, but more often it feels like home. Here’s where I keep my memories, and the memories of others, and the memories that possibly might have happened but the dates seem off. It’s a diary and a notebook, and a locked desk containing secrets both incendiary and medical. It is a map and a gallery and a tour guide, and someone sitting in the back suggesting we turn left right now because they sense swerving lorries or ex-boyfriends ahead. It’s complicated, I know, I know, but ridding yourself of the machine that makes you feel bad is not the same as ridding yourself of the bad feelings.
Paying attention to the positive aspects of living online is just as important as weeding out the negatives. There are many millions of ways to waste time online, some of them intensely pleasurable, but there are also many millions of ways to enrich ourselves as humans there, to communicate and desire and learn. Beneath every mention of a “digital detox” I hear a puritan hum, the familiar sound made when someone attempts to drag the world backwards.