Let’s face it, digital detoxes do nothing for us

·3-min read
Robbie Smith (Daniel Hambury)
Robbie Smith (Daniel Hambury)

My phone and I have gone our separate ways. Don’t think conscious uncoupling, think canoeing accident. The thing is one of us floats and the other doesn’t. The full implication of this inescapable fact about our respective buoyancies only struck me as my friends and I lost control of the canoe we were in. It lurched in that horrible way out of control things lurch and I thought ‘I bet it’s not a very good idea for my phone to be loose in the boat, even in its waterproof pouch’. Alas, it was not. Farewell, then, little friend, I sighed as were unceremoniously dunked in the stream and my phone disappeared.

Once we’d got everything back together, righted the boat, and begun the process of acceptance that anyone who capsizes on a trip where the river is about 90 per cent ankle deep must begin, my thoughts returned to the phone.

There was a foreseeable range of emotions, no less sharp for being predictable. First was shame — you fool! — next regret, then despair as I reckoned with the bill. But one emotion was not expected. I felt impoverished and I don’t mean just financially. My phone had, I realised to my surprise, enriched my life, not just been useful or addictive.

One of my companions joked about my enforced digital detox. But some people say that and mean it seriously. There’s a genuine strand of opinion that is morally queasy about our phones and how they absorb us. Can a phone really be described as enriching or was I experiencing a hitherto unlabelled stage of grief called “delusion”? Well that same evening, I went for a walk near our campsite so I could mope in peace. But without my phone I had no clue where I was. If I’d had my smartphone, I could have found a footpath system on its map app and made a smarter choice. Instead I just had to pick a direction and see where I ended up. It felt very unsmart.

I wasn’t just cartographically challenged. My conversation (already questionable) was affected too. Talking about something I knew only slightly was a fool’s errand now, whereas before the phone would suffuse the conversation with a tranche of new knowledge. Or I could tell stories with the aid of its camera roll. Or I could say how far we’d walked that day, or what the weather was going to be tomorrow, or I could stay in touch with my other, sane, non-canoeing friends. The world seemed so much smaller without it.

As I paced the neat rows of a Herefordshire orchard while on that walk, I realised I no longer saw phones as monstrously addictive devices that can make a zombies out of anybody (which is a separate issue). They’re tools that enlarge the world. So the next time I hear the puritanical phrase “digital detox” I’ll be banging the drum for digital retox. So long as there are no rapids in sight.

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