Q&A: Wongi 'Freak' Wilson
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Tanya Goodin founded one of the earliest digital marketing agencies, and was search engine optimising three years before Google launched.
Because of her long history with the internet, Tanya describes herself as a proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to tech addiction. When she realised the negative effect tech was having on her life, she decided to set up Time to Log Off, running digital detox retreats for people who want to disconnect. Now an internationally-renowned digital detox expert, she has published two books and hosts the podcast It’s Complicated. Cityscape caught up with her about how easing back on tech could improve our lives.
Tell us about those first years working in digital – was there an addictive element to it at the start? At the start I don’t think there was. It was all very new and exciting, but it was shut away in a desktop or laptop at the end of the working day. There were very few people online in the UK and social media had rather a party atmosphere. It was fun, entertaining, and supportive – I look back rather wistfully at it all now. One potential client even asked me if I’d brought the internet in my briefcase when I went to see him. No one had a clue really.
When did it change? It would have to be the launch of the iPhone and the invention of the ‘like’ button, both in 2007. That’s the pivotal year addictive tech really took off. The former meant we now took the digital world everywhere with us, the latter meant companies found a way to get us seriously hooked on it. Justin Rosenstein, one of the creators of the like button, has described how it was specifically designed to give users a dopamine rush, which keeps bringing them back to the app. He’s now deleted most social media from his phone, and limits his time on Facebook. Similarly, it is fairly well-known that Steve Jobs, inventor of the iPhone, described himself as a ‘low tech’ parent and restricted the technology his kids used. If the fact that both those men gave their own inventions a wide berth isn’t evidence enough of the power of addictive tech, I don’t know what is.
Your ‘eureka moment’ came when you realised you hadn’t read a book in four years. Tell us about that. I read English at Oxford University so when a friend at a dinner party happened to ask what I’d been reading recently, it came as a bit of a shock to realise I hadn’t completely finished a book in over four years. It wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted to read, but that I couldn’t focus long enough to finish any book, something I had never struggled with before. It was a real wake-up call that something was happening to my brain, to my focus and concentration.
How else had your life changed as your tech consumption increased? My sleep was deteriorating, my focus was shot to pieces and my creativity had disappeared. I originally blamed all of that on getting older, but the more I thought about the vanishing amount of time I now spent on all those aspects of my life, compared to the time now eaten up by being online, I began to question it.
How did you change your tech habits? Originally I went completely cold turkey to work out what was going on. I deleted all social media, I switched to a ‘dumb phone’ to call family and keep in touch with loved ones, a phone that had no digital connectivity. I don’t live that way now, but I was so deeply entrenched in it that I needed to completely step away.
Are you completely cured, or do you lapse occasionally? I’m definitely not totally cured. I lapse the same as everyone else. It’s very hard to totally log off now that our lives revolve around technology. But every time I find I’m losing a couple of hours to mindless scrolling I turn off my phone and go outside, or do something absorbing and mindful. Yoga or puzzles are a favourite.
How did you come to be the first digital detox expert? I have always been a classic early adopter of technology (I had one of the first Mac computers imported into the UK, and later on, one of the very first iPhones) so it was inevitable I began to feel the effects of tech adoption before others. I’ve also always been very interested in psychology. This helped me see we had the ability to go quite badly astray with technology, while others were still blinded by the huge financial potential and not thinking through all the implications. I think the combination of both those things, my personal experience and my academic interest, led me to seeing a need for a change of direction about three or so years before everyone was ready to hear about it.
How is tech designed to hook us in? Technology, and in particular social media, is deliberately and calculatedly designed to hook us using the same techniques as slot machines - variable rewards combined with social validation, social proof and personalisation via algorithms. The famous Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University in the US developed all the tricks, starting in the late 1990s, which the addictive tech industry now uses. Interestingly, the founder of that same lab also warned very early on about the negative use some of those persuasive tech tricks could be put to in unscrupulous hands.
What are the negative effects that digital technology is having on our everyday lives? Our addictive tech environment is stopping us from living richly and from resting fully. We’re becoming lonelier and more isolated; we are working less effectively; we’re never switched off and we can rarely fully relax. In 2017 the French enshrined into law that employees could ignore work emails out of hours, just to enable them to take a break after their working day. We’ve almost regressed to the sweat factory conditions of the industrial revolution with how work now impacts every area of our lives, thanks to smartphones.
We now spend a lot of time on phones. What have we given up? Before smartphones and the internet we had more time to develop interests, hobbies and pastimes which refreshed, relaxed and sustained us. Think about what you used to fill your days with, say, ten years ago. Yes, some of it might have been just staring into the void feeling bored I’m sure, but a lot of it was around reading, sport, craft, long rambling chats with friends. We have pretty much eliminated all of that in favour of scrolling on our phones.
Do you find people are anxious at the thought of a digital detox? Yes, without exception everyone who comes on one of our retreats is nervous about not having their phone. I’ve even had people ask for special dispensation to keep their phone 'just for work purposes', or because they’re worried about missing some crucial message. It’s a real irrational, visceral panic people have about being without their smartphone, even when there’s a landline available (which there always is on our retreats). Even the thought of leaving the house without their phone makes people anxious.
In a perfect world, how would you want people to use the internet and devices in their spare time? For the very many enormous benefits of the digital world; for education, for community-building, for keeping in touch with friends and family, and for entertainment, but not for hours on end. There are many benefits to screens, they just need to be moderated and their use needs to be a conscious choice. I would say where the alternative is to connect with a real live person in front of you – that’s when a screen is not a good choice.
Kids are getting hooked on tech young – at an age where the government regulates access to things like alcohol and cigarettes. Should the government regulate tech use in any way? Yes, I’ve been campaigning for this in the UK for many years now and will continue to campaign. Tech should be regulated, and it’s criminal it’s got away with being unregulated for so long, particularly where protection for children is concerned. The writing is on the wall for tech companies now on this.
It’s Complicated: Untangling the Relationship with our Phones
Tanya chats to inspiring people about how their smartphones affect their lives – especially those whose work revolves around being online, like instapoet and illustrator Nikita Gill, and YouTuber and sex educator Hannah Witton. Her goal is to untangle what a healthy relationship with your phone looks like, and empower you with practical tips and ideas. Listen now on iTunes.
Off: Your Digital Detox for a Better Life
Off isn’t about giving up tech completely, it’s a guide to helping us find balance, freeing up hours of our time and leading us back to the pastimes, and people, we love. Tanya offers simple tips that encourage a deeper connection with others, more restful sleep and increased creativity, freeing us from technology to be more present in our own lives. Grab a copy here.
How to do a Digital Detox: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Wellbeing
In Tanya’s six-week online course, learn about the persuasive techniques that make your phone, and social media in particular, so addictive. You’ll go on a two week ‘rewiring’ of your digital habits, and you’ll monitor your physical and mental health through this change. The course is social – you’ll celebrate your successes with your course mates as you successfully adopt Tanya’s strategies. Check out the course details and get enrolled.
This seems simple, but Tanya’s found that making your bedroom a screen-free space is the number one way to spend less time on your devices. When your phone isn’t by your bed, there’s no temptation to look at it at night or first thing in the morning.