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Is it time to recalibrate our relationship with big tech?

As 5G technology continues to roll out across the US, many Americans will soon have to accept that their old devices that rely on 3G networks will inevitably be heading to the recycle bin.

Unfortunately, many believe that rather than bridging the digital divide, it could widen the gap considering that affordable internet requires affordable devices. But as everything around us becomes seamlessly connected, it will become much harder to disconnect.

The price of flexible hybrid working from anywhere is being permanently tethered to a device. As a result, it has become all too easy to steal glances at our smartphones when we're in the company of our loved ones. In addition, the rise of IoT sensors is powering a new future of smart cities, making it even harder for citizens to wander where the wi-fi is weak.

The decline of our mental health and the mental health of those around us is already well documented. But have you ever tried to disconnect from big tech? Although there are other alternatives, New York Times Reporter Kashmir Hill quickly found it has become almost impossible to avoid Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft online. Ultimately, big tech controls the critical infrastructure we do and don't see, meaning there is nowhere to hide.

Picture of a cow divided into parts with digital threats. Digital vegan concept

Rise of the digital vegan

How long have you spent online without a browser that requires your credentials to track your usage? What is the longest you have gone without checking email, social media, or your calendar? When was the last time you sat in a chair, gazed outside the window, and allowed yourself to daydream without nervously reaching for your phone?

Most of us are guilty of telling anyone that will listen that social media and smartphone surveillance are bad for society. But we seldom choose to do anything about our digital disorders, reduce dependency, or make better choices. Having seen the negative impacts from the devices, apps, and media we consume, Andy Farnell launched Digital Vegan, Healthier technology for a happier planet.

The movement explores our personal responsibility and relationship with tech. It also dares to reflect on how big tech can fuel an addiction towards vanity and ignorance while sacrificing almost anything in the name of convenience. But will a digital vegan diet that encourages users to prioritize their mental health, privacy, and dignity by making better technology choices make a difference, or will it end up being just another well-intended passing fad?

Switching off to reconnect

Unfortunately, we are surrounded by a digital overload that is addictive by design. Our online interactions have been gamified to keep us engaged and continuously doomscrolling down feeds with no endpoint. By removing the natural end to every experience, we are caught in a never-ending cycle chasing likes, followers, and shares.

There is a reason why YouTube and Netflix automatically play the next video. With no end in sight, it has become increasingly difficult to look up from our devices and break free from the dopamine rush we have been conditioned to crave. But it's also important to recognize that not all screen time is bad.

In a digital age where QR codes in restaurants and Covid passports have become the norm, it would be ridiculous to suggest everyone needs to make a binary choice about the tech in their life, but there is a middle ground. For example, most people do not need to have their devices on charge next to their beds, and there is seldom a good reason to reach for your phone on the toilet (you know who you are).

Recalibrating our relationship with technology

The smartphone in your pocket enables people to maintain human connections with people all over the world. It can help us learn new skills via online classes or secure a dream job. But sometimes, we need to insert our own endpoint and take a moment to recalibrate our relationship with technology and invest more time in our digital wellbeing.

Digital minimalism is probably an unrealistic target, but you don't need to document and share every moment. So, whether you are out on a hike or enjoying a meal in a restaurant, try to live and enjoy that moment, rather than record it or debate if it's Instaworthy.

If you dare to be honest with yourself, could you take a 24-hour break from tech? The good news is that you don't have to commit to becoming a digital vegan or a life of digital minimalism. Rather than falling into the trap of binary thinking, it can be as simple as putting aside some tech-free time and choosing something different. Maybe, leave the phone at home, walk to a retail store, buy a paper book with cash, or daydream in your favorite chair.

Although it is nearly impossible to live without big tech companies, you can quickly minimize their hold over you by stepping away from the algorithms designed to keep you addicted to endlessly scrolling down a newsfeed. Breaking free from the dopamine rush of likes and comments can be as simple as choosing to make time for yourself away from your devices and followers.

Big tech removed natural stopping points from online experiences to make it harder for people to regulate their use. Nobody reaches the end of their life, thinking: “I wish I spent more time scrolling down social media.” But if you don't set our digital boundaries, we could miss out on real life. Maybe Hollywood actor Denzel Washington said it best when he dared smartphone users to ask themselves the question:

“Are you using your phone, or is your phone using you? Can you put it down? Can you turn it off?”

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