When I was first starting the Webby Awards 1997, what excited me most about the Web was the hope that it would let us connect to people and ideas all over the world. I never imagined that 22 years later, the side effect would be disconnection. That we’d be spending most of our time with our heads down, eyes staring at our phones, in a constant state of want. But it’s become clear that this is what the online world fuels: more notifications, more validation, more FOMO, more stressful news headlines, more things to buy, do, and click through, all of it disconnecting us from the people and ideas that are right in front of us.
Walking around lower Manhattan, I sometimes expect to see the Statue of Liberty’s copper and cast iron head bent over her own screen, becoming not a beacon of hope, but a beacon of distraction and want.
Is this the world we want?
There are many valuable things the Internet brings us: access to lifetimes of knowledge, a way to connect with family and friends far away, even the ability to summon a car to your door in minutes. But unfortunately, that has come at a cost.
Free websites and apps are the most expensive Faustian bargain we have ever made. With an election on the horizon, the data that we have given away for free is now owned by armies of engineers, behavioral psychologists, and political foes, who have figured out how to make us behave in certain ways and do the things they want. Our eyes, once the mirror to our souls, are now a direct route to our mental manipulation.
As we head towards Thanksgiving -- and Cyber Monday -- it’s good to remember that when we turn the screens off, the engine that feeds us to want more stops; and we can appreciate all that we have right in front of us.
Thanksgiving weekend is an ideal time for Tech Shabbat because you have everything you need on hand: family, time off, and a focus on being grateful. It’s also a good corrective to our desire for more-more-more. On Thursday, we binge-eat and perhaps binge-watch, then binge-buy on Black Friday. How has “bingeing” become our defining verb? If you add all the bingeable stuffing of news and social media into the mix, you need a full day of Tech Shabbat that weekend. Leave space to appreciate and just be without the screens. Take a day to read without distraction, reflect, think longer and wider, to stare out the window, to hang, nap, or do nothing if that is what you need. Take some time for silence and reflection. Then, when you go back online afterwards, you’re thankful for the internet you normally take for granted (and generally use it more mindfully). Tech Shabbat is a gratitude practice that fits wonderfully into a weekend earmarked for giving thanks.
To reclaim our time fully, of course, we’ll need infrastructural changes across the tech industry, government, and in society, but in the meantime, there’s a lot we can do ourselves to reverse course. The steps are simple and immediate: no phones at the table on Thanksgiving. Take time to be grateful for the things you already have and present with the people around you. On Black Friday and Cyber Monday, think about what you have rather than want you want. And on Giving Tuesday, consider ways to give back.
This Saturday, my family will also practice something we call “Tech Shabbat”: twenty-four hours with no screens. Ten years ago, after a two-week period in which I lost my father and my daughter was born, my husband Ken and I began this weekly tradition to help us focus on what really matters, and we’ve done it weekly ever since. It’s our favorite day of the week, a regular mini-Thanksgiving weekly when we rest, eat great food, experience stillness, connect, and appreciate all we have.
Every great wisdom practice extols the importance of presence, of silence, reflection, of not being distracted, of creating space to think, to be grateful. I hesitate to call the tool of our times a “smartphone” when it does everything in its power to pull us away from the things that make us think for ourselves.
We need to relearn life without devices so that we can better manage and co-exist with technology. When we make the rules and establish the boundaries with technology, we’re less likely to be influenced by algorithms and the people controlling them 24/7. We have become like marionette dolls, responding to everything around us instead of to ourselves.
One of the biggest questions of our time is: when does technology enhance an experience, and when does it diminish it? When do we use it to amplify who we are as humans, and when do we need to turn it off? When do we need to look down and when do we need to look up? When do we want to want and when do we want to just be? When do we want more, and when do we appreciate what we have? By strengthening this aspect of ourselves, our ability to think and be without the network, we will remember how to enjoy the life right in front of us, and figure out what kind of world we want and what we need to do to get there.
We shouldn’t think that this way we are living -- constantly distracted and wanting -- is inevitable, a goal, something sustainable, or a good way to live 24/7. Let’s follow the gaze of the Statue of Liberty, looking up to be thankful for all that is right in front of us … and looking far enough into the future to make changes now, so it’s the future we want.
Tiffany Shlain is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and creator of the Webby Awards. She is the author of a newly-released book, 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day A Week about technology and society all told through her family’s decade-long practice of turning off screens one day a week for what they call their Tech Shabbats. She lectures worldwide on the relationship of technology and humanity. Order 24/6 here.