Published by Agnes on the 27th March 2023
If you look at the history of our own lives, let alone human history, screens are a pretty recent phenomenon. And yet, they have infiltrated our day-to-day to such an extent that life without them has become almost unthinkable. In this article, I want to propose a way out…
When it comes to the topic of technological advancement, my personal impression is that there are two camps. There is a small camp of believers who are incredibly excited about all that is happening and coming. While they are certainly aware of some of the potential dangers, they see many of the technologies coming our way as a great chance for humans to surpass themselves and co-create new (and better) realities.
On the other hand, there is a (seemingly larger) group of people who worry that we are unleashing a monster and that all this is leading us into an AI-controlled dystopia that will enslave humanity.
In between these two camps, you find the vast majority of people, who would say that it's pretty handy to have WhatsApp and food delivery apps, but also complain about the constant distraction they are subjected to via the devices they carry in their pockets.
While the opinions (and willingness to think about the topic of technological advancement) vary tremendously from person to person, there seems to be a consensus that there is something immensely tiring about looking at screens for prolonged periods of time. I am by far not the first person in this world to note the addictive quality of screens. Neither am I the first person to point out that this isn't entirely our fault. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are designed to be addictive and keep us coming back for more.
If we consider the fact that the first personal computers only saw the light of day a few decades ago and the first iPhone was introduced in 2007, it's hardly surprising that the changes we have seen within our lifetime feel overwhelming to many. Having grown up in Europe and spent most of my life living in big cities has created the impression that screens are everywhere. By now you will not only find them in boardrooms or in the hands of the rich, but also in the favelas, refugee camps and war zones of this world.
Moving to a fisherman village in Brazil around a year ago, gave me a bit of a reality check. TikTok, Instagram and Twitter make one think that the whole world is spending all their time online. But upon starting my life in Brazil, I realized that if you take your eyes off the screen and go out into the world, you will find quite a lot of people who spend their time doing… other things. When I walk around my village, the only people with their heads bowed over tiny devices are the tourists. But don't let that fool you. Most of the local fishermen have smartphones. They just choose to leave them at home or inside their pockets. Once I started paddling onto the ocean with my SUP every night, I discovered the reason. There is something so magical (and powerful) about being on the open water and under the open sky that makes anything you may see on a screen feel… unimportant.
But don't worry. This is not yet another article that tells you how screens are making us anxious, distracted and depressed and that we should shun technology and move back to the forest. (Disclaimer: While I have moved to the forest, I haven't given up screens.)
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It is pretty clear that technology and screens have made our lives a lot easier. This is particularly evident in the world of travel. As long as I have my mobile phone, charger and passport on me, I can fly to the other side of the world. Thanks to the pandemic-induced rise of acceptance when it comes to remote work, we don't even need to take time off. I can simply take my laptop and work from the beach - as long as there is Wi-Fi, of course.
It would be preposterous for me to speak on behalf of the entire world, so instead, I will use my personal example.
Screens have empowered and liberated me in various ways. My laptop and the possibility to work online is a key reason I was able to move to Brazil and start a new life. It is also the reason I am able to interview people from across the globe and publish my articles, podcast and other content for a worldwide audience. As I write this article, I am - quite literally - sitting outside on a deck surrounded by bamboo while the wind is stroking my hair and the water glitters below. This is not an exception, but my daily life. Without my laptop, the strong Wi-Fi connection and the paradigm shift that has taken place regarding the feasibility of remote work, I would never have been able to start a company whilst living in the Brazilian forest.
In short: Without screens and the recent advances of technology, our company would not exist, and you would not be reading this article.
Despite all the advantages mentioned above, I also know on a first-hand basis what looking at a screen for too long does to my eyes, brain and mood.
I am not alone with this. While I would not consider myself a digital nomad, I have seen many of my digital nomad friends struggle with the fact that they may be sitting in a beautiful exotic location, but still need to spend the majority of their day staring at a computer screen.
It almost seems as if the new “freedoms” people like myself have received thanks to technology, has not been extended to our eyes, hands and minds. We may be looking at an excel sheet or e-mail while sitting on a beach, instead of sitting in an office, but the screen in front of us is still forcing us to sit still and keep our hands tied to the keyboard.
As we navigate the reality of working with an international team while humanity is passing through a moment where screens have become the intermediary for almost everything we do, my co-founder Mark and I have started asking ourselves the following question:
Do we really need screens for all the things we do, or could we use technology to drastically reduce the amount of time we need to spend looking at a screen?
Some of the steps we have started to take as way of limiting our screen time are not particularly groundbreaking, but surprisingly effective. My friends are often surprised when I tell them we barely do Zoom meetings and we usually talk with each other via WhatsApp voice notes or phone calls. Especially the voice notes work surprisingly well, as they actually give us the chance to listen (and respond) to each other's ideas or questions when we actually have the mental space to do so.
This got us thinking that there may be quite a lot of other things that we habitually do via screen, without questioning whether it really is the best (and most efficient) way. My personal pet peeve is finding and booking flights on my laptop, while Mark says there is nothing more frustrating than having to order an Uber while standing outside in the snow.
Long story short: All this led us to believe it's time we had a closer look at all the things we currently do using screens, or whether it is something that could be done via voice instead.
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In the wake of the accelerating technological progress we have seen in the past years, it's not surprising that it has made many of us feel drained and overwhelmed. It's a lot to process and there is always an adaptation period, when it comes to large-scale change. So, instead of avoiding the issue by doom scrolling on social media or trying to get rid of it all by throwing our laptop against a wall (as I have wanted to do many times while booking a flight or being unable to get into my e-mail account), let's stop everything, take a deep breath and look at the new landscape we find ourselves in. And once we have done that, we can get to the slightly tedious but necessary work of looking at all that we have accumulated and start separating the things we want and need to keep from the things that have snuck into our door without us noticing.
It may take a little bit of time to untangle the needed and wanted from the unnecessary and even burdensome aspects that screens have brought into our lives.
For performing this task, we propose the following guiding question:
Let's imagine that we have the technology to make any task we currently do via screen doable via voice command in a seamless way.
If you had the option, which of the actions you currently do, do you really want and need to do on a screen?
With the recent advance in large language models like ChatGPT, voice recognition software like Whisper and other technologies, it is pretty possible that we could soon be talking to our mobile devices instead of having to do things manually. In fact, we believe that it should soon be possible for us to order an Uber, book our next flight or check in with our mother without having to look at our even touch a screen. But in order to achieve that reality, we first have to stop looking at screens as a necessary intermediary.
While this thought experiment requires some deeper analysis, Mark and I are pretty sure that if we were able to create voice based technologies that allow us to circumvent the screen, we would be able to reduce our screen time by 25 to 75 percent.
And just imagine what our eyes and hands could do with all that free time...
The age of the personal digital assistant is coming sooner than you think. As many technological advances have become so common that their previous inconceivability barely raises an eyebrow, it's important to take a step back and consider the impact it has on our lives. In this article, we explore the benefits and the drawbacks.Let's take back control
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*Kindling values diversity and freedom of speech. Different perspectives are presented in our blog posts and interviews, but interviewees' opinions don't necessarily reflect Kindling's views. Readers should exercise discernment.*