The fiction of ‘digital wellness’—and the truth of digital dependence

The fiction of ‘digital wellness’—and the truth of digital dependence


I know I’m showing my age, but when I was a young whippersnapper, we were always being nagged not to watch so much of the so-called “boob tube.” Specifically, we were advised to read actual books (but not, heaven help us, comic books or Mad magazine) and to refrain from Gilligan’s Island and all of that junk once and for all.

But when I became a mature adult and TV evolved into the rich cornucopia of streaming, mobile, on-demand, and other entertainment services we have today, nobody seemed to worry about that as much as they used to. Instead, society changed to the point where it suddenly became hip to binge on whatever we now consider TV, especially on the prestige stuff on HBO, Showtime, and Netflix.

Now, we’re being told that the real junk is on the internet, and what’s truly rotting our minds are those addictive apps on our smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets.

Google’s “digital wellness” is a feel-good feint

In recent months in the tech industry, the topic of “digital wellness” has entered the news cycle in connection with Google’s preannouncement of its forthcoming next-generation smartphone operating system, Android P. As reporters digested Google’s discussion of Android P’s app timer, wind down, do not disturb, and other “digital wellness” features designed to gently unglue our hands and eyeballs from our devices, I couldn’t help chuckling.

It reminded me of all the useless innovations that tobacco companies have rolled out over years—charcoal-activated filters, reduced tar and nicotine content, etc.—to help cigarette-addicted consumers feel like they were doing something to live with the adverse consequences of their habit.

In fact, none of those innovations made even the slightest dent in reducing the likelihood that smokers would hasten their deaths from cancer, emphysema, and so on. What we have now are retrograde inventions such as vaping and e-cigarettes that just pound trendy new addictive nails into your coffin.

Likewise, those “digital wellness” features being built in Android won’t affect our addiction to mobile devices. In fact, it feels faintly ridiculous to imagine that equipping your phone—or any device, app, or online service—with “digital wellness” features can “cure” your dependence on it all. Let’s not imagine that Silicon Valley can reengineer users’ lifestyles so that vast numbers of them suddenly start getting eight hours of sleep a night and spend every spare moment in the great outdoors picking daisies. If anything, many users will either ignore well-intentioned “digital wellness” features or deactivate them as soon as, say, the app timer shuts down your phone at the worst possible moment.

Fortunately, unless you try to swallow it in one gulp, your smartphone won’t kill you.