There are apps on smart phone supposed to limit our screen time. But isn’t it paradoxical to wean yourself from an addiction with the very object that is responsible for it? Jacques Ellul helps us dissect this paradox.
I recently discovered the enigmatic “digital wellness” application of my smart phone Android. The shock was hard. As soon as this digital ‘detox’ tool opened, I was faced with a small pie chart that told me how much screen time I’ve spent on each app and how many times my phone has been unlocked since the start of the day. . It was 11pm, I had 5 hours of cumulative use and 250 unlocks.
Phase 1: Resolution
After this guilty giddiness, place for action. I was able to see that my laptop (magnanimously!) offered me quite sophisticated solutions to put an end to these hours of roll untimely. So I enabled a time limit of 30 minutes of use for each application and installed a “sleep” mode that was able to switch my screen to black and white from 23.00 by putting all the applications in “silent” mode. .
To support me in this “digital detox”, my phone was then endowed with a strange power: to become sad and boring. Every night, like Cinderella, the home screen left her ball gown. When they changed to a shade of gray, applications that were usually colored like sour candy lost their enchanting power. My phone stopped chirping, notifying, beeping, vibrating. End of the party: everyone in bed, he lectured me in his own language.
In the initial excitement, I carefully respected this digital curfew at first. I acted like a party girl who wanted to make the most of her night before it was over, but wisely agreed to leave when it was time to go home. So I went systematically to the end of the time I had allowed myself, and that the machine never failed to remind me of its little neutral tone— “Use limit reached”.
Phase 2: Rebellion
But little by little I felt displaced by my first decision. Confronting me with my responsibility, my laptop gave me the uncomfortable impression of commanding me, mechanically choosing the moment, the style and the manner – strict and rigid – of my weaning. The peak of this feeling of addiction was reached when I discovered the feature “lift your head” of this famous “digital wellness” application. Not content with just reminding me to stop using it, my phone could give me advice as basic (though sometimes useful, I agree) as remembering to look ahead when walking down the street and staring at him . Already the guarantor of my “digital well-being”, he literally became responsible for my survival.
Annoyed so I started cheating the machine, sometimes almost without realizing it. I went through the browser instead of looking at the applications subject to the limits, I extended the time by 5 or 10 minutes by changing the settings. By fiddling like that, I didn’t feel like I was betraying my original resolve, but just bypassing this stupid machine. The application had sparked a spirit of transgression in me that pushed me to increase my screen time a little more every day. Yet I realized the absurdity of the situation: by wanting to wean myself off my phone, I had succeeded in increasing my dependence on it.
Phase 3: Awareness
I had the feeling of living, on my scale, a paradox inherent in technical modernity, than the philosopher Jacques Ellul had already dissected in the 1950s “a technical problem” at a “technical means” inevitably leads to innumerable difficulties. Because the machine, by seeking to respond to our desires, whatever they may be—including those that consist in separating from it—strengthens its grip on us. It pays off “of a closer subordination with regard to the instrument of liberation”, Ellul explains his essay The technique or the challenge of the century (1954). For example, the machinist who improves the machine so that it functions more efficiently and more autonomously will thereby condemn the mechanical worker to mechanical and dehumanizing work. “which saves energy and turns action into reflex”. Seeking to free oneself from a machine, via the same machine necessarily creates a different kind of dependence on it: less tiresome, no doubt, but more harmful.
Mine smart phone is the perfect example of this phenomenon. By becoming both the cause and the remedy of my addiction, it became a kind of “total” tool. When he told me when I had to stop, in his little needy and mechanical tone, he no longer let “no room for error and initiative”. Conversely, the rest of the time, when I respected the rules, he took me “taste and desire” to escape its grasp, as Ellul writes of machines. Like a companion that today we would describe as “toxic”, my laptop thus began to blow hot and cold, making me dependent in all cases: either from addiction or from control that he exerted on me .
Finally, the paradox that played out on an individual level with my laptop is taking place on a planetary scale.. It poses a simple but fundamental question: should we respond to the harmful effects of technology with more technology? How to escape what Ellul calls ” this kind of constant and complex turning that does […] that a technique intended to free man from the machine subjects him all the more harshly to the apparatus? This reversal is all the more unfathomable that becoming aware of it does not necessarily help us detach ourselves from the same machines. As of this writing, I’m still using the damn “digital wellness” app while multi-billionaires suffer Elon Musk investing fortunes in technologies that are supposed to “repair” the planet. Could this technological one-upmanship lead to anything other than a dead end?