We all have that one app that we honestly believe we cannot live without. The dopamine bumps it inspires are just too delicious to give up. Maybe it’s your go-to commuting game; maybe it’s your fitness tracker; maybe it’s your budget app. (It’s definitely my budget app.)
Manoush Zomorodi wants you to delete it, anyway. It doesn’t have to be forever—it doesn’t even have to be for more than a few days—but the host of WNYC’s Note to Self wants you to take a step back and ask yourself: “Is this product serving me or hurting me?”
This unenviable task is part of a series of challenges that Zomorodi first cooked up in early 2015, when Note to Self (where I interned later that year) put out a series of podcast episodes called “Bored and Brilliant.” The week of challenges urged listeners to set aside tech-assisted distractions, refamiliarize themselves with the now-quaint concept of boredom, and welcome the creativity waiting to fill those empty brain spaces. It was a tremendous success—some 20,000 people signed up—and Zomorodi has since turned the podcast challenge into a book by the same name, set to come out September 5.
Bored and Brilliant is not a tech detox. Zomorodi is explicit about that. The problem with going cold turkey on tech is that it’s unsustainable: Just as a crash diet will inevitably be followed by weight gain, unplugging completely won’t prepare you for what to do when you eventually have to plug back in. Zomorodi believes we need to learn to coexist peacefully with our devices. Part psychology tome, part memoir, and part self-help guide, her book is a much-needed reminder that no matter how many notifications fill our lock screens, we don’t have to be at our devices’ beck and call.
I spoke with Zomorodi recently about how we can create sustainable, healthy habits with technology, and what “less screen time” looks like in 2017’s news cycle.
Miranda Katz: You specifically say that Bored and Brilliant is not a detox. So, what is it?
Manoush Zomorodi: I think that the best example is a story I tell about this camp director, Matt Smith, who runs this camp in rural Pennsylvania where kids are allowed to bring their cell phones. He was looking around and he realized, “The thing about camp is that these kids go away and it’s an on-or-off situation.” They’d go to camp, they’re not allowed to bring their phones, so they’d have a wonderful time—but the minute they would go back into ‘real life,’ they go back to not feeling good about how they are using their technology. [Smith] recognized that our goal as adults is to help kids regulate themselves, learn how to manage their emotions, and set boundaries for themselves. How can we do that if we’re saying when you come [to camp], it’s a different world?
Detox means [the tech] is off for a week. But we have to live with this stuff. So how can we do it in a way that works for us and doesn’t make us feel exhausted, or scatter-brained, or frenzied, or not knowledgeable, or depleted? It’s these constant little self observations. Catching yourself at that moment when you think, “Oh my god, this sunset is so beautiful, I’ve got to take a picture of it for Instagram.” And maybe because you’ve just read [Bored and Brilliant], you think, “That’s the moment where I say no. I’m just going to watch it.”
Bored and Brilliant began as a podcast experiment in 2015. What changed through the process of turning it into a book?
My big mistake, and what I learned the first time around, is that I thought, “I’ll give you the basics to make a change in your life, but only you know what’s right.” But what people told me was they were like, “Well, how will I know if I’ve done it right? How will I know if I’ve succeeded? What if I’m not doing it right?”
I realized that people feel so unmoored or unsure of what to do when it comes to some of their personal digital habits, and how to exist in the world without being connected all the time, that they really wanted very specific directions. They wanted me to be like, “Okay, here is exactly what you are going to do. You are not going to look at your phone or at any technology while you are in transit at all times.” They wanted real parameters. I had to be much more specific in the book and really codify the instructions.
Also, in 2015, this was seen as a little counterculture and a little weird. In just the last two years, this has become a mainstream topic—people questioning their tech habits. People are noticing that they’re feeling distracted, and that they’re unable to focus. I think that it’s become not weird to say, “Put away your phone!”
In this political news climate, it’s so easy to feel like you’re failing your civic duty by not being constantly connected and up to date on the news. How do you grapple with that?
We do have a responsibility to be up to date and to know what’s going on in our world, but you are not fulfilling your civic duty by reading everything and feeling helpless. We have huge societal issues that need to be solved, from the environment to economic disparity to racial divisions. It’s great if you’re reading up on everything, but we need people to find solutions. The gift of boredom is that it can show people that you have permission to not read. You have permission to try to just do nothing. Because that is the way that we do our best problem solving and come up with original ideas. You are not doing that by refreshing your Twitter feed or the headlines again. The outrage, the anger, and the frustration are real. But then, okay—what are we going to do?
Speaking of Twitter, Bored and Brilliant requires you to delete “that app”—the one you’re most addicted to. Twitter seems like it’d be a popular contender. Do you have data on what was the most addictive app for participants?
Twitter’s been a big one. But since we did the project, the apps that have come up far and away more than they did in 2015 are Snapchat and Instagram. I think that’s the movement toward a more visual, photo-centric way of communicating that we see happening globally. One of the original challenges [in the “Bored and Brilliant” podcast challenge] was “no-photo day.” And in 2015, it was really only the younger people who struggled with that. But I think that one is going to be a bigger deal this time around, because we are moving toward a very visually communicative society.
And if you delete Snapchat and Instagram, there’s no other way to really access them. They’re only on your phone.
Yes. That’s such a good point. And that also is illustrative of why these things are so difficult to put away. They’re with you all the time, and they change the way you experience the world. Somebody was saying to me, “I literally can’t do anything without thinking how would I take a picture of this and put it on Instagram.” It’s almost like we’re living for Instagram.
So how do we actually create good, long-lasting habits when it comes to technology?
I mean, that’s the bummer of it, right? I’m not special. This is a constant struggle for me, and I think that’s where the “note to self” part comes in. It’s a constant sort of vigilance. It’s a reminder to yourself to listen to the messages that your brain and your body are sending to you and translate that into better behavior with your technology. I think it’s really hard, especially since the technology learns from what you do and the designers and coders then change it to overcome what you’ve done. So yeah, we turn off notifications—but even if you don’t have notifications set up, Snapchat, by rewarding certain behavior, gets you to act a certain way.
You write that your “stomach churns” whenever you read about how tech leaders don’t let their kids use the products they make—Steve Jobs, for instance, famously restricted his kids’ use of gadgets, and you write that it reminds you of “a drug dealer who doesn’t touch the stuff he deals.” How does that color your perception of our relationships with these devices?
What did Steve Jobs know that we don’t? I worry that it’s indicative of the larger view of Silicon Valley, which is, “We know what’s best for you, sheeple.” It makes me nervous. There’s something very Wizard of Oz about it, that they’re orchestrating what everybody else is doing and that doesn’t apply to them.
There’s that thing that everyone says — “It’s not the tech’s fault, it’s people’s fault.” I just don’t buy it. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have the television with me in my pocket everywhere I went. It was an on/off scenario. I’m now trying to make personal choices, like actually paying for services, platforms, or apps that respect my privacy, my data, and my time. And that’s a luxury, I understand that—I can afford to pay for it. But I would like to have control over my information. I do think the only place that is really private right now is your brain.
The “Bored and Brilliant” podcast challenge was the first in a series of challenges where Note to Self sort of deputized its listeners as activists in this fight to reclaim attention and—with the latest project—privacy. Are you finding that those ideas really resonate with listeners?
I think our crew is a little ahead of the curve, and that two years from now, just as we are seeing that people are now concerned about their digital habits and distraction and worried about what is collectively happening to us when it comes to constantly being connected, privacy is finally going to be something that turns into much more of a mainstream issue.
I got this letter the other day from a woman who did “Bored and Brilliant” two years ago. She ended up going through a breakup. She sold her home. She bought a farm. She named it “Make Time,” after “Bored and Brilliant,” and now she has a monthly meetup at her farm where people make time and they put away their phones and she lets them wander the property. She wrote me this beautiful letter on stationery with turquoise ink. It was very touching. She made time to contact me, and making time is the one thing that technologists cannot do. At the end of the day, it’s finite, and we’ve got to choose how we spend it.