“Just go to bed,” says psychologist Dr Jocelyn Brewer. “Put your phone down and go to bed.”
I’m speaking to Brewer ahead of her appearance at Vivid 2019, where she’ll be speaking about how technology impacts our inner lives. I’m trying not to use this interview as a personal counselling session on my own smartphone use, but it’s not easy.
Brewer says digital creep has happened at such a fast pace that we haven’t had time to stop and think about what we actually want from it all. That’s why I’m – I mean, we’re – sleep-deprived, anxious and on edge.
Brewer’s surprisingly practical advice is to show some restraint. Go to bed. Leave your phone in the other room. “And don’t wake up and dive into everything that’s happened in America overnight,” she says. I feel like she knows more about me than I’ve told her.
It’s ironic that a festival that turns the city into a canvas for digital projection, flooding the streets with light – and social media with FOMO-inducing posts – is hosting a panel arguing for digital restraint. Host Sebastian Smee, author of the recent Quarterly Essay titled Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age, argues that smartphones are taking over our consciousness. “Even when I put my device aside and attach it to a charger, it pulses away in my mind, like the throat of a toad, full of blind, amphibian appetite,” he writes.
“Sebastian’s essay is about refocusing how we spend time with ourselves,” Brewer tells me. She’s no anti-technology luddite, but she agrees that for all the convenience smartphones have given us, they’ve also taken from us something far less tangible. She argues that we can get it back with some increased awareness of how we use our devices. It all comes back to what she calls “digital nutrition”.
My morning looks like many other people’s mornings: my iPhone alarm goes off, and I press snooze, hold my phone above my face in the dark and check my emails. I scroll through Instagram, read some headlines on The Guardian and Broadsheet. My alarm goes off again but by this time I’ve gotten into an argument on Twitter.
That’s … not healthy. By the time I sit down to work my mind is a flickering mess of memes, politics and half-read emails. Work is piecemeal and frequently interrupted. Should I just switch my phone off and throw it into the sea?
“Digital nutrition is really just about healthy digital habits,” says Brewer. “Maybe digital detoxes aren’t the best way of thinking about our relationship with technology.”
Brewer, a former high-school teacher and school counsellor, coined the nutrition metaphor in 2013 after observing the impact laptops were having on students. She got interested in gaming addiction, and saw that addiction spread into social media and news consumption.
Now, Brewer has a two-year-old and has been alarmed to watch her toddler pretend to use a phone, or sit at a laptop and “work like mummy”. The human condition in 2019 is an info-binge-fuelled state of anxiety, and it’s impacting the next generation.
“My work used to be about talking to parents about how to manage young people,” she says. “Now I talk to parents about how to manage themselves.”
The main thing, she says, is information overload. That’s where a lot of the anxiety and FOMO comes from.
“Look at news,” she says. “Some is digitally nutritious information, and some is just junk. Our brains can’t process all of it. We lose the ability to deep-dive, to focus, to pay attention. Instead we continuously pay partial attention to a huge number of topics.”
So what can we do about it? Brewer offers a set of propositions. What if apps came with nutritional data, like on food packaging? What if online news had a similar system? What if we evaluated video games based on whether they’re addictive and ultimately worthless, or giving us a mental workout?
Meanwhile, we can engage using what she terms “the three Ms of digital nutrition”: mindfulness, meaningfulness and moderation. It’s all about considering what we put into our minds, the same way we think about what we put into our bodies.
By the time this is published Vivid will have hit Sydney. The sails of the Opera House will be a canvas for striking light art. Taronga Zoo will be flooded with animal projections. Thousands of smartphones will record it all. And Brewer’s will be a voice of quiet mindfulness amid the cacophony.
Dr Jocelyn Brewer will appear as part of the Mark Colvin Conversation: Net Worth panel at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on Wednesday May 29, along with musician and author Holly Throsby and Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee. The group will discuss technology and its impact on our inner lives.