Being Thankful Instead of Wantful in 2020

Taking time off screens for a "Tech Shabbat" lets you focus on what matters

Posted Jan 03, 2020

Tiffany Shlain
Source: Tiffany Shlain

When I first started the Webby Awards 1997, what excited me most about the Web was the hope that it would let us connect to people and ideas all over the world. I never imagined that 22 years later, the side effect would be disconnection. That we’d be spending most of our time with our heads down, eyes staring at our phones, in a constant state of want. But it’s become clear that this is what the online world fuels: more notifications, more validation, more FOMO, more stressful news headlines, more things to buy, do, and click through, all of it disconnecting us from the people and ideas that are right in front of us.

One of the biggest questions of our time is: When does technology enhance an experience, and when does it diminish it? When do we use it to amplify who we are as humans, and when do we need to turn it off? When do we need to look down and when do we need to look up? When do we want to want and when do we want to just be? When do we want more, and when do we appreciate what we have? By strengthening this aspect of ourselves, our ability to think and be without the network, we will remember how to enjoy the life right in front of us, and figure out what kind of world we want and what we need to do to get there.

Is this the world we want?

There are many valuable things the Internet brings us: access to lifetimes of knowledge, a way to connect with family and friends far away, even the ability to summon a car to your door in minutes. But unfortunately, that has come at a cost.

Free websites and apps are the most expensive Faustian bargain we have ever made. With an election on the horizon, the data that we have given away for free is now owned by armies of engineers, behavioral psychologists, and political foes, who have figured out how to make us behave in certain ways and do the things they want. Our eyes, once the mirror to our souls, are now a direct route to our mental manipulation.

Every great wisdom practice extols the importance of presence, of silence, reflection, of not being distracted, of creating space to think, to be grateful. I hesitate to call the tool of our times a “smartphone” when it does everything in its power to pull us away from the things that make us think for ourselves.

Entering a fresh new year, a new decade, is the perfect time to start integrating a healthier relationship with tech. Just as we make resolutions around eating better, drinking less, and exercising more, we also need to think about the effect these devices have on our brain, body, and soul.   It’s good to remember that when we turn the screens off, the engine that feeds us to want more stops; and we can appreciate all that we have right in front of us.

On the first weekend of the new decade, try a day without screens—a “Tech Shabbat”: twenty-four hours with no screens. Ten years ago, after a two-week period in which I lost my father and my daughter was born, my husband Ken and I began this weekly tradition to help us focus on what really matters, and we’ve done it weekly ever since. It’s our favorite day of the week, a regular mini-holiday when we rest, eat great food, experience stillness, connect, and appreciate all we have.  

Tech Shabbat offers the space to appreciate and just be without the screens. Take a day to read without distraction, reflect, think longer and wider, to stare out the window, to hang, nap, or do nothing if that is what you need. Take some time for silence and reflection. Then, when you go back online afterward, you’re thankful for the internet you normally take for granted (and generally use it more mindfully). Tech Shabbat is a New Year’s resolution that will make life better all 2020 long.

To reclaim our time fully, of course, we’ll need infrastructural changes across the tech industry, government, and in society, but in the meantime, there’s a lot we can do ourselves to reverse course.  

We need to relearn life without devices so that we can better manage and co-exist with technology. When we make the rules and establish the boundaries with technology, we’re less likely to be influenced by algorithms and the people controlling them 24/7. We have become like marionette dolls, responding to everything around us instead of to ourselves.

We shouldn’t think that this way we are living—constantly distracted and wanting—is inevitable, a goal, something sustainable, or a good way to live 24/7. So make a change. Put down your phone regularly for a full day each week... and things—literally—will start looking up.