We started working on Thrive with Digital because we realised there was a problem. An increasing number of people were getting concerned about the way we let digital devices rule our everyday and interrupt our interactions with others, but nobody had a clear idea what to do about it.
It’s hard to tell others to put their mobile in their bag, rather than keeping it on the table, reacting to every incoming message while you’re trying to have a conversation. It’s perhaps even harder to suggest to parents that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to let their child bring their ipad along when lots of kids are gathering to play.
We were also starting to see academic studies about how our digital use might affect us. All those skills that we acquire and maintain by being face to face with others – empathy, problem-solving, collaboration – are not being sustained in the same way while we are glued to screens.
Noise has been accumulating around the topic, with articles appearing in everything from The Guardian, to the Daily Mail, picking up on books or articles from the academic press. Reduction in our sense of empathy, in particular was on many people’s minds – President Obama expressed concern about the ‘Empathy deficit’ already in 2006.
The only solution anybody seemed to offer, however, was ‘switch off’. There were proud articles from people who had chosen to go back to their basic Nokia, alongside holiday companies offering a ‘digital free’ break.
Of course there are times when mobile phones should be off completely, but this ‘solution’ is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Digital offers fantastic benefits and opportunities. What we need is to learn how get along with it better. To thrive with digital, rather than letting it control us or interrupt us.
Our initial hunch is that there are various ways this needs to be tackled. The Big One is how we, as a society, set our norms around what and when digital use and interruption is ok and when it isn’t. That may start in the family or among groups of friends (the ‘first one to pick up their mobile pays the bill’ trend is encouraging), or in the workplace, where it can be easier to establish rules.
The digital industry itself has a role to play in the way apps and services are designed. Commercial pressures tend to encourage companies to drive increased screen time, rather than the on-and-off-screen experience we may need. Apps and services can encourage real-life meetings – new service Stellup is one example – but sometimes it’s also a question of us using apps in a collaborative way. Three people around an iPad may be better than one.
We believe we need to use the academic insights into both digital problems and opportunities to get to work on the solution. Above all, we think an important first step is to get people together – from academia, business, tech, marketing and beyond – to start a conversation and figure out the best way forward. This blog is one part of that.