A new pandemic: Digital fatigue



Social isolation, excessive screen time, and limited outdoor activities are a recipe for emotional exhaustion

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Fri 8 Oct 2021, 11:29 PM

Last updated: Sun 10 Oct 2021, 3:41 PM

Peter Johnson is a technologist, entrepreneur, educator, and diplomat — all rolled into one. Born in Rochester, New York, he has a dual base in Tunisia and Germany. Like any global citizen wearing many hats, Peter craves occasional digital detox. No wonder his favourite vacation in recent years has been a camel trek in the desert with no electricity, limited phone signal, and no Internet connectivity. “It was an amazing feeling of peace, and energy, to be disconnected for a week from the digital world,” he sums it up. Johnson sees digital fatigue manifesting in people yearning for more personal contact, caught in the deluge of digital content, virtual meetings, and unfathomable data. “It also shows itself in people who are feeling more physically stiff,” he says. As the space for physical activity became a luxury in the middle of a year-long lockdown, office meetings often meant moving from one screen to another. In Johnson’s words, “it can also lead to more aggression, less empathy, and less creativity”.

Ironically, the “it can never be turned off” feeling accentuates the sense of fatigue. Research on this space is still limited, but theories suggest that increased use of time-consuming digital content has decreased reading habits. Digital media users, especially the youth, make things worse by applying acronyms unique to social media, preventing them from acquiring proper writing skills. “The constant flow and viewing of data on multiple subjects on social media prevent youth from being focused on one idea at a time, thus hampering their development of expertise in specific subjects,” says Johnson.

Dr Danica Radovanovic, a senior Internet tech advisor and an associate innovation and research specialist at the University of Oslo, sees digital fatigue as a human state that influences our physical, emotional, and cognitive wellbeing. She is uniquely qualified to address this subject. Combining research and development, her work focuses on societal, psychological, and communication aspects of digital transformation and regenerative technologies, digital intelligence, and digital resilience.

She is understandably alarmed at the habits defining human behaviour amid the onslaught. “We spend every free moment numbing ourselves with social media to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings,” she says. That automatically means our work-personal life boundaries are blurred, and we have lost the grounding structure. “Both on the macro and micro levels, these continuous anxieties and uncertainties inevitably create digital fatigue that could lead to more concerning conditions such as digital burnout,” she asserts.

Covid, the enabler

According to Dr Radovanovic, living through the collective trauma of a near two-year pandemic hasn’t helped matters, and the disadvantages of excessive digital consumption are apparent. “We can become more distracted, less focused on daily tasks and not present in communication with others. We may feel isolated and pseudo-connected, develop insomnia, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, burnout,” she says. As an outcome of continuous digital consumption, our imagination and creativity stagnate, and we become less productive.

For some, replacing the definition of fatigue from “informational” to “digital” neutralises the problem of information load on a modern person. Kirill Krasnogir, the CEO and co-founder of CleverPoint, and co-author of a study on user adaptation to virtual reality and assessing employees’ stress resistance, performance, and psychophysiological status, says being artificially glued to digital technologies of information transmission has dissolved in many other problems related to a person’s communicative, spiritual, and value components. Keeping this in mind, CleverPoint has developed a bio-device for recording human physiological parameters.

According to Krasnogir, the amount of digital content available to an individual has long exceeded his ability to process information. “Information for consumption is not always intended for its analysis. The individual abilities of a person determine the peak of digital content processing,” he says, emphasising a human’s ability to exercise choice.

So, here’s a question that needs asking: are we really exercising choice? Soulaima Gourani, co-founder and CEO of Happioh — which produces software that reduces online meeting fatigue and hybrid work-related burnout — is quick to admit that digital fatigue is inescapable in the digital era and looks at the bigger picture of adaptability.

“We’re simply not built to sit at desks, staring at screens, and absorbing endless amounts of information. Importantly, this lifestyle hinders productivity unless measures are taken to ‘recharge’ and ‘rebalance’ at our core,” points out Gourani, who was rewarded with the prestigious YGL, WEF Young Global Leader title alongside Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Larry Page. Over 350,000 copies of one of Gourani’s books have been downloaded and sold.

The moot point is what will humans be needed for as AI and machine learning take over? This is critical as human beings need time and space for creativity, deep thinking, and our ability to empathise. “If pandemics keep us physically separated, we will depend on technological solutions to bring people together in conversation as much as they amplify individual voices. This has more to do with creating ‘psychologically safe cultures’ offline and online,” she exclaims.

Our fading love for books

The dichotomy sets in from the fact that humans are meaning-makers and social beings. Hence, any technology that enables us to engage meaningfully will be a powerful tool in this digital era. Gourani refers to Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, which inspires readers to develop habits that encourage traction, knowing very well that internal and external triggers will always be present. “Technology makes concentrating challenging, but it is not to blame. Humans are capable of designing and living lives they are in control of,” she sums up her argument. Gourani, however, hastens to add: “That said, old-fashioned book clubs are excellent too!”

Our fading love for books is probably at the core of this entire discourse. It probably is also a litmus test of the direction in which things are headed as far as our digital adoption is concerned. Most observers argue that we shouldn’t blame technology and gadgets for not maintaining our book-reading habits, and it’s a toss-up between being “more consuming and less creating”. Moreover, it is also determined by how we structure and set up the space to read a book.

“It depends on our time management skills and setting up priorities for our self-development. Family and social surroundings represent very relevant factors for book reading habits,” says Gourani. In other words, if you come from a family or circle of friends that cultivate reading books, it will likely become an everyday routine for you as well. We are who we are surrounded with, in which community power, encouragement, and accountability play a relevant role.

There is no global study on this phenomenon. However, Dr Radovanovic quotes a Pew Research Center survey of US adults conducted in January-February 2021, which suggests almost a quarter of American adults (23 per cent) say they haven’t read a book in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.

The data from 2016 suggests that 65 per cent of Americans had read a print book, more than double the share that has read an e-book (28 per cent) and more than four times the share that has consumed book content via audio books (14 per cent). “This is still encouraging; avid book readers will find the time and the way to read the book, in print or digital,” says Dr Radovanovic. So, ultimately, we are responsible for the space and habit of reading and writing, and merely blaming technology is underestimating one’s power of restraint.

Peter Johnson, who founded and leads Ayadee Holding, which uses blockchain technology, believes technology can be used to enrich oneself as much as books. He equates book-reading with digital activities such as listening to podcasts, attending talks on Clubhouse, or taking part in seminars and discussions hosted on Zoom.

Johnson argues that there is space to build deep expertise without reading, with access to university lectures and experts talks, which may be especially helpful for people who learn more through a lecture or seminar than reading. According to him, this would not have been possible for people without access to world-renowned experts that are now virtually available to people worldwide.

Gourani, who has written and contributed to more than 14 books on how to get success in life, life design, and the future of work, chooses to remain ambiguous on the subject. “Whether we enjoy physical books because it feels better to hold knowledge in our hands or because we are less likely to get distracted is up for debate,” she says. The final word in this debate also depends on who you are talking to. “If you ask individuals who grew up with an absence of gadgets, they will likely say they prefer hard-copy books. In contrast, younger generations see physical books as decorative objects,” says Gourani.

Like Gourani, Krasnogir takes the debate back to the territory of choices and habits formed during childhood. “If, instead of reading a book, a parent gives the child a gadget so that the child does not distract his immersion, then reading books, which requires mental effort, will never squeeze out what digital technologies offer in the form of information gum,” he says.

Going by his logic, the peak of digital content processing is determined by a person’s abilities. “Returning to reading books and writing is a problem of a particular person’s choice and not a trend in modern technology development,” says Krasnogir. The book, according to him, is real virtual reality and the power of the author makes us form plots in our heads, whole worlds, makes us feel love and hate. It develops our flexibility of mind, thinking, shapes ideas, goals, and dreams, to which we go, shapes personality.

“Whether the book is presented in digital or paper form is a matter of convenience and preference. The main thing is a conscious choice: read a book or be content with useless and endless information noise,” he asserts.

If we don’t use the brains, we lose them

We also hope that responsible technology will help people know themselves better, not distract them from themselves. Its most significant advantage is that increased self-awareness enables us to connect with others and build communities from places of understanding, compassion, and curiosity.

Not so long ago, a newspaper a day, a magazine a week, and a book a month was considered the best recipe for young students to get wise. Now newspapers, magazines, and books are all experiencing a dysfunctional print interface and have moved to digital platforms to rescue themselves. The process seems irreversible, and compliance seems to be the only recourse.

According to Dr Radovanovic, we should realise that reading makes us curious and kind and sparks our imagination. “And that is an enormous quality in enriching our lives and the lives of others. Whichever way one looks at it, this has become a luxury nowadays, and people of all ages encounter digital depression,” she says.

But here goes the most important takeaway of the entire discourse. Like any other part of the body, if we don’t use the brains, we lose them. Any technology prompts us not to use our brains is playing with our evolution as a species. There are numerous examples of species becoming extinct for this reason.

(Ehtesham Shahid is editor at the Emirates Policy Center. He tweets @e2sham)

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