On not using technology

At the end of April, I headed off to Toronto to take part in a workshop ‘considering why we should study technology non-use’. The title of the workshop was ‘Refusing, limiting, departing’, reflecting some of the possible ways people might negotiate their (non)engagement with technology. One of the many interesting features of the workshop was that it was part of the preconference programme for the 32nd annual ACM conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI2014). This is a huge conference, attracting thousands of participants from around the world, many of whom are primarily concerned about finding ways to facilitate and improve people’s interactions with digital technologies. At first glance, having a workshop about not using such technologies seemed odd.

I started to think about non-use of the internet about 15 years ago, when still working in London on a project about the emergence of the World Wide Web, with Graham Thomas and Tiziana Terranova[1]. At that time, there was much concern about the ‘digital divide’. Policy makers were concerned about individuals, social groups, regions and countries being socially, economically and politically excluded as a result of not being digitally connected. This has slipped down the policy agenda as connectivity has become ubiquitous in rich parts of the world, even though huge disparities remain at a global level. We argued that non-use had to be approached with more subtlety. Rather than assuming an addiction model of internet use (‘once a user, always a user’ so the policy problem was how to increase use), we were interested in those people who positively chose not to engage with digital technologies. Despite a flurry of interest in this work after the collapse of the first dot-com boom, I had assumed the relentless march of technology had rendered our work obsolete. But I was wrong – lots of people are exploring use and non-use in a variety of settings.

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I was invited to take part in the panel about ‘concepts and theories’, in order to ‘lend an historical perspective’ as the invitation from the organisers said (a polite way of reminding me how old I am, and I was indeed the oldest participant by a considerable margin). The pre-circulated papers (still available on the workshop website) provided a fascinating glimpse into the rich variety of work now being done from different perspectives, including media and communication studies, psychology and HCI (human-computer interaction), sociology and CSCW (computer-supported cooperative work), information & library science, with some nods to history, philosophy and STS (science & technology studies). Most reported on the heroic struggles of individuals who for whatever reason chose not to use digital technologies, in whole or in part, but some papers looked at groups who limit their technology use, such as Buddhists, Amish, and orthodox Jewish communities in Israel. What I found most interesting were the various attempts to develop technologies of non-use, such as devices that will not work during times of fasting or prayer. The more abstract discussion about if and how to consider non-use as action (rather than non-action) was also important for its theoretical and methodological implications. Non-use increasingly requires a lot of effort which makes it easier to study non-use as a practice. Many of the papers began with a call to move beyond the use/non-use binary. I did point out from my position as old person that the early work on non-use already talked about the need to study it as a continuum, that non-user was not a fixed identity but a position that was subject to change as life and other circumstances changed.

Participants were invited not only to submit short papers about their work but also to engage in an experiment prior to the workshop, namely non-use of technology. It was up to us to define what we meant both by non-use and by technology. We shared our experiences during the opening round of introductions. This request arrived at about the same time that it was announced that French employers and trade unions had come to an agreement that workers should not be required to read email before 9am or after 6pm. I attempted to do that myself for the week of 14-18 April, and included a note in my email signature to that effect, also inviting people to send me their reactions. Most expressed envy, some told me of their own practices for managing email, and one colleague wrote with great concern for my well-being after not getting a reply from me within 24 hours. I slept better that week – not that I didn’t do any work but I read on the medium of paper. It sometimes meant a bit of a rush at 5.30 pm, but it certainly made for more peaceful evenings. Other experiments included becoming a non-user of commercial software, by the participant who put her commitment to open source into practice, at great effort. Another took up pen and paper, and closed his laptop, to record thoughts and notes during meetings. He was still doing it several weeks later. Everyone else experimented with not using social media in one form or another and with varying levels of success. Many expressed their effort to do so using the language of addiction and withdrawal, confirming the need for the growing market for courses and retreats in mindfulness and technology detox. This should not obscure the important political and economic differences that remain between those who have the luxury of not using technologies of whatever sort, and those who are excluded from exercising choice and agency in our highly connected world.

[1] S Wyatt, G Thomas & T Terranova (2002) ‘They came, they surfed, they went back to the beach: Conceptualising use and non-use of the Internet’ in S Woolgar (ed.) Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality, Oxford: Oxford University Press (pp.23-40)