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Byron Shire
May 23, 2024

Digital detox through strategic disengagement

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Sometime in 2012 I think it was, a valued friend and colleague and I were driving back from a community located in the western parts of NSW, and we began to discuss matters that each of us was grappling with.

I shared something that had been on my mind for many years involving the question of whether or not, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we were happier, healthier and generally better off when we were forcibly segregated from white society.

Forced segregation and other inequalities and factors devastatingly impacted the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in ways that one must experience to fully appreciate its dehumanising toxicity.

The Whitlam government

Forced segregation and its attendant powers operated, and was rigidly enforced, across Australia up until the 1970s, and circumstances only began to gradually change following the election of the Whitlam government in 1972.

This was only five years after white Australians voted overwhelmingly to support and approve amendments to the Australian Constitution so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders could be counted in the Australian Census, and to grant powers to the Commonwealth to make special laws to address Indigenous socioeconomic need and aspiration.

I know what it feels like to grow up under the ubiquitous powers of the Aboriginal Welfare Board, and have witnessed the pain and humiliation of forced segregation, racism and the poverty associated with the denial of fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Shared happiness and abundant joy

I also remember our shanties were also often filled with days and nights of shared happiness and abundant joy.

Over the years, I have pondered this binary experience, and developed what I have termed the concept of ‘strategic disengagement’ (SD).

It’s core defining characteristic is that in the spaces where we are required to explain and/or defend our rights and freedoms as First Australians, perhaps we are better off to simply disengage with the toxic forces of our social and political marginalisation and oppression.

Using SD as a focus, my friend and I considered how else it might be applied to respond to the challenges of modernity.

My friend and I are both septuagenarians, so we believe that we are ideally positioned to reflect on a world before the internet, and the piece of metal and plastic that seems to have taken over our lives and to which most of humanity seems permanently attached.

The omnipotent presence of the smartphone

We mused whether we should write a joint piece about the omnipotent presence of the smartphone and the internet and their impact on our lives and the sanity of humanity.

However, we also agreed that, as with most technological advancements, there are often positive as well as negative aspects to these developments.

Perhaps balance is what we were concerned with rather than abandonment.

Building on the notion of Strategic Disengagement, we agreed that we could call our piece Digital Strategic Disengagement (DSD).

Johann Hari: Stolen Focus – Why You Can’t Pay Attention

So, it was with profound delight that I stumbled across a podcast of an interview between the ABC’s Phillip Adams and Johann Hari, the author of a new book titled Stolen Focus – Why You Can’t Pay Attention.

I was fascinated with what Hari was sharing with Adams; it was as if he had been sitting in the backseat of the car during our drive across the western plains of NSW.

Hari’s book details the research and outcomes he conducted during which he interviewed 250 leading experts from around the globe to help him better understand what is happening to our ‘stolen focus’ and the role that digital technology plays in this loss.

An alarming statistic shared by Hari is that in the USA, people are so attached to their digital device that they touch it more than 2,600 times a day. On average, Americans spend three hours and fifteen minutes a day on the phone.

It would be interesting to know what the Australian stats are, although I suspect that we would have similar stats on a per capita basis.

To help deal with his own level of digital addiction, Hari decided that he had to cut himself off, strategically, from the digital world.

Extreme digital detox

So he decided to spend three months on an island, just off the coast of Boston, to engage in what Hari calls his ‘extreme digital detox’.

The book, Stolen Focus, is one of the outcomes of Hari’s digital detox regime and he accepts that it ‘couldn’t be a long-term’ solution.

He explained that he ‘wasn’t going to join the Amish and abandon technology forever.’

Hari’s act of digital detox was an act of desperation because, as he explains, he feared that he ‘might lose some crucial aspects of my ability to think deeply.’

The ability to think deeply and to find answers to life’s challenges is crucial to the survival of our species, a skill that I often find missing in our leaders, especially modern politicians.

‘In his unique voice, Johann Hari tackles the profound dangers facing humanity from information technology and rings the alarms bells for what all of us must do to protect ourselves, our children and our democracies’ – Hillary Clinton.

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