Rethinking the “Digital Detox”

Marc Benioff’s version of a “digital detox,” is more involved than most: The Salesforce chief executive went on a 10-day, device-free vacation to French Polynesia as his company was laying off around 8,000 workers last month. “We are so addicted to our devices (at least I am) it’s very freeing to leave them all behind for a while!” he told The New York Times via text message.

But maybe a detox is the wrong metaphor. The phrase, pulled from the language of substance abuse treatment, suggests that “we at least have a sense that there’s something wrong here,” said Nicholas Carr, whose 2010 book, “The Shallows,” was one of the first to explore the cognitive cost of digital distraction. Newer research, he says, has shown the problem isn’t only about the time you spend actually looking at your devices. The mere ability to check for messages “is taking up part of our attention all the time.”

Here’s bad news: Taking a vacation from your phone probably won’t solve much. “Leaving Las Vegas for 10 days if you’re a problem gambler is great,” said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of books on digital distraction and the importance of rest. “But if on day 11 you’re back at the slot machines, then it’s not so great.” A 2021 review of 21 studies that looked at the effect of digital detoxes on aspects like anxiety and participants’ sense of well-being found that most showed either no effect or mixed results at best.

What’s more, cutting off all access to technology — not so hard to imagine in 2010 — is increasingly impractical, especially if you’re not a billionaire with a staff. Even people on vacation “are reliant on mobile phones for so much, from documents to photos,” said Matt Berna, the North America president for Intrepid, an adventure travel company that ended its “digital detox” tours in 2018. (It still runs many trips on which you’re not likely to catch a Wi-Fi signal.)

That’s not to say a digital detox is bad — it’s just not enough. “You really have to figure out how to take breaks within the realities of your daily life,” said Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. Like any other habit, he says, “it basically takes repetition and sort of baby-stepping into it.”

Experts’ recommendations are less exciting than a trip to French Polynesia, though they’re certainly less expensive: Turn off your notifications. Set aside an hour of single-tasking time. Put physical distance between yourself and your phone when you don’t need it. And understand that although technology companies design their devices to be on your mind all the time, you don’t need to follow suit.

“It’s sort of like a reframing rather than a detox,” Gazzaley said. “It’s not that you just do it completely. You do it a little bit at a time.”

We want to hear from you: How do you set boundaries with your devices? If not a “digital detox,” what would you call your strategy? Let us know here.


How will Microsoft tweak its new A.I. chatbot? Users have reported creepy interactions with the bot persona that is part of the company’s revamped Bing search engine. In response, Microsoft said it would limit the length of conversations. Will it put more guardrails in place?

What will happen to Don Lemon? The CNN morning-show anchor was rebuked by the network’s chairman on Friday after he said on air that Nikki Haley, the 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate, “isn’t in her prime.”

Will Bitcoin continue its comeback? The cryptocurrency hit an eight-month high on Thursday, despite signs of a broadening crypto crackdown.

Who will be the Fed’s new vice chair? President Biden appointed the Federal Reserve’s Lael Brainard to be his top economic adviser this week, but has yet to name her replacement. One person reportedly in the running is Austan Goolsbee, the Chicago Fed President, whose position on interest rates is more centrist than Brainard’s dovish stance.

How to sound smart at a party: ChatGPT

Just when you have finally caught up on crypto, small talk has turned to ChatGPT, a massively popular chatbot that has kicked off an A.I. arms race at big tech companies. If you don’t have time to understand the complicated technology under the hood, never fear: We asked Kevin Roose, a technology columnist at The Times, for some lines to use (and avoid) in a conversation.

Say this: “ChatGPT’s versatility is amazing, but I wonder if large language models can ever solve the hallucination problem.”

Why? Chatbots like ChatGPT generate new text, and they don’t care whether it’s true or not. As Kevin found out in a conversation with Bing’s A.I. chatbot this week in which the A.I. professed its love for him, sometimes the stuff they make up can be disturbing.

Don’t say this: “I use ChatGPT for math.”

Why? The technology works by scanning massive amounts of text and then developing a model to predict which words come next in a sentence. But it’s notoriously error-prone at crunching numbers, hallucinating wrong answers (see above) while insisting it’s correct.

“There’s no contact, I don’t have 300-pound guys falling on top of me. It’s just a matter of shooting the lowest score.”

— Tiger Woods, on why the nature of golf makes it possible to ignore ordinary retirement timelines for athletes.

Taking down a Chinese spy balloon, by the numbers

The downing of a Chinese spy balloon and three takedowns of mysterious (but likely innocuous) U.F.O.s continue to transfix the public. Little is known about the military operations that intercepted these objects flying over the United States and Canada — but we do know they weren’t exactly cheap.

$143 million: The price of an F-22 Raptor, the plane built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing that was used in the first three takedowns. It’s considered one of the most expensive fighter planes ever built.

$439,000: The price of one Raytheon AIM-9X sidewinder, the type of missile used to shoot the objects down, according to Bloomberg. The Pentagon used at least five of the missiles.

$400 billion: The combined market cap of the three firms — Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon — behind these missions. Stock of the latter two are trading near all-time highs, and Boeing’s shares are up nearly 10 percent since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Basically zero: The cost of shooting down the balloon and U.F.O.s is “not even a rounding error” in the U.S. military’s roughly $770 billion budget, according to Zach Rosenberg of Janes, the defense and intelligence firm.

On our radar: $1,400 robot shoes

Credit…Shift Robotics

Most people don’t think of walking as an outdated technology, but a Pittsburgh start-up called Shift Robotics says “the way we walk is stuck in the past.” Positioned as a safer alternative to a scooter or bike, the company’s Moonwalkers strap on to normal shoes and increase the speed of walking to about 7 m.p.h., a decent running pace. A reviewer for Fast Company said wearing the shoes, which for now are only available for preorder, “feels a bit like being on a moving walkway.” Are the $1,400 shoes the next Segway — a promising high-tech solution to urban transportation that ends up working better as a gimmick — or the future of micro-mobility? It’s hard to know until they start shipping, which the company expects to happen this summer.

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