Wish You Could Slow Down? You’re Not the Only One.

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Wish You Could Slow Down? You’re Not the Only One.

With a phone in everyone’s hand, gadgets are everywhere, accessible at all hours, at nearly all places. They’re as powerful as any computer, and we’ve become accustomed to doing an array of tasks, during the tiniest pockets of opportunity: writing e-mails in a cab, checking Facebook at lunch or browsing the Internet at work. We even take the phone to sleep with us, determined not to miss a message.

In short, our technology is shaping every sacrosanct facet of our daily routines — not the other way around. But there’s a darker side to that connection: a growing exhaustion from the amount of time we spend on those devices, and that real-time interruption is backfiring. The omnipresence of technology is wreaking havoc on our schedules, ruining not only a full night’s sleep, but also disrupting our relationships and overwhelming our lives.

A group of thinkers are stepping into the fray, and a “slow tech” movement is gaining momentum, pushing us to redefine how we approach gadgets from the ground-up. Instead of being obsessed with efficiency, these thinkers advocate a more livable, mindful relationship with our devices. Whereas “slow food” shed light on our need to eat locally, in-season foods, slow tech is recalibrating the saturation of our gadgets in our lives.

The idea isn’t entirely new. It has its roots in an ideological movement called “appropriate technology,” a term coined by economist and proponent Dr. E.F. Schumacher in his influential book, “Small Is Beautiful.”

Appropriate technology, as a whole, deals with the relationship technology has with economic development, particularly in third-world countries. It claims that small, local technologies benefit societies best. On a consumer level, though, the idea centers on proper scale: gadgets should be “people-centered.”

The ideological cousin of slow tech, and connected to appropriate technology, is the concept of “sustainable development,” which looks at the renewability and durability of gadgets, as well as their environmental impact during use and disposal afterwards. Together, these core values form the relationship between us and our technology — not only what we create and consume, but also the way we use them.

Will that phone detract from your quality of life? Give it some thought.

Slow tech turns the lens inwards to us, focusing on how our devices affect our time, emotion and energy. The movement, which has its origins in an article by two Swedish designers, Lars Hallnas and Johan Redstrom, describes the idea as “reflection and moments of mental rest, rather than efficiency in performance.”

The aim is to create products that don’t add undue stress on us.

As we use more gadgets in more places outside of work, handset makers also need to re-examine how they design devices, shifting the emphasis from efficiency to an experience that surrounds and compliments us for long periods of time.

The idea is still a bit of a niche practice among makers and distributors of technology, but the concept is one that continues to intrigue designers and thinkers. In 2011, a London exhibition, called “Slow Tech,” organized in part by Wallpaper magazine, explored prototypes that encourages you to take time off from those tiny screens.

Participant Hugo Eccles created devices like a “Social Bomb,” which cuts off all forms of electronic communication during group events like movies or weddings, as well as a “Social Timer” that blocks social media for a set period — enough to enjoy a dinner, for example, and rediscover the joys of conversation.

Slow designs have yet to hit the mainstream, but the idea of rebalancing our relationship with gadgets is proving popular during tech fasts and digital detoxes. Slow tech, though, faces two formidable enemies: the frenetic pace of a market set by handset makers, and our own over-reliance on being constantly connected.

It is certainly an idea anathema to the mobile industry, which relies on a flood of devices to keep us buying. Gadgets of all sorts hit stores at such a fast and furious pace that each retail season touts a better set of bells and whistles.

Companies are, of course, in a quest to maximize revenues, and the deluge of options show healthy levels of competition. But limitless choices are not always ideal. Product cycles are shortening, fueled not by just consumer need, but also by a marketing imperative that prizes hype and momentum.

Built by a smaller, vocal number of early adopters — so-called “trysumers” — true to their name, they love to hop to something first and give it a whirl. While rarely loyal to any one brand, they collectively generate buzz that companies cater for in the race for profits.

Sped-up cycles are good for companies, but for overwhelming for us. We have to wade through an endless number of products, slowing down our pace of buying. Amid an economy troubled by a poor financial outlook, we’re simply holding on to gadgets longer.

With manufacturers pushing up releases, and buyers slowing down adoption, the result is a disconnect where products pile up amid an even more overwhelming amount of choices.

Sped-up cycles are good for companies, but for overwhelming for us. We have to wade through an endless number of products, slowing down our pace of buying. Amid an economy troubled by a poor financial outlook, we’re simply holding on to gadgets longer.

All this create a kind of paralysis, which psychologist Barry Schwartz called the “paradox of choice” — the more of options we have, the less satisfied we’ll be with our decision. With a market that can quickly overwhelm, we’re never truly satisfied since there’s always a better gadget around the corner.

No one can overwhelm us like ourselves.

The flood of technology is relentless, so abuse and overuse are bound to happen, whether it is with e-mail, texting or social media. According to the Pew Internet Life project, nearly 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone, while almost two-in-three have a desktop computer and the same proportion own a tablet.

With such high levels of ownership, it’s no wonder the Internet has become such a big part of our daily routines: nearly 60 percent of Americans search or access e-mail every day, and half check social media, like Facebook or Twitter — often, several times a day.

The result is a “culture of distraction.” We constantly check e-mail and social media, siphoning away focus from tasks at hand, creating needless “insecurity work” to give the feeling of productivity.

We bring our devices everywhere — to the dining table, bedroom, living room sofa when we watch TV, even the toilet. We can’t even leave them behind when we go on vacation. Instead, we hold on to a bit of the office while we sip margaritas on the beach.

Constant use of technology often begins well, improving productivity and bringing connections closer, but it also often creates stress and anxiety. For example, electronic stimulation affects the quality of sleep, while constant Facebook and Twitter use can lead to feelings of inadequacy, a result of comparing ourselves to the often idealized lifestyles of our friends.

While gadgets make it easier to communicate, overuse of them can also complicate relationships. “Technology should be on the list of the top reasons why people divorce, along with money, sex and parenting,” Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a marriage and family therapist, told the Wall Street Journal. “There has to be some time in the week when you are all together and you shut off the technology.”

That saturation in our lives hasn’t gone unnoticed, and activists, pundits and culture warriors are fighting to rebalance we have with our gadgets. Studies show that time away from technology actually reduces stress and boosts productivity, with “digital diets” offering a respite from the constant ping of data.

On a more personal level, some are giving up Facebook for Lent or unplugging to reconnect with families, while initiatives like “Clean Out Your Inbox Week,” “No E-mail Day” and “National Day of Unplugging” are creating a larger cultural conversation around the benefits from a break from technology. Those ideas are making an impact: some workplaces are instituting breaks from e-mail during off-hours, for example, in attempts to avoid worker burnout.

The slow trend won’t permeate industries. Companies are in the business of making money, and the lure of profits is too strong. But it is worth noting that one of tech’s most successful companies, Apple, has seen massive success with a tightly curated product line, designed to be user-friendly and elegantly simple — two values emphasized by slow tech and its intellectual forebears.

So rather, we should realign our values to our gadget. There’s no way to turn back from the surge of connectivity, nor should we. Pushing technology forward — more mobile, accessible and inexpensive — has wonderful implications, whether it brings innovations to under-served populations, stimulates the economy with businesses or spreads revolution and democracy.

To be a Luddite in today’s world would be to cut ourselves from the tools that spark ideas and creativity. Instead, what is needed is clarity and mindfulness around what devices we truly need, what we use them for and how we interact with them.

Whether it’s just at an office, part of the recreation room or out of the bedroom, gadgets have a right and proper place in our lives, but it’s up to us to decide where and how. Slow tech was originally a design philosophy, but in the end, it’s a practice that rests in our hands.

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Culture Desk

A look at the arts and entertainment of technology.
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