A few days ago my daughter came into my office and whispered that the best present I could give to my wife this holiday would be two days of attention. "Don’t look at your computer. Play cards. Go for a walk. Talk." Coincidentally, that very morning, Katherine of TreeHugger suggested a digital detox: “Set apart a minimum of two days completely free from the Web: no email, Netflix or Instagram. Just you. Your loved ones. A board game, a book, or an afternoon skating.”

I thought this was a very good idea that I was probably incapable of, thinking back to a post I wrote last summer about being addicted to technology:

I don’t think addiction is too strong a word. I know I would use it to describe myself. I get twitchy if I can’t check Twitter or Feedly. I pretend that it’s all for work — I write for a living and need incoming content, ideas and news to feed the machine, but it’s beyond that. It has become an obsession. I can’t leave my phone because I might miss a good Instagram shot. And now I even have an Apple Watch pinging notifications at me at all times of day.

I am not alone in worrying about this; fellow MNNer Starre Vartan just published a post titled How I plan to control my Internet addiction this year where she describes being out of WiFi range during Thanksgiving:

...every hour or so, I reached for my phone. And I really wanted to get online to ... I don't even know what. I just wanted to. That's not getting things done or even overworking. That's just addiction. It felt weird. It felt like the addictive behavior we all hear about, addiction to things I've never been addicted to: Cigarettes, alcohol, gambling.

But I am not so sure anymore if this is a good analogy, and whether Starre and I were not overstating the case.

In the Guardian, Jenny Judge wonders whether tech liberates us or enslaves us. She notes that “Americans who subscribe to Netflix spend more time on the site than they do eating and having sex combined, TDG research found. The average Briton spends 1 hour 20 minutes every day monitoring four social media accounts.”

viewing timeHowever, the more I think about this — whether I am liberated or enslaved by technology — the more I come down on the side of the former, liberation. And the more I think about my so-called digital addiction, the more I think that it doesn’t exist.

Since the invention of television, people have always spent untold hours filling their spare time with stuff being delivered electronically; it just went from 12 channels to 500 channels to an essentially infinite number of sources, and as the Neilsen numbers show, it has been a time suck forever. Then, people got their news from Walter Cronkite or Time magazine; now we get it from our online magazines or news feeds. People always chose their books and magazines according to their own biases; now they follow their favorite websites and Twitter accounts. The messages haven’t changed; just the medium.

That’s why I find it interesting that everyone is so concerned about time spent on Netflix, and why people think we're more addicted than our parents were. Netflix is really no different than TV, it just comes in on a different kind of cable and you control the start times of the shows. Even my daughter excluded Netflix from her suggestion of a digital detox; she thought that the two of us watching a movie together was just fine as a social activity.

Jenny Judge concludes in the Guardian:

We love to praise tech, and we love to condemn it. We equate it with chaos, power, love, hate; with democracy, with tyranny, with progress and regress — we laud it as our salvation, while lamenting it as our scourge. Like any technology that has come before it, digital technology is all of these things. But it’s essentially none of them.

I'm going to do a digital detox on Christmas and Boxing Day, but not because of my so-called addiction to technology; it's not a scourge or a salvation, it’s a medium. I'm not convinced it's that different from our parents' and grandparents' addiction to the TV. I'm going to do it because I should spent more time with my wife, which will be even easier if I can get her nose out of that book.

Statistics image: TV Basics PDF.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.