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by Alistair Fraser and Rob Kitchin
24th September 2020

These days it’s not easy keeping up to date with the news or staying in touch with family and friends without digital technologies. Your phone or laptop, your broadband connection and the line-up of apps you’re using goes a long way to making you who you are.

Worker or homemaker, social butterfly or activist, news hound or sports fiend…, we’re online all day long, clicking and tapping, sending and responding to messages, and downloading and uploading data. We lead digital lives. Over 80 per cent of people now own a smartphone, with the average person checking it about 50 times a day. 66 per cent of teenagers in the UK report waking to check their phone in the middle of the night, along with 35 per cent of their parents. Many of us now expect to receive and respond to work emails and calls in the evening and at weekends.

Isn’t all this digital action tiring? Rather than freeing up time, our use of digital devices leaves many of us feeling rushed and stressed. Instead of performing single tasks, we do several things at once, such as commenting on social media, while watching Netflix, sorting out travel arrangements and chatting with family. Or we fill so-called ‘dead time’ by writing a report while travelling on a bus. And aren’t many facets of today’s digital technologies terrifying, such as the roll-out of extensive surveillance systems by both states and companies, the excessive capture of personal data and the creation of digital profiles to target, nudge and make decisions about us? Our data influence how we are governed and the services and entitlements we receive, and are valuable commodities that are traded and monetised.

We were certainly at our wits’ end before we decided to do something about it. Like most people today, we’re well accustomed to using digital technologies. Our jobs involve emails, research on the web and, in the shadow of the pandemic, preparing online course content and interacting with students via video meetings. We chat with family on Facebook or Whatsapp; we get our news from social media and online publications. We fill out forms on government websites and manage interactions with institutions. And we purchase goods online and are nudged by recommender systems to act in certain ways. All this activity, however, was leaving us time-stressed, anxious and concerned. We felt we were constantly online, perpetually obligated to respond and compelled to check for updates; that there was no way to escape the data grab taking place and how algorithmic processes were shaping our lives.

Don’t get us wrong: we like a lot of what technology offers us. Our careers and livelihoods, as well as our social lives, takes shape via digital media. What we were missing was control to dictate how we were living digitally. We wanted to experience the joys of computing, but to do so more on our terms than those of big tech and states. Slow computing was our response.

The idea of slow computing is linked explicitly to the ethos of the slow living movement. It seeks an alternative path to the speed, busyness and exploitative practices of digital life, prioritising a different set of values – enjoyment, quality of experience, individual and collective wellbeing, sovereignty, authenticity, responsibility and sustainability. At its heart is an ethic of digital care, of self-care and of care for others, and the notions of time and data sovereignty, of taking back control of our use of tech and how it is used in relation to us. The vision and aim of slow computing then is to transform how we personally engage and manage computation, and how society collectively responds and sets the frameworks through which digital action takes place.

We thus set about mapping out the individual and collective interventions that people could undertake to exert time and data sovereignty and express an ethic of digital care that would let others experience slow computing, and detailed them in our book, Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives. Many of these interventions are straightforward and include practising structured work where there is a planned shape to the day, disconnecting from work in evenings and at weekends, curating what is shared online, using privacy tools and open source alternatives, stepping away from some technologies, practising obfuscation, and acting reciprocally by treating others as we would like to be treated. Collectively, we can work together to campaign for policy and legislative changes, create privacy enhancement and open source tools, seek changes to workplace practices, and demand digital rights.

Of course, succeeding in these tactics is not easy given the power of big tech and states and our various obligations to family, friends and employers. And nor does everybody share the same personal circumstances to allow them to practise slow computing. Nonetheless, digital tech is tiring and terrifying and we can and should do something about it. Slow computing is a means to realising a different digital future.

Rob Kitchin is a Professor in the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute, Ireland. He is author/editor of a number of books about technology and society and is a recipient of the Royal Irish Academy’s Gold Medal for the Social Sciences.

Alistair Fraser is a Lecturer in Geography in Maynooth University, Ireland. His research engages diverse themes, including rural change, food, music, and digital life.

 

Slow Computing by Rob Kitchin and Alistair Fraser is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £11.99.

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