A resident of Vancouver, Seth Bunev gave away his phone and computer at age 17. He was concerned about digital media’s impacts on himself and his peers and wanted to unravel the åways growing up with these technologies had shaped his mind and emotions. He spent four years offline as part of this quest. Seth’s new book, Screenfarers: Nurturing Deliberate Action in a Digital World, is a practical guide to using the internet without being used and passing this skill on to others. It combines insights from his time offline, his work as an outdoor educator, and research into the history and psychology of so-called “persuasive design.”
How does your book help people?
Screenfarers focusses primarily on how individuals can use tech on their own terms, regardless of their age and whether they have support from others. I think this is an important starting place. Any individual can change their own behaviour, with sufficient effort. They do not have to depend on others, or on outside circumstances. But we need to address this matter on a community scale as well. As social creatures, our behaviours and our choices about how we structure our institutions and lives affect those around us. So I am excited to be working with the organization Turning Life On to create a school program that enables conversations and decisions around how we want to relate to digital tech to take place at the scale of the school.
I think that groups of people who know each other face-to-face will be the real drivers of cultural change that puts tech in its place. Part of why the digital world has become so invasive is that tech companies are well-coordinated, and there is little coordination around how to respond to them.
What is your relationship to technology like now after your book and your experience? How has it changed? How did your time away from the internet inform you?
Part of me wants to run away and live in the woods without electricity again because ironically I’ve chained myself to my computer for the past year to complete this project!
My time offline forced me to learn a lot of practical skills, because I couldn’t rely on a gadget to do them for me, and it sharpened some cognitive capacities as well. But the most interesting things that changed were less concrete.
I encountered a certain poetry in life that digital conveniences can eliminate. For example, shortly after I stopped using digital tech, one of my friends moved thousands of miles away. At the time, I was not planning to ever use the internet again, so I got to experience that loss the way someone in a pre-digital age would have. I did not know if I was seeing him for the last time; perhaps we would lose touch forever.
What were your biggest surprises in researching your book?
I was astonished that the psychological literature on digital tech and mental health seemed largely unaware of the existence of a parallel literature on how to design digital platforms to form irresistible habits. Only one of about 50 papers I read even mentioned this rather crucial fact, and that paper didn’t make much of it! However, I did the bulk of my reading for that aspect of my book in late 2019, and a lot of new awareness has been brought to the issue since then, so it’s possible that researchers are catching on.
The rise of children who want to have plastic surgery so that they look like their Snapchat filters were something I did not see coming, though tragically it makes perfect sense that this would be happening.
It also surprised me how hard it was to represent the phenomena I was writing about with the words we currently have for the task. The lack of consistent or specific terminology made research tricky—especially searching databases. While writing, I had to make up words like ‘impigeonment,’ to avoid being convoluted or ambiguous.
You cite Wade Davis in your book – how does anthropology fit into your book?
Both anthropology and history give us windows through which we can try to imagine ourselves into completely different ways of existing in the world—different values, different ways of seeing. In Davis’s words, different answers to the question “what does it mean to be human, and alive?”
I read Wade Davis’s work in my teens. The curiosity he helped inspire about other ways to experience was part of my reason for going offline. It wasn’t only to avoid negative aspects of tech, but also for the adventure of experiencing the world differently: experiencing, in effect, a different world.
What were some of your favourite subjects in school?
Whichever ones were taught by my favourite teachers. When I have an inspiring teacher, I tend to get excited about whatever they are teaching—math, literature, science, history, art. My favourite subject sometimes changed year to year. In high school, I thought of myself as primarily interested in the arts (writing, visual art, music, and theatre). These days I lean towards history and ecology.
What did your peers think about your no internet life?
I’m only starting to find out recently. It was rarely a point of discussion. Sometimes people would ask me why I would refuse to do certain things; I would do my best to explain, but I was oblivious to what they thought. Only now am I starting to hear that so and so thought I was crazy, or that someone else was confused at the time, but now can relate and wants to try going offline.
For a lot of the time I was offline, though, I didn’t exactly have peers—I travelled a lot, so I met different people along the way, most of them weren’t my age. The assessments of strangers ranged from handing me some change and hurrying away (a lot of people seemed to think that having no cell phone meant I was homeless, a criminal, or both), to being impressed and interested in why someone would choose to travel around with no devices.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Ethan Watters’ book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche is one of my favourite things I have read recently, along with Liah Greenfeld’s Mind, Modernity, Madness. Each has a fascinating take on how culture impacts expressions of mental illness.
I enjoy Michael Pollan’s books exploring food systems, for the way he experientially investigates important topics.
Fiction writers I treasure include Ursula K. Le Guin, especially her Earthsea series, and Terry Pratchett, because it would take a deep love for the world and all its idiosyncrasies to be able to poke fun at absolutely everything the way he does.
Do you think that as a society, we should have a set amount of time where we are unplugged?
I think designating certain times and places device-free could be a powerful tool for reining in tech if it happens at a smaller scale, the scale of a family, a school, a neighbourhood, maybe even a town. It would be important for everyone involved to have a direct role in the discussion and decision and be genuinely in agreement. If it was at a large, impersonal scale, such a measure would have to be something people opt in to. There already are some initiatives like that, for example, Screen-Free Week.
I do wonder, though, what would happen if all the devices just disappeared for a period of time. How would people react? If all the smartphones on a bus suddenly stopped working, would people look up and actually interact?
For more information on Seth’s book, please visit https://screenfarers.com/