Wednesday , 8 February 2023
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What the French ‘right to disconnect’ could teach us about the internet

Our obsession with devices can come at the expense of our relationships.

As if that wasn’t enough, the French are also leading the world when it comes to working without getting stressed.

In 2000, the country famously introduced a 35-hour working week (in Australia, the standard is 38 hours). Now, French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri is looking at giving all workers the “right to disconnect” and not look at work emails when they are at home.
Le doit a la deconnexion reportedly comes from a human resources guru at telco company Orange, who thinks the policy will combat the “psychosocial risks” of always being online and on call. And it follows concerns about more than 3 million French workers being on the edge of burnout. (People are getting around the 35-hour cap by keeping their phones and laptops switched on a la maison.)
But news of the “right to disconnect” has travelled the globe because it’s not just the French dealing with work overload and the feeling that the internet follows them everywhere they go.
According to the Australia Institute, the average full-time Australian worker does six hours of unpaid overtime a week, while Sensis found last year that the average Australian owns three internet devices, most commonly a laptop (75 per cent), smartphone (70 per cent) and tablet (55 per cent).
Even when we’re not at work, we’re logged on. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says Australians spend 10 hours (more than the average work day) on the internet, just for personal use.
But of course we don’t need surveys and think tanks to tell us this. Checking our phones for messages and calls and emails is the first and last thing many of us do each day. Even on weekends.
If we have a spare moment, waiting for the dentist, for a bus, for the ad break to finish, for the bread to toast, we’ll check to see if somebody needs or wants us. Or if something has happened.
If we’re alone, it’s a way to feel less lonely, bored or awkward. If we’re with others, it’s a way to look busy and important. It’s also become something we do just because.
It has existential implications, too. If someone posts a photo of the salad-in-a-jar they had and no one “likes” it, did they ever have lunch at all?
At the same time, there has been a shift in what’s socially acceptable.
When mobiles first arrived, it was considered the height of rudeness (and wankiness) to use your new-fangled portable phone while you were talking to someone else. These days people don’t excuse themselves if they’re with one group of friends or colleagues while texting others or checking something on their phones – and they aren’t expected to.
We just accept that people’s concentration will be divided or is about to become so.
But while we’ve never had so much information and so much connection, studies have found that being perma-connected to multiple devices is not making us smarter.
It’s actually working in the opposition direction.
More than 10 years ago, London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that multitasking with electronic media was worse for you than smoking pot – causing people to temporarily drop 10 IQ points.
And there is plenty of research that shows working long hours is bad for productivity and bad for work quality.
It’s also been shown to be totally pointless. Boston University assistant professor Erin Reid studied a global consulting firm where managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked an 80-hour week and those who just pretended to (how’s that for scary?).
So even before you get to governments stepping in with new laws, there’s something collective and silly going on with the way we use technology.
Several years ago, US journalist William Powers made a small but significant change in his life.
The self-confessed technology devotee had always been the first to get any new gadget, carried his phone with him everywhere and surfed the net at all hours – but something was wrong.
“I just felt like I was skimming the surface of life more and more. It was like my brain was becoming a hamster wheel. Never stopping spinning,” the former Washington Post media writer said.
So, he and his family started having an “internet Sabbath”. From the time they went to bed on Friday until Monday morning, they turned their modem off. Instead of hanging out on Facebook or checking work emails they spent time with each other or (radical idea alert) their own thoughts.
“It’s different in the beginning, it’s strange, it’s scary, and then it’s not,” Powers explains.
Powers used this experience to write the bestseller Hamlet’s Blackberry, which looks at how humans have handled great technological change through history. In each case – whether it be the advent of writing in Ancient Greece or an influx of the printed word in Elizabethan times – it has involved people stepping back and finding space away from the new invention.
This is not a rallying call for Luddites. It’s about balance; exercising some self-control.
At a time when we rush around blitzing green smoothies, downloading mindfulness apps and lighting another scented candle to try to calm the heck down, maybe we could start with something more simple.
And just disconnect instead.