Is the Tech-Tool Always Best? Tanya Goodin & Freedom Matters
The question may be simple, but the answer is complicated
Tanya Goodin is an author, broadcaster, pioneering thinker and campaigner on digital wellbeing and tech ethics – founder of the digital detox movement Time to Log Off and host of the It’s Complicated podcast. Her game-changing books on our relationship with technology, My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open, Off, and Stop Staring at Screens, are published in ten languages worldwide.
She hasn’t always been a ‘digital canary’. As an award-winning digital entrepreneur and instinctive trend spotter, Tanya ran one of Britain’s first digital businesses for two decades. Her mission is to make today’s tech issues accessible to users and consumers, so they can consciously manage their digital lives.
Tanya is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a graduate of the University of Oxford, and currently researching for a Masters in Artificial Intelligence (AI) ethics at the University of Cambridge.
In this episode, we discuss many of the lessons that she has learned about the costs of using technology.
- The elephant on the Zoom
- Tech-life balance
- And one very important question – is technology always the answer?
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital
Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong
Tanya: I think it’s really interesting that mindfulness, the whole mindfulness movement, I feel, has really — obviously, it’s been around for thousands of years. But it’s really come to the fore in parallel with the development of digital technology.
And I think it’s because people have thought, my brain is just too busy, it’s too active, and I really need mindfulness. And obviously, you could have a mindfulness practice or a meditation practice, but something else you could do is just step away from tech a bit more.
Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired, so let’s get to it.
This week, I’m chatting with Tanya Goodin, a tech entrepreneur. She ran businesses for over 20 years across Europe, Africa, and China. But about 10 years ago, like many people in the industry, she started to think more about her relationship with technology, and particularly the ways in which it was affecting our behavior and relationships.
Since then, she’s been a campaigner for digital well-being and tech ethics, founding the digital detox movement, Time to Log Off and hosting the popular ‘It’s Complicated’ podcast. Her game-changing books on our relationship with technology, ‘My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open’, ‘Off’ and ‘Stop Staring at Screens’, are published in ten languages worldwide.
In this conversation, we dive into some of the challenges we face with technology, some solutions, and we ask a vital question, is the tech solution always the only or the right way to go? Tanya, welcome to the Freedom Matters podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Tanya: Thank you so much for having me.
Georgie: So, to kick us off, could you tell me a little bit about your latest book, ‘My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open’ and why you decided to write it?
Tanya: The book is a series of 24 stories of people that I’ve helped over the last sort of five years since I’ve been doing this particular work. With particular issues they’ve got around their use of technology and then trying to help them use their own resources to manage their relationship with technology a bit better.
Georgie: And you say that in the book that everyone is struggling with their relationship with technology. You wrote it a few years ago. Do you still feel like that’s the case today?
Tanya: Yeah. I did a talk yesterday in London and yeah, everybody there, over a 100 people, were all saying that they were struggling. And I think, I think the thing to emphasize to everybody is that we aren’t alone in this. It is completely new tech. We are all learning it.
I say somewhere in the book it’s like a tech adolescence we’re going through. We’ve all adopted it really enthusiastically. Every generation at the same time is working out how best to use it. And I do think people are still struggling with it.
I think there are very few people that would say, if you ask them honestly, I have a 100% healthy, productive, successful relationship with tech. Everybody in some way wishes that relationship was slightly different.
Georgie: Yeah, indeed. And what do you think are some of the biggest issues right now?
Tanya: Gosh, so many. I would say from a work point of view, I think lack of boundaries and over connectivity. Nobody denies that the technology and the tools that enable us to work remotely, enable hybrid working, collaborative working are fantastic. But people increasingly find it difficult to set that boundary around what’s home and what’s work.
And because we can work anywhere, anytime we’re working everywhere and all the time. And I think burnout is definitely on the rise. And in the home environment, I think the biggest thing I see are partners, parents, children all complaining and this is absolutely every age group. No age group is immune from this.
They’re all complaining that everybody else is ignoring them when they pick up their phones. And that increasingly, when you’re with somebody, they’ve got their phone in their hand and they’re scrolling.
And I got that yesterday at the talk people saying what can I do about friends who constantly pick their phones up? What can I do about friends who want to text and don’t want to meet up? How do we make sure technology isn’t a barrier between us?
Georgie: It was really interesting. I saw in some research that came out this week finding the parents that are more addicted to their screens basically results in children being a lot more addicted to their screens as well. So, that kind of more evidence around the mirroring effect of screen habits.
Tanya: I’ve been saying that for years. We’ve known for a long time, haven’t we, that if you are in a house where parents are heavy drinkers or heavy smokers, you’re much more likely to be a heavy drinker or a heavy smoker yourself.
So, it’s a no-brainer to think that children model our behavior if they grow up in an environment where parents are glued to their screens, they’re going to be doing the same thing.
Tanya: So, yeah, I’m really not at all surprised to hear that.
Georgie: I think a lot of people who use Freedom probably already think they’re already doing something positive to improve their relationship with technology. And they’re trying to put a bit more control back into how they use their screens.
However, I think there might be some issues that you might not have thought about before, and we’ve already talked about one of them. I think in the book you call it tech interference, which is basically just technology getting in the way of our direct relationships with each other.
But there are a few other areas or issues I wanted to just flag with you quickly now and to do a kind of a bit of a rapid fire round on what they are, how you can know if they’re an issue and what a potential tool or solution might be as recommended by Tanya.
Yeah, let’s start. First one, I think it’s really interesting and quite divisive, quantified self.
Tanya: Ah, yes. I was having a conversation about this with somebody yesterday. So, the concept of the quantified self is that because we can track absolutely everything about ourselves now through fitness trackers, smartphones, it’s becoming a bit of an obsession.
And I write in the book about a case study about the — a couple where the guy was literally marching around the sitting room trying to keep his step count up at the end of the day because he was so obsessed with his steps.
And I think my view on this is that obviously, these tools are fantastic for health tracking. I use them myself. But the danger is when you tip over into just counting and experiencing, so I guess it’s quantity rather than quality.
And one of the examples I give in the book is that surely going out for an outside in a green space for a 2,000 step walk is better than grimly walking around your sitting room and kitchen for 4,000 steps trying to get your step count up. So, are we sacrificing quality because we’re so focused on quantity?
And that’s the whole concept of the quantified self, that we’re just looking at one aspect of measurement. Because of course, the tools can’t help us with quality, really, they can help — I’m going to get all sorts of people telling me now they can.
But my view is that they’re quantifiable tools, and we need to be able to use those in conjunction with other aspects of our life that are more about quality. So, yeah, it’s controversial, because the people who love them really love them, never take off their Fitbit, constantly checking every aspect, health hacking.
But I do think the danger is like so much about the digital world that we can just take it a little bit to an extreme. And in the example I gave in the book, it was affecting this guy’s relationship, his marriage, his kids.
They went on holiday and every night when the wife and children were eating for dinner in the hotel, he was churning up and down the road, trying to get his step count up. Affected every part of his life. And I think it’s something that sometimes we just need to stop and think about what am I measuring, and what’s important to measure.
Georgie: And the irony of kind of tools that are meant to help you get to know yourself better, but would actually leave you learning about yourself.
Tanya: Yeah. I think they do help you get to know one aspect of yourself. But I think what I’m trying to say is it’s not the whole, it’s not the whole self. And the danger with those particular tools is we start to think the number on the screen is what defines us.
I’ve hit my 10,000 steps tick. What else about the steps, how I did them, where I did them, who I did them with has added anything to my life? Would an 8,000-walk with a friend or a family member be ultimately better for me than 10,000 steps grimly on my own. Discuss.
Georgie: Yeah. Discuss, exactly. Okay, next one, on elephant in the Zoom.
Tanya: Gosh. So, this is about whether it’s always better to use video technology, video conferencing during the pandemic. Everybody left on video conferencing because they thought that’s the way to keep connected.
And obviously, we used it for education, but people used it a lot for their kind of communication with friends and family. And some of the kind of downsides of what came out of that.
And I talked about some really interesting research. There’s been lots of research looking at what happens when we just listen to a voice. And it’s fascinating that we’re having this conversation now on a podcast.
And some really interesting research that’s actually predates the pandemic, which I think is from Stanford was an experiment which showed that actually, when we listen to the voice, or the voices of two people having a conversation, we were much better able to really work out what was going on with them emotionally; to get to the bottom of how they were feeling, how they were thinking to really develop empathy with them.
And when video was added to that audio conversation, it didn’t add anything. So, it’s interesting that we leap on video conferencing as a way to connect, but it’s not always the best way. Obviously, if there’s more than one of you, it’s still quite difficult to patch people into conference calls. I know people still do it. But there’s more than one of you, if there’s a group of you, a video call probably is the right solution.
But I’ve been encouraging people to think about connecting via a good old fashioned audio call if it’s just two of you. Because we do have lots of research that say it builds empathy. It builds understanding, it helps with relationship building.
Because we can hear we really can focus on what’s going on in the person’s voice and hear their emotions. And we’re not distracted by looking at them. And I think that’s why podcasts are so popular, don’t you?
And I think they’re so engaging, and they’ve really taken off in the last sort of few years. And I think we really do feel when we listen to a podcast that we really get to know the people talking in a way that sometimes I don’t feel we do as well, when we look at video.
Georgie: Yeah, you’re right. It’s such a distraction, the image itself. And it’s interesting that we are now also recording this conversation with video. And actually I did the same when interviewing Krista Tippett, she only records using audio as well. And it is interesting how sometimes you can, I think, you just — you have to concentrate more as well, you have to really listen.
Tanya: You do. So, yeah, again, the talk I did yesterday, I said to everybody, why don’t you try just once this week, instead of saying to someone, let’s hop on a Zoom, say, I’m going to pick up the phone and see if that improves the relationship or improves your understanding of what’s going on in that particular relationship, or just builds a deeper connection.
Georgie: But I’m also saying to them, you can still jump on a Zoom and turn the video off as an experiment [crosstalk] [inaudible 00:11:20] quite a lot of meetings that we have at work, for instance, we could just do that as an experiment to see if people listen better.
And also see if we get to the end of the day, being less exhausted, because that’s obviously another elephant in the Zoom is just the exhaustion that we all experience as a cause of constant Zoom fatigue.
Tanya: Yeah. And Stanford, again, came out with that really interesting piece of research last year saying that Zoom fatigue is a thing. And it was really interesting that one of the things they think really contributes to it is looking at ourselves on a screen.
So, obviously, with Zoom, you can turn off the self view, and I always do that when I want to. But for some of the video conferencing tools, you can’t turn it off. So, I just stick a post-it note over my face. And that is absolutely brilliant.
They said in the research, it’s a bit like walking around an office with a mirror two inches away from your nose. Just think how distracting and uncomfortable that is and how it makes you self conscious.
And so they said, the self-view of video conferencing is actually responsible, quite a lot of the stress that we feel when we’re on a video call, which I thought was really interesting.
Georgie: Yes, I love that. Rely on the voice and a post-it. I think it was in your book and I think maybe this, I don’t know if this applies to all generations, but that actually a lot of people have said they do prefer having a phone call. But I feel like with younger generations coming through, there’s actually quite a lot of fear about having a phone call. Is that something you’ve also experienced?
Tanya: Absolutely. Yeah, apologies in advance to all Millennials listening to this, because I know you’re not a huge homogenous group. But because generally they tend to fear picking up the phone.
And someone said to me the other day, it’s intrusive. When you call somebody it’s intrusive, which I thought was really interesting that was the perception. And we talked about how you can warn someone in advance, you don’t just ring someone out of the blue. You can say shall we have a call?
But yeah, I think it’s in danger of being a skill that we’re losing and therefore, developing a bit of a fear about it. Like all things, we just need to get back into the swing of doing it and encourage younger people in our lives to do it, to pick up the phone to make —
I always think the thing that really annoys me is the email tennis, when you send to 16 emails, and you still haven’t resolved the issue. And you know that if you just pick the phone up you would have had in two minutes.
So, it’s trying to find a way of conveying to people who are a bit nervous about picking up the phone sometimes that actually sometimes it’s just a bit more practical.
Georgie: Perfect. Okay, last one, tech. We touched on this at the beginning, because you said this, you think this is still one of the biggest challenges that people are facing. But let’s just sum up again, in terms of tech life balance.
Tanya: Yeah. Gosh, that is — that’s really the 21st century conundrum, isn’t it, that all this tech has given us incredible flexibility. If you’re a mother now of young children, you can work anywhere, you can be flexible. But we’re really bad at setting boundaries around our own, I guess space behavior.
And I think what’s happening is that people with all the best wills in the world are trying to be flexible and responsive and adaptive. But all that’s happening is that we’re losing, we’re losing that off time, which comes back to my very first book.
And there are so many benefits to being off in terms of creativity in terms of productivity. We do need breaks, we do need brain breaks. We do need those times when we can stare at a blank wall or a blank piece of paper.
When I first started out actually on this whole journey, it was because I suddenly thought I’d run out of ideas. I remember this is, gosh, six, seven years ago and I thought that I don’t think I’ve had any new ideas for a long time. And I thought maybe this is just an age thing. You get to a certain age and you run out of ideas.
And then a little voice said, well, maybe it’s because you don’t have any headspace for ideas anymore because I used to do train journeys and I stare out the window. No one does that anymore. You’re on your phone, aren’t you? And if you’re not working — [crosstalk]
Georgie: Well, not many people do train journeys these days.
Tanya: Well, yeah, or any kind of journey. Yeah. Or standing in a queue. Gosh, where was I the other day — [crosstalk] standing in a queue for something. Yeah.
Georgie: Trains that don’t leave.
Tanya: Everyone was on their phone. And they might have been emailing the office or they might have been just generally looking at news websites or just scrolling on social media. But I think there are still really big benefits for us in having downtime.
Our brains were not designed to be ‘on’ in inverted commas, 24/7. We do need that time when we relax, when we can rethink.
Georgie: Okay, amazing. Moving on from the book and looking at how technology is changing around us all the time, I think about Metaverse and audio devices. You’re currently doing a Masters on AI. We talked a bit already about wearables, the next frontier of technology.
To what extent do you think we’re ready to navigate it and use these technologies in a healthy way?
Tanya: Gosh, about as ready as we were 10 years ago, when the internet exploded. I don’t think ready at all. I think Silicon Valley is ready. I think the people who are developing these tools are ready. I don’t think the general public has any idea what is about to hit them.
And I think the issues are going to be around the immersiveness of the technology. So, if we think we have problems stepping away from it now, when it’s about full immersion, it’s going to be even more difficult to step away from.
If you just think about the metaverse from time being, if we start engaging in the metaverse and things for education and things for our social life, it’s going to be quite hard to disconnect from that.
And where AI is concerned, AI is already permeating every area of our life and people are very unaware of it. They’re very — I’m always amazed, and maybe people listening to this podcast are going to laugh when they hear this, how very intelligent people don’t realize that chatbots they deal with are automated.
Who genuinely think, and these are bright people, Georgie, who think when they’re dealing with a chatbot, they really are dealing with a customer service rep at the end. And as we all know, 90% of those are AI generated and people get terribly frustrated. So, I think we’re really unprepared.
One of the things we’ve been talking about recently in AI and the group of people I’ve been discussing it with is the ability to opt out. So, to say to somebody, for example, we were looking at AI and recruitment. There’s a huge amount of artificial intelligence at the moment in recruitment.
People are being recruited entirely through online processes that they’re being videoed. And then transcripts of their interview questions are being matched against ideal answers. And people are being shortlisted or in some cases, even offered a job on the basis of that. And yet, we know there’s terrible bias and there’s all sorts of problems and the AI, the technology that’s being used.
I think we need to be able to opt out. I think a lot of these systems should have the facility. If tech companies genuinely believe that the majority of people want this technology, then allow the allegedly small percentage of people to say actually, I don’t want to be recruited this way, or I don’t want to apply for a loan this way. Or I don’t want to engage with you this way.
Actually, I would like to talk to a customer service rep. I don’t want to deal with a chatbot. And maybe we’ll find that actually, I think if we don’t offer people the chance to opt out, at least while they’re learning the technology or getting their head around it. I think we’re going to find ourselves in big problems as a society.
Georgie: Yeah, it’s really interesting as well. And I think that point about how we’re already using it, I think it’s really important because a lot of people prepare themselves for the next step and think there will be a point where they can opt in or out or there’ll be suddenly a big step change, and we’ll be able to notice it and make an informed decision at that point.
But I think, I personally feel like one of the biggest problems is because technology is evolving, literally by stealth every single day, you never really know when something is new. It’s always new. And so there isn’t this point where you get to choose suddenly to ask the right questions or not. It just needs to happen all the time.
Tanya: That’s really what’s happening with social media at the moment. And in the UK, the online safety bill, and there’s similar legislation going through in the US is that retrospectively, we’re asking the questions or the public or asking the questions about the technology.
Because it was foisted on everyone so fast that no one stopped and said is this what we want our children to use? What are we going to do about content moderation? Yeah, you’re right. We’re catching up. We’re trying to catch up with something like social media, and it’s probably too late for a lot of the AI technologies.
Yeah, I think the more informed we are as consumers the better. And I know it’s a brain ache, but people need to read up on this stuff. They need to try and be informed, they need to try and educate themselves on what kind of technologies might be coming up in the future, how they and their families might be engaging with them, what they’re doing in the workplace, and make some kind of informed decisions about how they want to use it.
Georgie: Yeah, because there’s a danger, isn’t there, with something like the online safety bill, and even the case, recent case in the UK with Molly Russell, which I think is really timely, that kind of consumers think, oh, it’s okay. The platforms are going to get fixed now. My kids are going to be safe and regulation’s coming in to make sure or make sure there won’t be things that can harm them out there. But that in itself is a huge danger.
Tanya: Yeah, I guess the analogy is saying, I’m safe to walk across the road, because everybody who drives a car has passed a driving test. We still have personal responsibility, and we still have responsibility towards vulnerable and minor people in our lives. And all the legislation in the world isn’t going to be [inaudible 00:20:37], isn’t it?
Georgie: And it’s even worse than the road analogy, because it’s the Wild West. There are going to be other vehicles that come down the road [crosstalk] [inaudible 00:20:43] test.
Tanya: Yes. Yeah.
Georgie: Personally, what is your ongoing issue with tech? What are you always trying to get better at?
Tanya: Yeah, so I think it’s really basic for me in that disconnecting is something that I always compare it to kind of food and that post Christmas, I’ve eaten too much, I really need to have a healthy month. I keep an eye on my tech consumption in that work.
Actually, the phone is now creeping into my bedroom again. I’m using it to wake me up. I’ve noticed that I haven’t put it down for a while, the last couple of weeks. I think it’s when I get busy and I’m juggling a lot. And I think, yeah, just anything that I can use to help me put it away, switch off, that’s what I’m constantly battling with.
Because, and I’m conscious, a lot of what I’ve been speaking about in the podcast sounds quite negative. I am incredibly enthusiastic and excited about technology. I’m very excited about the wealth of information I can access online about the possibilities for entertainment, about the possibilities for connection. I love all of that.
And so it’s difficult for me sometimes to have a completely, none of us is saintly, a completely balanced relationship and something I’m always working on. You know, when am I offline, when am I online, and just trying to make sure the balance is always right with those two.
Georgie: Yeah. I always say that too after being quite critical of the way that we’re all using tech. I say, oh, it’s so great. But I’m just listening to you say it now, I’m just questioning myself again and thinking, actually, like, how much of it really, is that great?
Because there are loads of ways to connect with people that don’t require tech. I mean, there are lots of things, there are lots of ways in which the world now operates where of course, you have to have technology, it’s a necessity.
There are also lots of ways to entertain yourself, there are huge ways to find information. There’s a myriad of ways to connect with people, which we’re actually all just bypassing now. But they do still exist. I don’t know, I’m always really quick to defend tech too just like you did.
But I just, I think I need to hold myself accountable a bit to that. Because, honestly, if the internet went off tomorrow, I think I’d be quite relieved.
Tanya: So, I think if social media went off tomorrow I’d be relieved. I think my big question mark is social media. I think they will completely change shape in the next few years, I think they will be unrecognizable in five years time to the way they are today. And we have to keep reminding ourselves these are not platforms for connection, they’re platforms to sell us advertising.
They are ad platforms. And they’re finely tuned ad platforms. And a lot of social media, I increasingly just don’t see the value in, it’s just noise. But I would be really sad if the internet was completely switched off because I get access to news. I’m a complete news junkie. So, that’s one of the things I have to be careful with.
And then generally for all of it, I think we just need to ask ourselves the question, each time we come up with a problem or a solution, a problem or a kind of opportunity, is the solution, always a tech solution? Is the answer always technology?
And I’m not saying that it isn’t, but I’m also not saying that it is. I think the tendency now is to think, oh, we’ve got this problem. Let’s fix it with tech. And I just want to cycle back to the mindfulness issue. I think it’s hilarious that the solution to the mindfulness problem was a load of mindfulness app.
So, sure, why don’t you go learn mindfulness meditation and go and find a group or find a retreat or another way to teach you? Why does it have to be a tech solution? So, tech companies and startups will always say, it’s for the people who can’t find those groups, find those people, it’s to make it universally accessible.
I get that. But I think it’s — we’ve all become a bit lazy in that we don’t see if we really do fall into that category. We just think it’s available via tech. I won’t even try and seek it out.
Tanya: Yeah. It’s just, is the answer always technology, that’s what I would say. And maybe 50% of the time it is and 50% of the time it isn’t, and that’s the balance we need to get right.
Georgie: I was going to ask you what your top tool is for managing your technology, but I feel like that question alone is actually it.
Tanya: Yeah, is it always the answer? Yeah, I do, I do use Freedom. When we first talked about this I said actually, there are very few tools that I recommend but it is one of the ones that I use.
I would say that airplane mode and do not disturb are also in my toolkit. But yeah, that question is the answer to this a piece of tech I think that’s probably my personal go-to.
Georgie: Yeah, I really like that. Okay, amazing. And then looking ahead to the future, what are you excited about when you think about the future technology and the ways that we might get better at using it?
Tanya: I think it comes down to how personalized we can make it. So, how minority groups, how small communities can make technology really work for them. That’s what I’m interested in, not so much the mass market hammer approach, you’ve all got this one platform, Facebook, and this is how you’re going to use it.
But maybe how particularly looking at AI technologies could be used in a humanitarian context to help people who are fleeing any kind of conflict. I saw a really interesting application of AI for Amari Community in Australia who were looking at using it to help them preserve their language and teach their language. And I thought that was fascinating.
So, I think how technology can be democratized and how we can find sort of outlying problems and the minority problems. There’s so much happening in health as well, fascinating stuff happening in health, about how we can diagnose cancers at a much earlier stage using AI. Which some applications of AI seem to show that it’s better than a human eye looking at tumors and working out how they might develop.
So, yeah, I’m really interested in that. How can we use it in a way that’s really going to add value? None of that, as you’ll hear, is anything about the metaverse, or social media or anything or self-driving cars. Jury’s still very much out on the self-driving car for me.
But yeah, how can we take these tools and use them in a very personalized way to benefit us as individuals or us as communities? I think the possibilities around that are absolutely limitless.
Georgie: Fascinating. Great food for thought. Tanya, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a great conversation. We’re really grateful to have you on the podcast.
Tanya: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s been brilliant.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.