Anitra Eggler has first-hand experience of the pros and cons of digitalisation. An internet pioneer in the 1990s, today she’s one of the best-known proponents of moderate online consumption. What’s her advice?
Text: Barbara Lukesch
Anitra Eggler, you call yourself a digital therapist. Who are your patients?
I don't want people to don’t get the wrong idea! I'm a journalist. My "therapy" consists of the words I write and speak in books, talks and presentations. My "patients" are usually office workers across all staff hierarchies, industries and companies of all sizes. However, I’ve also helped teachers, church representatives, silver surfers and digital natives overcome an addiction to email, online information, their smartphone or social media.
How can you tell if your therapy is working?
By people’s attention spans. Before attending one of my talks, they usually manage to go around 9 to 15 seconds without checking their phone. Afterwards they often manage to get through the entire after-party without looking at it. Instead they talk to each other about the perfectly normal digital madness of our time.
When did you discover this madness for yourself?
In 2009, when my top employee "stole" his work mobile from my desk because he didn’t want to go along with the "offline break" that I’d recommended. Instead of switching off and spending time with his family on holiday, he wanted to work. I thought: "How crazy is that? My employees are turning themselves into slaves!". I didn’t want my employees to be digital slaves. I wanted responsible people who switch on their device to make the most of digitalisation, but who are also able to switch it off to enjoy life to the full.
What about your own online consumption?
How much time did I spend on the internet back then? After this episode, I calculated that during the 12 years I’d worked as a journalist and manager of internet companies, I’d spent 1.5 years emailing and 2.5 years surfing. The time-savings and increase in efficiency and productivity promised by the digital world can only be achieved if you scrutinise your online consumption and configure your devices cleverly.
What is it about these small devices that makes them so addictive?
The unending stimulation offered by smartphones gets our brains addicted to constant diversion. Smartphones have plenty of things like social media and addictive games to boost your ego. We surf the media brainlessly and are always available, whether we're at work or at home, as if we were doctors on emergency call. This causes stress, takes the fun out of work, decreases productivity – and leaves no time for kissing.
What are the worst consequences of this digital overkill?
First and foremost, it wastes time that could be spent living in the real world! Homo digitalis spends more than half of his - or her - 16 waking hours on the phone, online or in front of the television. In contrast, the average person spends just ten seconds a day kissing. Homo digitalis sets priorities that ruin real life. He prefers to take photos of the best moments instead of experiencing them. He checks his mobile 88 times a day. A new email goes unread in his inbox for a maximum of six seconds, even if it’s the most irrelevant Viagra spam of all time. This lowers productivity, with office workers spending 1.5 working days a week in their mailbox. You think you’re omnipresent, but in reality you’re not truly present anywhere at all. Not with your partner or your children, and certainly not at work.
How do you regulate your smartphone use?
Smartphones are banned from the bed and the table. I check my emails once a day, use social media occasionally for work, and not at all in my private life. When I'm on holiday I switch off from my job completely, celebrate offline days without my mobile with no plan or goal and stroll around my home town like someone visiting it for the first time.
What do you make of digital abstinence?
Digitalisation has been an integral part of our lives for 20 years. You need to have a command of the technology to remain competitive. So abstinence is not the solution. It’s not necessarily about spending less time online, but rather being aware of and making better use of this time. Meditation and programming may be on opposite ends of the scale, but they're key competencies people need now and will need in the future.
German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer warns in his best-seller of how uncontrolled online consumption can lead to "digital dementia". What do you say to that?
I know Manfred Spitzer personally. What unites us is the way we ask critical questions about the side effects of digitalisation, but what divides us is the way we deal with them. I believe that the things on offer in the digital world are as important as the road network. So I'm an advocate of digital driving schools and try to introduce digital rules of the road, whereas Manfred Spitzer wants to get rid of roads and ban driving altogether. My ideas equip people with the tools they need to handle the pros and cons of digitalisation. It’s not the media themselves that make us clever or stupid, but how we choose to use them.
What happened with your employee who took his smartphone from your desk drawer?
I let him work on holiday and turned a blind eye to his misconduct. Three months later he voluntarily swapped his smartphone for an old mobile phone without an internet connection. Why? One day while he was checking his emails on his phone at the play park, his daughter fell off the swing. She said to him: "Daddy, your phone hurt me!" It was then that he realised his mobile phone was controlling him rather than the other way round.
Mail halten! – Die beste Selbstverteidigung gegen Handy-Terror, Email-Wahnsinn und digitale Dauerablenkung by Anitra Eggler, Campus Verlag, 2017 "We're always available, whether we're at work or at home, as if we were doctors on emergency call." Homo digitalis spends just ten seconds a day kissing.
Anitra Eggler, 44, lives in Vienna. After secondary school she worked as a journalist. By 1998 she was seen as a digital pioneer. After working flat-out for twelve years and achieving great success as an internet manager, she'd had enough. She now seeks to encourage others to take a critical look at how they use online resources. She has published a number of best-sellers on the topic and holds talks in her role as "digital therapist".