How to get human time back from technology

By Amber Case

The original promise of creative computer technology was to augment the human intellect. It was designed to be a tool to aid in creativity. However, sitting at a desktop computer is different from using a mobile phone. A desktop computer allows you to give your full attention to the device. A mobile phone allows you to interact between moments, and can be distracting, or even dangerous.

We wake up to our phones, and go to sleep to them. They’ve leapt off of desktops and into our arms. We go to sleep next to them, wake up next to them. They cry through alerts, and we pick them up and soothe them back to sleep. Many of us treat these technologies better than we do ourselves. They require energy, and we feed them daily.

Chronos and Kairos

We touch our phones 1,000 to 10,000 times a day. But it is low quality connection; a kind of information junk food. Tech expands to fill our lives, giving us less free time. We may spend time on the computer, but much of it is consuming not creating. Instead of extending and empowering ourselves, we consume more than we create. This kind of time the Greeks called Chronos Time. A kind of structured, scheduled time. Every time we are interrupted by our cell phones we go out of human time and into Chronos Time.

What about high quality, human time? The greeks had a term for it, too. Kairos Time. The time where you forget time exists. The time of falling in love. Watching a sunset. Unwinding time after work through staring out into space. Time on a road trip, or on a beach. Time experienced while looking at nature - something larger than yourself. Perhaps the times you’ll remember on your deathbed. It is during human time where we come up with new thoughts and innovations. Chronos times allows us to be consistent, but we need a steady mix. We need to be allowed some moments to be reflective, bored, or create content only for ourselves and not to share.

We live in an era of interruptive technology, and we need a “calm technology”.

Calm Technology

Researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown coined the term Calm Technology as a counter to interruptive technology. They started experimenting with connected devices in the 1980s and 1990s at Xerox PARC. They believed that one day devices would outnumber people, and that the scarcest resource in the future would be our own attention.

“A good tool is an invisible tool. By invisible, we mean that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool.”
— Mark Weiser, 1993

The tools that we lend our imagination to, such as Lego or a simple pad of paper, become invisible. We temporarily become one with our tools through adding our consciousness to them.


How to get your time back from technology

Spend an hour a day without a device

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash

Try to spend one hour a day without a phone, laptop or television. Let yourself be bored. Draw, write, read, meditate, or spend time with a paperback book. Keep a journal or paint. Nap or stare out the window. Think. Eat. Allow yourself to be human.

Call instead of text

Ensure you have some people in your life that you can call instead of simply interact with through text or social media. Having enough extra time in your life for a long phone call to talk about “nothing” creates a deeper connection and restores human time.

Pause before you react on social media

Social media profits off of your misery. Consider whether you’re working for the social network by spreading inflammatory news, or whether you should close your computer and focus on the world around you. Do something helpful in your local community. Communities work at human scale, and you can make a significant difference in someone’s life with little effort.

Install browser plugins to calm your web browsing experience

Facebook News Feed Eradicator is a plugin for Google Chrome that replaces your Facebook feed with an inspirational quote. You can still post to Facebook, read private messages and see events, but you are not overwhelmed by information the moment you load the page.

Inbox when Ready for Gmail hides the contents of your inbox until you are ready to view it. You can search for old mail or compose new email without being distracted by new items

Improve Sleep Cycles and restore circadian rhythms

Blue light from computer screens can disrupt Melatonin, a key enzyme that causes us to fall asleep. To prevent high energy blue light from interfering with your sleep cycle, install f.lux on your laptop to slowly decrease your computer’s blue glow as the sun sets. You can also buy a glare-reducing protective screen cover. Use blue-light protective glasses at night if you can’t avoid using your devices or can’t entirely block out blue light in your environment.

Use blue light filters for your mobile devices. iPhone users can use Night Shift and the less-known Color Tint feature; Android users can download Twilight for their screen-dimming needs. If you can’t help bringing your phone to bed, wear blue blocking glasses, put a blue filter screen on your phone, or place it face down while it plays; play a movie or ambient white noise, or podcast clips to listen to while falling asleep. Or better yet, drift off while reading an analog book: It will force your brain to imagine, and that effort will wear it out more than the instant simulation brought by the visual nature of our devices.

Defragment your brain through nature

When you are finding yourself making repetitive motions on your computer, consider taking a walk around the block or exercising. Getting outside and back into your body can help you gain perspective and access thoughts that can help you do a better job of writing, working, and thinking.  

Disable alerts on your phone

How many alerts are necessary? We lose countless moments of attention to automated app notifications generated not by the people we’re connected to, but by bots. Take 10 minutes to go through the settings page on your mobile phone, and turn off all unnecessary app notifications, only keeping those which are directly, immediately, personally relevant.

Create to do lists on paper

Before even touching a phone or computer in the morning, write up what you need to do in a pad or notebook. (The very model of calm technology!) This puts you in a very different mental state, enabling you to think about the day’s chores apart from the digital din, writing items down while drinking coffee, or watching the sunrise.


Technology shouldn’t require all of our attention, just some of it, and only when necessary. Good technology is not made up of blue lights or aggressive notifications and sounds. It allows us to be more human, and does not distract us.

This is just the start to re-designing a better relationship to technology. Doing that also requires shaping your life around your own humanness - it is up to you to determine the best time of the day for working, and keep consistent with that window whenever you can. And above all, listen to your body. Take breaks when you can, and pause before you pick up your phone.

Amber Case is the author of Calm Technology and a keynote speaker at NEXT18. 

Lead Photo by Doug Robichaud on Unsplash