What led Denis Diderot, 18th century philosopher, critic of the arts and defender of the enlightenment to become a “slave” to his dressing gown? Diderot edited the influential Encyclopédie as well as many controversial philosophical works challenging religious orthodoxy and championing rationalism. He also left his stamp on the field of marketing with a charming essay called Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown. In it he describes how replacing his old threadbare robe with a new scarlet one leads him to spiraling consumption in the pursuit of a lifestyle as elegant as his new look. Afraid any longer to wipe up ink spills with his sleeve he surveys the change in his once scruffy writer’s residence with sadness, concluding that while he had been “master” of his old robe, he has become “a slave to the new”.
When one purchase leads on to many others (like buying a new phone case to complement the latest phone) this is called the Diderot Effect. Few of us feel the need to don elaborate robes anymore, but we don’t have to look too far for good examples of where we still fall foul of the Diderot Effect and become slaves to the new. Last summer I innocently purchased a second hand typewriter with the vague intention that it would help me avoid online distraction and thus write more. When I got it home I realised that it needed a cosy desk upon which to sit, the right chair for the desk, space in a small apartment for a chair and desk… to cut a long story short not a word was written until the typewriter was unceremoniously dumped at the recycling centre.
Impulse buying a typewriter may be a fairly unusual example. A more common experience of this effect may be nestled in your hand right now as you read. When many of us bought our first mobile phones we got more than we bargained for. We had little idea that we would soon experience similar spiralling change in how we communicate, live and work, and how many more devices we might purchase as a result.
Mobile phone use has had mixed effects on wellbeing for most people. There are positive effects such as new tools to improve our mental and physical health, better access to knowledge and the ability to keep in contact with our far away friends and family. And of course, we are often bombarded with examples of the negative effects- the depressive and unsettling effect of constant social comparisons on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, the increasing complexity and dissatisfaction in our decision-making caused by information overload, the extension of work far into our evenings and weekends via email use.
How do we address this upset to our work life balance? Should we throw away our smartphones en masse and dig out the old Nokia 3310, or, better yet, the quill? Ignore the siren song of the new scarlet robe in favour of the old threadbare one? Perhaps. But if answering a few sporadic emails from my phone allows me to pick the kids up from school on Friday instead of staying in the office then throwing away my phone won’t buy me the freedom and balance I desire. I have turned to the existentialists for help on this one. Sartre emphasizes the role of choice in defining us. We are what we do, and though our choices are influenced by pressures we are in some sense free to walk away from our jobs, our responsibilities, our families and our dependence on technology if we really think life would be better without them. This excerpt from his essay concerning freedom and responsibility might have been written expressly to describe our troubled relation to after hours work communications had it not predated the invention of email by several decades. “For lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it. This can be due to inertia, to cowardice in the face of public opinion, or because I prefer certain other values to the value of the refusal to join in…” .
I choose to continue to use my smartphone for work, but I don’t have to feel trapped by it. Viewing it as a choice rather than a necessity makes me feel more in control of this aspect of my life. And when Facebook makes me feel more insecure than connected I can choose to delete the app. Is moderation possible in our smartphone use, or, like addicts, will we always succumb to a Diderot Effect, downloading one app after another? Is the existence of apps to help us cut down on phone usage evidence we can regain control, or that we are enslaved already?