“It can be a stressful environment to live in when you’re constantly being tugged in a thousand different directions in different apps and computers and iPhones, it’s just maddening,” Jay Davani said. She’s a small business owner and the founder of InstaMeet Providence — a community of people who meet up in various locations around the city to take pictures for Instagram.

In today’s day and age, it’s becoming harder and harder to disconnect from our digital devices. We have smartphones, tablets, Apple TVs, computers, car navigators, Siri… technology is everywhere. Some places like Utah Valley University are dealing with this digital takeover by installing ‘texting paths’ on campus for safer walking — that way someone whose eyes are glued to their phones won’t walk into people or street objects.

Other places are trying to alleviate the pressure of staying connected. For example, overseas in France, a bill is being considered that would give employees the ‘right to disconnect’— meaning their employers would not be able to email them on weekends or late evenings.

Locally too, there are spaces that help people disconnect. Better Off, situated in downtown Providence is an intimate place where people can express their creativity while free from digital distraction. In here, you can hear people typing … on typewriters, while music plays … off a record player.

“Are we ‘better off’ with digital technology or are we ‘better off’ digital technology? and so that’s sort of like a guided question for us,”  said Better Off co-owner Brandon Lane, while explaining the thought process behind the name of the space.

Better Off is not anti-technology, but workshops here are focused on making participants more aware of the digital balance in their life. Vintage, gold PO boxes are available for anyone who wishes to lock up their phone for the evening.

People often feel pressured to answer a phone call or text message immediately, but at Better Off, this is not the case.

“I think it’s a wonderful concept in that it turns peer pressure inside out,” said Dr. Lucy Palladino, a psychologist and expert on attention. She argues that our digital distraction is under stimulus control. Stimulus control is a term that describes situations where one’s behavior is triggered by the presence or absence of a stimulus.

“Digital distraction has very potent stimulus control because of the way our brains are built. When we’re at  home, we can put the cellphone in a desk drawer … but we know it’s there. In a place like Better Off, it’s locked in a locker. So there’s less stimulus control,” she said.

Better Off participant Megan Dincher has realized this first-hand.

“I think it’s really cool. I always go and put my phone away right away and I think it’s just a very chill space,” Dincher said. “For me it’s become that space of just like slow down, take a break, time out, I’m here and this is what I’m doing right now, so I like that.”

During "Poetry Night" at Better Off, participants have the option of writing their poems on typewriters — which the owners call "slow-tech tools."
During “Poetry Night” at Better Off, participants have the option of writing their poems on typewriters — which the owners call “slow-tech tools.”

Dincher is an 8th grade teacher from Providence who was enrolled in Better Off’s four-week program called “Creative Gym.” It’s designed for people looking to spend less time on their digital devices and more time focusing on mindfulness and creating tangible things — such as poetry, letters, artwork, photographs — alongside other people. The program is $100 and also gives participants unlimited access to the space — kind of like a gym membership.

Workshops, such as “Mindful Pause,” “Mixed Media” and “Writer’s Block” are offered Monday through Friday — they range from $5-15 — and on Saturday, people can rent out camera equipment. Better Off is unique in that it utilizes manual cameras and typewriters – what the owners call “slow-tech tools.” Unlike devices such as laptops and iPhones, which are meant for multitasking, slow-tech tools allow us to focus on just one task.

“Uni-tasking is why we choose these devices, not because they’re old, not because they’re vintage and not  because they’re even cool – though they are cool and fun to use … it’s just they do a job and they do it well,” Lane said.

Dr. Palladino likes the concept of unitasking.

“Neuroscientists have a saying: As the neuron fires, the brain rewires,” Dr. Palladino said. “Exercising the brain to focus on one thing at a time is exercising the most top-down brain pathways that originate in the prefrontal cortex. And the more we exercise them, the stronger our brain becomes with that neuronal circuitry.”

So as a person spends time unitasking, his or her brain begins to form a habit — and the more they perform this activity, the more the habit becomes ingrained in the brain.

Even though many of the workshops at Better Off can be done in the privacy of one’s home without a fee, participant Jay Davani really likes attending workshops because it allows her to be creative with other people.

“I think the cultivation of creativity happens most of the time at Better Off when you’re in a group setting. There is a lot of value in hearing other people’s perspectives and their experiences,” Davani said.

There are establishments and settings that encourage or even force people to limit their digital usage. For example, in schools, some college professors ban laptops from classrooms. Technology can also impact dining experiences, so many restaurants have taken steps to get patrons to disconnect from their devices.

For instance, The Grange restaurant on Federal Hill, which is adjacent to Better Off, encourages limited cell phone usage with their Mindfulness Mondays. Every Monday, patrons can receive a discount on their bills if they hand their phones over to the host or hostess at the beginning of their meal.

And then there are places like August First – a café in Burlington, Vermont that has declared itself laptop-free.

“What we found over time was that there were more and more people who were using our café as their offices,” said Jodi Whalen, who owns August First with her husband. Whalen said she didn’t like walking into her café when it was so quiet, with everyone wearing headphones and staring coldly at their computer screens.

“It wasn’t what we envisioned when we opened August First,” she added. They saw August First as place where people could come and eat and converse with one another, face-to-face.

At first, they only prohibited laptops during lunchtime.

“I was worried about getting a backlash but what happened that really surprised us was that we got an overwhelmingly positive response from customers,” Whalen said.

In the end, the decision to ban laptops all together was really driven by the customers.

“It’s a really nice transition to bring things back to the way they used to be,” she said. “It just makes our space a better place, people are happier, I think it is important for people to just give themselves a little time out now and then, just put it down, look around, enjoy the people around you, it’s very important, time is precious. Facebook will always be there. Your family and friends won’t.”

Dr. Palladino said there’s a difference between a self-imposed limitation, like the one at the Grange, and a restriction that’s placed on us by others, like the one at August First. She says people may feel the urge to rebel against restrictions made by others, so a self-imposed limitation offers more motivation to change behavior.

“The dynamic there is set up for success because now it’s me saying I want to exercise this self-control. I have decided that there’s a greater good or reason for this delay of gratification. I want the stronger brain,” Dr. Palladino said.

Only time will tell if establishments that allow us to limit our digital usage become increasingly popular or not — but for now, the question still remains: are we better off with technology or better off without it?