Forget Tech: As Usage Soars, So Does the Demand for Digital Detox


COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of new technologies and screen-time has skyrocketed. But this might be a tipping point that sparks the growth of a whole new unplugged market space.

Maximilian Büsser, the highly creative founder of Swiss watch brand MB&F, left behind a career in the corporate world with Jaeger-LeCoultre and Harry Winston to launch his unconventional brand in 2005. Listen to my interview with Max on The Men’s Room podcast to find out why he designs $10,000 mechanical desk clocks that look like spacecrafts and why he will never make a smartwatch.

We’ve been warned: social media might be as addictive as cocaine and too much screen time can even mess with the white matter in developing brains. That’s not to mention the psychological and physical issues, such as eyestrain, poor posture and difficulty focusing on important tasks. In some cases, it even leads to depression. And let’s not forget what a conversation killer it is: you know that moment when you ask an obscure question and someone googles it? Before google, you’d propose possible answers and debate the possibilities. Now, googling usually puts an end to the subject. Who needs to talk to anyone, really?

There is no greater creativity killer than spending time on Instagram or Facebook.

Most importantly perhaps from an economic perspective though, is that time spent in cyberspace is time away from real life, creating and doing real things. As MB&F’s founder Maximilian Büsser says, “There is no greater creativity killer than spending time on Instagram or Facebook.” The Dubai-based, Swiss entrepreneur should know, as he’s built MB&F, a world-renowned, avant-garde watch brand, by creating 3D ‘horological machines’ that defy all convention.

Despite the pitfalls of electronic data, the latest Digital 2019 report, from Hootsuite and We Are Social, shows that people spend on average 6 hours and 42 minutes online each day. Half of that is spent on mobile devices. And let’s be honest, if you’re reading this, you’re probably way above average. (Checked your screen time on your mobile lately?) Factor in the 10–30% increase we’ve seen as a result of of COVID-19 and you’ll see we have an epidemic that’s way more widespread and out of control than the latest coronavirus, especially when you multiply the number by 365 days and consider the long-term effects.

But this is not about the negative effects of modern technology. It’s about the massive benefits of digital detox, and those who are tapping into it. “Who has had that luxury recently in their life? An hour to think every 2–3 days. Sometimes I’ll think about creative, sometimes I’ll think about my life and sometimes I’ll think about the business. But I will not take anything else during those 60 minutes. And when you let your mind wander, suddenly you go to places you didn’t expect. That is one of my greatest secrets,” Büsser reveals.

Great ideas are born out of creativity, and technology is robbing us of our time to let our minds function freely.

Büsser, who designs playful yet very serious watches that can retail for as much as $400,000, makes creativity the focus of his brand. He’s been producing eye-popping, ‘mechanical machines’ since he founded MB&F in 2005 by tuning into his imagination and adhering to a an approach that eschews digital technology in favour of timeless horological craftsmanship. As a result, he’s built a thriving business.

The fact is that there is a growing demand for unplugged experiences and products. The market for MB&F’s collectible timepieces and luxury watches overall is expected to grow annually by 9.6% from now until 2023, a testament to humans’ essential desire for tangible things that won’t be obsolete six months from now.

MB&F’s $120,000 HM10 Bulldog was inspired by ‘man’s best friend’. Its hinged jaws open and shut according to the amount of wind left in its mainspring and a fully closed mouth tells you that “Bulldog” is wound down and ready to be wound again.

But great ideas are born out of creativity, and technology is robbing us of our time to let our minds function freely, sparking in many of us a desire to break free from what has become a normalised addiction. “Today if you don’t bring your phone along, you feel like one of your limbs is missing,” is how Elon Musk recently put it during a podcast interview with Joe Rogan, while touting his much talked-about Neuralink skull implant and after pointing out that humans have already become cyborgs in a way.

As a result of this new normal, digital detox has become the ultimate luxury, touted by celebrities who have famously taken time off social media and marketed by an onslaught of resorts and hotels that offer the rare opportunity to live off-grid for a few days.

Indeed, it might seem ironic especially for some of us in the Middle East, but just when we’re finally getting free WiFi in most hotels, there’s a growing demand for no WiFi. The Miraval group, which operates resorts across the US, is gently tapping into the mindfulness trend by focusing on fun and unusual activities that encourage you to put your phone away, like a one-on-one beekeeping session (complete with full beekeeper suit), or zip-lining across the Arizona desert landscape at sunset. They also offer phone ‘sleeping bags’ to arriving guests and enforce tech-free public areas. But other resorts that target self-described addicts will actually take a hardline approach and snatch your phone if you’re caught relapsing.

Each of Chumbe Island Coral Park’s seven eco-bungalows collects its own freshwater supply from rainwater during the rainy season. They are also equipped with compost toilets and powered by solar energy.

There are some high-end destinations that will make you forget about your phone simply by default. Emerald Lake Lodge in the Canadian Rockies or Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica, for instance, don’t have WiFi at all or even cell phone reception. Chumbe Island Coral Park in Tanzania doesn’t even have electricity, relying on limited solar power that’s just enough for night lights and a warm shower. As a tradeoff, you’ll have access to snorkeling with over 400 species of tropical fish that swim among 200 types of pristine coral, right at your doorstep. In Bhutan, Amankora offers a luxury take on the anti-tech theme, set as it is in a country where internet was illegal until 1999.

And that’s just tourism. Imagine the possibilities of simplicity.

Certainly, technology has helped us achieve incredible feats and it’s an integral part of our evolution and improvement as human beings on Earth. However, rarity, desirability and scarcity value are proven economic drivers. In this rare case, the byproduct of an unplugged market might also be beneficial to humankind from a sustainability perspective, increasing human connection, mental health and most importantly, creativity.