Since getting a phone, when was the last time you went longer than a day without checking it?
How about accessing the internet?
If you can recall a day at all, I'd bet it was a long time ago. Furthermore, I'd bet that it's not a frequent occurrence.
Last week, I went to a barren place. It was a place with no phone signal and no internet. A place completely off the grid.
It was a piece of land within Mexico - a slither of desert in a conservation area. Surrounded by lagoon, in this place you can almost follow the horizon all 360 degrees around you.
Above, it's a complete dome of unbroken, uninterrupted, glorious blue by day. By night, there's so little light pollution that you can see your shadow beneath you - cast by the moonlight.
For four straight days, the only people I could contact were immediately around me. I barely looked at a screen. I had a complete break from focusing my consciousness into a rectangle - relevant visual information was all around me. By the last day I actually felt like I could see more.
I was more present with conversations. The people around me were, for all intents and purposes, the only people that existed in my universe for those days. When I sat with them I was there fully, and when I was alone I was fully alone.
It wasn’t a source of active enjoyment, it was a peaceful absence, without withdrawal symptoms. As such, noticing it was akin to the realisation that one’s head is a nice place to be again, after a headache has slowly faded, unnoticed, hours before.
It was wonderful.
I think it’s fair to say that, at least on a behavioural level, many westerners have a mild addiction to their smartphones and, by extension, constant checking of the internet. People seem to be more bounded to the company of their smartphone than any devoted samurai was to their sword.
Much of this makes sense - they're incredible things. They let us communicate with practically anyone in the world in a moment. Through the small window we can see some of the most incredible things ever filmed, listen to practically anything that was ever recorded, and learn about anything we could possibly want. Literally a few decades ago they would have practically been magic. And what do we use them for?
With regards to phone usage, internet, and social media, it pays to remember this: Much of it is specifically designed to be as addictive as possible.
Almost any internet service, be it social media or otherwise, makes more money the more you use it. Even if you're just searching the internet or browsing shopping websites, information on you is being gathered.*
*Sidenote: to see way more detail on this process, install the chrome plugin Ghostery. Whenever you go to a new page, it displays the amount of organisations actively tracking your browsing at that moment... it's enlightening.
The fact that the internet is basically designed to be addictive is not something that, as far as I can tell, is often discussed.
I sometimes wonder if the vocabulary people would use to consider the notion of leaving their phones at homes is similar to that used by smokers before everyone knew smoking killed you.
“Yeah, I could go a day without it, but why would I? What's the benefit of leaving it at home?”
I’m not suggesting we all put on tin foil hats, but we’re the first generation of people to be connected like this. It’s completely defined how our society operates – and, don't get me wrong - I think on the whole this is a step forward.
However, it pays to at least be aware of the nature of the stuff we're consuming. One should be cautious with any addictive substance.
Things like the Facebook News Feed are specifically tailored to your interests. Facebook knows how long you look at each post in the feed, and can refine, refine, and refine.
It's a machine literally designed to hold your attention and engage you for as long as possible.
Hell, even while writing this post I've opened up a tab, typed in "fa" and hit enter a hundred times already.
I know everyone sort of knows this – but my recent experience brought the notion back into focus. The fact is, we spend hours and hours of our lives on this stuff. Past a certain small threshold, it's really not that fulfilling. We know this. Yet we continue to waste time on it, even though there are many other things that could be more fulfilling if we spent our time on them. Isn't that basically a mild addiction? The acceptance that we'd be happier, more productive, and potentially more fulfilled if we stopped, but continuing the behaviour anyway?
The great irony of disconnecting from the noise is that we’re all, pretty much at any time, completely able to.
Imagine unplugging the router. Turning off the phone, laptop, computer, TV.
Imagine sitting there.
So... what now?
Isn't the notion kind of terrifying?
Lets face it, disconnecting is hard. Not only because we're terrified of being bored, but because we're surrounded by access, the temptation is always there - the cookie jar always within reach. We've all opened up a new tab and to check facebook, even having closed an equivalent tab minutes before. It's too easy. The real advantage of my inadvertent escape was not only that I was disconnected, but that I was free of the choice to opt in. We're all drunk on information, and we sit right next to the taps.
Despite all this - my newfound contention is that it's worth the effort. Even a few hours - even just once, get away and go off the grid. If you like it, do it regularly.
It doesn’t have to be a dramatic escape - you could simply go on a walk with a friend and leave your phones at home. If you’re even braver, go alone. Be with yourself for a while. This is an experience that used to be so common, and is now rarer than ever.
It won’t make you lose weight. It won’t improve your income. It’s not one of the top 6 ways you can connect with nature. It’s not a lifehack.
All I got out of it, aside from enjoying it at the time, was a fresh perspective on how addictive and time consuming these websites can be. I left with a real sense of not needing them, not missing them, and hence being confused as to why I spend so much damn time on them.
Our society is being completely shaped by an economy that is increasingly trading attention. Therefore, it's perhaps a good idea to become more aware of how you spend yours.
Personally – I’ve been making some changes to the way I use social media and the like since this experience.
I’m staying logged out of Facebook (my current main social media source) on my computer and phone – only logging in every so often to check what’s up. The key here is that it’s deliberate – no more endlessly scrolling through Facebook passively. I'm even, on occasion, turning off my phone.
If I’m going to use it, I'm trying to make it a decision, not a default.
When the trip ended, the group I was with crossed the Mexican border back to the US. From there, I was going to fly home. After passing through, I pulled out my phone. My plan allowed me to use it in the US without immediate bankruptcy as a consequence. It had been off for just four days.
I looked around, and saw most of the group had already beat me to it. The smartphone pose – head tilted down, looking at the hands clutched close to the chest was quickly adopted by the group.
I tried to enjoy the silence and peace for a moment more, genuinely unsure when I’d next have that mental space free again. I looked down, and turned on my phone.