The last time I unplugged entirely for any extended period of time was over three years ago, when I went to Rio de Janeiro with my law school moot court team. I was completely without internet or phone for almost a week. Internet cafes were pricy and crowded, we did not pay for my flip phone to get international service, and my hostel’s one complimentary computer kiosk with internet was extremely slow, usually occupied, and had a whole bunch of keyboard keys for random Portuguese symbols in the place of the usual English punctuation. (I just re-read my posts about that trip – if you’d like to, here they are. Not too long, mostly bullet points and pictures. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.
For about a week, I was no longer subject to the tyranny of constant interruption. It took me a distressingly long time to quit checking my phone for texts or missed calls, but eventually that reward-feedback loop ceased. Time smoothed out. My mind, released from the metaphorical chains of constant phone monitoring, became alive with ideas and connections. Although deeply homesick for my boys at first, eventually I settled into the blisteringly hot, dirty, exciting, over-stimulating city and really dug in to a minute-by-minute experience. My husband and I did not speak or text once, although he wrote supportive emails from across the ocean. I read them at my leisure, at the hostel communal computer, when I had purposefully blocked out the time to do so (and not as soon as they arrived). Somehow, our marriage survived this 5-day communication blackout, as did my law school career, my children, and my friendships. The world did not fall apart in my absence. I have longed, since then, to regularly un-plug – a difficult thing for a law firm associate. But I’m about to do it at last! I’m taking a week off, and going backpacking for part of it. I literally will be unreachable for a while, lost among the trees. I AM SO EXCITED. This is so healthy. I wish I could leave now.
Daily life with cell phones is a bit like running a marathon through heavy highway traffic – we are trying to accomplish something difficult which requires focus, while always on high alert for that next communication, always dodging and weaving, always being forced to confront that oncoming car the very second it appears on the horizon. We are buffeted by emergencies beyond our control, constantly interrupted. And unfortunately, while some of those emergencies are actually emergency-ish – in that our immediate attention is needed – most of them are not. There’s no way, right now, to screen out the “this needs attention now” stuff from the “you can get to this whenever” stuff. I actually think this will level out. This technology is so new – the people using it are new to it. We have not yet developed social constructs, separate streams of communication, or apps, or whatever, to help us manage this problem because it’s such a new problem that nobody gets the scale of it just yet, or the urgent need for a solution. We’ll get there. Simply removing all notifications from my phone has helped a lot already, and automatic email filters also helps. But until we get this beast under control, I can feel my brain chemistry wigging out with each surreptitious click/swipe/enter password/check if something SHINY AND NEW is here.
Back in the day, life without cell phones could be highly inconvenient and sometimes isolating. (Example – when I was in Rio, I planned to go to Sugar Loaf Mountain with some friends in a different room, but ended up going alone because we could never find each other. I survived and it was a cool day, but I would have been safer and less anxious with my Spanish- speaking friends.) I dig tech and its ability to form and foster human connection, but we must get ourselves to a place where life with cell phones is not so crazy and addictive. We have got to get to where we are permitted by work and culture to interact with them on our terms, and not constantly “on-leash” day in and day out.
On my last day in Brazil, I sat on the beach with a book for hours. I read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and bought a rainbow-colored sundress from a beach vendor, who forced me, as part of the price of my purchase, to learn how to say umbrella in Portuguese.
It was a good day.