Any day now, some biologist will declare that the DNA of the average 21st-century person is organized not into chromosomes, but into IP addresses.
I, for one, won’t be shocked by any such announcement, because that’s the extent to which computers and the Internet seem to have taken over everyday living. Our lives now stand divided into two categories: online and offline. That we need a separate label to describe life without a computer/computer network is quite telling.
In the past couple of years, I have often wished to slip back into the past to a simpler time when I did not feel throttled by information or the need to access it 24/7. Occasionally, I managed to stay offline for a day here, a few hours there. Since these short periods of digital disconnect were more often than not enforced by power cuts, a faulty Internet connection, etc., I couldn’t really take credit for them.
Just a week before Christmas, as I packed to leave on a vacation, I decided that it was the right time to conduct my “completely offline” experiment. I went ahead with the week-long attempt to stay away from all things digital. Here’s the story in detail.
How I Prepared For My Digital Sabbatical
To fill the gap that would be created by the lack a digital screen, I packed in a book I had been wanting to read – Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Future. I also added a notebook and a pen to my handbag in the hope of getting some serious brainstorming and writing done in my free time.
Then I wrapped up some pending online work, sent out a few last-minute emails, published a post about my experiment on my personal blog, and shut down the computer. Unlike my previous holidays, this time I did not instruct anyone to check my email for me everyday.
Leaving behind my 7-inch Samsung Galaxy tab was more difficult than I had imagined it would be. The temptation to grab it just before I went out the door was strong. Nevertheless, it stayed put on my desk.
I carried my dumb phone with me, but only as a replacement for my watch. With very basic features and without a data plan, it was toothless anyway.
How The Experience Turned Out To Be
On December 18th, just before dawn, I reached the airport and found it bustling with activity even that early in the morning. Being around so many people glued to colorful devices with Internet access made me want to get back to my trusty old Lenovo laptop. The sight of a guy logging into a social media account taunted me further.
Thankfully, the distraction of checking in and the excitement of the upcoming holiday soon made me forget all about digital connectivity, if only temporarily.
Upon reaching my destination, like any other tourist, I got pulled into the usual sightseeing routine. Perhaps it was the magic of being on a vacation or maybe it was the feel of being in a new, smaller, slower city, but I did not miss the Internet too much.
What Worked And What Didn’t
The only time I wished I had access to Google was when we could not find a tour guide to narrate the history of a couple of beautiful ancient ruins we visited. Since we had set off on the trip in a hurry, I had not found time to read up on our destination. But despite the missing information, I savored every moment spent in the serene environs of the ruins, which happened to be Buddhist monasteries from 6th century AD.
We also lost our way a couple of times, mainly because we misunderstood the directions given in the local language. But it cost us nothing more than a circuitous journey and gave us something to laugh about over dinner.
One significant thing I noticed in the absence of the Internet was that throughout the trip, I was living in the moment and actually paying attention to the people and places around me. This has been quite rare in the course of my daily life since I’m usually looking at a screen or biding my time till I can look at one.
The feeling of being offline really hit home when I returned to my hotel room every evening after a day of sightseeing. The urge to check my email and catch up on online news returned with a vengeance.
For the most part, I couldn’t settle down easily to read or write as I had planned. I managed to read only about 45-50 pages of the paperback I carried and took down just a fraction of the ideas flying through my mind. There was also a sense of restlessness, which was understandable since I did not have the means to surf as usual. The feeling abated after some time and completely disappeared when I set out for yet another day of exploration.
There were a couple of times when I longed to go back just because I desperately wanted to check something, anything, online. I don’t like cyber cafes, so those weren’t a option. Besides, the thought that accessing the Internet would wreck my experiment put things in perspective.
I came back home at around 2 am on December 25th. Despite being wide awake, I did not rush to the computer to check my email, as I normally do when I return home. Instead I enjoyed a cup of tea and chatted with my sister before going to bed.
Surprisingly, I was content to wait till morning to get back online.
The world did not end.
I was able to pick up right where I left off. I did miss interesting global news about products being launched, companies being taken over, and videos going viral. But it was nothing that I couldn’t retrieve if I so wished and it most certainly wasn’t anything that prevented me from getting on with life.
We live in the deathly clutches of information. Many of our major concerns involve questions like how we can find information, what we should do with it, how it will impact our lives, and what will happen if we don’t find it. Even the solutions we look for are often to fix problems created by our online lives.
Living in the Internet era has changed us to such an extent that the idea of having to live completely offline even for a little while sounds like a prison sentence. But it really isn’t. It can turn out to be the perfect time to return to all those activities you enjoyed before you got introduced to a computer.
The Internet is a brilliant and useful tool for learning, communication, and global as well as personal change. It has definitely transformed the world for the better. But it doesn’t deserve the lifeblood status we have given it. And really, your digital absence matters to fewer people than you think.
After my conscious attempt at staying offline, I have come to the the conclusion that I’m frighteningly overdependent on my online life and I must get over it.
To do that, I need to take a break from the Internet on a regular basis. With that in mind, I have decided that starting 2014, I will stay completely offline for at least two Sundays a month. I’m hoping that as I get used to these digital time-outs, I will find it easier to increase their frequency without feeling as if I’m chopping off a limb. I will also go on a better information diet.
Over to you. What are your thoughts on and experiences from total digital vacations? Also, in future, how about a little less of powering up your computer and a little more of plugging into life?