Four months ago, I lost my iPhone up on the South Downs during a particularly blustery winter walk.
I decided to not replace it. I bought, in its place, a frustratingly simple Nokia handset with the most basic functionality: phone calls and (painfully slow) texts.
This was on the back of a growing suspicion that my delight and, indeed, addiction to all things digital and slick was having a negative effect on my life.
I have always been a fan of the Internet and the amazing slew of digital innovations that have flowed out of Cupertino in the last two decades. The first in my friendship group to buy an iPhone and iPad and the first to start to blog. I have had two websites for a number of years and – as this blog post is evidence – I am still using them.
However, over the last three years, I began to see an unhealthy side to my digital life. Increasingly, I found myself zoning out into hours of online time. Some of that was fuelled by the search for romance or sex, inevitably, but there was also a lot of Facebook posting, tweeting, Instagramming and semi-consumption of newsfeeds, articles and blogs.
We carry the net around with us in our hands and pockets
This was manageable when the internet was essentially a glamorous shop front. We passively downloaded information and shopping from its pages. But in the last five years, we have all been part of a massive, uncontrolled psychological experiment called Net 2.0. We no longer passively consume but actively post our ‘selves’ up into the ether. But we blog, we post selfies, we tweet. And we carry the net around with us in our hands and pockets. We are ‘expected’ and indeed want to be plugged in almost 24/7. (In a recent survey a worrying number of people slept with their phones under their pillows.)
I’ve written elsewhere about the potential hazards of Net 2.0 but I wanted to think out loud about some of the insights I have gleaned since my choice to de-digitize my life.
For a start, it was a bumpy process.
The first few weeks were almost comic in that I found myself constantly reaching to my phone for a dozen (usually quite pointless) reasons. Only to find that my clunky Nokia refused to play ball. Want to Shazam a song? Nope. Check the capital of Senegal? Nope. Send that picture of a cute bumblebee in my garden. Nope. Neither the ceaseless rumble of information hunger nor the habitual reflex to comment on my life was going to be gratified by the inert piece of plastic in my pocket.
I wasn’t a complete digital junkie before
That calmed down after a month. But then I was sort of cheating by still having an iPad as a second source for my digital addiction. So I found myself inventing reasons to check that too. Pretty soon I was using the iPad as much as I had used my phone. So I eventually shut that down as well.
Then I was left with just myself. Which – I realised – was a frankly novel space.
I don’t want to suggest that I was a complete digital junkie before but I was startled to notice how alien it felt to be tooling around the house and NOT checking my phone or doodling around on the internet. I realised there were swathes of time that opened up when I didn’t digitise which felt quite unusual.
It took a surprisingly long time for me to lower myself into that ‘analogue’ space. There is something quite comforting about the digital world. It is, for a start, speedy. There’s a dopamine drip-feed in all those updates and messages and notifications and likes. The brain likes novelty and particularly novelty that connects. So, coming away from that is a little like withdrawal from drugs. The brain casts around glumly for something as speedy as to replace the digital hits and comes up short.
There was a period during my digital detox where my brain felt spacey and vunerable
The other thing about the digital world is that we have – unconsciously or consciously – invested a great deal into it. The more Facebook posts we upload. And the more pictures and selfies we take, the more tweets and emails and messages we send out into the ether. The more we expect back. We hang expectantly: waiting for a response, for a ‘like’, for a retweet. Going cold-turkey also means cutting off that sense of reflection and validation of self. I was no longer getting comments and thumbs up. And I was cast adrift in a sea of my owness. I had to like my own experience, I had to enjoy myself. Which weirdly proved hard.
I think, imperceptibly, in the years preceding my lost phone. I had shifted wholesale over into a digitised sense of self. My career as a presenter on television (which is a very outwardly inflected profession). And general capacity for writing and self-presentation meant that I felt quite at ease in the world of Facebook and blogging. Too at ease.
There was a period of weeks during my digital detox where my brain felt spacey and vulnerable. These habitual modes of being (presenting myself, editing myself for approval) were withdrawn. I was left to the simpler business of just being myself.
Ironically, as a meditation instructor who teaches people all the time to ‘just be’. I found that the intensity of being involved in a ‘de-digitized’ life was quite provoking. My meditation practice became more and more about staying with this thickening and swelling of my sense of self. The work of Reggie Ray was really helpful here. Concentrating as it does on the embodied dimension of meditation and a deep appreciation of the earth.
There was definitely a sense of stabilization and re-incarnation
I’m blessed in having a house with a garden. I was able to spend a lot of time digging and pruning during this transition. I noticed quite viscerally how much happier I am outside. Memories of my childhood, out in the garden, came back unbidden with the sound of a startled blackbird, or the smell of mud.
I don’t mean this to become a Thoreau-esque diatribe about getting back to the earth. (most of the world’s population live in cities without the luxury of a private plot). But to point out what this ‘quickening’ of myself felt like. There was definitely a sense of stabilization. And re-incarnation (in the etymological sense of coming back into the flesh and blood).
The digital world, quite literally, tears our life into bits. Compulsive and pleasing as our online personas may seem, they are actually streams of zeros and ones. They are, (what the theorists that bedevilled my university years would call), “simulacra of self”. Although they allow us to preen and tweak and polish our ‘selves’, they remain bloodless. They’re made of bits and they feel bitty.
When we pour too much time and psychic energy into these digitised versions of ourselves. Then the underlying feeling is panic. There is a creeping feeling of anxiety about keeping them pristine and impressive. Are we getting enough ‘likes’? Are everyone else’s profiles better than ours? Do people really believe that we’re as happy as we post we are?
When I quit posting and commenting on Facebook, I noticed an initial wave of grief at having left that shiny world. Followed by a very gradual ‘sinking back into myself’. That’s the best I can come up to describe the experience. It’s like a bucket of silty water slowly settling.
I’m entering a mode which I’ve called the New Simplicity
All my digital retreat – less email, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagramming, no online dating – has reinforced this. The slow (and it is slow) process of sinking back into myself has left me feeling a lot less bitty.
My self-experience (to use a horribly useful psychological term) is much simpler. It’s also less excitable. The hopped-up, cat-nip quality of social media has gone. I’m entering a mode which – for want of a better term – I’ve called the New Simplicity.
This New Simplicity is, of course, very old. (and I thought about calling it the Old Simplicity but that sounds dreadfully retrogressive). That feeling of being simply in your body and experiencing what’s going on yourself without the need for a digital parallel is the original state of being. And it felt to me like a surprising return to something that I’d almost forgotten.
This is where I am at the moment, negotiating re-entry into this simpler, more embodied mode. I feel myself ‘sitting back into myself’ more and more easily. And there’s a much less itchy-and-scratchy quality to my life which I enjoy.
I have moments where I am drawn almost automatically back into a desire for the fast, dopamine-rich world of online flirting. Commenting, posting, but overall I’m quite committed to the project and curious how it will continue.
As you will have noticed, reading my continued blogging. I’m far from becoming a Luddite who wants to bring the whole Internet down. But I’m definitely less dewy-eyed about it and increasingly conscious of the pitfalls. As well as the benefits of the digitized planet. Meanwhile, I continue to explore the New Simplicity with interest.
I’d love to know your thoughts about digital detox. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!