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Unplugged
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Unplugged
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Unplugged
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
4 November 2013

Unplugged

How disconnecting can create space for genuine connection.

Written by Livia Albeck-Ripka

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Not that long ago, we lived without screens.

We lived without Googling things on the go, and before that, we lived without Google altogether. We lived without checking emails in bed, we lived without capturing the minutiae of our days, we lived without our friends at our fingertips and some of the time, we lived in solitude.

I resisted getting an iPhone at first. I felt there’d be no going back, and I worried I’d get caught up in the newness and convenience. Of course I got one eventually, and I fell deep—this thing was omniscient, powerful, addictive.

I’m not mindful of my smartphone, laptop or internet use. I use all of it, all the time, whenever and however I want. I love the freedom, the way I can satisfy my curiosity, connect with people, express myself and pretend I don’t have an awful sense of direction.

But I know it’s changing my brain. My concentration is poor, I read less, feel anxious when I’m alone, and sometimes, spend mindless hours in a sea of information. Like someone deep in love, I want to be with technology all the time, but I know that it is stifling me. So for 48 hours, I switched my screens off. I wanted to know how it felt to be with my own thoughts again.

I know two days doesn’t sound like much. I’ve hiked in the wilderness, had my iPhone stolen, been without a laptop before. But the challenge was in going without digital technology in my day-to-day life, in explaining why my remoteness should be put up with, in fighting the digital cravings in my natural habitat. I had to make plans, let people know they wouldn’t be able to reach me in the usual way. I wasn’t sure if it would be liberating or isolating, if I’d be judged or accommodated for.

I started my digital detox at midnight on Thursday: one workday, one weekend day. The afternoon before I started, my dad called to wish me luck. Apparently, “He had a parcel for me.” He’d prepared a fresh batch of homemade bagels, with a postcard that read:

Dearest Daughter… We heard by messenger that you will be inaccessible for a while and communication will be difficult, so please be careful. Our thoughts and blessings are with you as you journey onward. We await your news and to hear of your adventures…

To put this in context, that eccentric, loving behaviour is not atypical of my dad, but it reminded me how effort, kindness and face-to-face time are the bedrocks of true relationships. I saw how disconnecting could create space for genuine connection.

Throughout the next two days I craved my online life. I felt strange, urgent impulses: Something is missing. I need to check something, do something, be somewhere. But forced to spend these moments in quiet and solitude, I realised how often and how easily I’d been disappearing into distraction. I couldn’t procrastinate on social media, there was no escape from reality, I had to engage.

Almost every person I told seemed fascinated, curious; they wanted to try it themselves. We know our plugged-in lives are destroying our capacity to be present, but like addicts, we can’t see a way out of the craving-satiation loop. We don’t know how to live without our devices anymore.

When it came to midnight on Saturday, I stared at my phone, lifeless on my bedside table, not wanting to turn it on. My detox was over and I’d written a little by hand, instead of sending countless emails. I’d been alone, reflective and slow. I was thinking chronologically, rather than in a tangential, vague mess.

Of course, I’d been relying on the people around me to communicate with their devices on my behalf, and in that way, the experiment was flawed. It was also extreme and obviously unsustainable. Our digital world is not inherently bad. We can share joyous moments with faraway family, new channels are opened for work and self-expression and far more people have access to free information—it gives in so many ways. We’ve come to need it.

What we don’t need is constant, relentless pseudoconnection, to be on-call every minute of every day. Some things can wait. We can create sacred spaces where we don’t use our screens. I’ve realised that I go to my phone when I’m bored, uncertain, lonely, indecisive; when I’m seeking comfort and escape. But we have options. We look to our devices for answers, but they are just machines. What could we experience if we looked to our humanity instead?

Livia Albeck-Ripka

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist in NYC. She has had bylines at The Atlantic, Quartz, VICE, Haaretz, Tablet & others. Livia is a former fellow at Fabrica & previous Deputy Editor at Dumbo Feather, covering culture, identity, politics & environment.

Feature image by Livia Albeck-Ripka

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