“Do nothing, and everything gets done” (Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh)
I just spent the last two months unplugged.
That is, for the last several weeks, I’ve been on a social media diet, on a retreat from all forms of electronic communication, in self-imposed rehab from an addiction to emails, texts, posts, updates, inboxes, likes, alerts, followers, threads, forwards, saves, pins, and links. #digitaldetox
Did you notice?? Did your social media universe seem a little dimmer, did its gravity feel off, because I wasn’t in it? Now that you know that I wasn’t there, does that explain any unaccounted-for FOMO that you might have felt during those two months, a sense that somewhere I was doing something more interesting that you wish you were doing too? Did the negative space created by my absence make you jealous and vaguely resentful that you weren’t also absent? Because presence or absence in the digital realm are now metrics of individual worth: if the time I invest in social media is time well spent, it’s in return for being noticed, for being taken note of, for making my #influence felt, for mattering.
I guess I spent two months not mattering.
It felt pretty good, actually.
Of course, it’s not like I went cold turkey, completely off the grid. Some technological tools are so useful, so necessary, that I couldn’t avoid using them: navigating, making sure I had a clean place to sleep every night, paying my bills, getting library books, making sure that I wasn’t mistakenly ordering entrails in restaurants, or saying yes to dangerous or illegal activities on the beach…And while I am unlikely to ever be fluent in Catalan, my phone is, which turned out to be surprisingly useful.
Nevertheless, I was grateful that the last several weeks often took me places where I could neither receive nor be received; where I could escape my cage because there were no bars; where my little triangle of connectedness was just an outline of nothing, more negative space: for days at a time, I couldn’t plug in even if I wanted to.
Helplessly unplugged, I was healthily unaware of every instance of cruelty, idiocy, and bigotry that would occur in the course of a day at the local, national, and international level; I couldn’t check my work email at the bureaucratic and tail-chasing level. And at what we call the social level, I couldn’t follow the latest announcements of happiness, or indignation, or helpless passive aggressive lashing-out (and I couldn’t inflict exactly the same on anyone else either).
I did miss feeling informed about current events, and connected to the lives of people I genuinely care about, but who are too often too far away; I missed being able to use social media for the use we were all originally sold on, which is as a tool for building and maintaining communities and friendships.
But, in the absence of all that positive connectedness, I was also able to withdraw from the negative, exhausting entanglements which, if they weren’t deliberately manufactured to distract and addict, have become indispensable in keeping us hooked, consuming, consumed. Un-connected, I became aware of just how disconnected I’d become from too many other important parts of myself.
Unplugged, I stopped having long, protracted arguments in my head with everyone from the GOP, to certain colleagues, to neighbors, to a cousin or acquaintance or two; I stopped mentally composing diatribes which I would (could?) never post, where I would devastatingly lay down some Truth that would first shake each one to the core, then effect a revolutionary course-change in their behavior, then become a viral sensation that would build my brand. For two months, I had no brand. I was unproductive, and relieved from the pressure to make myself a product. No consumption of media, no consumption of me by the media.
Instead, I followed the advice of author Jenny Odell in How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, to try to reset my attention, to stop attending reactively to whatever provocation was pinging at me in any given moment, to choose to be attentive, to be present.
I had been afraid that my attention had been so fragmented and splintered by posts and push notifications and messages and memes that it was broken beyond repair, that I’d never be able to focus on anything again. Being able to formulate a thought, plant a seed, let it grow, prune and trim and coddle it to fruition – being able to think without being buffeted by the clamoring thoughts of others – came as an enormous relief.
I read books – not articles, not headlines, not posts, not snippets of paragraphs, but actual books. Like summer vacation when I was a kid, I lay down in a shady spot with the intention of reading for just a few minutes, only to emerge from a literary fugue state two hours later. And when one book was done, I put it down and started another. I wrote. I sat with my feet in the creek, and let a sapphire-blue dragonfly land on my outstretched hand. I watched the wind ripple through fields of grain and riffle the tops of trees. I gardened, canned apricots, ate cherries off the tree, watched the sun set, strolled through the orchard, helped a friend build a staircase. Over bread, cheese, and cheap wine with ice cubes, we conversed at length about the health of trees, how to keep flies out of the composting toilet, why creativity seems so hard in the midst of urban professional life. We talked about art, and our childhoods, and dogs. We talked to the dogs, when they came over for belly rubs, tired out from chasing bees and chickens. Turns out, Williams was right: so much does depend “upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens.”
I couldn’t live that life indefinitely. (Could I…?) Vacations end, and responsibility – signified by dozens of accumulated emails, in turn signifying meetings to schedule, proposals to write, policies to develop, research to do – grinds back into gear, and the next thing I know I’m sucked back in to all of it, posting on social media again, idly scrolling through other people’s posts, skimming headlines, listening to a podcast on mindfulness, turned up to drown out the high energy music of the gym, the unwanted soccer games and children’s cartoons on the subway, the tedium of waiting in line at the grocery store, the agitation of being a thinking, feeling being in an age of violence and chaos.
People unplug all the time, which we know because the first thing they do when they plug back in (as one must, sooner or later, mustn’t one?) is make a big production out of how transformative it is to be unplugged, preferably integrating the experience into one’s brand identity. #simplicity #enlightened #enviable
Will my experience be any different? Was two months spent turned off enough time to calm mind and nerves, to renew focus, to reconnect to what I really value (rather than trying, frantically, to avoid everything I don’t)? Was that period enough to, if not transform me utterly, at least to insulate, or inoculate me, to give me greater resistance against the pernicious infiltration of all those bits of data which accumulate, proliferate, and suffocate attention?
I hope so. The point of unplugging, of being Off, in all senses of the word, was never to do nothing, and keep on doing nothing. On the contrary, as Odell argues, it’s when we feel like we’re doing everything – all the information, all the posts, all the attention, all the #socalledinfluence – that we’re conveniently distracted from doing anything, that is, anything organized, focused, meaningful, revolutionary. Do everything, and nothing gets done. Rather, what I hope will stay with me, as I return from my absence, will be the knowledge of what it’s like to be comfortably or uncomfortably present, as the fundamental condition of doing something.
I took a digital “fast” for Lent and Holy Week this year (except for work obligations, but then who is ever amused by work emails?) and then was sucked back in. I think, however, that like Seinfeld said about relationships, “the first break-up never takes.” I’m back, but I’m already itching for another “fast.” I gorge at social media for a few days, then yearn for the oblivion of not being a part of it and disappear for a few. And yes, the one glorious thing I got out of it was the refound ability to read for hours on end. This motivates me to stay away more than to be “on”. So, it’s one step forward to unplugging and two steps back, but you never step in the same digital river twice … 😉
It’s like quitting smoking, where it takes several attempts before you can finally break free…except since digital media have become so much a part of our lives, maybe the better comparison is food, where you can’t just *quit* but learning moderation can take a LOT of struggle. At least I’m old enough to dimly remember what life was like without the internet, and to have established a habit of reading and concentration – what happens for younger people who have *never* had the chance to live without the internet colonizing their attention?
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Yes, the food metaphor works really well. The periodic fast is one way of doing this and minimizing is another.
Sadly, I don’t know about young people. I be old, so I have also both a memory and a muscle for concentration and reading. I teach teens and I’m not sure they can ever have this unless we have, one way, academic experiences where they can practice this once in a while, a kind of discipline taught, just like a sport, an instrument. If we have coding and media classes, why not classes on reading at length, being by yourself, etc., hours without phone use, this might help them?
I’ve often thought that the best thing we could do for first-year students is just lock them in a room for 3 hours a day with no internet and a lot of good books (and bathrooms and snacks). I’d sign up for that, gladly!
🙂 Books are it: they actually do love a narrative, you just have to bring their little horsey heads to water …
Indeed! How to tame those little horsey heads is the subject of an upcoming essay!
I look forward to it!