Making the #punktchallenge sustainable

Retrospective reflections on a relaxing weekend

A couple weekends ago I prepared for and executed a short “digital detox,” inspired by the Punkt. Winter Challenge, which ends this weekend. I found it refreshing, and scary; it created some interesting discussions.

One friend of mine was worried about me isolating myself, I think not just in the context of this weekend, but as a broader theme. My dad sympathised and told me about how he had been enjoying skiing and some recent trips to art museums. The topic of the digital detox served as a conversation starter with a new acquaintance from the University of Oxford who is studying digital distraction.

All in all I wouldn’t have tried the experiment if I, myself, was not worried, harried, and distracted. My own worries came to a head in late-night insomnia, which I increasingly suspect is bad for my long-term health. The weekend OFF was tremendously eye opening in this regard. However, I am taking other steps as well.

Nokia 105, Financial Times, First Class stamps, pocket notebook

The main thing, for me, is to get some deep rest. Here I have in mind an “advertisement” for heroin from the mid-2000s, scrawled in graffiti in the bathroom of my local cafe: “HEROIN: Don’t get depressed, get some deep rest.” The question is how to do this “sustainably” — insofar as I’m not all that interested in starting up a drug regimen, and, at the same time, I can’t guarantee that I’ll actually be taking every weekend off to garden and snooze.

I do have some ideas about this, which are somewhat reflected in my product-consumption behaviour.

One of big shift was to take out a subscription to the Financial Times. This seems to be a good alternative to reading online news, which, on reflection, shades into celebrity gossip and clickbait very quickly. I’ve posted way less on social media than I used to, but found I had more to say when I was actually hanging out with people. The paper has sections that are incredibly boring (in what I understand to be the spirit of The Pale King, which I also bought, but haven’t started reading yet). The “Companies and Markets” section is sufficiently boring to send me to sleep, and may actually be worth reading on the assumption that someday I might have enough money to invest, or that, perhaps I might decide to make a career shift and start working for a profit-making company.

In the mean time, as a postdoctoral researcher working from home, my most recent employer required me to get a phone. Due to the rush I decided on a cheap Nokia rather than an MP 01, which I would have had to order. At some point I expect I’ll just swap over the SIM card. I hanker for the freedom of someone who works with people, and without computers; I will say that the MP 01 is more aesthetically aligned with the style of what I have in mind than the Nokia 105. However, at this point I wonder if the “phone” itself is a bit of a red herring.

It is no longer really accurate to call smartphones “little computers”: rather, I’d say that a laptop computer is a “big smartphone.”

As a former anti-phone high-horser, this is humbling. But here I’d like to put forward a longish quote from Wasting Time on the Internet, which was another part of my toolkit as I try to understand what’s been going on. This quote, from page 17, is about a woman who has gone on a digital detox.

“Those spellbinding heavens are always hiding in plain sight above us, if only we would unplug long enough to notice.” Even in such lighthearted Sunday morning fare, her words are laced with an all-to-pervasive, unquestioning guilt about technology. Try as she might, the writer is enmeshed with technology to the point that she is unable to experience nature without technological mediation. She may have left her devices at home, but she’s still seeing the world entirely through them. Her brain, indeed, has become differently wired and all the nature in the world on a weekend digital detox won’t change that. What was accomplished by this trip? Not much. Far away from her devices, all she did was think obsessively about them. Returning from her trip, it’s hard to imagine that much changed. I can’t imagine that in the spirit of her adventure she wrote her piece out longhand in number 2 pencils on legal pads by candlelight, only to sit down at a Remington typewriter bashing out the final draft, and filing it via carrier pigeon. No. Instead, the morning her piece appeared, she retweeted a link to the article: “.@ingridkwilliams goes off the grid on a charming Swedish island.”

Goldsmith makes many good points in the book, and I’m sure he’d agree that the enlightened cynicism expressed in the passage above is hardly the final word. My own view on this is that, having rewired our brains around “hard” technology once, we ought to be able to upgrade them with some “soft” technologies that change the way we relate to the “hard stuff.”

For example, consider tobacco: it is known to be harmful to our health. It is also known that tobacco companies tried to maintain an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt about such things. Some people continue to smoke knowing the risks. Others have quit and have taken up healthy eating. Nowadays kids take up vaping with abandon. The main point is that the neurological and other sub-cellular effects of tobacco products exist within the sphere of social strategies.

For me, at least, the answer to the Punkt. challenge should indeed address my (or, our?) relationship to technology, broadly speaking. The realisation that a phone is a computer is a phone should help here. I’d love to see Punkt. or some other similar company start designing laptops, social networks, and workplaces. I imagine a weird blend of Gilliam, Cupertino, and something vaguely nordic. But maybe I am just attempting describing my own aesthetic and the importance, not just of “having beautiful things in our lives,” but of aesthetic living.

According to a previous Punkt. challenge-ee, Luke Davies,

‘So where do I go from here? Smartphone-free weekends is what I’ll be going forward with, I want that freedom back.’

Something like that sounds about right. Whether it’s the “Amazing Hour” proposed by James Hamblin in his vlog hosted by The Atlantic, or weekends “OFF” I think we can play around with how we relate to technology in creative ways without having it right there in front of us. On page 37 of Wasting Time on the Internet, Goldsmith says:

We came to the conclusion that when we waste time on the Internet, we usually do it alone or as a parallel activity — like in a dorm or a library […] By inserting the network and machine into the midst of physically based social interaction, new forms of communal activity were possible.

This, already, is something that the #punktchallenge has done: it has made our relationship with technology social again.