I take a break from social media over the summer and Christmas. A quietening down that takes a while to get used to but has its benefits, as my colleagues and students recede along with the exam boards.
Turns out that the world keeps turning even if I don’t share my ongoing response to it.
Perhaps I’ve been unconsciously debating my immersion in all things digital.
Which is odd for me, I sent my first email in 1979, made my first web ‘page’ in 1992, I’ve tracked and managed the ongoing rise of digital technology across multiple arts for my entire career, I teach digital media to fine art and performing arts students. Digital tools are at the heart of my work, from photography to filmmaking to teaching.
We have, on and off, tried technology shabbats as a family, making Saturday digital-free. Our sons ignored it, our daughter welcomed it, but it was our own weakness which saw it slowly fade.
Last summer I went further, I took a break from the web. Not just social media, but all things online, the whole shebang. I kept email up but dropped all the rest, no browser activity at all. It took a while to disentangle, from links in texts to email, we are referring an awful lot these days. My wife booked tickets, checked the bank and bought what we usually buy online.
The one side effect of this — Time slowed down. Turns out a day is actually quite long. You turn to other things, activities, books, movies, talking. Mostly you become aware of the space you are in and the people you are with. It was an experiment, an interesting one, a rewarding one, but it didn’t feel practical as a way forward, as a way of life.
What’s at issue for me is that all of these various efforts are seasonal or occasional or faltering. What I really want is a place for digital in my daily life, a container for it, rather than it spilling everywhere.
The issue, and it’s ten years now, is the iPhone.
I think I’ve had enough.
It’s partly the sour taste of 2016, partly a growing sense of my own scattered-ness, and partly considering what to tell my daughter as she gets her first phone. She’s 13, heading to secondary school, and probably the last of her year to get a phone. I started to draw up a list of things to discuss with her, rules, guidelines, what we expected. I found that I was really writing up a list for myself.
As we drove into town the other day, we watched a young woman walk and look at her phone. We talked about social fabric, about the dangers, but also the fact that she was no longer in the physical fabric of the city, the people around her, she was elsewhere. We need, as a society, to connect to everyone, not just the tribes we share with online. The street as a social space functions as a great leveller, and a family home should be no different in that regard.
The iPhone turns up everywhere in our lives, in every situation, from meals to coffee, to watching TV, to sleep, to exercise. We turn to it on an ongoing basis, endlessly checking and picking it up, configuring our experiences through it. We rejoiced initially at the Internet in your pocket, but it turns out to be quite toxic and addictive.
I am on the latest iOS beta, I put in a request that Apple introduce a ‘Calm mode’, like a configurable ‘Airplane mode’. I sought the ability to turn off everything bar a set number of key apps you specify, for me: the phone, messages, music and camera. The rest is deactivated/hidden but you can still make a call or send a message. The rest can lie dormant until you de-activate it, when you choose to edit photographs or share online. But when you pick it up and it’s got plain old phone, messages, music, camera… chances are, you’ll put it down again.
Phone, messages, camera and music just about describes my last Sony Ericsson. I didn’t find myself picking that up every twenty minutes, it sat in my jacket pocket mostly.
Of course that is just a wish, not a reality. With that in mind, I’m going to try a new experiment — I am going to turn off the iPhone.
Every day, at dinner time, I am going to leave it off until the next morning. I’ll keep it on for work, for the business of the day, but when I’m home, with my family gathering at the table, and the evening stretches out before me, I’ll turn it off, see where I am and who I am with.