Two roommates decide to spend a day without not only internet, but phones, television (including [gasp!] both movies and series), video games, and computers — even offline ones. The rule was “anything with a display”, and we enforced it brutally. The most technologically advanced thing we used was a card terminal (we had forgotten to withdraw cash).
What did we learn? Was the day any different? Did we feel different? What was the most surprising result? And, maybe the most important question… What did we do?
In the days leading up to this experiment we were, to be honest, a little scared. “How would we pass the time?” was the question most prominently on our minds. So we made plans. I was going to read “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, in addition to the newest issue of New Yorker and finish Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (incidentally a crackling read that I recommend wholeheartedly). I also thought about fudging the rules a little bit, to write a screenplay I’m working on, figuring the day was about pulling the plug on multitasking and distractions; to not have something constantly going on.
My roommate, whom we’ll call Simon, because that’s his name, scoffed at me using a computer, even only to write on. He was planning to enforce the rules brutally.
His plan was to walk around in the city, sit at a café and, hopefully, write something (with a pen, in a notebook, of course). We also thought we’d get back on that Magic: The Gathering-horse that we’d only started riding on months earlier; this seemed like a great opportunity for that.
A sudden realisation came in the late hours the night before; what would we use as alarms? Neither of us had an alarm clock — we use our phones for that. Simon said something like “Ah, screw it. I’ll just wake up when I wake up. I won’t touch my phone.” I said I’d set my alarm and could wake him up — “How does around ten or eleven sound?” We agreed, I set the alarms (but not before putting my phone in flight mode and turning on the “do not disturb”-mode — you can never be too careful) and went to sleep.
We overslept. That was the first thing that happened.
It was around two o’clock when we finally dragged ourselves out of bed. I made myself some coffee. Simon went to the bathroom. I made myself some breakfast (crispbread with cheese) and started to read The New Yorker — an article entitled “The Last Trial”, about the Nazi-trials which are, for some inexplicable reason, still going on. Simon came out of the bathroom.
The first thing we noticed was the silence.
Crushing. Deafening. Heavy. Thunderous. This was what the silence felt like. We talked about the silence, yet it didn’t go away. It was still there, behind it all. And with it, we made our first realisation; the thing that would be the hardest to live without. Music.
I had a quick shower, got dressed and packed threw the magazine, my notebook, Station Eleven and my Kindle (where I had The Tempest) in my bag, joining Simon to walk around town, get something to eat, and go to our local Magic card-selling store. (This was after we’d played a little, refreshed on the mechanics and decided we needed some more cards to make our own decks.) It’s a little shameful to admit, but I didn’t dare face the silence of our apartment alone. We’d joked that when he’d gotten back, REDRUM would be smeared in blood across the window and he’d find me in the bathtub, having hanged myself (a perfect joke; movie reference and absurdity, as we don’t have a bathtub and why, not to mention how, would you hang yourself in one?), but if I hadn’t joined him… I think I would’ve gone crazy. I am absolutely certain that I would have killed the experiment had I been left alone. I would’ve cracked, at least putting on some music and, sadly, dived into the depths of internet.
A bus-ride and a short walk later, we had found a restaurant. By now, I was hopelessly hungry. Simon had an errand to run, which he did while I ordered and read.
Sitting in the restaurant, alone, reading about old nazis, Germany, Soviet, art and the new trials going on, I suddenly found myself feeling around in my pocket. Realising I had just grabbed for my phone, yet finding nothing but keys and coins, I looked around me. At my left, there were two people, a man and a woman, too quiet to be on a date; they ate their food with precision, in silence. If it was a date they had both realised they didn’t fit, weren’t compatible. Or maybe they were just finishing up, hurrying home to consummate a ritual of theirs — perhaps even the beginning of one. Simon later added that they had looked alike (I only saw the man; turning my head to see the woman would’ve seemed strange.). “They might be siblings” we theorized.
On the table, beside their plates, were their phones. Simply laying there, waiting for a moment of boredom, of fancy. Ready to take you away.
They finished their food, got dressed and walked out, hardly speaking a word to each other.
By this time, Simon had come back, and we were eating. Talking about how the world was without a quick espace or a quick fix, without immediate stimuli or answers. Talking about how many times we’d reached for our phones by now. Talking about how much we enjoyed the music played over the restaurant’s speakers, knowing it would likely be the only music we were to hear that day (plus points to Kafé Spesial, who chose the time we were there to play my number one favourite song).
Not too long ago, I saw the subdued and cozy low-key musical “Begin Again”. It features a scene where our two main characters walk around New York with a splitter, sharing music with each other while wearing their own headsets. At the end of the scene, Mark Ruffalo’s character talks about why he loves music (and I’m paraphrasing here); “Music gives this world context. This random, vibrant city is meaningless, everyone staking out their own way, going shopping or finding a restaurant, on the way to their favourite café or headed to a movie with their kids and the rest of their family — but put a soundtrack on it, and it all looks choreographed. Like it’s meant to be. Like it all means something.”
This, of course, comes from a character who, at that point, really needs to believe that it all means something. But don’t we want to believe that? The fact that this world is random chaos isn’t exactly appealing. Even people making religions or belief systems around random chaos have, probably without realising or wanting to do so, given the random chaos a meaning — one that isn’t inherent in all the random chaos.
If the easiest way to give meaning to an inherently meaningless world is to put on a soundtrack — when the woman waving goodbye to her child going on a train is accompanied by swelling music, the scene magically comes to “life”— then what does it say when we bring that music with us? Everywhere, either sticking plugs in, over or on our ears. The music becomes a constant, its meaning, a meaning, following us around.
Constants were something we became aware of, or rather, noticed weren’t there. From our apartment to the bus, the restaurant to the different stores we visited, to the walk back and our return to the apartment, every place felt uniquely its own. There was no escape from the moment, the location we found ourselves at, the mood surrounding us. No quick fixes or little blasts of information, immediate scratches to our itches. If we didn’t remember a line from a song or who some actor played in some other film, we had to wait till the information bubbled up or put it behind us. No chat conversation spun through the day with our friends online, no text messages back-and-forth to distant friends or family members, or even friends closer in proximity. We arranged no meetings, made no plans with others — if they wanted to visit us, they would have to knock on our door and hope we were home. If we were not, our phones were there — turned off or on flight mode. In a sense, we didn’t exist. There was only this moment. And then there was only the next.
Our awareness increased — that was perhaps the least surprise. We lived moment to moment, with no plans, no schedule and plenty of surprises. For instance…
At the beginning of the day, I relished not checking my phone or computer. Just drinking a cup of coffee and reading was bliss. But, in the background, a little excitement buzzed away, hidden; I almost dreamed about, and absolutely looked forward to, checking my phone the next day. I wondered how much I’d missed, how much attention I’d gotten by not being present, by not existing for a while. Throughout the day, this excitement turned to fright. I did not look forward to dive back into that world, into being everywhere at once, to never leave anything behind. Leaving things behind isn’t a loss, it turns out. It’s an addition and a privilege.
Around ten o’clock, we felt tired. Beat. Sleepy almost, though we’d keep it going for a few more hours — the need to debrief was large and present, just like we had been throughout the day. We found out we could describe each place we had been in vivid, incredible detail, and, for almost every person we’d come into contact with, however arbitrary — those we’d passed on streets, our cashiers, our fellow restaurant-diners and store-shoppers — the case was the same. We had a feeling of them as people, almost with full-fledged, complex identities, hopes and dreams attributed to each. We felt more positive about other humans; they were no longer just abstract concepts, people around us to fill in the cast. They had their own identities, just like the different places we’d been.
There were no constants this day, apart from our shared company. The hours had flown by (especially for me who, without my phone, couldn’t check the time every three minutes). I had not started The Tempest, much less finished Station Eleven. I had read some articles in The New Yorker and played a lot of Magic: The Gathering. I had spent some money I probably shouldn’t have (note for next time; going shopping to have something to do is… not wise). I had not been in long-form communication (not counting cashiers or store employees) with anyone except Simon, through any medium, for an entire day.
When I woke up this morning, the first thing I did was to throw all the unnecessary communication and “escape from reality”-apps off my phone. Gone were Messenger, Snapchat, IMDb and tumblr (I have let myself keep Twitter, for the time being. Even my willpower has limits). Our new apartment-rules includes no phones in the living room, no computers after eight and no technology of any kind after ten. We’ve also made a vow not to listen to music on the go, outside the apartment, thus experiencing every place as its own, gaining new impulses and different stimuli on each place.
Today has been its own kind of strange. My eyes hurt more, from using computers and other screens again. I’m much more attuned to sounds. Music in the background has become weird in its own way; even now, writing this while listening to Susanne Sundfør’s new album, I am much more focused on it than I used to be… Or maybe that’s my mind playing tricks on me. One thing is for sure; we enjoyed our day without technology. We have plans to do it once a week.
How strange this world we live in is… All these possibilities these days; a computer is both mail, books, newspapers and record collections. Everything available everywhere. Think of the last time you traveled somewhere; Italy, Spain, Norway, England, Germany, America. Everywhere there’s a Starbucks and a McDonald’s. Constants. What ever happened to the uniques?
They’re being brought back. The LP is gaining popularity. Physical objects available only where you are, lead to rituals. When you don’t have that LP, if you lend it away to someone, it’s gone — at least for the time being. You might pine to get it back, but these days? Who cares. You have the digital version and that’s all that matters… Or is it?
People don’t want to read a whole book on a computer; they want a Kindle, maybe the physical book itself. Some dream of writing and mailing letters to each other; artefacts are gaining respectability. (And, let’s be serious — while you can release “The Collected Letters of Franz Kafka” [or Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Whitman, and so on and so forth], you’re not going to find “The Collected Chat Logs of Jonathan Franzen” anytime soon).
As people realise that the world isn’t the same everywhere, constants continue to disappear. You become more aware, wanting to diverge and divide your impressions, to vary them at the different places you are. When I was in Leeds last weekend, I walked around the town without music and headphones; I wanted to experience Leeds, its mood, substance and atmosphere. I didn’t want to walk around listening to the same music I do here in Bergen. Instead of visiting Starbucks, I searched instead for an independent coffee shop. I was showered with impressions, much like I was yesterday, but I also kept conversations going online. I was at another landmass completely, but still, somehow, present.
Being present, always, constantly, is destroying us. Dulling us. We always have three thoughts in our heads, instead of engaging completely with the situation we’re in. We lose impressions, we chose what meaning we want to give the world and we’re drowning in escapes. The random chaos that is our world jumps out at you. The silence swallows you.
I urge you to try it. A day without screens, without technology and with no other forms of entertainment than the written word in a physical format, along with boardgames, cardgames and whatever you can make up yourself. Engage in your world. Walk around your town. You’ll be surprised by what you miss, what you find and what you don’t miss — at all. You’ll be surprised at how quiet everything is, how everyone you pass on the street is another person, how extremely long the day will feel, how tired you become at the end of it and how thoroughly and detailed you can be when talking about it. I’d urge you to go at least half the day with no technology at all, only dusting off your record collection and/or radio after eight. I promise that after a while, you get used to the silence. It becomes, in its own strange way, reassuring. It is, after all, the only constant we have. Behind everything it lies in wait — for me, for you, for everyone.
Best to make friends with it as fast as you can.