Three Days of Solitude

Diary of a digital detox.

Day 1: My atrophied resilience

A few weeks ago, I injured my back. Although it hurt to walk, the doctor advised against complete rest. Apparently your muscles atrophy if you don’t use them — and it happens frighteningly fast.

It made me wonder: has my resilience atrophied, in the five years since I got a smartphone? Because I definitely feel less resilient. Case in point. Right now I’m in a cabin in the woods. I came here with the express purpose of having a few days completely offline. (Call it a digital detox if you like, but it’s not strictly true, surrounded as I am by my devices, typing this sentence on my laptop.)

Preparing for this little excursion, my mental state flipped between disconcerted and terrified. Attempting to get a grip, I reminded myself of a Christmas I spent alone in a one-horse town in central Argentina. After a days-long journey from Patagonia, I hopped off the bus and headed to a hotel.

Preparing for this little excursion, my mental state flipped between disconcerted and terrified.

If the town was quiet at the best of times, that day it was dead. The droopy eyes of shuttered shop windows were devastating in their indifference. Didn’t they know it was Christmas Day? I thought I might find an Internet cafe to Skype my family, or at least a place to grab some food and exchange festive greetings with a local.

Nothing. Not a soul.

I took a key from the monosyllabic receptionist and retired to my room to read. It was a lonely Christmas — my loneliest by far — but I got through it without drama. And here I am, freaking out in the forest because I can’t check my Instagram.

So instead I’m sitting down to read — and write. Allowing myself to finish a thought. Who knows, maybe I’ll have some good ones.

Day 2: Metaphor and metaphysics

When I look back at that time in my early twenties, it seems I still had the mind of a child. Newly single in a new town. The infinite possibilities of life giving me near constant butterflies. I lived at the speed of light, taking risks as if I were immortal; making decisions like I’d die any day.

I began an affair with someone I really shouldn’t have. It felt good so I did it. Kept doing it.

Driving one day, I got caught in a traffic jam. The radio was annoying so I switched it off. Windows down, I gazed out into the city. Caught my breath. Then, out of nowhere, the thought:

What the fuck am I doing?

As if being physically stopped in my tracks forced a mental shift in perspective.

In that moment everything changed. When you watch a film and the camera suddenly swooshes to a different shot — like that. I remember it vividly, all these years on. The consequences of my actions rained down. The cars crawled along, and I started down a different route.

Sometimes we need that step out of time to take stock. These days it feels like such opportunities are increasingly elusive. What would’ve happened if I’d reached for my smartphone in that traffic jam?

Look, I’m not saying the digital age makes us all behave like hedonistic adolescents. Only that being constantly connected means we never, ever have to follow our thoughts to their endpoint.

The question remains why we’re so keen to distance ourselves from, well, ourselves. Scientists will say it’s about dopamine. Chemical reactions that serve up a fleeting feelgood factor, leaving us craving the next.

Being constantly connected means we never, ever have to follow our thoughts to their endpoint.

Frankie Boyle recently wondered whether our obsession with consumerism might be a way for humanity to work through its material limitations. After all, we are not our bodies — at least, not solely. Our consciousness is constrained by physicality. We can imagine, we can dream, but if we actually want to be somewhere, do something, we have to manipulate matter. In this endeavour, ultimately, we’re destined to fail. Death beats money, every time.

Babies, before they can walk or talk, grab maniacally at smartphones. Is our seemingly innate compulsion to screen time, likewise, a metaphor? Buddhists believe it’s possible to overcome materiality by looking deeply inwards. Another option is complete distraction. Attention focused forever outward need never contemplate the inevitability of physical decay.

Of course, there’s a price for taking the easy way out.

Day 3: Solitude and social media

I could live like this indefinitely. It’s dangerous.

For those of us who find real-world social interaction excruciating, social media is a godsend. No more awkward eye contact or attentive listening. Just a sense of connection, without all the effort.

I’ve always found comfort in solitude, yet at the back of my mind I know that without connecting deeply with others, I’m living half a life. So from time to time, I force myself out of my comfort zone. It always pays off. Then I retreat to gather strength for the next round.

I could live like this indefinitely. It’s dangerous.

Social media makes it easy to stop trying. It fools me into feeling fulfilled.

In a widely shared essay, entitled ‘You Are the Product’, John Lancaster draws attention to a study which found “quite simply that the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are.”

For every one percent increase in clicks and likes, researchers recorded a five to eight percent decrease in mental health. “In effect people were swapping real relationships which made them feel good for time on Facebook which made them feel bad.”

As my digital detox draws to a close, I’m surprised how easy it’s all been. The compulsion to be online is strong, but not, it appears, in any way aligned with the ease with which I’ve adjusted to extended periods of offline time. That in itself is encouraging. I can take small and painless steps to spend time away from my devices, without resorting to any kind of extreme behaviour.

At the same time, I think it’s important to recognise that it’s not all on us, as users. We live in an attention economy. Technology is designed to be addictive. As design ethicist Tristan Harris of Time Well Spent says, “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if tech companies built stuff that made us feel more, not less, human?

But remember, there’s always a price. Remember —if the product is free, you are the product.