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Let’s Designate Internet-Free Zones

When distraction is always a click away, our conversations — both inward and outward — suffer most

Jesse Weaver
Nov 28, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo: Jesse Weaver

I sit on a runway. It’s getting dark and it’s raining. The flight attendant says it’s time to switch our portable electronic devices to airplane mode. Most people ignore them. I’m quickly flipping through my “critical” apps one last time, getting in that final check before jetting off into a communication black hole. There is nothing new waiting in those apps and I know that; I checked less than a minute ago. But I check again anyway. We take off. I flip my phone to airplane mode. Soon we’ll be at our cruising altitude and it won’t matter what mode my phone is in; checking in will be off the table. I’m relieved.

The airplane is like a communication time warp. A throwback to an age where uninterrupted conversations could flow for extended periods of time. A time when we were comfortable just staring out the window watching the world go by. A time when one might find themselves bored with only their wandering thoughts to entertain them.

A healthy amount of idle time is not only good for us but makes us more creative and may be critical to our happiness.

If you live in a city and don’t actively travel into rural towns or wilderness, the airplane might be the only time you experience this kind of forced disconnection. It feels freeing. It feels like a weight is lifted. That little piece of your brain constantly preoccupied with what you might be missing finally gets a break. A brief rest before it is re-engaged the moment the wheels touch down at your destination.

We need that rest and disconnection. We need our thoughts to wander, unguided and unprompted. We need uninterrupted conversation. And, most importantly, we need extended moments of boredom and the creativity and introspection that comes from it. Unfortunately, those moments are getting harder and harder to come by.

The last time I flew, there was Wi-Fi available on the plane. The modem happened to be down so we couldn’t connect, but it was there. Every plane will soon have Wi-Fi. Being 30,000 feet above the planet will no longer be an escape. We’ll all feel pressure to post our airplane window pics in real-time.

The spread of the internet is inevitable. Google and Facebook are already on a mission to bring reliable service to rural and developing areas, and that effort will only intensify. Soon access to the web will reach every corner of the globe.

This expansion, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem. The problem is, once the entire world is connected, where will we go to get away? We need connection, but we also need solitude and silence. Our happiness and success depend on it.

The Importance of Being Bored

Boredom can be scary. With nothing around to distract our brains, we are alone with our thoughts. For many of us, this is uncomfortable—and for good reason. The feeling of boredom can actually cause us physiological stress.

As Mark Hawkins writes in his book The Power of Boredom, studies found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol were much higher among participants who felt bored compared to other emotions. And “psychologist Robert Plutchik has linked boredom to a form of disgust, similar to what we might feel when we smell rotten food.” Much of our physiological response to boredom drives us to want to avoid it, and we actively look for distraction to do that.

Over the centuries, we’ve devised a stunning array of options to fill our idle time: communal storytelling, performances and plays, sports, music, art, literature, games, films, etc. The flight from boredom has created the basis of much of our cultural history. So, boredom is repulsive, like smelly rotten food, and the pursuit of entertainment produces wonderful cultural treasures. This feels like a clear justification to eradicate boredom. But, like most things in life, it’s never that simple.

Boredom opens up space for pause and introspection.

Despite our aversion to boredom, it turns out that a healthy amount of idle time is not only good for us, but makes us more creative and may be critical to our happiness and emotional growth.

Recent studies have shown that boredom can drive increased creativity as your mind moves into a “seeking state.” This free-flowing state allows the brain to traverse through seemingly unconnected thoughts, which can generate unforeseen connections and insights. This heightened ability includes our capacity for creative problem-solving. People who were pushed into a state of boredom prior to solving a given problem were not only able to find more creative solutions, but also a wider range of possible solutions. Given the magnitude and complexity of the problems society currently faces, the ability to devise creative solutions will only become more and more critical.

But that’s just the tip of the boredom iceberg. While increased creativity is a powerful side effect of idle time, it is not the most important. More important is the fact that boredom opens up space for pause and introspection. As Intel fellow Genevieve Bell put it, “Being bored is actually a moment when your brain gets to reset itself… Your consciousness gets to reset itself too.”

Hawkins echoes this sentiment:

Boredom is a special space in time that provides us with a bird’s eye view of life. The examination that boredom allows helps us steer our lives toward the best road possible.

Personal and, ultimately, societal growth come from individual introspection. Moments of introspection allow us to grapple with inner thoughts and process daily inputs. It creates space to think critically about what we’ve seen, heard and experienced, and to form our own opinions about them and find those unexpected connections that help us see things through a different light. This process feeds our lifelong emotional development, helping us “steer our lives toward the best road possible.”

Without introspection, there is no space to question, consider, and form our own opinions. Without introspection, there is only space for reactionary responses and rote regurgitation of spoon-fed information. An increasingly divisive and deceptive world thrives when introspection and critical thinking are limited.

You can’t understand who you are and what you believe, let alone be able to understand someone else’s beliefs, if you don’t take time to think. We need to engage with our inner thoughts, but we can’t truly hear them unless we step into boredom. Embracing a healthy amount of idle time opens up deep opportunities to think, breathe and create connections.

We’ve always sought to escape boredom, but until recently, it was impossible to completely avoid it. For the majority of human history, much of our “in between” time was spent idle. Just thinking or talking or looking around. Today, internet-connected devices make it possible to fill every second of our time, and those activities—thinking, talking, looking—become more and more fleeting.

Sherry Turkle of MIT described this phenomenon in her book Reclaiming Conversation:

We say we turn to our phones when we’re “bored.” And often we find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information, and entertainment.[…]It all adds up to a flight from conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversations in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.

When distraction is always a click away, it is our conversations, both inward and outward, that suffer most.

Disconnect to Reconnect

The internet is a large part of my life. I make a living designing digital products and teaching future product designers. I dedicate a lot of mental space to contemplating the impact of technology—both the good and the bad. There is so much positive about our web-enabled world, but the addictive nature of our devices has made it incredibly difficult for even the most resolute among us to truly pry ourselves away.

It’s easy to forget how quickly this has happened. I spent half my life internet-free and all but a quarter of it without a smartphone. Less than a decade ago, idle time was nearly impossible to avoid. Today, to have idle time—to reflect, to think, to breathe, to turn it off—requires a conscious choice. You either power down your devices or find a place the internet can’t reach. Fortunately, it is still possible to find those places, but they are fast disappearing.

The protection of our wild spaces represents one of the greatest public goods the U.S. has ever created.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the woods. As part of a family that prized the outdoors, we did everything from cabin camping to extended backpacking trips. At the time, I didn’t appreciate or understand what the wilderness represented. Maybe it was because everyday life was yet to be hyperconnected, so the woods didn’t feel all that different. But now that hyperconnection is the norm, the juxtaposition is stark.

The wilderness is a place of both deep solitude and deep connection. You are either alone with your thoughts or talking to the people you’re with. Those represent the full breadth of your options.

We desperately need those places. In an always-on world, with devices designed to pull so hard it’s difficult to break free, we need that forcing function. We need those moments where we mindlessly pull out our phone only to find no signal.

At the moment, despite our rapid advances, much of the wilderness is still that sanctuary. A place the internet can’t reach. Like a plane at 30,000 feet. The question is, how long will it stay that way?

Internet-Free Zones

In 1964, the United States Congress passed the Wilderness Act. The act created a legal definition of wilderness and now protects 110 million acres of land from human development. It defines wilderness as follows:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

The protection of our wild spaces represents one of the greatest public goods the U.S. has ever created. A rare moment where we were able to understand there are things that supersede economic development and capitalist pursuits.

This wilderness preservation system provides areas across the country where people are given the opportunity to escape the modern world and step into a place of comparative solitude and silence—a last refuge for boredom and introspection.

In the 1960s, when the Wilderness Act was signed, the digital revolution was but a glimmer in the eye of just a handful of people, and only a few of them could have predicted where it would ultimately go. Today, the idea of a space “untrammeled by man” can no longer be defined as simply lacking physical development or resource exploitation, it must also include the absence of our expanding array of digital technologies.

A wilderness, in contrast to those areas dominated by man, should have no signal.

In 2017, there were 331 million visits to U.S. national parks, which is tied with 2016 for the most annual visits in history. People crave these spaces and the disconnection they provide. We’ve overplayed our hand in the war on boredom and the pendulum is starting to swing. There are technology-free summer camps for adults, devices to lock away your phones during events, and bars with built-in Faraday cages to block cell signals.

Introspection and conversation are not dependent on pristine landscapes alone, they are dependent on disconnection. We need to continue to protect our wild spaces from those elements of human creation that we can see, but also protect them from the elements we can’t see. A wilderness, in contrast to those areas dominated by man, should have no signal.

There are a number of ways this can be accomplished. It could be easements that require transmission towers to be certain distances away from designated areas. It could be no-fly zones for aerial transmitters or a requirement that those transmitters be programmed to cease transmission as they pass over specific areas. Or we could pursue large-scale signal jamming in designated zones.

We have legislative, historical, and cultural precedent for protecting and valuing lands and spaces that allow us to step away from the rush of modernity and stay the hand of human progress. We need these escapes and the introspective disconnection they provide. It’s time for us to consider expanding that precedent for the digital age by making the wilderness a place the internet can’t reach.

Written by

My newsletter: https://designlikeyoumeanit.substack.com/ | Director of Entrepreneurial Design @cmci_studio | Founder @ Design Like You Mean It

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