What Happens When You Unplug
I have lived in rural Italy for the last 24 years. The internet has been a godsend, allowing me to earn a living as a writer and keep in touch with family and friends around the world. I have an iPad, a Smartphone and a laptop and my Tuscan farmhouse has a good high-speed broadband connection. I can access a library of books and a wealth of knowledge in the blink of an eye. I own several websites, have been in charge of Adwords accounts and optimisation for clients and know my way around Wordpress. The early days of my relationship with my husband, who lived in close-but-not-quite-close-enough Florence, were a heady flurry of romantic emails and texts, punctuated by the occasional Skype call. In short, I have a lot to thank the digital world for. And yet one of my most treasured memories - that special type forged not by events but emotions - is of a ten-day period just before Christmas a few years ago.
’Twas the Week Before Christmas…
A storm had caused a sudden interruption to our phone and internet service. Investigation revealed a wooden telephone pole lying in the field next to the house surrounded by snakes of cables. The lines had previously been shortened by a Telecom engineer who, in best Boy Scout style, tied them into a huge knot. No-one except me seemed to think this was at all odd. Finally, the Heath Robinson repair had come to grief and we were set adrift from the digital world.
Luckily, I still had some money on my mobile phone (back then I didn’t own a Smart phone) and could call Telecom and my clients. The helpful lady from Telecom pointed out that as it was Christmas it may take a few days for an engineer to come out. My clients pointed out that as it was Christmas I shouldn’t worry too much about being out of touch for a few days. My anxiety subsided slightly once I had informed all the right people.
What I wasn’t prepared for was my reaction once the dust had settled and I faced the reality of life without the Internet.
The first few days were really hard. I didn’t know what to do with myself once instant gratification was no longer a click away. I realised I was a tech addict. I understood the term FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) for the first time, fretted over the news I was missing, the Facebook friends I couldn’t update, my inability to dive down an endless labyrinth of rabbit holes in the name of research. I swore at the storm, railed at Telecom’s useless engineers, screamed at the dead laptop and useless iPad.
If you have ever tried a meditation or a silent vigil then you’ll know the stages. Initially, your brain rebels at the sheer boredom it is about to endure, taunts you with mad chatter, demands distraction. If you get through this and just sit with it, a strange thing happens. Your mind calms and quiets, things shift. You can feel yourself accepting the situation and even enjoying it. This is what happened to me over those ten days.
Once I had stopped being so angry and manically restless, I began to feel oddly comforted that this really was out of my hands. I returned to activities abandoned because they were tedious and slow compared to the fast fix of online entertainment. I prepped and spun the fibre from my alpacas that had been sitting in bags for a year. I read books and wrote poetry, drew pictures, baked cakes and went on long walks with the dogs without taking pictures to post on social media. I felt liberated and relaxed and slept better than I had in several years. And then Telecom turned up with a new pole, I was back online and my digital life resumed as before. But I have never forgotten that magical interlude and how it made me feel.
A few years have passed since the telephone pole incident, but I find myself reminiscing about that feeling of freedom more and more. The digital world now infiltrates every aspect of 21st century life in many countries, and whilst it brings innumerable benefits, it also has very real dangers : a life lived on the surface, an inability to focus deeply or think things through, an insidious restlessness, a disconnect with nature. For the first time there is a generation that has never known what it is like not to be online. There are disturbing YouTube clips of tiny children trying to swipe magazines as if they were tablets, “cute kids and technology” photo galleries of toddlers with headphones staring in hypnotized fascination at iPhone screens. We are enslaved by and addicted to the very technology that was supposed to free us. It is madness and there is a growing minority, many of them Millennials and Generation Z, who have had enough.
Dare to Unplug!
I’m aware of the supreme irony here. I’m using the internet and the medium of Medium to encourage you to go analogue again for a while, to rediscover some of the pleasures of pre-digital life and the satisfaction of creative activities. But that’s because it’s the best way to reach you. I have already stated I’m not anti -digital, but it needs to be reined in. Life on this sparkling star is so incredible that it deserves to be lived to the full through all our senses, out there in the real world, not vicariously in the virtual landscape of Internetland. I don’t believe that our all too brief time on the planet should be spent in the thrall of a glowing rectangle. It’s time to wake up and switch off. There are so many options open to you away from your phone and computer.
I want to bring you stories of people who have laid down their technology, looked up from their screens and got their freedom back. Some have been so affected by the results of daring to unplug that they have completely changed their lives. Maybe that will happen to you too. Maybe it has happened, in which case let me know.
So, are you with me?