You might not have noticed, but I was on vacation last week. That’s okay if you didn’t; I didn’t notice you either. I mean no disrespect. It's just that one goal of this getaway was to truly get away — something that I have almost never done.
Oh sure, I’ve flown to tiny, remote islands and then boarded six-seat puddle-hoppers to even tinier, more remote islands. I’ve lived on boats, slept in eco lodges and once left the country and didn’t use a phone for seven weeks. But in the Internet era, I’ve never gone more than a few days without checking my email.
We all know our e-world is a blessing and a curse, and have probably read scores if not hundreds of things online describing our addiction to email. And to those extensions of our hands, the things they call smartphones — not because they make us smarter, but because their makers (or at least one) is now the most valuable company in the history of the planet.
When I get together with friends, a popular topic is that very addiction and our ambivalence toward it. In some ways, it’s like any compulsion: We know there are aspects of it that aren’t healthy or in our best interests — and we acknowledge the damage caused by other people’s overuse of technology — but we know we can handle it. “I can stop at any time,” we tell ourselves. But can we?
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It wasn’t my prime directive in last week’s vacation, but I knew I’d be seriously off the grid for a good chunk of it, so I figured it would be an interesting experiment: How long could I go without checking my email?
I did a similar withdrawl last August, when I visited a friend who lived in a remote cabin in the woods and who doesn’t “do” caffeine. The closest cup was a 10-minute drive away. As much as I treasure my morning soy cappuccino, I like to believe I’m not physically addicted. So I put it (me) to the test. I definitely missed the taste — and perhaps the ritual even more — but it was more than worth the sacrifice to realize that I wasn’t addicted (no headache!). When I got home, I had a different relationship to coffee and could take it or leave it.
So I thought I’d give myself the “am I addicted to email?” test. It started with a bit of a challenge: My first host happened to be one of the tech wizards who invented WiFi. He and his wife had just finished building their dream house near Yosemite. Besides being a fabulous home, it met their requirements for being deep in a mixed evergreen and deciduous forest, and having a great water source — and DSL. The view from every window and deck is of trees and mountains (and at night, stars). You can’t hear an unnatural sound — unless you log on and hear the pings of email.
But nature conspired to give me an assist. The temperature was in the 107º–110º range, so we headed for “high country”: hiking in a nearby Sequoia grove and Yosemite National Park (where at one point the temperature was 50º cooler!). Even if I had wanted to check my smartphone, there was no Verizon service up there (or at the house), so I was SOL.
I was feeling pretty happy about being disconnected. Work was covered, family knew how to reach me in case of an emergency, and I was intoxicated by my surroundings. Then I got thrown a curve ball. During a brief period of phone reception — somewhere on Route 49 — I received a text that one of my cats wasn’t eating. Clearly, this was justification to jump off the wagon.
“I’m only checking to see if the cat sitter wrote,” I told my friends a little too excitedly. But how to ignore all those other messages? “Um, I’m only going to delete them,” I said, and even I didn’t believe me. Okay, reset the counter to zero days sober.
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From California I flew to New Mexico, to visit a friend who summers in an adobe that’s literally off the grid. It has a few solar panels and doesn't pick up any Internet service. Here I’d have the support I needed to stay unplugged. The one thing I hadn’t counted on was that up there, in a speck of dust between Lama and Questa, they get phone reception. At 8,200 feet! I could only charge my phone when the sun was out — and when the sun was out, so were we.
But the kitty hunger strike continued, so reluctantly I stayed in daily communication with the sitter until she switched the cat's food and he started eating again. Yes, I checked all my messages (is Mom okay? Any problems at Next Avenue? Note to self: Buy that great Groupon deal when I’m home. Whoops!), but once I knew everything was fine, I set an intention to just … let … it … go.
And I was good. Of course, if hiking the Rio Grande Gorge (short for “gorgeous”), trekking up to a sacred Native American lake at 11,000 feet, eating authentic Southwest food, soaking in hot springs and staring at desert skies can’t kick an addiction to New York Times news alerts, Internet jokes and sports scores, there’s no hope for the human race. I managed to hear the “important” news (Paul Ryan, something else), but the rest? It could wait. My friend hadn’t heard about the blackout in India, a country he called home for five years, and you know what? There wasn't a thing he could do about it.
It’s an interesting thing to ponder: why we think we need to know everything as soon as it happens. The travel and humor writer Bill Bryson once wrote something that I can only paraphrase, but it nails this point, and I made it my mantra while trying to stay offline. Bryson said his father used to read the paper faithfully every night — couldn’t miss a story — as if the State Department might call at any minute needing his advice on a matter of national security.
This isn’t the same as being an ostrich. Of course there’s value in knowing what’s happening in the world, but, as Pico Iyer wrote in "The Joy of Quiet," an article in The New York Times, “It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.”
Sick cat? I knew what to do, and we handled it. Blackout in India, flooding in Manila, political muckraking here at home: Not so much I can do. And the more I practiced not checking my email, the more I felt free to immerse myself in present time — and aware that that was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
I’m sure we’ve all watched with shock and horror as couples sit side by side in restaurants glued to their phones, or as phalanxes of pedestrians come charging in our direction, blithely and blindly texting away. And I suspect we all have some degree of techno-ddiction.
But don't worry: There’s no lecture here. No PSA about the dangers or implications for us as a society losing our ability to really connect or find beauty or satisfaction in the “real” world. Just the hope that maybe this will inspire someone to put him- or herself to the “am I addicted” test.
It’s harder than you think — but it’s also a heck of a lot easier.