When I commented on Paul Miller’s decision to spend a year without Internet, at the end of my article I wrote: […] [P]erhaps Miller’s idea to leave Internet for a year is utter nonsense, because in May 2013 he will just reconnect and within a week he’ll find himself living his online life and online habits exactly as before, and therefore he won’t have solved anything. But his experiment can also serve him to better understand which parts of the Internet are essential to him, which are not exactly so, and which can be entirely eliminated, as indeed he mentioned in his piece. (What’s more, such a period of self-imposed exile may be useful for getting rid of certain conditioned reflexes deriving from our daily interaction with the online world, especially through social networks and related services). Maybe others in Miller’s position would simply need a week or a month offline, but we are all different people and I believe we should respect Miller’s decision, instead of reacting with sarcasm, mockery, or thinking that our methods of experiencing Internet are the best or are applicable to anyone indiscriminately.
Miller hasn’t been the only one giving a shot at what I call ‘experiments in modern tech deprivation’. Other people I know personally did just that in the past. I myself performed a ‘survival experiment’ in 2006, using a PowerBook 5300ce as my only machine (then further updated in 2008). Of the tech writers I follow, two of the most recent examples are Peter Cohen (On the pleasure of using a ‘dumb’ phone) and Stephen Hackett (Hanging up on iPhone), who both decided to quit using their iPhone for a while and went back to using a normal mobile phone of the pre-iPhone era.
Again, people’s reaction towards their choices appears to have been of general criticism. At times with a good dose of accompanying sarcasm. People who don’t understand this kind of experiments simply apply their way of using that same piece of technology and think it has to be the same for everybody, so evidently spending some time without an iPhone (or, in Paul Miller’s case, without Internet) seems to be a crazy, unthinkable option. They view such experiments just as pointless acts of self-deprivation which only add unwanted complications to our otherwise tech-immersed life.
I, however, view them as interesting forays into self-exploration, as a way of challenging our increasing technology-enabled laziness and habits. More moderate critics point out that these experiments have little value (when they’re over, there is an inevitable regression to old habits) and/or they are needlessly drastic, suggesting a more nuanced approach, urging the experimenters to simply actively readjust their abuse of a certain technology or device. “You’re doing this because you can’t control your addiction, you’re poor at self-management, etc.” Perhaps it’s true. And I think Miller, Cohen and Hackett know that, too. Perhaps they are doing what they’re doing out of sheer curiosity. But I like to think that there’s more to it. That what drives these choices is the will of abandoning the ‘first-person’ point of view, so to speak, to take a good look at themselves from outside, out of dissatisfaction with how these technologies and devices are affecting their lives and their ways to be. And by the way, I don’t believe there’s necessarily a regression to old habits once the experiment is over, especially when the experiment does bring a beneficial change in some aspects.
About his experience with a ‘dumb’ phone, Cohen writes:
I don’t have my face stuck in my phone wherever I go, social network or playing games or checking e-mail. I have better situational awareness. I’m more present. I don’t take pictures of my food before I eat it, or tweet about how delicious this skinny vanilla latte and pumpkin scone are.
I no longer blankly pull out my phone and start fiddling with it mid-conversation with friends. If you do that, by the way, stop. It’s really rude.
What I discovered is that I just don’t need the level of connectivity I used to assume was a now indispensable part of daily life. If people e-mail me, they have to wait until I check e-mail. If people need to get a hold of me, they can, but it better be damned important.
I just don’t want to be tethered to the giant, pulsating übermind of the Internet 24/7 anymore. It was making me dull and more than a bit stupid.
Stephen Hackett admits:
Unlike Paul [Miller]’s adventure, mine could be completed by imposing some will power when it comes to my iPhone. The problem is that five years of reaching in my front right pocket any time I’m free has created a strong habit, and I need to quit cold turkey.
These experiments may be drastic, but that’s exactly the point. As I previously commented, we are all different people and have different methods of dealing with today’s 24/7 connectivity. Some can effectively keep their online and offline activities in a constant, fine-tuned balance. Others are just fine with the information overload and its impact on their habits, and are not even aware of their rudeness when interacting with other people (for them it’s fine to keep the iPhone on at the cinema; to stare at it every 30 seconds while you’re trying to have a conversation with them; to constantly interact with it even when they’re walking around, mindlessly bumping into other people and generally losing awareness of their surroundings; and so on and so forth). Then there are people who know themselves enough to realise that only a drastic approach can have some effect and maybe lead to unexpected discoveries (Cohen: What I discovered is that I just don’t need the level of connectivity I used to assume was a now indispensable part of daily life) and new perspectives, something they may have never realised in the first place without such an experiment.
I’m not saying that these people are better than others or that their methods, while hardcore, are the best. But I defend their choice because it reflects their recognising the need to change something that’s perceived as wrong or excessive. There are people who willfully get rid of their car and shift to cycling or using public transportation as their way of moving around the city, or who sell/give away plenty of their stuff to change to a more responsible, less consumeristic lifestyle, and usually these types of experiments are met with great enthusiasm and encouragement. Why does it have to be any different when someone starts to see his/her iPhone as a symbol of a certain ‘technological pollution’ that’s intoxicating and negatively affecting their lives?