My Week in the Real World

[Note: Self-important rambling about personal experiences. Adjust reading intention accordingly.]

A few weeks ago I quit my job. When I left I had nine days before I had to report at my new workplace. One week and its two ends to gather my thoughts and prepare for a new era of working life.

When I started at a consulting firm in 2011 they gave me a smartphone, and I’ve used it and its replacements since then. My new employer was going to do the same, so changing jobs didn’t mean I had to buy a phone for myself for the first time. It did mean I was going to have to make do without one for those nine days.

Yes, for the first time in over six years I wouldn’t have a smartphone, and the first time in fifteen years I wouldn’t have a phone at all. No internet access on my person, no way of contact with anyone. Not even a way to tell time, because I also haven’t worn a watch in fifteen years; the strap broke when I tried and failed to achieve a golf swing on Tuesday August 13th 2002. I never replaced it, because three months earlier I’d bought my first phone, a hot new Nokia 3310.

An immortal classic.

I looked forward to my week and saw it as a way to break some bad habits. I’ve tried to stop using my phone so much many times before but always slid back, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but every time. Maybe this week would help me learn to resist.

On Friday afternoon I made a final backup of my company-issued iPhone 5. From then on, nothing I did on that phone would be saved. Nothing would carry over to life after this week, no notes, no reminders, no texts. I’d made a save point in real life; management and record-keeping would be put on hold.

As if going away camping, I had just turned off the lights and heating, ready to close and lock.

Right before taking it out of its protective case to give it back, I sent a message to my wife[1] telling her I thought I’d be home the regular time but wasn’t sure and if I’d be late I wouldn’t be able to tell her.

After walking out the door for the last time I took a stroll around town. I felt exposed, as if the air around me was strangely thin. I sat down on a bench to read the little booklet of goodbye notes from my now former coworkers. I don’t know how long it took.

When it felt it might be time to head to the train station I had to look for a place with a clock to find out. I found one after a few minutes, outside a store I’d walked past many times without ever noticing the clock.

On the train I did nothing but stare out the window. It wasn’t boring. The landscape is varied and occasionally pretty.

Getting off at my station, I decided to buy some good beer to celebrate. Driving to the store I thought I should tell the wife I was going to be a bit longer, but I couldn’t.

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel free[2].

Going to bed that night was different. I lay in the dark, just listening to the silence. It’s always quiet when I go to bed, aside from the occasional car going by on the road outside, but this was a different silence. The one narrow pipeline normally breaking through the thicket of nothing to provide potential contact with the world elsewhere and elsewhen was gone, and it made a big difference.

The second night I began to resurrect long forgotten habits. I wasn’t content to just lie there with nothing but my mind. I’d gotten argument sniped by something on TV and needed to force focus on something else or I’d never be able to sleep. So I went to get a book. Books, unlike phones, don’t bring their own light. And I don’t have a nightlight. Nor do I, as I just then became aware of, have a bedside table on which to put one. I got a flashlight and put it right up against the wall to make the light soft and pleasant. Then I could read. Using both hands.

Having to get up in the morning also meant bringing something back. The wife dug up her old alarm clock for me, a 1990’s brick with glowing red LCD digits. Just like the one I used to have.

Hello old friend

The next morning I remembered what about such devices I don’t miss from my school years: the noise. Modern mobile phones have perfected the art of wake up sounds, made them smoothly escalating and just about as pleasant as something waking you up can be. The 90’s hellraisers are different. They’re old school. They had one noise, designed to make you wake up thinking the whole town is on fire: MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP!-MWERRRP! Actual fire alarms are less scary than that. In this case, progress is very real.

Tasks must be completed and errands must be run, phone or no phone, and many unlearned routines were rediscovered. Like preparation. When I went grocery shopping I had to write a list, a paper list. I had to write it carefully and pay attention, because now I couldn’t text the wife to ask her if we had this and that, or what exactly she meant by “fruit”. It bothered me I couldn’t check things off the list and have them disappear.

I never drove to any unfamiliar locations, but I did think about how I would do it. Did we have a map somewhere? Could I make do with just following street signs?

A new information diet

One day I went to sit alone by a lake, without contact with anyone or anything and the moving sun my only guide to passing time. I said I’d be back ‘sometime in the afternoon’.

I brought a book I recently got as a gift but had no immediate intention to read[3], and I read that. For hours. For once. I barely read books any more, not just because I don’t have the time but also because the reading habits enabled by phone ownership have conditioned me to read nothing but things that fit into the 20 seconds to a few minutes long window I typically get before being interrupted. That means tweets, chats and comment threads, pretty much. Books or even just full-length articles feels like a massive commitment and requires trust that I won’t be disturbed (which leaves little but my daily commute).

Even then I struggle to concentrate because I’ve gotten used to something else: everything needs to pay off in a few seconds. And evidently fitting tiny bits of reading into every single interstitial moment has other consequences: my subconscious has become scary good at identifying trace amounts of downtime and I find myself automatically taking out my phone while walking down the street just to think “what the hell am I doing?” as I look at the lock screen.

Getting rid of the phone changed it all in a few days. I got used to not having it, stopped constantly reaching for it with my mind and with my hands. My mind stopped itching, it stopped veering off course, and I stopped feeling like I was on my way somewhere all the time.

The hardest thing to get used to was never knowing what time it was, because we of course don’t have any clocks at home any more than we have a landline, VHS player or clay-tablet chiseler. I had to turn on my laptop or the TV to get the time, and I only did that when I really needed to know. So I grew less obsessed with the time[4].

When the candy is gone real food becomes more appealing, and during the week I read several books. Easy ones, sure, but it still felt good. Even if for idle entertainment, reading books is apparently soothing and restorative unlike feeding on my phone’s snack by snack serialization of the global textual rhizome, which tends to inflame and exhaust. Books aren’t live conduits to everything and reading them won’t take you somewhere else, away from where you are.

Partial de-alienation

As I later that day sat by a table at an outdoors cafe doing nothing at all, not even reading, a few pebbles grew familiar over the course of an hour. Familiar that way particular rocks, trees, kitchen utensils, paintings or faded copies of my grandmother’s knitting magazines did when I was a child.

I just looked at things then. And they were all so real, so eternal. When I visit my mother and see pots, vases and trinkets from my childhood I’m blown away by how familiar they still are after years and years. Back then my attention was focused right in front of me, with nothing pulling my mind away from the physical there and then, outwards to a virtual world of symbols and stories or inwards to an also virtual world of ideas and pointers.

Nothing this side of growing up makes me feel quite the same, but that hour I got closer than in a long time. It’s probably not just being constantly online that makes us lose that childlike sense of permanence — gaining an adult perspective will do it on its own. As we get older we get less novelty from everyday life and a more from cultural products. As a result our minds grow virtual and our experiences more socially mediated and less rooted in physical reality.

I used to look up at the night sky and feel things. Now it’s just there. Barely.

Not surprisingly I view a future full of augmented reality with apprehension bordering on dread. From an article by Slavoj Žižek:

Until now, the Internet and computers have isolated the user from the surrounding environment; the archetypal Internet user is a geek sitting alone in front of a screen, oblivious to the reality around him. With SixthSense, I remain engaged in physical interaction with objects: The alternative (either physical reality or the virtual screen world) is replaced by a direct interpenetration of the two.

I may be on my way to becoming a luddite (at 34, it’s right on schedule), but this scares me. Physical and virtual reality intermingling may move some of our attention back towards the real, but at a cost. It imposes an artifical layer upon reality, preventing us from ever being truly alone with it. Now Žižek, being Žižek, has a different and more paranoid point, namely that our mental schemas and ideologies already work this way. We’re never alone with reality. Our culture and the society that created it is always there with us.

Maybe. And maybe that’s what happens when children become adults: reality feels less real because we engage with it through so many layers. We’ve internalized too much culture, built up a mental bureaucracy too unwieldy to deal with the sensory world in a truly intimate way. Living so thoroughly enmeshed in socially constructed reality — virtual and non-virtual — is alienating and I think this hurts us more than we realize. Depression rates are through the roof and I wonder if not alienation from physical reality has something to do with it. Maybe this is why mindfulness meditation, “information fasting” and “digital detox”, nature therapy, camping and hiking, arts and crafts etc. is getting more popular. To turn an old slogan around: stop reaching out and just touch something.

I saw a documentary recently about a Welsh couple who left their high-paying jobs to go live in a cabin in the snowy forests of Jämtland. No electricity, no running water, not even a road. They made their own clothes and picked their own food. And I could see the appeal of their objectively dirt-poor lifestyle: they lived almost completely in physical reality, away from artificial constraints by abstract conceptual systems. Nature is harsh, but its harshness has a certain honest directness to it.

Paper ♥

This essay started its life as scribbles in a notepad — a paper notepad — that I made sure to open that first Friday evening when noticing I’d been having some unusual experiences.

Before I had a phone and a laptop I used a lot of notepads. I have a whole stack hidden away somewhere, full of lists, sketches, ideas, designs for drawings, games, languages, things to make and build. Now my life has become increasingly free of both paper and boredom and I hardly use any. I do have quite a lot of notes in Evernote, but it’s not the same. You don’t doodle on a phone. Playing with thoughts on paper is something different. There’s no pane of glass with a programmed little trading zone defining the set of possible actions, coercing you into a button-pushing pidgin. Pen on paper is my mother tongue.

Its physicality also has value in a world where pixel patterns are the common form of artifact existence[5]. As I wrote down the bits and pieces that were to become this article I felt a disproportionate, unreasonable excitement at the prospect of using more paper[6]. I wanted to write lists on paper — books I wanted to read, movies I wanted to watch, maybe a journal. I thought of buying one of those cork bulletin boards. Where electronics are draining, the thought of paper is energizing.

Back to the future

The first night with my new phone I still read a book in bed. The morning after I did use the phone on the train, but when I’d read the thing I wanted to read I put it down and thought for a while. Then I opened my (paper) notepad and wrote this paragraph.

So I was hopeful.

But as time passed, it all crept back. The bad habits. The itch. The neverending unease.

Reading a book in bed lasted two nights. A few days in I once again made sure to bring the phone when going to the bathroom. The picking it up without even remembering what I was in the middle of reading was also back. It took about a week before I started reading when standing by the microwave waiting for a 30 second countdown. I should put up a mirror next to it so I can have my reflection remind me of how low I’ve sunk.

My hand reaches for it when I walk from the train to my car.

I fall asleep much later than I want.

I do not use more paper.

Using a smartphone might not be an addiction in a technical sense, but it shares many of its features. It’s closer to food addiction than to alcoholism, because you can abstain from alcohol completely. Avoiding smartphone use isn’t practical in 2017 (or desirable — despite its numerous mental issues I do enjoy the global superorganism, and I do enjoy being a part of it. It’s a marvel.).

Unlike the case with most addicitons, phone withdrawal was actually pleasureable after getting past a very short hump. But you do have to get past it; shaking an addiction is only pleasureable if you can make a single decision to quit instead of having to resist every single moment with little individual payoff. You can give up smoking and be happy about it, but there’s little point in skipping just this time because you get the worst of both worlds: no fix, and you’re still not free.

As long as you have your phone close by you won’t be able to forget it. Recovering alcoholics are usually happy about not drinking any more, but I wonder how many would be miserable if they had to carry a flask in their pocket all the time.

So I keep fighting. I’ll probably be fighting all my life.

And what about my kids? What does growing up with the internet do to you? I was about 16 when I first used it on a regular basis and got to be 27 before it was in my pocket. What happens when it shapes your brain from the very start? You may know full physical presence only as an exotic state of altered consciousness.

• • •

I’ve decided to call my girlfriend my wife from now on. While legally she’s not, after two kids, a house and the vast majority of our adult lives together I think “wife” more accurately describes what she is to me.

That’s a strike against any simple notion of freedom, whether it’s “freedom as absence of coercion” or “freedom as capability”. I have a suspicion that “freedom as strategic self-binding to protect us from the tyranny of our own weakness” is going to be very big.

That’s no insult to the gift giver. It’s hard enough for me to find books perfect enough for me to be worth the time and effort to read, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for someone else.

Thinking that I wanted to know the time might just be a post hoc interpretation the mind spins around my reflexive reaching for the phone.

George Berkeley is finally correct: your Twitter feed really only does exist when you’re looking at it.

I used to write on paper at work, but since we became an “activity based workplace” two years ago you don’t get to put down roots anywhere. No desk of your own where you can start your collections of paper and let them grow. As a result you wind up not using any. Some love the “paperless office”, but I don’t. It’s one more step away from the real.

UPDATE: Ironically, I got this email a few days after posting this:


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