August 17, 2013 at 8:48 PM
Culture shock: My week without personal technology
In Estes Park, Colo., next to mini-golf and bumper boats, there is a big, theme-park-sized slide. You pay $1 per ride and line up on the stairs. Last week I saw a teenage boy climb four stories up and send a text all the way down.
My phone was sitting untouched in a drawer at the house where we were staying, along with my laptop and associated chargers. It was the fifth day of my weeklong separation from my personal devices, timed with a family trip to the Centennial State, and this kid summed up why I had to do it in five wasted seconds.
It’s a culture shock, disconnection, if you’re as tied to your devices as I am. It slows time, amplifies your senses and actually changes how the world feels. If that sounds dramatic, try it, if you still can. I was surprised, too. Last week’s disconnection is the closest I’ve come to living in another dimension. When I came back, I knew I’d have to make some changes.
The first day of my disconnection was the longest, fullest day I’ve lived in months. After I’d put my devices out of sight, I found myself doing something I never do when I travel — unpack my suitcase. I put my clothes in drawers, hung my jacket and stocked the bathroom so it looked like home. It was as if, knowing I’d be unplugged from my world, I wanted to commit to being grounded in the world around me.
“We’ve lost introspection,” my dad told me the previous day. He’d just arrived on a solo road trip from Boston and we were talking on a couch in a cabin by a river. I’d wanted to get him an audio book for the ride and couldn’t believe he’d had no interest.
He’d spent those three days listening to music, making long phone calls to family and thinking. We talked about boredom and I realized, oddly delighted, that I missed being bored. I had my doubts, I told him: Could I go out and look at the river and just look at it? At that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do more.
My 1-year-old son finds fascination in a door hinge, and the whole week I felt like him. Sitting outside, waiting for my family to be ready to go to lunch, I played a game. What colors did I see? What sounds did I hear? The dusty brown of the bald rocks on the mountain. The metallic blue of a dragonfly hovering over the water. The wind chime when a breeze blew. This was not an inbox, but it had unread messages. That was nice.
We went to restaurants, took walks and drove up mountains. If I bothered to look at a clock, it was always earlier than I expected.
Meanwhile, I was rendered useless. No, I can’t call and check on Mom. I can’t log in and stop the paper. I can’t look up the nature center’s class schedule. (I had to use a landline and call!) Worse, I needed baby-sitting when we went into town. “Don’t let Mónica out of your sight. We’ll never find her again.”
I brought a small blue flower book to a wildflower walk at Lily Lake. It had taken me 10 minutes to identify a daisy with it back by the cabin.
“I highly recommend getting this app,” National Park Service ranger Don Stewart said, holding his iPhone over a patch of purple mountain harebells. It was an Audubon Society app that lets you plug in flower traits in seconds. And for a moment, I knew what it was like to feel woefully out of date.
Stewart looked up from the screen and beamed. “It’s just so quick!”
I didn’t commit to avoiding all digital devices, probably because I knew I couldn’t. I read tabs off Dad’s iPad when we played guitar and sang. I Skyped with my sister-in-law when she called the family from Seattle. And when my mom asked me to turn off a Vampire Weekend song she found “weird,” I turned to the iPad next to me and quickly, as if the screen were a hot skillet, swiped it on and hit pause.
The day I reconnected started great and ended badly. I got through a week of email in two hours without a nervous breakdown. That was good. I asked my brother-in-law a question and didn’t listen to his answer. That was bad.
There is an inertia to connection, to the stream of information that comes at us at unnatural speeds. Looking away doesn’t stop it. I’d managed to live a whole week present. All it took was one morning to load my brain with a hundred small concerns so noisy I needed all my concentration to find those colors and sounds again.
One morning to bring back the craving I’d starved to check my inboxes, over and over, every chance I got. It wasn’t until I put my phone and laptop out of sight again, in my backpack, that I felt the return of idle focus. That night, for the first time on the trip, I was irritable and angry. I’d had no idea my mind was this vulnerable.
So here’s my deal with myself. When I want to be done with my personal devices, I’m going to put them away. Not on the counter. Not on the table. Away. And this is going to happen not one week a year, not one day a week, but at least a couple hours every day.
You’re not going to catch me texting on a slide. Not ever. Not in my life.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.