“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a little while. Including you.” — Anne Lamott
After the US presidential election, a fair number of people went on a digital fast, apparently. It wasn’t so much a choice as a reflex: they recoiled from the social media had helped get Trump elected.
Whether that validates or undercuts our own decision to do something similar as a family I’m not sure. We did it a bit differently. We decided to stay off screens altogether. Our reasons weren’t political. My old friend Kalle Lasn used to say that it’s always worth pushing pause once in awhile on something you think you might be enjoying a little too much; it’s the only way to know the depth of your dependence. We’d all been getting a little too cozy with our devices.
So for 24 hours we’d holster our phones, unhitch from the Internet, unplug our computers. We’d party like it was 1899. It was only for a day, so it’d be easy. Ish. Right?
The date we’d picked in advance turned out to be an unhandy one, in some ways. The election was still fresh and Jen and I yearned for someone to explain what the hell just happened. Also, Leonard Cohen – Canada’s Dylan, or maybe Canada’s Rumi — had just died. At such a moment you want to hear stories and tributes and just be part of the commiseration.
But all of that could wait a day. We were going dark.
In the morning I took Penny for a walk on the ballfield. It’s our usual routine and I often listen to podcasts. Were podcasts okay? Not really. It may not be screen-time but it’s virtual time, and today wasn’t about listening to disembodied voices beamed from space; it was about listening to real people across the Weetabix.
At the breakfast table Lila reached for a book. Technically, books are a kind of technology too, but no way were we going to include them in the experiment. Our nine-year-old would go mental if her only company for 24 hours was her own thoughts. (Who am I kidding? So would I.)
By 9am, the thought of cracking open the laptop was irresistible. Why? To help draw up the day’s operating instructions. To finish half-finished thoughts (which I find hard to do without writing them down).
Now, we as a family have gone cold turkey on technology for more than 24 hours, but it’s always been on camping trips where screens weren’t a temptation. We decided to get the heck out of the house. We’d go to a simple place, an analog place:
It was Remembrance Day. A stat holiday. There were a LOT of kids.
“How is a pumpkin like Donald Trump?” one boy asked his mother in the entrance line. “Give up? They’re both orange, they have lots of guts and no brains, and in November you throw them out.”
“Except that didn’t happen,” his older brother said.
Inside, we watched backlit jellyfish pulse like a tankful of tiny beating hearts.
We nipped outside to catch feeding time for the otters, which floated luxuriantly on their backs as trainers plopped fish guts on their bellies. I left space for Jen to say, “That’s how we’re going to serve daddy breakfast on his birthday,” but she didn’t. (I guess she didn’t want to spoil the surprise.)
Across from the aquarium, we joined the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Japanese War Memorial in Stanley Park, tossed our poppies onto the cenotaph, waited for the traditional “missing man formation” flyover but had to settle for a “missing goose” flyover by a wayward flock.
Then we returned home to play board games and listen to Leonard Cohen songs. We didn’t need talking heads telling us what Leonard Cohen meant to the world. We just needed Leonard (who’s a sportsman and a shepherd).
This was actually working out well. We were settling into a nice rhythm.
As suppertime approached, I reached for the computer to look online for a recipe. D’oh! Then I remembered: we have actual cookbooks. Some of the dishes we look up online actually come from those cookbooks. Oddly, it has come to seem easier to Google those recipes than to just grab them from the shelf.
After dinner we did a check-in. How was it going? What were we missing most?
The answer was different for each of us.
For Mad it was emails. Social connection. The circle that must have tension on it at all times or it collapses.
For Lila it was computer games.
For Jen it was emails.
For me it was, strangely, my calendar. Turns out there was something important I’d promised to do tonight but hadn’t written on the actual calendar and would have forgotten had someone involved not called to remind me. I have outsourced the planning part of my brain to technology — probably not a good idea.
“How hard was this for you,” Mad? I asked at bedtime.
“Not so hard,” she said, and seemed to mean it. She thought she could even go another day, if absolutely necessary.
I remember something the psychologist Art Kramer told me about a digital-detox experiment he’d participated in down in the wilds of Utah.
(The New York Times sent along a reporter and photographer, and a great piece came of it.)
What Art and his colleagues discovered was that one day wasn’t enough. The first day, as the group floated down the river, Art kept checking his phone for news about whether his lab received the big grant they’d applied for. He kept checking and checking until the raft floated out of the range of the last cell-phone tower. It took till day three for the group to fully shed the restlessness to go online (Indeed, so universal was this feeling that one of the neuroscientists dubbed it “Third Day Syndrome.”)
I doubt a single day is enough to reset the brain to something approaching a pre-Internet state of engagement with real things that bark and chime and ask you nicely to put your dishes in the sink. But for us one day would have to be enough. That was the deal.
The kids followed a mellow angle of descent into groggy bedtime rituals, and maybe analog dreams. I deked out to that appointment I’d almost missed. Jen settled in not with a novel or a meditation routine but with her marking — not the mental cleanse you’d ideally want to cap a day like this, but the cost of doing teaching.
It may not have changed our brains, but what it did do, this experiment, was change our habits just a bit. And for that alone it was a worthwhile dodge.