It was a plum assignment for a food, travel and fitness writer – go on a five day white water rafting and catered camping trip on the Rogue River in Oregon. Adventures on the water all day, new fitness challenges, abundant, cooked from scratch meals to feed a ravenous appetite, nights spent under the stars of the Northwest Pacific. All expenses paid, and a paid story assignment, to boot. The only catch? I’d be off the grid for five days.
I stammered while on the phone with the OARS staff.
“You mean, no … no… no internet or cell? No Twitter? Facebook? Gmail? Text?”
Outdoor toilets? No problem – can’t be any worse than some unspeakable toilet situations I’ve encountered around the world. No showers? Meh, whatever. But a smart phone without a signal? I don’t know – could I make it?
Too often I feel like Fred in Portlandia, caught in a technology loop. My phone is always by my side. I check it the moment my feet hit the floor in the morning (if not before). Notification buzzes while I’m in line at the grocery? I check it. At work? I check it. In the car? I manage to wait until a red light, but it’s hard. Online all day at my day job – which happens to be in online communication – and most of my other waking hours, I more than fit the bill for a trendy new malady – internet addiction.
Just before heading out on the trip I read a July 8 Newsweek article that flags spending “more than 38 hours a week online” as an indicator for the addiction, and scarily notes that “the brains of Internet addicts … look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.” The article goes on to say:
‘The computer is like electronic cocaine, ‘fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches. The Internet ‘leads to behavior that people are conscious is not in their best interest and does leave them anxious and does make them act compulsively.’
We may appear to be choosing to use this technology, but in fact we are being dragged to it by the potential of short-term rewards. Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell. ‘These rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table.’”
As a writer with a dozen pitches out at any time, there could always be a message waiting to tell me I got the assignment. There could be a comment on a story I’ve written, or glowing praise on a link I Tweeted. But there could also be a million mundane things that just leave me feeling a little disappointed. Weaning myself off this Portlandia-style technology loop was not likely. Cold turkey was the only way to go. Scared straight, I left determined to not only survive this media-free sentence, but to take advantage of it.
On the morning of departure, I scanned Facebook, Gmail and Twitter one last time, and with a grimace, slammed my netbook shut like I was ripping a bandage off a wound. How could I really get by without constant affirmation that people wanted to talk to me and hear from me?
Five days later, when I returned to electric and plumbing and my media tether I took a shower, luxuriated in air conditioning and phoned home – but was in no hurry to power up Facebook. Instead, wanted to delay my return to that world.
Rather than pining for my social media all week long, I’d – no lie – nearly forgotten about it. When I sailed out of my first solo navigation of a white water rapid to find a solemn eagle observing me, I sat in silence at this wonder. Instead of composing a status update in my head: “OMG, I see an eagle!” I just looked back at him. When I raised my head from a crystal clear spring where I was washing my face early one morning to find five deer looking curiously at me, my natural instinct was to snap a photo and write a pithy message to the world – would they believe how freaking cool this was? But I was sans phone and internet, so again, I stood and looked back at them, one animal to another in the wild. And back at camp I couldn’t wait to share my story – in person! – with people who were visibly excited to hear the tale. This was no lame ‘like’ button – their smiles told me they were genuinely interested.
The longer the week went on the more I found myself in the present, in the world around me. I never knew what time it was, what I looked like, what was for dinner, or what my 700+ Facebook ‘friends’ were doing. It was bliss.
As eager as I was to return home to my family, I was reluctant to leave this world of wild beauty, serene splendor and entertainment (Bears! Jumping off rocks! Waterfall slides!) that didn’t come from a glowing screen.
In fact, I so enjoyed my time off the grid that I determined to make a change. Before the lure of the notification could grow too powerful, I promised myself to scale back. No more phone in my pocket when we go for a walk in the park – instead, look around, smell, see, hear what’s in front of me. Don’t open those extra tabs in my browser for Facebook and Gmail; instead, check them just a few times a day. Red lights are for sitting and looking around. I drive a convertible – I can tilt my head and see nothing but blue sky.
I can’t see ever leaving social media for good. Its power as a connector outweighs its negatives. But my time off the grid was an awakening, and I want to carry that sense of being present wherever I go. Next week I’m in Paris, and I’ve resolved to Put Down The Phone and revel in where I am.
This Labor Day, why don’t you join me? Take one day to go off the grid – you don’t have to have close encounters with wildlife to appreciate the time away. A close encounter with life should do the trick.
Images: Dana McMahan