And I was in the country of my birth, Poland, for the first time since leaving as an infant with my parents. All in all, it was an unforgettable Summer.
It was also the last Summer that I would ever be mobile phone-less. That’s right, I was 18 and half way across the planet, away from home and all of my loved ones, without a mobile phone. I had set up an email account before I left, but I didn’t even have a laptop or a tablet (they weren’t invented yet). Long distance communication was taken care of at internet cafes, and phone cards took care of the day to day stuff. If anything, this proves that life without digital devices was possible. Whether it would be today is another questions.
When I look back on that Summer (almost 16 years ago, gulp!), one thing that strikes me is how much I remember of it. Perhaps not the exact details and names of people or places (which I’m bad with remembering at the best of times). It’s more the small, all too easily forgotten things – the sensory things – that I can still recall with a vivid sharpness.
The overpowering smell (some might say stink) of arriving in Warsaw’s Central Station. The sweetness of Polish cakes and pastries that I was tasting for the first time. The first cool wind chill as the Summer dwindled and starting to make way for a new season. All these sensory memories are still so easily accessible to me. In some ways, maybe even more so than much more recent memories.
I can’t help but wonder if this might have something to do with the level of digital overstimulation I experience in my daily life. These days, almost not a single waking moment goes by where I am not in close proximity to a digital device of some sort. Usually more than one. I wake up, and while I’m still lying in bed, in a state of semi-sleep/semi-awake-ness, with just a few taps and swipes, I’ve travelled around the world and back again. Email, social media and work stuff have all been glanced at, filtered and processed before I’m even upright.
My day revolves around devices. Any spare seconds are filled by me, reaching for another device. I make a up of tea. Waiting for the water to boil, I open and flick through email, Facebook and Twitter on my phone. Nothing urgent? Great. The water’s ready so I pour my cup of tea. While it’s steeping, I recheck everything, this time in a bit more detail. Tea’s ready so I head into my office. Better quickly check my email, in case I’ve missed anything in the 20 or so steps I’ve taken between the kitchen and my office. I wouldn’t want to miss anything.
Except that I have already missed a lot. Rather than take a moment and look up and out my kitchen window (which backs onto a beautiful natural forest), I couldn’t even tell you what the weather is like. Actually, wait I can. But not because I looked outside, but because I checked the weather app on my phone. I don’t know whether humans were designed for this sort of digitally dependent existence.
I’m not blaming the technology. It’s me. It’s my need to fill up all the little (and not so little) spaces in my life with external inputs.
One of the things I remember about my Summer in Poland is waiting around a lot. Public transport was my only way of getting around, and despite being at the bus, train or subway station on time, Polish public transport seems to operate on its own schedule. It wasn’t unusual for scheduled buses to not show up at all. When that happened, I had no choice but to wait for the next bus. Occasionally I had a discman with me (remember those?), but most of the time I had nothing.
These days, it would drive me absolutely crazy to have to spend 20-30 minutes ‘doing nothing’, while waiting for transport, or waiting for anything really. All the excuses in the world – I’m older now so I don’t have as much time to waste, or I’m much busier and need to spend more time working – can’t mask the fact that none of those reasons speak to the heart of why I don’t want to do nothing.
Future’s made of virtual insanity – now
Always seem to, be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting, our new technology
Oh, now there is no sound – for we all live underground
In the same way that some people comfort eat, I think I use digital devices as a distraction. Why just eat a meal, when I can eat a meal and catch up on the latest news on my favourite news website at the same time? Why watch TV ads, when I can look for a birthday present online on my iPad? Why just drive somewhere, and not listen to a couple of podcasts along the way?
It all seems so reasonable on the surface, but the distraction I’m seeking is leading to an unintended consequence. My life, my online experience and the world around me are all blurring together and subsequently, everything seem to be becoming duller. By overstimulating my senses, I’m actually losing touch with them. I may be ticking off boxes when it comes to productivity, feeling connected, getting back to people, and knowing what’s going on in the world. But does any of that really matter, when at a point way back in my life when I didn’t have any of these things, I was probably just as, if not more happy, than I am now?
I never look back on the Summer of ’99 and lament that my experience would have been in any way enriched by digital technology (had it been available then). Yet now, the thought of not having digital technology in my life, is simply unheard of. Again, it’s not the technology’s fault. It’s my own. I have become so inexorably linked to my devices, they may as well be appendages.
The issue isn’t going to get fixed by getting rid of the devices. The solution starts by me examining and possibly making changes to the way I use digital devices. We all have our own reasons for the actions we take. And we do undeniably live in increasingly narcissistic times. Fuelled by social media, we’ve all become mini-celebrities. For me, digital is a distraction. It can be all manner of things though – overcompensation, validation, wanting a connection, loneliness, creativity. None of these are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reasons. It’s more important to understand what drives and motivates us, than to judge whether those drivers and motivators are necessarily good or bad, in and of themselves.
So I am determined to make a start and get a better handle on this digital life that I have created. And what better place to start than by Googling “how to live more simply” on my phone, while waiting for my laptop to boot up!