by Iain on April 30, 2008
If you’ve just arrived here from AdBusters you might also be interested in what I got up to this weekend – I did still use the Internet a little bit – but it’s primarily a bunch of offline stuff that I did started by an online thing… Might be useful if you’re thinking of turning off any time soon…
As some of you will know I took part in Adbusters’ Mental Detox Week last week. This meant I stopped doing screen and computer based stuff as much as possible. I was at work so there were obviously times when I had to check email and things. But I did manage to cut it right down to a bare minimum. Outside of work it was a total no computer, no TV, no iPod existence for me. Which is quite a big thing in my ordinary daily life.
A lot of people made comments about it being just like having a holiday. But I’m not sure it’s the same. On holiday your context is totally different and you’re not surrounded by other people who are doing interesting things with their bits of technology. Also I had to resist massive temptation in my pocket in the form of an iPhone.
I think I learned a few things. Most of them were obvious. A few of them were things that I could have guessed if I’d thought about it. But there were a few genuine surprises in there too. There’s even a few things that I might try and build into my behaviour going forward. Imagine that.
In no particular order with no prejudice towards the obvious or the interesting.
I’ve been scared of the telephone for a while. I feel more confident writing things down in emails. It gives me a chance to formulate my thoughts and arguments a little better. Phones always smack of having to think ‘in real time’ which gives me the fear.
But you know what. Phones are good. You can get things agreed in one conversation. Conversations on the phone can be finished in just minutes! The conversation goes back and forth really quickly and you can get to decisions much faster. Plus you don’t have to deal with any tyrannical cc’ing.
I’m going to keep using the phone for things and stop being scared of it.
Lots of people advocate only checking your email a few times a day. I’ve always thought it sounded like an OK principle. But I’ve become one of those people who hits ‘send and receive’ as often as is humanly possible. Just in case something amazing has arrived in the 38 seconds since I last had a peek. I’ve just realised if I did the same thing with real mail. I’d look like some kind of freakish obsessive-compulsive post lover.
Not much happens in your inbox in a few hours. A load of email might get dropped in there. But most of it’s nonsense and you don’t need to do anything with it anyway.
The other thing I realised is that by not sending lots of emails, you don’t get as many coming in. I realised that my email itch gets scratched by sending stuff as well as checking. I was trying to think of a handy analogy. The best I can come up with is that I’m trying to drink my way out of a sinking ship. But then having to wee on the deck.
Aaaaah. The iPod. My sweet sweet iPod. Insulating me against the noise and chaos of life.
On the train in the morning without an iPod all you can hear is the bloody overspill from other people’s iPods. if you don’t have headphones on you have to endure ‘Holding out for a hero’ blaring out of someone’s leaky headphones from 3 rows away. It’s like some kind of MP3 based arms race. Where defence and attack have become all muddled up.
I’ve always been considerate with my iPod volume. And now I’m doubly so. Also having some time not insulated from the sounds around you is good. Obviously.
I found that doing stuff with pens and paper was really different. It made me think about things in a different way. I’m sure lots of people have written lots of smart things about this. But there’s something really odd that I noticed.
Pen on paper felt like a step on a journey rather than the final ‘thing’. Which is really odd. The fact that something that’s made up of real stuff like ink and paper. Only really feels like a finished thought when it’s converted into bits and bytes and pixels on a screen. The electronic stuff is far less permanent, but somehow it feels more so.
What I learned: switch between computers and pens and papers to make your brain work differently on problems.
Without screens and their flickery content I went to bed and sleep when I was tired (which was about 10pm most nights). When you’re reading a book you notice when you get tired. You start re-reading lines and your eyes feel heavy.
With TV or computer screens I don’t get that so much. There’s something about the light and the flickering that keeps me awake. Or in the case of TV I can fall asleep in front of it in a different way. Sort of drifting in and out of sleep and being vaguely conscious that something is going on.
But perhaps the oddest thing was that I had very very vivid dreams for the first 3 nights. Really vivid and intense. I’m not certain there’s a scientific explanation. But I do remember reading something in a WhiteDot book about how TV can change your brain activity. And I wonder if the fact that my brain wasn’t processing hours of made-up junk but was instead still processing real-life things made me have bold dreams.
This was one of the most profound things for me. Hard to explain to other people though.
The web allows you to fractalise everything. I read a few different books. But instead of doing what I’d normally do and keep leaving the book to go and look something up. I made little notes and just kept on reading.
Normally I’d go and look something up and then find myself drawn into a world of related links and other stuff that looks interesting. Effectively leading me into some kind of infinite worm-hole of stuff. Most of which ends up being completely unrelated to where I started from.
Last week I finished books. Then I had a list of things to look-up. In a much more ordered fashion.
Computers do not help me focus. They help me find lots of other nice things. Or give me infinite distractions. Making sure I have the perfect soundtrack to the work I’m doing. Or changing the typeface in a document so it looks nicer while I’m typing it. Should I be viewing it at 125% or fit to page width. All stuff to fiddle with.
And there’s no end to any of it. Ever.
I thought that I might feel disconnected from people. But I didn’t.
I was still in contact with people. In fact oddly sometimes more connected by using the phone. And I think we’re all used to the fact that we can have gaps in speaking to people and when we go back to them they’ll still be OK with us.
But what happens when you leave ‘stuff’ for a while? Mostly it’ll still be there. But sometimes it won’t. I think mainly the fear was just that there would be too much stuff when I came back to it. I knew that I’d have to just ditch loads of unread RSS feeds. Which effectively meant that I’d missed out on all those things.
I just had to realise that it was OK to miss out on all that stuff. My life didn’t change in a bad way. Really. Or did it? Now I’m not sure. Maybe there was a blog post or a something that could have changed my life irreversibly.
The point is that there’s too much stuff and I have to learn to let it go. There’s stuff going on everywhere the whole time. Most of it I’ll never get to see. Even if it was all on the internet and all being fed into my brain I wouldn’t be able to cope.
I learned it’s OK to miss stuff.
I’m a victim of computers being at the centre of our lives.
Photos, music, writing, etc. It felt like almost all of the tools that I use to be creative had been taken away. I was going to go in the loft and play with vinyl records and stuff, then I realised that all of that stuff gets piped through my computer in order to record.
I learned that I should develop some analogue creative habits. Just in case the power goes out ;-)
I noticed that it’s easy to hide behind a computer. Shut down the laptop and you feel incredibly exposed in an open plan office. Aside from the people whose tools are entirely computer based (coders and designers) I noticed that a lot of the project managers, strategists, etc. seem to do the same as me. Computer on. Looks like you’re working. But if you actually look at peoples screens most of the time they’re doing things that look very much like other stuff.
Of course all the other stuff is important. But the computer is an amazing smoke-screen. As long as you’re typing away you look busy and like you’re doing something important.
Here’s my final thought:
Taking a week off seemed like a silly, reactionary thing to do. Like I was just proving a point. But I think the most important thing was to realise how easy it is to just reach for the laptop and get sucked into a different world. So setting some hard and fast rules was really useful. Rather than just saying, “oh I’ll use it a bit less” – which is almost impossible. The thing that’ll work for me is to set periods of time where it’s just not allowed.
So that’s it. I’m glad I did it. But I’m glad I’ve got all my toys back too.