By Daniel Tarade
It was a few weeks ago that I found myself at a reception of sorts. If I didn’t spend most of my time stuffing my face and downing wine, I imagine I would meet plenty of interesting people. As it so happened, I met such an individual despite my continued proclivity for all manner of free stuffs. During our conversation, it came out that we both blog. So, later that night, I decide to give their online, public thoughts a perusal. It’s an odd feeling to transition so abruptly from barely knowing a person to reading about their most intimate thoughts. I persevered. One of their posts described the interdigitation of the digital age and their own struggles with mental illness, that the future was killing them. The post ended with an outline of their strategy and hope to transition to a more analog lifestyle. On the other side of a computer, I too have enacted a regiment to minimize my usage of technology. Not to alleviate anxiety or stress per se but to increase my connectedness with other people, the world, and myself. This is what I want to talk about today. Hard to think of a more appropriate anecdote to introduce such a narrative.
Not unlike most people, I have struggled with discipline. The easiest way to define discipline is to contrast with motivation; discipline is doing what you ought to do even when you aren’t motivated to do so. For the time being, let’s forget the lingering ought and focus on the how. If I have a large bag of chips in my apartment, I will eat chips. If I have a phone, I will read reddit on the subway. However, even if I don’t have any snacks at home, I can avoid buying chips at the grocery store. If I don’t have a phone, I can instead read the books that are more engaging and foster patience. The ability to exert discipline at a distance is part of my disposition. As is a lack of self-control when directly confronted with any number of stimuli. Just ask the barista at my favourite coffee shop. I am very suggestible.
My greatest battle for discipline has focused on technology. Particularly devices that enable internet access. I am not a luddite. I am well-aware of the many benefits of modern technology (as I type on my laptop). However, I have for a long time been addicted to the internet. Whether scrolling through Facebook or Reddit or binging Youtube videos, I often found myself unable to stop. The moments I regret the most were during my first year in Toronto, when I would often spend the first three hours of any given Sunday on the computer, hardly having left the bed. By the time I finally leave my room, I am guilt-ridden, feeling that I have wasted the day. At work, my experiments would drag as I let incubations run longer than needed, all because I was clinking on links. When calling my parents, I would often browse the internet in the background, considerably less engaged than I wish I could have been. Worst of all, I generally did not enjoy my mindless saunter around the web. It had become a habit and a numbing agent, an addiction and a way to insulate myself from the world, its goodness and badness.
I became eager to construct a life where the temptations of the internet were cast away. So when I moved to my new apartment, I opted to not get internet. I remember my landlord being surprised when I told him of my planned abstinence. What would you do at home, he asked? I shrugged my shoulders. Anything (or maybe more appropriately, nothing) would be better than what I am currently doing, I thought. The first few weeks were indeed tough. Plenty of pacing about. But, as time passed, I found new outlets, those that I longed to embrace. I began writing as hobby. I strolled around Toronto. I would just lie back in bed and listen to music. Spent more time thinking. And as my home contained minimal substances of addictive potential, I was leaving my home earlier in the day and spending more time engaged with other people. A strategy I began employing involved taking public transit to distant neighbourhoods and slowly walking back home, stopping at interesting shops and cafes along the way.
Just as one get’s comfortable, I was presented with a different challenge. I lost my phone. After giving myself a week for it to turn up, I was faced with a choice between getting a new smartphone or not. It was a serious consideration. I enjoyed several apps that I used but also resented how little I was reading on public transit, instead transfixed on my phone. I loathed the muscle memory of my hand reaching for the phone every time I boiled water for tea, rode an elevator, or waited for a friend. Where were those empty moments from which creative thoughts emerged? Considering how much I enjoyed living without internet at home, I thought I could do without a phone as well.
For over a month, the most advanced technology I used at home was a CD player and a laptop that, without internet access, served as a glorified DVD player and typewriter. However, two experiences brought me to a compromise. One, a slackliner pal broke their humerus. I rode in the ambulance but had to borrow someone’s phone to provide updates to our friends and contact their partner. Two, a mental health crisis erupted in an acquaintance over the weekend. I was not reachable and unable to help my friends, who instead were alone in navigating an unpredictable scenario. Aside from two acute scenarios where a mobile phone would have served a clear benefit, a few other phenomena became clear, both good and bad. I occasionally faced a dread when realizing that I could not contact anyone in case of an emergency. However, in some instances, I would instead be exhilarated by the lack of connection. A confidence would grow from a necessary self-reliance. I was also more prone to getting lost but, on the bright side, I did discover some cool sites in the process. My greatest relief was no longer texting people during my walks out and about, allowing me to meet new people more easily and remain immersed in unfamiliarity. However, I also regretted missing out on several meet ups because I simply could not be reached. In the end, I feel like I focused excessively on whether I could rather than on whether I should. So, in compromise, I am now the proud owner of a flip phone, complete with large buttons, should my vision ever deteriorate.
Now, I share this not in an attempt to honestly discuss internet addiction. As with any activity that stimulates the release of feel-good neurotransmitters, social media and the internet can be abused. And, in reality, there is no agreed upon definition of internet addiction. Rather, what I took from these experiences was that genuine human interaction exists but can be impeded by barriers, including those of a technological sort. In my case, this barrier of technological immersion was self-erected and self-sustained. I cannot say that I am now the most engaged person that I could be or that I have entirely divested of vices that impinge on my fostering connection with others. Just that I have made a conscious effort in such a direction and am happy to have done so.