“So, uh, I’ll talk to you on Monday.”
Those are my last words to my friends over Google Chat on a Friday. I repeat the quick conversation I’ve just had with a few more friends—that I’m not going to use any electronic devices for the whole weekend, so I can report on the experience. Most friends are surprised at the idea—“LOL” is a common response—but a few are curious, saying they think this is just what I need. They’ve spent too much time watching me check Twitter to think anything else.
I close my computer after saying goodbye, and then I go home and start to turn on the lights for the weekend.
“Digital detoxes,” as they’re often called, are growing in popularity. Once you’ve reached the point where an idea has its own Wikipedia page, you know you’ve got something. When the Wikipedia entry is the fourth entry on a Google search, behind a couple of articles and a website for a company offering unplugged workshops and retreats, it’s more than just a trend. It’s a movement.
Digital detoxing has its origins in 1994, when a group called TV-Free America advocated a National TV Turnoff Week. “The idea’s not to beat people over the head with this idea that TV is bad for them, that it’s rotting their brain, that it’s destroying their communities,” Henry Labalme, who co-founded the group, told The Los Angeles Times. “But to say, try life with a little less TV and a little more time, and you’ll have more fun.”
This philosophy has gotten traction over the years. Digital Detox, the company that runs the device-free retreats, says in its manifesto that electronic devices should be “truly improving our unique existence, instead of distracting, disturbing or disrupting us.”
“We believe that these technologies should be created mindfully and ethically, for the benefit of and not at the cost of consumers and users,” it continues. “In fact, the relationship that grows between the creator and consumer should be truly symbiotic and honest.” In other words, if you use your phone less, you’ll be able to appreciate it more.
For me, this isn’t a terribly revolutionary idea. I grew up in a religious Jewish household where we wouldn’t use electricity on the Sabbath. There was a spiritual point, obviously, but what I found fascinating was the disconnect from the rest of the week. That separation was frustrating, since I couldn’t watch TV or go over to a friend’s house to play video games. But in retrospect, I see that it was also relaxing, creating a differently paced childhood, one that allowed me to greater appreciate the nature around me.
It was a practice I hadn’t kept in years, so I was curious how I’d react to not just following my parents’ rules, but doubling down on them. I usually can’t go over five minutes without looking at my phone or wondering if I have enough battery power left, so I was a little worried.
The thing about slowing down is that once you do it, there’s less to write about. When I got home from work, I followed all the rituals of my youth: turning the bathroom light on, getting my reading lamp just right, lowering the fan so it wouldn’t be too noisy. (Hopefully all of this sounds less wasteful when I add that I wasn’t planning on taking the subway or a car or a bus anywhere. If I wanted to travel, I’d have to do so on my own feet.)
What did I do when everything was all set up just so? I read, for starters. I usually reserve reading for the subway, but the pages started to fly when I didn’t have anything else to do. I alternated between The New Yorker, Thirteen Days in September, and Nautilus, which is a sentence so boring that I can barely type it without yawning.
The first few hours were the hardest. Wondering what was happening on Twitter kept me from delving too deeply in my reading, and kept me trying to find something else to focus on. Eventually, I knew that I had grown so helplessly behind on Twitter that there was no reasonable way to catch up. So I just kind of sat there on my bed.
I realized that I could hear music, late ‘80s R&B, blasting through my walls. My neighbor was singing along, which thanks to my building’s thin walls, I know he does most Fridays. I usually put on headphones to counter his noise with my own, but since that wasn’t an option, there was nothing to do but listen to him sing.
My neighbor doesn’t have the best voice, but he makes up for it with how much he loves to wail. So the only option for me was to leave or stay. I chose to stay. The act of doing nothing to rectify the situation was a new one for me, since I like to solve problems. Doing nothing? Not normally my thing. But by choosing just to listen to him, I realized that it was even less of a problem than I had thought initially.
The rest of the weekend was a breeze. I walked around. I ran into friends at a nearby restaurant. I can’t say that when I started using electronics again Monday morning that I felt a great appreciation for them. They were the same devices they I had always had, and I quickly fell into my old routines. But rather than attaining, or even seeking a higher state of consciousness, my digital detox had taught me that not everything needs to be corrected. If your neighbor’s singing out loud to Bell Biv Devoe, listen.