We were brushing through wet grass in the early morning when we saw it – a flash of white drifting behind a small patch of trees, backlit by the sun. Crouching down next to my small son, we watched the unmistakable shape of a barn owl until he disappeared into the wood. The look on my son’s face was part of a brief moment of magic, the kind of memory that we live for.
Ordinarily, my next thought would have been to pull out my phone and take a photo, send a tweet or record a video. Connecting is something I do unconsciously now. Tweeting is like breathing and photos and video have documented nearly every day of my 21-month-old son’s life. The meaningful merged with the mundane, all dutifully and habitually recorded – my enjoyment split between that technological impulse and the more delicate human need to be in the moment. This is how we live.
That weekend, however, our whole family – my partner, my son and I – were offline. Swallowtail Hill Farm, in Rye, East Sussex, is a pretty soft option when it comes to a digital detox; a charming small farm with a diverting collection of animals and four vintage tractors. Camping was an easy option for an offline experiment, but there wasn’t much choice outside that for a UK break. High-end hotels in the US are now promoting their offline credentials, from boutique luxury to remote donkey trekking, but the UK has some catching up to do. Anyway, blessed with two days of good weather and some delicious local food, I barely even noticed I wasn’t online.
What I did notice was my partner, Will. If my worst digital habit is incessant tweeting, his is allowing his phone to be the single most disruptive thing in our relationship. Country walks, dinner, bathing our son – no moment is safe from the seemingly irresistible ringing, vibrating, nagging phone that demands – and wins – his attention when he should be enjoying the moment with us. Any objections of mine are swiftly defended by explaining the importance of dealing with that email/text/voicemail now, though it never seems anything that couldn’t wait half an hour. I take equal responsibility for our connectopia – magnetically drawn, as I am, to any screen that can feed my addiction.
We handed our phones in at the gate. The only interruption during lunch was from two woodpeckers and the entertainment during dinner by the fire was our own conversation. There was a moment when Will was distracted by a buzzing sensation and reached for his phone, before realising it was a bee. Without our phones, we had no idea what the time was. I reached for my phone when I wondered about local property prices and whether it is normal to see a barn owl during the day. And those moments when Artley, my son, was leaning out of the steam train window, having his bath outdoors under a woodburner-powered shower and being read his bedtime story in front of an open fire, I’ve had to try and commit to my own fallible memory.
Breaking away from my connected life, I could feel how the compulsion, the divided attention, the multitasking has permeated my way of being. Early adopters, the heavy technology users who throw themselves at every new device and service, will admit to an uncontrollable impulse to check email, tweets or Facebook. Researchers have called this “variable interval reinforcement schedule”; we have in effect been trained into digital message addiction because the most exciting rewards are unpredictable. We’re no better than slot-machine addicts.
The hustle we develop as we struggle to keep up with the pace of digital information has produced a restless, anxious way of engaging with the world. Desperate for efficiency, this seeps into our physical lives; I feel compelled to tidy while on the phone, to fold the washing while brushing my teeth. No single task has my undivided attention. A study by the University of California, San Francisco, last week concluded that constant multi-tasking gradually erodes short-term memory. And interruptions are a massive problem, taking anything up to 20 times the length of the interruption to recover. For those of us compelled to check email every few minutes, that revelation explains where the day goes.
As consumer web technologies mature, so too does our desire to understand the impact they are having on our lives. Few books on digital dystopia are more resonant than Hamlet’s BlackBerry, an imaginative and thoughtful book that explores philosophical reaction to new technologies throughout time and the lessons we should have learnt from those. The author, former Washington Post journalist William Powers, is, like me, a true believer in the power and potential of digital technologies, but concludes that we need a little discipline to restore control over our unsettling, hyper-connected lives.
“The more we connect, the more our thoughts lean outward,” he writes. “There’s a preoccupation with what’s going on ‘out there’ in the bustling otherworld, rather than ‘in here’ with yourself and those right around you. What was once exterior and faraway is now easily accessible and this carries a sense of obligation or duty.” That feeling that we should be reaching out, or be available to be reached out to, is tied to the self-affirmation the internet provides. “In less-connected times, human beings were forced to shape their own interior sense of identity and worth.”
Powers offers practical solutions, including advocating the use of paper as a more efficient way of organising our thoughts. The theory of “embodied interaction” asserts that physical objects free our minds to think because our hands and fingers can do much of the work, unlike screens where our brains are constantly in demand. The eponymous technology he describes in his book is an intriguing Elizabethan version of a PDA, pocket-sized notebooks with pages coated in an erasable, plaster-like material. “Writing tables”, as they were known, were used for note-taking and checklists. While we can’t be sure Shakespeare used one, we’re shown that Hamlet was a keen user of the latest screen technology.
“Yea, from the table of my memory,” Hamlet reflects, after meeting the ghost of his dead father.
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond
All saws of books, all forms, all
That youth and observation
Hamlet wants to clear his life of all the superficial detritus so that he can focus exclusively on avenging the death of his father. The development of print culture was adding to the tumult of life in Elizabethan England, just as we are overwhelmed with the explosion of always-on digital information today. Exploring Seneca’s “spa of the mind” as a way of escaping the commotion of a busy city, Powers explains that the constant demands of being overwhelmingly connected need to be balanced out by reintroducing a little disconnectedness. That’s exactly what Powers did at home, banning the internet at weekends. It took six months for the family to adjust. “Because we were now away from our connectedness on a regular basis, we grasped its utility and value more fully … There was an atmospheric change in our minds, a shift to a slower, less restless, more relaxed way of thinking. We could just be in one place, doing one particular thing, and enjoy it.”
At home, my concern about our digital addiction is most acute when I catch my son looking at me while I’m checking a screen. It’s reinforcing how much more important the screen is than him, as if I’m teaching him that obeying these machines is what he needs to do.
Our fireside conversation that night, against a backdrop of a moonlit wood, was about Hamlet’s BlackBerry and what Powers calls the “vanishing family trick”, when a seemingly sociable family would gradually dissolve away to screens in different corners of the house. It’s a familiar story.
“What’s lost in the process is so valuable, it can’t be quantified,” Powers despairs. “Isn’t this what we live for – time spent with other people, those moments that can’t be translated into ones and zeros and replicated on a screen? I sometimes felt as if love itself, or the acts of the heart and mind that constitute love, were being leached out of the house by our screens.”
As we left the farm, the real work began, trying to resolve our new promise of balancing work and home life by introducing phone-free zones and offline days. Best of all, when the farmer handed back our phones, we didn’t have a missed call or message between us.
Jemima, Will & Artley stayed at Swallowtail Hill Farm, 01275 395447; canopyandstars.co.uk
First published online on Sunday 24 April 2011 by Jemima Kiss.