What would it be like to spend a day deviceless—without phone, iPad, computer, or television?
That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately.
For some folks, modern technology doesn’t have a deep grasp. They see their smartphone as utilitarian and ignorable a device as their flip phone once was. Their television is either nonexistent, or easily turned on and off. Social media holds no special power over their lives.
For others, the virtual world is all-encompassing—but they don’t care. They buy an iPhone 7 so they can check email in the shower. Netflix-binging is a Friday tradition. Snapchat is a primary means of communication between friends. Technology offers us greater connection and knowledge than ever—so why turn it off?
What Does Technological Virtue Look Like?
But I’m guessing a good many people, like me, inhabit the middle ground between these two extremes. We use computers for work and social interactions more often than we’d like. We wish we turned off the television more often than we do. Although we attempt to censor our time on social media, sometimes we’re lazy—and the time slips past unawares. It’s a daily struggle to keep these tools in check: to use them wisely, moderately, and with a loose grip.
Lately, I’ve been trying not to turn on the television. It’s been a good practice: one that gets me walking the dog more, taking my 16-month-old to the playground, finishing books I started ages ago. I don’t miss the TV shows, necessarily. If anything, I’m just finding myself ready for bed a bit earlier than normal. Which makes me wonder: how often do we “veg” in front of the television for a couple hours, when we should really be getting sleep? Would less TV enable us to be more in tune with our bodies? Could it ease our stress levels and anxiety?
I know there’s way more to these trends than a simple matter of sleep. But as the mom of a toddler, I’ve realized that lack of sleep affects our mood and well-being more than almost anything else.
Why We Love Technological Distractions
But there’s also the question of why we so constantly fill our free time with white noise. Even if I don’t have the television turned on, it’s easy to fill my afternoon walk with the buzz of podcasts, and my afternoon work hours with Spotify or Pandora. I can punctuate my reading with occasional Facebook and Instagram checks, and scroll through news headlines while dinner’s in the oven.
We seem to have a deep aversion to quiet and solitude—and it’s keeping us from the sort of introspection and awe that might really fuel our spirits. Thomas Merton once wrote, “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom.” We can evaluate our lives and loves with greater clarity when we’re doing so from a distance. As a sociologist told Atlantic writer Brent Crane, “When people take these moments to explore their solitude, not only will they be forced to confront who they are, they just might learn a little bit about how to out-maneuver some of the toxicity that surrounds them in a social setting.”
Here’s one idea: when you’re standing in line at the grocery store, stuck in rush-hour traffic, or waiting for dinner to be ready, don’t turn to your phone. Instead, try saying the Jesus Prayer. If you’re not religious, try a neurobic exercise. As Louis CK has notoriously noted, we often avoid introspection because it reminds us of our mortality—of our finite and limited place in an infinite universe. And that’s scary. But it’s also important to embrace.
We’ve Forgotten How To Daydream
Beyond the important work of reflection, silent spaces also give us the opportunity for daydreaming, a practice that, as Sherri Turkle notes in “Reclaiming Conversation,” is essential for all creative and artistic endeavors. This is what helps kids learn invention and ingenuity, craftsmanship and curiosity. Adults, too, need to daydream. And we don’t have to grow out of it.
“Daydreaming moves us toward the longer term,” Turkle writes. “It helps us develop the base for a stable self and helps us come up with new solutions. To mentor for innovation we need to convince people to slow things down, let their minds wander, and take time alone.”
Daydreaming is perhaps the antithesis of today’s popularized “multi-tasking.” The latter eggs us on, from one task to another, without any space for our brains to pause. The former enables our brains to find some solace and inspiration amid our busyness.
Technological obsession comes in many forms. While we may find ourselves excusing away our lurching procession from one distraction to the next, we cannot ignore its effects on our daily habits and interactions. Smartphones are impeding (or simply destroying) our conversations. A recent study revealed that we now have a shorter attention span than goldfish. So what do we do about it?
Do We Need To Embrace Digital Temperance?
Ross Douthat suggested recently that we need a “digital temperance movement”—akin to the caution our elders once espoused around the drinking of alcohol, today’s generations must come to grips with the addictive natures of screens and virtual reality. He writes,
The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you (unless you’re hit by a distracted driver) or leave you ravaged and destitute. But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence — your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art — in a state of perpetual distraction.
Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.
How to curb or conquer these dangers? Douthat suggests that the virtue of temperance may be exactly what we need to get things back into balance. “Temperance doesn’t have to mean teetotaling; it can simply mean a culture of restraint that tries to keep a specific product in its place. And the internet, like alcohol, may be an example of a technology that should be sensibly restricted in custom and in law.”
Douthat suggests policy measures that—just as we curb alcohol usage in specific spaces—would monitor and limit technology’s grasp in certain spheres: the car, importantly, as well as college lecture halls, museums, libraries, cathedrals, and elementary schools.
What’s more, he suggests cultivating norms at work and in the home that would limit our excessive use of the smartphone. We needn’t have phones at every meeting. Children under the age of 16 needn’t be on Facebook. Technology can be a boon to society, and it would be wrong to deny its graces; but we ignore its dangers to our own detriment.
A Digital Detox Could Help Us Find Technological Balance
We’re all about cleanses and detoxing these days. Sometimes we emphasize these things to extremes. But perhaps an occasional break can show us what we’re missing—and prompt us to foster better habits throughout our daily lives.
The idea of a “day without devices” would be a similar concept to the idea of Meatless Mondays, just focusing on technology instead of food. It could focus on a day trip somewhere fun—to hike, picnic in the park, visit a museum, go on a bike ride, or explore a new neighborhood.
Perhaps more useful, however, would be inhabiting one’s own space without the distractions that so often pull us away from real presence. It would focus on cultivating positive practices away from the phone—not just offering negation. It could involve more exercise. Or perhaps pulling out an old, dusty cookbook, and inviting friends over for dinner. Or weeding the backyard, and reading a book once you’re done. It could involve some needed closet organizing, followed by a glass of wine and a board game with your family.
It could be anything. It would only require presence.
Loosen Your Grip On Your Smartphone For Holy Week
As we’ve entered Holy Week, I’ve found this idea more and more alluring. I’ve done this in bits and pieces: ignored my phone during Christmas vacation, dropped television for Lent, etc. But I wonder what it would be like to make technology-free days—or even just hours—a regular part of our schedule.
My guess is that the pull of technology would be tough. But it could also help me rediscover precious time, enjoyable hobbies, and sweet interactions that I’ve shirked inadvertently. Not because I didn’t want them—but because sound-blocking earphones and glowing screens and buzzing notifications have distracted me for far too long.
Josh Sabey quoted T.S. Eliot in a very thoughtful article about social media fatigue and Lent, and it’s worth repeating here—and over and over again, as we go about our days.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
Hopefully, this new spring season can serve as an invitation—to push away the devices, and plug our hands and feet into real experiences, and real presences.