I recently disconnected from the internet for a week, intentionally curtailing my use of my various iGadgets. I did not check Facebook for the latest witticisms from my friends, didn’t read the latest Kardashian gossip on Gawker nor skim the news headlines for the latest outrageous quote from a likely Republican presidential candidate or failure of our government to pass meaningful legislation. In the simplest terms, I stopped relying on technology to fill my spare moments and to answer every minor question. I would go to the internet if I needed to, not when I felt like it and had the opportunity (which is now all the time). Since my job is in the Internet, being completely offline was not really an option. And wasn’t the point.
I wanted to remember what it was like before being constantly connected. In the past few years, I have noticed myself being compelled more and more to reach for the phone each time my attention wasn’t otherwise required. If I think hard enough, I can remember when I used to read books and magazines. I used to watch TV shows when they aired or I missed them. I used to do housework, to make art, to write long, personal emails and even letters or made phone calls. Out and about, I watched other people, cruised, looked at the leaves falling from the trees or just had private thoughts and wandered, not doing anything at all.
But are those days in the past? I need to be reminded about what I’d traded away by making the choice to be online all the time. Clearly the time spent on Facebook and surfing the internet is now using almost all the time I used to spend doing something else.
In the course of being disconnected, I had an interesting and unexpected experience. I was driving to a store in Mountain View to observe how the layaway program was being implemented as part of my job. While on the freeway, I realized I hadn’t set up the route in the GPS on my phone. No matter, I thought. I didn’t need to use the phone to find my way and it was my third trip there. Surely I would be able to remember the exit. Turns out, I didn’t know the name of the exit and overshot by a couple miles.
Missing an exit like that would have been unimaginable for me before having a phone with GPS. I used to look at maps and visualize the route in my head before going somewhere new, with every sign, exit and intersection reinforcing the memory of the route on the way. Now, I hadn’t learned the route well enough to retrace my previous two trips–I didn’t even know the name of the street to look for.
So beyond having a simple moment to have my own thoughts, here was a concrete example of what I had traded away–my sense of place and direction. For many folks, traveling to a new place can be stressful. Maps can be confusing and directions can be wrong, leave out important details or be simply unintelligible. For me, that’s not really the case but even I don’t bother trying to figure out the route. Now, an address can be found with a search or even a link in an email, which is then transferred to your GPS without even reading it or thinking about it again.
After recognizing my own failing, I have since watched several people who rely on GPS drive to unfamiliar locations. When setting out, all they really care about is that the system recognizes the address they enter and tells them how long the trip will take. The GPS can be relied upon to call out each turn and correct you if you miss a street. You can be blissfully unaware of what direction you traveled, what town you’re in and even the name of the street your on, and only aware of the time and perhaps the miles traveled since you started your trip and the ease with which you could comply with the guidance of the GPS.
Of course, with GPS you are much less likely to get wildly and hopelessly lost and you can enjoy the view and companionship without constant anxiety of missing a turn or realizing too late you don’t have the right directions or just getting lost. You’ve essentially traded off learning how to get somewhere new and how to be resourceful in finding your own way with maps, knowhow and the help of the surly gas station attendant should the directions fail.
So I’ve learned that, with access to a constant fix of information, I traded away some of the difficult aspects of life, like being bored or getting lost. It’s not that I’m against the ubiquitous exposure to media and information that our new technology allows, but I do think that a quality of simpler, less purposeful living means less chance for growth that comes from uncertainty and adventure. While technology provide the benefit of allowing us to enjoy moments that we otherwise wouldn’t have, it also means that we are not learning from experiences the way we used to nor having unexpected experiences.