Data is not life
When I was in my 20s, my partner and I spent several weeks walking and backpacking, in the woods and the mountains of France, Portugal and, on a separate trip, different regions of South America. The only entertainment media we had were printed books plus the occasional movie in a city. The only contact with friends and relatives was courtesy of mail collected via Poste Restante or a very rare call from a payphone.
I don’t intend to glamorize the experience; at times it was rather spartan, and one did feel a little disconnected. But it also offered space for deep reflection and learning as well as conversation. In one period probably five or six weeks passed without direct contact with folks back home. The reading experience, was deep, mind-altering, forging an almost spiritual connection with the environment I was immersed in, as I reflected in an earlier essay on Medium.
Recently I planned a short camping trip alone in Yorkshire, and I wanted it to be digital-free. Given the travel experiences in my youth, it is extraordinary that I felt uneasy about going away even for three days in 2019 without my smartphone. In the end, I took it along, with a resolution that it was for emergency use only, given that I was travelling alone and wanted to include a long walk over the hills. But I kept it turned off nearly all of the time. During the short holiday I penned this essay on old technology; pen and paper.
I like social media. In my experience it alleviates loneliness. I am single for the first time in 20 years, but I feel less lonely than I did when living on my own in the mid-1990s. But the frequency of contact can heighten expectations of being always connected, generating a feeling that we humans are only fully alive if we are in transmit or receive mode; that we are little more than vessels for communication; communication, moreover, often of the most superficial sensations and experiences. Rarely do we allow ourselves space for deeper reflection.
We can feel a sense of entitlement towards the continuous little serotonin hits of gossip and flirtation online, but of course the human spirit can never always be up. It ain’t natural. If we interrupt our melancholy with cheap buzzes and quick thrills, we risk delaying but deepening a sense of anguish by disturbing our emotional rhythms.
The concept of the ‘digital detox’ is, quite healthily, gaining in popularity. It is a nice metaphor, but it doesn’t go far enough. We do not just need respite from the screen in order to prevent creeping addiction, we need the restorative experience of space for reflection.
If we crowd out our thoughts, our sadnesses, our fears, with information, superficial chat that is little more than relational data, we never have that deeper conversation with our personal selves, or with our loved ones. We never ask ourselves, honestly or at all: what are our primal, personal scripts? How often do we interrogate them? We all have them. I don’t mean harsh interrogation; more opening up a conversation. And our philosophical scripts; our explanations for ‘why’ things are in this strange world we get thrown into. Few people, including intellectuals, subject their beliefs to any kind of scrutiny, honest or profound.
Don’t interrupt the sorrow, as Joni Mitchell once advised. Data is not life. The soul exists.