Katie Mackay dined out with her brother, which isn’t unusual. But she took the big step of leaving her smartphone at home. As a media strategist for London-based creative agency Mother, her mobile device is not merely a way to check e-mail and social media, but a vital tool for her career.
So when she agreed to go a weekday meal, being naked, so to speak, gave her a bit of anxiety. But the surprise, for her, was her brother’s response. “He said first time in five years that we’ve met for dinner or drinks, I didn’t check the phone,” she said. “I feel awful.”
For Katie, leaving the house without a lifeline is frightening. What if a client wants to schedule an early morning meeting tomorrow? With smartphones playing such a key part of our lives, we’re used to a constant connection. But as digital detoxes and tech fasts show, we’ve become ambivalent about our attachment to devices and the Internet.
In November, Mother London conducted an experiment at Internet Week Europe, a festival to celebrate the thriving Web community, to ask what happens when five media types are deprived of smartphones, e-mail and online access for a whole week. They dubbed the experiment, “No Internet Week.”
While Mother has offices from New York to Buenos Aires, Katie works in the London branch, which is known for its unorthodox advertising for clients, such as Coca-Cola, Stella Artois and Amnesty International. By using a maverick approach to Internet Week Europe, the agency was able to show not only how reliant we’ve become to our smartphones, but also the odd limbo we find ourselves in when we’re without them.
The agency released a 15-minute documentary to give insight into the effects of withdrawal. While all five participants are media personalities, their experiences run the gamut from refreshed to discombobulated.
For example, James Brown, a disheveled editor at the Sabotage Times, a content agency, embraced the challenge early on, but became worried due to his addiction to the Internet. He uses animated face and hand gestures, and colorful expletives, to express his struggle without technology, and at one point, when his phone chirps in the distance, he admits he was “batshit mental from withdrawal.”
To pass the time, he chopped wood and focused on his young son, who said he enjoyed the extra attention, since Twitter wasn’t distracting him. James said the experience unchained him from a lot of noise.
Meanwhile, Sophie, age 13, uses the Internet to connect with her social life on Facebook and Twitter. To disconnect from the Internet, she said, is to distance oneself from friends — a near calamity, as any parent of a young teenage girl knows.
During the week, Sophie resorted to old-school handwritten letters. She stamps it, walks down the street and puts it in the mailbox. While it’s less convenient, letter-writing hands benefits. Sophie said she puts far more thought into composing on paper than typing online. Still, she misses the immediacy of the Internet.
“Part of every experience is sharing it with other people,” she said. “And when you don’t get that, it feels weird.”
After she snapped a photo of an interesting person, for example, she fell into a near-paralysis when she couldn’t share it online with friends. But she did manage to find an upside — being on the outside looking in, means she was left out of the drama on social media.
Meanwhile, Emily Hare, a managing editor for Contagious, a marketing agency, found that a lack of Internet deprived her of tools she usually uses on her phone.
One day, for example, she has a hard time navigating the trains, buses and subway stations of London. Without a phone, she’s forced to fumble with a fold-out map to find transportation options. As the winds whip the paper around, she sheepishly admitted that she cheated, and used Google to find her way out of the urban maze.
Emily admitted she made the experience more complicated, and would have solved the problem if she had the patience to decipher the map.
Likewise, fashion blogger Maria Pizzeria said meeting friends was particularly challenging, as she stood outside venues, waiting for more connected friends to arrive. But more important, the lack of Internet deprived her of a valuable creative outlet. While she began to see the silly side taking selfies, she said she felt “lost” without doing it for a week.
Katie, perhaps, gained the most. While she worried she’d fall apart, she felt surprisingly well, and found unexpected rewards, too. The morning after a gala, for example, a co-worker left a handmade scrapbook of photos, taken at the show from Twitter and Instagram accounts, on her desk.
“This is so much better — more real and with more thought,” she said, delighted at the thoughtfulness.
Katie, who also runs a fashion blog, said a week without Internet helped her to understand the myth of multitasking.
“Without the constant distraction of e-mail, Instagram and the wonderful Web, I felt more able to focus on tasks,” she told me. “I completed them without losing concentration, and felt fulfilled by the act of doing them.”
She also realized that technology had subtly affected her relationships, masking her isolation, and not curing it — an insight only a break from a regular routine illuminates.
“I felt a total transformation — not just in my mood, but more so in my awareness of my mood,” she said. “I suddenly felt much more aware of how I was interacting with people, and more aware of the slower pace of time, too.”
That mindfulness went beyond her work-life interaction, since, like James, she noticed a significant change in her personal life, as well.
“I also slept better, and felt I had more time to think, relax and enjoy simpler things, like reading a book — all without the silent niggle to see what was happening online,” she said.
Katie said the biggest reason to her renewed sense of mindfulness was, quite simply, having quiet moments, not filled by the Internet. When dinner companion step away to use the restroom, for example, she simply sits there at the table to be present, and not reach for the phone — a startling experience when we fill every moment of empty time with a peek at the phone.
“It was just me and my thoughts,” she said. “It made me realize how easily, and how often, I’d tune people out to mindlessly scroll through Instagram.” The strategist realized she was investing a lot of herself into her device, an insight that she wasn’t totally comfortable with knowing.
Likewise, while James rediscovered his privacy, and reveled in analog activities, he didn’t know how to balance his newfound mindfulness, comparing the “all or nothing” dilemma of being bombarded by online noise, or living a disconnected Amish-like life.
For Katie, and those that hope to detach a little, leaving the smartphone at home doesn’t have to be a drastic move. In fact, she developed real-life strategies, like a change in perspective, from the experience. For example, she found that urgency is never delivered over e-mail. True emergencies, she said, are followed up with phone calls.
She’s a convert, and believes in a ban on work e-mail in meetings. While everyone else brings in their phones, she now sees that people don’t pay attention when they have a phone or tablet to hand.
She also hit on a prosaic connection between technology and health and well-being. “The constant wonder of if, and then checking to see if, I have an e-mail gave me a bad back.” she said. During the Internet-free week, her back never felt better.
Katie has a new perspective on the way we relate to our surroundings in the digital age. “Nobody looks out the window on public transport, anymore,” she said. “And it’s weird how drone-like the fixation with the screen vs. the outside world appears.”
Ultimately, the importance of our mental, physical and social well-being demands that we stop staring at our gadgets and begin to observe the world in front of us.
She said life without social media is more fulfilling, too, realizing conversations, and real-world interaction, are far better without the Internet joining along for the ride.
While Katie’s experience was more rewarding than she imagined, she doesn’t recommend it for everyone, especially a tech fast to start the New Year. A week-long break can give perspective, she said, but like a two-week vacation, or a three-day detox, it won’t improve health and well-being in the long-term.
Instead, make smaller, but longer-lasting, changes that add up. “Find a way to do it in your everyday life, and not something you decamp to a retreat for,” she said. “Change in the everyday is more likely to become lasting; it’s too easy to be one way on holiday, but fall back to old habits in a routine.”
Since the experiment, Katie has taken a small-but-steady approach to changing her technology habits. She charges her phone in the kitchen, and not the bedroom, for example, and leaves her laptop, and work e-mails, at the office, choosing to use an iPad to do anything on the Web at home.
Small changes like these have made a big impact, and allowed her to reclaim her life.
“I need to just make sure that I never forget all the positives of that week. Unlike a January detox, the lessons have changed my behavior forever,” she said. “So far, so good — I haven’t slipped back into the bad habits of old.” ♦