Before the Internet

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Before the Internet, you would just sit in an armchair with a book open on your lap, staring into space or staring at a decorative broom on the wall—kind of shifting back and forth between those two modes of being.

Before the Internet, you might take it upon yourself to do a drawing. You’d quietly start sketching something in a notebook, not sure what it was, but you’d let inspiration guide you and then—woop!—turns out you’d drawn a squiggly alligator with a cockeyed approach.

Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.

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…In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

…A common response to my social media skepticism is the idea that using these services “can’t hurt.” In addition to honing skills and producing things that are valuable, my critics note, why not also expose yourself to the opportunities and connections that social media can generate? I have two objections to this line of thinking.

First, interesting opportunities and useful connections are not as scarce as social media proponents claim. In my own professional life, for example, as I improved my standing as an academic and a writer, I began receiving more interesting opportunities than I could handle. I currently have filters on my website aimed at reducing, not increasing, the number of offers and introductions I receive.

…My second objection concerns the idea that social media is harmless. Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Should You Quit Social Media?

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“I am thinking of getting rid of my cell phone, signing off of all social media and moving to a log cabin out in the woods. Is there any reason you can think of that I should reconsider?” — Log Cabin Larry

I understand the impulse to try to escape from everything. And I am truly an enthusiastic advocate of running away from one’s problems. New Jersey is a particularly good place to run away from one’s problems to. No one will chase you. Your problems will be like, “I grew up in New Jersey, no way I’m going back there.” And you’ll be free from those problems for a while and will accumulate new problems and then they will all eventually, slowly chase you down like zombies on “The Walking Dead.” But buying time is really all we can do for ourselves in this life. And we have considerably less time than we might suspect.

Also it’s nice to have something to blame for the things that go wrong in your life. “If only I didn’t spend so much time on Twitter I could have painted a masterpiece by now.” If you sign off of Twitter you will somehow use time more wisely than you ever have before, you think to yourself.

I Used to Be a Human Being

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In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

…I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it. I got a steady workout routine, and it gave me the only relief I could measure for an hour or so a day. But over time in this pervasive virtual world, the online clamor grew louder and louder. Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. So much of it was irresistible, as I fully understood. So much of the technology was irreversible, as I also knew. But I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.

By the last few months, I realized I had been engaging — like most addicts — in a form of denial. I’d long treated my online life as a supplement to my real life, an add-on, as it were. Yes, I spent many hours communicating with others as a disembodied voice, but my real life and body were still here. But then I began to realize, as my health and happiness deteriorated, that this was not a both-and kind of situation. It was either-or. Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. “Multitasking” was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.

And so I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.

The curse of compulsive phone checking

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My children were the catalyst for change. When the summer holidays began, my partner and I were adamant that, despite the fact we were busy working and unable to spend long days at the park, my two sons shouldn’t spend their break bathed in the light of Kindle Fires and YouTube videos of grown men playing Minecraft. But how could we tell them to get offline when, as soon as they’d gone to bed, we were cycling aimlessly through apps, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, Gmail and back again, just in case something new had been posted in the last 15 seconds?

…During my week offline, I finished my book, yes. But I also did smaller, enjoyable things I came to realise I’d really missed. My podcast habit went from occasional to daily, with my phone placed out of reach and set to full volume so I couldn’t drift away from the narrative and into another app. Bedtime became an opportunity to talk with my partner, with conversation frequently descending into hysterical giggles. I slept better, I read two books on which I’d previously found it hard to concentrate, and several paper issues of Vanity Fair from cover to cover. To my surprise, I ate less crap (I’ve subsequently discovered we overeat when focused on other things like the internet) and lost a few pounds. Most of all, my thoughts became clearer.

I came back, of course. It is 2016, after all. I’m not dead yet. I missed the baby pictures, the wedding albums, the laughs, the clueless pets and, most of all, the true friends I keep in touch with online because our busy lives don’t afford us regular face-to-face contact. But I was reassured to find I hadn’t missed much else. Despite the internet’s incessant updates, breaking news and campaigning, everything was much the same as before. What had changed was me. Because, while a digital detox is an important exercise, it is much like embarking on a juice cleanse to fit into a tight party dress. The whole thing becomes worthless if, when it’s all over, you immediately pop into McDonald’s for a Quarter Pounder with cheese. Like crash diets, total internet abstinence is neither healthy nor achievable. I wanted a lasting, meaningful change in habits. I made the decision to never scroll back through timelines if I could help it – to only look at what was in front of me when I had the time, and found that, actually, I was entirely FOMO-free. I didn’t reinstall the apps either and my social-media activity has very happily plummeted back to what I’d describe as healthy levels of engagement. When we’re watching TV, the phone is flipped over to obscure the constantly updating screen. After dinner, it’s banished to my bedroom altogether.

 

What Really Happens To Your Brain And Body During A Digital Detox

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Better Posture, Deeper Friendships
After three days without technology, people’s posture noticeably changed. They began to adapt to primarily looking forward into people’s eyes, rather than downward into their screens. This opened up the front of their bodies, pushing back their shoulders and realigning the back of their head with the spine…

Google Is A Conversation Killer
The content of conversations changed when people were without technology. In a connected world, when a general trivia question comes up, people immediately Google the answer, ending that particular line of questioning. However, without Google, people keep talking as they look for an answer, which often results in creative storytelling or hilarious guessing games that lead to new inside jokes…

More-Efficient Sleep
The guests on the trip said that they did not have to sleep as long, but felt even more rested and rejuvenated. The neuroscientists believe this is because the blue light from screens suppresses melatonin in the body, which makes us more alert as we are going to sleep. Studies show that people who check their phone before going to sleep—and, let’s face it, that’s most of us—don’t get particularly high-quality rest.

New Perspectives
One of the most powerful findings was that people tended to make significant changes to their lives when they were offline for a while. Some decided to make big changes in their career or relationships, while others decided to recommit to health and fitness. The lack of constant distraction appeared to free people’s minds to contemplate more important issues in their lives, and it also made them believe they had the willpower to sustain a transformation…