The timing of this latest adventure, a virtual visit to 1987 (if you haven’t read that yet, go there first – this will make much more sense), could not have been better. As most of you are aware, December was spent in India on what many would describe as “The trip of a lifetime.” which, let me tell you, is a horrible name because of what it implies: There will never be another. That, along with the lack of daily excitement, surprises and, I am embarrassed to say, messages and comments on social media about all the amazing things I’m seeing, doing, and sharing meant that January was a shock. Brains are funny things, and in the absence of all that excitement, it went searching elsewhere. Social media and the Internet became the focus of that search for excitement with more and more time spent there and the things being read and posted taking on even more importance.
I had already recognized this issue – filling in the excitement of travel with the excitement of likes and comments – and deactivated my Facebook account. It didn’t help a great deal, but what did help a lot was actually doing things. Focusing deeply on work, taking on several volunteer projects, cooking, doing anything except thinking about myself and what was or wasn’t happening on the Internet. I added meditation to the mix a couple of weeks ago and started another little practice that Sage came up a while back for herself: Watch for good things happening in the world. If you find them, note them down. If you don’t find them, that’s no problem, pick a human, make up a good story about what’s happening in their life and wish them well. It’s an excellent remedy for thinking about how we, ourselves feel – especially when it’s all illusory and simply withdrawal from a wonderful experience.
All last week Sage had been so excited, telling her friends about her plans for what she had planned for me. A few times she caught herself, stopping just short of excitedly telling me all the cool things that were coming.
Friday morning, out of coincidence, I bought a book: How to Break Up with your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life and in a hilarious coincidence, about 8 hours later, I was back in 1987. All of the devices that connected me to the excitement that is the 2020 Internet were gone.
I felt a little trepidation at this thought – this is the longest I’d been disconnected in literally years. At the same time I was excited. I am a person who loves change especially in the name of self-improvement, and loves uncertainty. What would it be like? I don’t know – but how exciting to find out!
I published the post just a few minutes ago and already questions have been coming in about some of the practicalities. So I’ll start with some of those:
- Sage spent most of the time in 1987 but sometimes had to come “Back to the Future” to manage things. I would leave the room for that.
- Music had to be from February 1987 or before. We no longer have any cassette, record, or CD players or even a radio. Sage has a “dumb” mp3 player so she loaded it with some playlists, connected it to a speaker and we listened to that.
- We also don’t own a television or VCR anymore. However, Sage had already found the TV schedule from February 1987 and knew what shows we could watch. A few minutes before they were due to start, she would go to the other room “to warm up the TV” (who remembers that?) and then call me in. Then she would queue up the show in a video player on her computer on full screen on her computer and we would watch. Sometimes the shows would be from 1987, other times like with Family Feud, they would be “Reruns” from 1983. We were especially lucky that a couple of the clips still had old commercials in them for the full authentic experience. Like back in the day, there was no pause button. If you wanted to get a snack you had to run out during the commercials.
- For the movie we watched, Sage would “browse at the video store” (read: find what was available from the right time period – 1986 or earlier since it took time for movies to come out on video. Then when we decided she’d queue that up. That was especially fun.
- Sage provided me with a notebook that I used to take copious notes while I was out in the world, and as you saw from the entry, I also used the manual typewriter to write “entries”. Looking at them today they look like Twitter posts or other short social media status updates. It makes me wonder if my writing would be different in 1987. Am I writing those short posts because I’ve picked up the habit from writing Facebook posts?
- Newspapers came every morning and that was particularly fun. Sage would download them from the library archives and print them and leave them on the table for me.
- It was a truly delightful coincidence that the Revue Cinema was playing The Life of Brian this past weekend. It was a particularly wonderful and special surprise for me.
When I was waiting outside for the bus to go volunteer at the church I had one of my first moments of wishing for my phone. The streets were empty and it was really cold. On my phone I have an app that tells me when the next bus will be due. Sometimes in the day in different locations I can use it to choose the best route, but at this time of the morning there’s not much I can do with the information other than know how long I will be cold for. But it made me decide to list all the things I do with my phone and to start asking myself if they are useful:
- With my watch it tells me how long I slept and how active I was. I don’t usually do much with the information, however sometimes I have been known to see that I slept less than I should and feel more tired. All in my head? Probably.
- Weather: I look at my phone (or now ask my Hindi-speaking Google Home: “मौसम कैसे है ?” – How’s the weather?) to know how I should dress. Without that, in 1987 and several dozen stories above the earth, I just looked out, saw how much steam was coming out of smokestacks, car exhaust and how much ice was on the windows. I got it right.
- I’ve been using a meditation timer / app every day for a few weeks. Yes, I know I can use a real timer – or just sit. Not entirely necessary, but a nice convenience and there are some good talks.
- Zwift: My biggest exercise opportunities come from indoor cycling with Zwift. Sage reminded me that I could ride on an exercise bike in our building’s gym. However, even in the 80’s I needed distraction in the form of music in order to enjoy exercise and I didn’t have a proper walkman. So I took some time off from cycling.
- All my reminders and calendar are in my phone. Instead of having reminders come from my brain and confirmed against a watch and calendar I wait for my phone to beep or vibrate to tell me to go somewhere. There were times Sage tried to plan something with me for the upcoming weeks and I had to tell her that I didn’t have a chance to make a copy of my calendar coming up. I had no idea what I needed to do in the weeks ahead. I only knew about this weekend – and I only knew that because Sage simply said “Don’t make any plans this weekend.”
- Maps and business information are something I gather from my phone all the time. When the restaurant we wanted to go on Sunday was closed, I would normally have checked Google to find out what we should do. Instead we just walked and trusted that we’d find something good. We did!
- When I was at the book club I heard a song I didn’t know that I liked. I remembered that my phone logs every song it recognizes and so I could look it up later. Except this time I couldn’t. I was back in the days where music could be ephemeral. I might never know what that song was or be able to listen to it again. Or if I were really excited about it I could have asked the person playing the record.
- On the bus I would use my phone for personal music, games, web browsing, chat with friends. To some extent I am in constant potential contact with people. On the bus without it I read my book, watched out the window or took note of people around me. It was neither as boring or as lonely as I would have expected. But it was mentally quieter. There was not the constant buzz of either connection with someone, potential connection, or entertainment. Would that link be fun? Would that meme make me laugh?
- I actually use my phone as a phone once in a great while – maybe 2-3 times a week. But without the ability to email or text, I found that I had to use a pay phone to get a message home.
That buzz is addictive and fun in a positive sense. But there’s a darker side. What if people don’t respond? Our expectations about when people should respond have changed significantly. Someone didn’t respond in 3 hours? And their status shows they’re on? What’s happening!? Was it something I said? Meanwhile, in 1987 a message sent by mail had a much longer time before you even thought about what someone thought of it. Send a message out to your grandma on the other side of the country today, February 17th, and it might not get there for a week, February 24th. She might not even read and respond to it for another week. (I remember some days I wouldn’t even go to the post office to get the mail). It was 3 miles away, after all, and nothing was that important, was it? So Grandma mails her letter back to me a week later, on March 2nd and it arrives in my mailbox on March 9th. That’s a full three weeks. And during that time we didn’t wonder what Grandma was doing, how she was, if she was mad we had told her we just quit university. We just waited and did things with other people.
Being in 1987 meant I didn’t have the excitement of new messages coming in or the sadness of none coming in but it meant there was more time for more productive things like spending time with humans in person.
Speaking of doing things with other people: This was an excellent part of the experiment. It was so lovely to go to the book club. The first day I arrived late and really only had time to sit and read silently with people. But it was nice to see them. Helping at the breakfast drop in was particularly lovely. I got to interact with humans and also create some good in the world. I likely did more good in that one brief volunteer session than any of my status updates in the past 5 years did.
It is particularly interesting to see what messages actually were waiting for me when I came back after almost three days. There were 2-3 scheduling messages about events, a lot of entries from WordPress blogs I subscribe to. There were only two messages from two people, wondering where I’d gone and checking in to make sure I was OK. It doesn’t make a great case for staying constantly connected, does it?
Traveling out in the world with headphones and music on is a joy for me. On a good day it feels like I’m in a movie and I have a great soundtrack. But I also miss out on things. I would have missed the altercation on the streetcar and the opportunity to lend my support to the family being harassed on the bus. I also would have missed another opportunity that I didn’t talk about in the entry because it wasn’t fully true to 1987. A man on the subway platform came up to us and asked if we could use his phone to take his photograph. Sage asked if he was doing it to send home and he said yes – he was sending it to his family in Pakistan. Once I heard where he was from I asked him in Urdu which city he was from and how long he’d been here (3 years). He was happy to meet someone who spoke Urdu, I was happy to be able to practice it and also to feel proud of myself for feeling so comfortable speaking with him that I didn’t hesitate at all to think or translate in my head in either direction. And as nice as it is to feel like the star in your own urban drama with a soundtrack to enhance it, there’s nothing to match interacting one on one with other humans.
The whole family liked the limitation of “This show is on now and isn’t on later.” In this day of binge watching it’s surprising to find that having to wait and having limitations was actually a positive thing.
I did miss music. I didn’t miss music on demand from any time in history that my phone gives me. But I did miss having more selection. We had a handful of playlists and that was pretty limited. In 1987 I had over 200 CDs, about that many cassettes, and dozens of mix tapes that I and others made.
But most surprisingly to me, all the things I felt lacking earlier in the month – or even the week had improved tremendously. I had far fewer exchanges with people: No comments, no likes on people’s photos or mine, not even an email. But I had lots of games and talking with my family, talks about books with strangers, talks about daily life with people at the breakfast drop-in.
Books were the shocking thing. Instead of reaching in my pocket for my phone when bored or waiting for something, or sitting at my computer when I waited for something at home, I would pull out my book. In the time I was in 1987, I literally read several hundred pages. I used to think of myself as a slow reader, but I don’t think I am slow. I’m interrupting myself. It is horrifying to see just how much less I read in a given weekend (10 to 20 times less!) when I have access to the phone or Internet.
In the end I’m taking away a few things:
- I want to do this again. Sage and I will likely do this again regularly. It was fun to unplug and live with restrictions. But we may tweak things a little and do more prep. For example, we could have more music prepared, or allow for reading of books from any generation. The Revue Theater regularly has old movies on and we could just lock in to whatever year it is in the movie and live by those standards. If the movie is from 1975 then it’s 1975. If it’s a silent movie then we may not get personal music at home.
- I need to look at what I use my phone for. That list above is full of things that I likely don’t need. I seem to be using my phone in the same way folks talk about the adage “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” A phone is a hammer, and there are certainly a lot of nails for which it is useful, but there are also many we use it for because it’s there.
- Seeing humans in person. Interacting with them, talking to them, asking about their lives, how they are, where they’re from, is a lot more satisfying than posting a thing and waiting to find out what people think about it. It’s probably a lot more healthy also.
So in the upcoming weeks I’m going to be more mindful about what I do with my phone and the Internet in general. When am I going to it? Why am I going to it? What am I looking for? And if I don’t have a good reason, then I need to find something else to do.