Although it has been foggy in this part of Southern California lately, I woke up this morning with the sweet taste of fresh air cleared by weeks of rain and mist. The sky is an even blue, whether reflected off of water, or the source of serene clarity found in expansive bodies of water. At 10:30AM, I stroll down to the cafeteria for breakfast. Over sunny side up eggs, a friend and I agree that today is an undeniably beautiful day to spend at the beach. Although he’s going to be busy rehearsing the score for an upcoming student production, he tells me that he will text me when he’s free to go. I tell him that he will have to find me if that is the case. I’m not purposely acting coy; I shut off my phone and other electronics at midnight last night. This Sunday, I’m off the grid. I have only a wristwatch borrowed from a friend to plan my day. He replies in much the same way most of my friends who are not participating in this challenge have replied to me, with a smile and a nod. It seems to be an understanding between most of us that to go 24 hours without using digital technology is as complicated as it is freeing.
I began my 24 hours without digital technology with anxiety. What if something important were to happen and I couldn’t be contacted? As the hours went by, that anxiety subsided. It was replaced with fuller, deeper breaths. If someone on campus would need to find me, they could come to my room. Or, they could send a message to my roommate. After all, “off the grid” does not mean that I cease to exist.
A few months ago, I actually challenged myself to go a week without streaming any videos. Whereas a single day without Netflix or Hulu feels meditative, a week felt stifling. At a time before the singular dominance of digital technology, perhaps a week without video entertainment would not have bothered me. Now, I have no choice. Video information holds just as much weight as any other text. In this age, social capital relies on a myriad of sources. Not participating in the current technology is an excuse, a distraction. So, moderation and reflection are the key to understanding my thoughts and actions. Clearly, they are more important than ever. Time may be relative, but I do not exist in a vacuum.
On Saturday, I kept a record of all of the ways in which I used digital technology. You can see from my screenshots that I mostly sent and viewed messages from friends. Perhaps if I had recorded my use of digital technology on a weekday, the list would have included more messages and emails sent, and more instances of Facebook opened. I spent this particular Saturday in the library, reading a book I was determined to (and successfully) finish reading. My Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Line notifications did not hold as much temporal importance as the last 200 pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. On Sunday, I asked a friend to check the next day’s weather forecast for me so that I could choose what to wear on Monday. I also never went to the beach because I happened to be out of my room when my friend stopped by to find me. On the other hand, I read a third of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and the first part of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Both of these books were especially conducive to my meditations on the 24 hours without digital technology.
My experience this weekend reminds me of a statement by the video artist Nam June Paik. He reflected on digital innovations from a Buddhist perspective. Paik said that cybernetics is like karma, meaning a system affecting a result could be called feedback. In this case, “system” is diversely applied. Systems are both the routes of existence of digital technology, but also our physical experiences and actions. Such is my experience using or abstaining from digital technology. At the end of the day, it’s about assessing my options. I do not have the choice not to be affected by digital technology, but I have the choice to be critical of my use and the ways in which it affects me.
Paik, Nam June. Cybernated Art. Manifestos, Great Bear Pamphlets, Something Else Press, 1966, pp. 24.
Paik, Nam June. TV-Buddha. 2002.