Quick: Where's the nearest payphone to wherever you are now? Chances are good that you passed one recently and didn't notice. Not long ago, I gave up my cellphone for six months and regularly had to locate payphones. When I asked store clerks, bartenders or strangers on the street where to find one, they could rarely say -- even if there was one within eyesight, on a path they trod daily.
Five years ago, I realized that, like many people, I had been gradually losing touch with my physical world as I spent more time online. As an experiment, I decided to get away from digital media for a while and see what that was like. Sort of like the National Day of Unplugging, which encourages people to unplug for 24 hours the first weekend in March. But I did it for 184 consecutive days, with fewer people to keep me company. Here's a glimpse at what I discovered during my Slow Media project in 2010 -- the surprises and the disappointments, along with some tips for your own digital detox.
You might think being online saves time and helps you get more done. On the contrary, I felt like unplugged days were longer and more productive. Things often got done faster in analog mode than digitally -- like when I found phone numbers in the phone book quicker than my husband did with a search engine. When I asked a young wine-shop assistant what the featured bottles of the month were, she struggled to download and print a "featured wines" flyer from her computer. I turned around and saw the actual wine bottles on a shelf a few steps away. She could have shown me the display, but it hadn't occurred to her. The Internet is often our default resource, but it's not always the best one.
You might expect that older people who grew up without devices would show more sympathy for my analog lifestyle than millennials would. Yet my 20-something friends were just as supportive, perhaps more so, in catering to my temporary circumstances. Some happily faxed me or called my landline with party invitations that they knew I would not see online. It wasn't just close friends or people with surplus time on their hands who rose to the challenge, either. Even my former real-estate agent, a busy guy whom I don't know that well, sent me a postcard.
Unplugging did let me down in a few regards. I tried SLR, TLR and Polaroid cameras but the resulting photos were expensive to make and bothersome to share, not to mention out of focus and poorly exposed. I'll take my Panasonic Lumix over my Pentax K-1000 any day. And while I enjoyed browsing at bookstores as much as ever, they rarely seemed to have the titles that I wanted or needed. It took five trips to find a shop with Carlo Petrini's Slow Food Nation in stock. Advantage, online book-selling. Ditto video-streaming; you can't beat it for choice, value and convenience.
Such frustrations are unlikely to arise when you are offline for one day. During my Internet sabbatical, the self-imposed rule was to go online for just one hour per month. I strategized how to spend those 15 minutes per week wisely and banked unused time for future emergencies. A kitchen timer served as sentinel. On the first of each month, I was always excited to get my new hour.
I mostly used this Web allotment for money and work. After an oversight led to some bills not getting paid, I had to watch my accounts more closely. I also had to submit a grant application online. This experiment was not going to dent my credit rating or cost me research funding. Being on leave from work freed me from many job responsibilities, but I still had to submit work to editors on deadline. Some required communicating revisions by email. One editor -- for whom, appropriately, I wrote an article about Slow Media -- was cool with my mailing a CD to him in Australia, which spared many minutes online.
Two other weaknesses were travel and romance. On one occasion, I took an advance on the next month's Internet allowance to plan a surprise weekend getaway for my husband. I had hoped to get maps and guides from the automobile association, but visiting the nearest branch to my house would have taken at least two hours, round-trip. Another temptation was wedding planning, since we got engaged during my project. An intrepid friend and I went to a local bridal shop but got turned away for -- gasp! -- not having an appointment. An unsympathetic sales associate told us to go home and look at the catalog online.
Remember: I abstained from digital media for six months. You can handle 24 hours, if you prepare. One suggestion: Warn people that you won't be available digitally and give them alternate contact information. This will ease the nagging feeling that someone is trying to reach you. Vacation responders might help. But guess what? Few people who emailed me during my Slow Media project followed up by phone. Some said they didn't read auto-replies. Some said they were too lazy, shy or busy to make the call. Most of them said that their messages just weren't important. Forget FOMO; your fear of missing out is largely unfounded.
The best thing to do before unplugging is to plan some offline activities. Instead of dwelling on digital media that you're not using, think of fun stuff that you can do instead. When I gave my students this unplugging assignment, some of them admitted to getting bored before the end of the day without devices. But when I framed the experience positively and asked those same teenagers to do a "Slow Media Day," they waxed poetic about playing old records, going to libraries, making art, writing in journals like they "used to love to do," and playing musical instruments that would "never get dusty again."
Every day, we are surrounded by payphones and other analog media that we barely notice. Unplugging helps us to see things anew and re-engage with this tangible world that many people take for granted. Living offline feels like being an ethnographer, doing fieldwork in your own culture. You get to enjoy some of the benefits of traveling without the costs of leaving home.
This story was first published at Medium.com in celebration of National Day of Unplugging, March 6-7, 2015. The National Day of Unplugging is one day a year that encourages people to be mindful of the impact of using digital devices.