THE BLOG

You Can Be Here Now, With or Without Wifi

18/08/2015 10:00 BST | Updated 16/08/2016 10:59 BST

"Can't you put that away?" I snapped, my voice betraying the 'hey-I'm-just-a-chilled-out-chick' vibe that I was trying to go for. Ah well. We'd known each other long enough that I'm not sure what 'vibe' I would (unsuccessfully) have been 'trying' for anyway.

What I did know is that it deeply grated me when we were out with other people, mid-conversation, and he'd pull out his iPhone. To the point where I was tempted to go academic-gangster on his ass: "'The age of anxiety and of electronic media is also the age of the unconscious,' bitch!" (Marshall McLuhan, media theorist.)

"Technologized narcissism can emphasise 'a society where, paradoxically, we have the world at our fingertips, but are unable to really touch or relate to it', m***********!'" (Robert Hassan, read more here.)

Yet I kept my mouth shut because (a) duh and (b) I knew that this was about me (not him). What annoys us in others is often what annoys us in ourselves. It was time for me to do a digital detox to soothe the crack-addict-like mental twitch that had me (like him, just saying) reaching for my phone too often.

Like any once-great relationship turned toxic, I figured that if technology and I could just take a break from each other for a bit, maybe we could salvage whatever brought us together in the first place.

I needed a wifi-free holiday. I was sick of feeling like an ambassador of myself! Facebook: so shallow and adolescent! Screw you, Zuckerberg! If I take a photo of this moment or a video of this concert, it means I'm not BEING HERE NOW.

So I went cold turkey for a week during a recent family vacation to Italy. Yes, my mind did feel clearer. But if I'm honest, going completely offline also felt slightly unnatural.

Obviously, Facebook makes you feel like a self-centered teenager sometimes ('Validate me! Validate me!'). Yet it's also a highly convenient tool for regularly stalking overseas loved ones. Shutting myself off from close friends felt self-centered in a different way.

What I did not miss: unnecessary updates from people who are barely non-strangers. Do I really need to know that some random chick I met for five seconds at a random party four years ago had lunch with her mother? I mean, during our family vacation, I wasn't going to post, "Heart-to-heart with my brother! #LOVEmybro! #bloodsthebest!" After all, I am someone's random chick from a party years ago.

A week offline reminded me that social apps are also megaphones for people that are kind of like the pigeons I pass on the way to work. I don't not care about the pigeons. I just don't stop and really think about them either.

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Be free, pigeons. You do you.

But I do appreciate how social apps connect me to friends who are friends, not pigeons. So although in one of my favourite essays, William Deresciewz argued:

Facebook and Twitter and YouTube [sic]... are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way.

I'd argue that the danger with social media is similar to that of alcohol or porn or travel or any other potential reality-enhancer. It's not the social media (or the alcohol, etc) that we need to question. It's the way we relate to it and an awareness of any inner void that's causing too strong a pull.

This new electronic world is absurd. We're all in a magazine or television show now, except the magazine or show is our life, and it's like Friends, where no one ever dies or gets PMS. There's just canned laughter and great times! No one posts, "Fought with Dad! Stressed about my mortgage! Felt lonely while falling asleep next to my wife!"

But it's too simple to say that wifi-less, you're present, deep and honest; that with social media, you're distracted, shallow and phony. The truth is more complex than categorically declaring that taking photos disconnects you from the present moment. Cataloguing can enshrine an experience (the opposite of discounting it).

Sure, social media can encourage image-conscious and attention-seeking behavior, but so too can a lot of things. Post-detox, I was more pro-internet ("Let's never break up again!") though more conscious of how I use it.

The web enables both emotional avoidance and engagement. With or without wifi, you are who you are. Social media is simply a new arena for age-old social patterns.

Pre-detox, I thought I was mad at iPhones, when really, I was mad at myself for how I was using mine. When I made peace with whatever was going on inside me, I also made peace with this newfangled electronic world.