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How I survived my two-week digital diet


I’m a Millennial and I’m lucky. I was born in 1984, right on the cusp of the tech takeover.

I recall text-commanded DOS computers, the grating sound of dial-up Internet and the advent of the first clunky cellphones the size of cordless receivers.

It didn’t take long, though, until kids in my generation could pass as digital natives. I’m just as susceptible to cringeworthy over-sharing and posting life-affirming stream of selfies on Instagram or Facebook as the Generation Z.

I know my digital distractions have encroached on my down time, which was one dedicated to creativity — reading and writing poetry and fiction. Instead of people-watching on the bus and scribbling on my notebook in my long commute home from York University to Scarborough, I found myself mindlessly scrolling through social media.

I joined a movement inspired by Michael Harris’s new book The End of Absence: Reclaiming what We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. Harris challenges our generation to usher quiet moments back into our lives. For two weeks, I resolved to ditch digital, rediscover dreaming and make deeper social connections in the flesh.

As a first step, I sat down with an estranged writing implement — a blue ball-point pen (so corporeal) and, in my underused cursive, wrote down my prescription for eliminating my digital diet. The list included the following: Use my smartphone for phone calls only. Quit Google. Send snail mail. Hunt down a pay phone and use it. Get voicemail. Bring back the Walkman.

A man walks into a bar without a smartphone. It’s nothing to joke about. The poor guy would have a serious impediment, unable to outsource his drunk inquiries to Siri or Google. I experienced this firsthand when out drinking with my friend Jason and my boyfriend Graeme, discussing topics ranging from a Chris Lehmann article in The Baffler to Bernie Sanders to a Wolf Parade song. Graeme started a “Don’t Do It” tally on a napkin, counting how many times I tried to reach for my phone to Google. Tally: six times in one hour. In hindsight, the exercise could’ve made for a really nice drinking game.

When it was time to use the cellphone for its core function — actually making a phone call — I couldn’t get up the courage to dial. The thought of having to engage in inane chit-chat to invite someone to a housewarming felt like a mammoth task. Things went downhill from there. I thought myself enlightened when the idea struck me to send snail mail invites. In my dysfunctional, regressive and millennial way, I “inboxed” my friends on Facebook requesting they email me their addresses so I could mail them physical invitations. So, that’s a partial win, I guess.

When I finally got up the nerve to make a phone call, my phone was running out of juice. I needed to reschedule plans with Graeme that night so I quickly memorized his number from my phone’s directory and used a pay phone. Graeme didn’t recognize the number on his caller ID, ignored the call and that was that. I ticked this task off my list of analog duties.

Undeterred, I signed up for an $ 8 voicemail addition to my cellphone plan. Yet all of my callers hung up without leaving a message, save for my parents and one friend who found my outgoing message funny. (“Please don’t hang up. Humour me and leave a message.”)

Since I use my phone for music, too, I knew I had to dig into my junk drawer for my old Walkman and Discman. On my first commute home, I head-bopped ever so gently to the loud Phantom Beats stabilizer remix to avoid making the Discman skip. Frustrated, I reverted even further to my Walkman. I delighted in flipping my cassette tape to Side B as the younger people gawked and baby boomers lit up with nostalgia. It’s curious how the delicate Discman followed the Walkman, a superior and more portable device that would never skip or scratch and where you could record at the push of a button.

Since I deprived myself of social media, I had to live in the immediate world. Without the convenience of my Twitter feed live-streaming the Perseid meteor shower that month, I had to see it for myself outdoors with my closest friends. Instead of the usual Netflix binge on the couch inhaling takeout pizza, Graeme and I opted for Shakespeare in High Park: plopped on the grass eating a homemade picnic and watching Julius Caesar. These face-to-face connections during my analog time were deeper, richer and just downright more fun.

Plugging back in

When my two weeks were up, I ended my experiment by upgrading my no-longer-smart smartphone to a Samsung S5. Yep, I did.

The truth is, we live in a fast-paced, multi-tasking world. I take more photos now with my 16-megapixel camera phone than ever before. It’s the one thing I truly missed about the cellphone: the convenience of being able to document life photographically.

So I’m snapping selfies and there’s no going back.

TORONTO STAR | LIFE | TECHNOLOGY

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