Monday, 4 July 2011

Unplugged

It has been almost 3 months since I wrote a blog post and it might seem that I have been struggling to stick to my new year's resolution. But this time my reasons for not blogging don't stem from procrastination, but rather from a conscious choice to reduce my online activity.

I've realised in the last year that online life can very quickly become addictive. The constant stream of information and communication plays on basic human instincts. We are biologically programmed to be curious and to seek out connections with others, it is one of the reasons why we are such successful animals, and the internet gives us an endless supply of new information and connections. Blogs and news sites play their part, but social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are the equivalent of an internet drug.

Since university, like many in my generation, I've been fairly addicted to the internet. Up until recently, there wasn't a day in the last 8-9 years that I haven't been online. The level of information intake has stayed relatively constant but the level of communication with other people, and sharing personal thoughts and information, has steadily increased. At first it was just emails, then Facebook appeared, and then Twitter. "Being connected" online formed the pattern of each day, part of the fabric of day-to-day life.

However, this all came to a dramatic halt when I travelled to Africa. The laptop and smartphone were left at home and we were plunged into an environment where internet access was a rare, slow and expensive luxury. Internet cold turkey. I expected it to be a real struggle, that the cravings for human connections and information would go achingly unfilled. That expectation is perhaps testament enough of how deep it possible to get. Because the reality is that when you put yourself in a situation where you can no longer get your information and connection fix from the internet, you go out and seek it in the real world.

In Africa, without the internet, there was more knowledge and human interaction than I could have ever possibly absorbed. The fabric of day-to-day life is full of real human connections and interactions with nature. I started to realise that "online life" is a very poor substitute for "real life". The things we learnt and the connections we made were all done using the old fashioned mechanisms of talking, walking, travelling and first hand experience. These unplugged experiences were so much more valuable, so much richer and fuller than anything online.

On return to the UK I realised that this was not specific to Africa. That despite the increasingly online nature of life here, it was perfectly possible to unplug. I dabbled with Facebook and Twitter again, but I found them so much less fulfilling now that I had rediscovered the technicolor of the real world. I also began to realise that there is an inversely proportional relationship between time spent immersed in online life and time immersed in the real world. The more time I spent online, the less I was getting out of life. So I decided to go for self-imposed internet cold turkey. I didn't check my emails for weeks, my social networking for months and evidently haven't been on my blog until now. In many ways, I've never been happier than over the last 3 months. There is so much to do in life, I don't know how I ever had time for the internet before.

I guess, in the end, there is a balance to be found. While I've effectively given up on "social networking" and I'm going to continue to maintain my new dramatically reduced level of online activity, I still enjoy reading small amounts of online news, comment and blogs – and I'll continue to add my contribution to the collective discourse with posts on this blog.