After the coronavirus lockdown I wanted to change the way I used phones and screen technology. I’d found the experience of my entire life shifting onto the screen quite alarming, and was worried about the effects of blue light on my retina, as well as other risks of excess screentime to my physical and emotional wellbeing.
Now I was able to go out into the world and enjoy living again (from a safe distance to others!), I started to question whether I wanted a Smartphone anymore. I liked the convenience of having the world at my fingertips, but perhaps, I began to wonder, there was something more important than convenience.
I wanted to be free of distraction, to remember how things were before so much technology, the days when I’d be on a bus journey, gazing out of the window daydreaming rather than staring at my phone. I wanted to have a mindful relationship with devices, using them when I needed them, but not to fill every moment with stimulus and input.
I was reading A Monk’s Guide to Happiness by Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten. He describes coming out of a four-year meditation retreat and being shocked to discover people everywhere staring at their devices. I’d had a similar, sudden realisation after going back to my home country in the UK after living in Switzerland. I boarded a train, and found that everyone in the packed carriage was entranced by their phones. Within a few years though, Switzerland was just the same, and I had my own phone. I now live in Italy, and Smartphone use seems pretty global, and has quickly become a normal part of my life too.
At the beginning of July, I decided to spend a month without a Smartphone when I went out of the house. I felt I couldn’t give up completely because there are Whatsapp groups and ways to connect that I didn’t want to let go of. Leaving my Smartphone behind wasn’t a huge commitment. After all, we’re only just emerging from lockdown and I often work from home anyway.
However now the cafes had opened up again, I decided to go and work there weekday mornings to get some space to concentrate away from my family. It felt pretty different to break the habit of putting my phone into my bag every time I went out. It was so funny how automatic it is to think I couldn’t go out without my phone, as if it was an item of clothing, and yet there was no real reason to take it.
I noticed that my work was a lot more focused. I realised often when I need to think hard about how to put my thoughts into words, I tend to grab my phone, and go on Facebook or reply to a Whatsapp message. This seems like a tendency to take a break from the mental challenge, but actually makes it harder to think and my thinking becomes more fragmentary and distracted.
Without the phone I gazed off into the distance, in those difficult moments, emptying my brain to take a mental break rather than filling it to the point of overload. My mind felt so much clearer.
I live in a small village, but going into the city was more challenging. Since I’ve only lived in Italy for the last year I’m still finding my way around. I bought a map, but then realised it only covered the main part of the city centre, and a shop I needed to visit was off the map.
I had to ask for directions, but this actually wasn’t so bad. I got to practise my Italian and have a friendly chat. It actually made me realise that the convenience of our phones can actually reduce our human contact. We don’t need to ask for help when we have all the information we need in our pockets.
In an age where we have all experienced how devastating it to lose our daily human interactions with others, this felt important to notice, to take the time to consciously consider the way I wanted to live. Did I want to be pulled along on the tide of technology, or set limits to be able to think more clearly, look up from my phone and notice the world and my fellow human beings?
Halfway through the month I decided to buy a cheap Nokia, as I’d like to continue the project but when life gets more busy again I’d still like a way to be contacted when I’m outside the house. I’m also not sure I’ll abandon my Smartphone when I’m travelling, as there are so many ways I rely on it for storing tickets, etc.
It’s going to take some discipline, and constant reminders so I don’t slip back into the habit of overusing it, but I’m enjoying taking in the real world outside of the house, free of distraction.