Digital blackout

Edit: I’ve set up a new website/blog to cover this topic:

I’m sat in my Mum’s kitchen, looking out over the Cotswolds. I grew up around here. It’s beautiful, and reminds me of why I love getting out running, biking and walking in the countryside. Something I do criminally rarely these days.

I’m also wondering why I’m on my laptop when I could be out there.

I read Charlie Brooker’s excellent piece the other day about Google Instant, and how it’s probably indicative of our dwindling attention spans as we suffer our daily digital onslaughts. These distractions, combined with procrastination, are a guarantee that nothing gets done, he writes:

“I entered the room at 10.30am. Because I was interested in the phone-hacking story, I’d set up an automatic Twitter search for the term “Coulson” (eavesdropping, essentially: he’d hate it). Whenever someone mentioned his name, a window would pop up in the corner of my screen to alert me. Often their messages included a link to a webpage, which I’d end up skim-reading. This was on top of the other usual web distractions: emails, messageboards, self-deluding “research” on Wikipedia, and so on.

By 1pm I’d written precisely three lines of script. Yet my fingers had scarcely left the keyboard. My brain felt like a loose, whirring wheel that span with an audible buzz yet never quite touched the ground.”

This all sounded incredibly familiar. I’ve spoken publically about my inate procrastination, and the deadly combination of social media and lack of self-discipline. And I know I’m not the only one. Google Instant seems to be the next step. But one that’s completely un-needed. When Google Instant was launched I tweeted that I felt it was breeding impatience. But Brooker (as usual) communicated our shared inability to deal with the onslaught far more eloquently and intelligently than I ever could.

“My attention span was never great, but modern technology has halved it, and halved it again, and again and again, down to an atomic level, and now there’s nothing discernible left. Back in that room, bombarded by alerts and emails, repeatedly tapping search terms into Google Instant for no good reason, playing mindless pinball with words and images, tumbling down countless little attention-vortexes, plunging into one split-second coma after another, I began to feel I was neither in control nor 100% physically present. I wasn’t using the computer. The computer was using me – to keep its keys warm. (Apart from “enter”, obviously. I didn’t even have to press that.)

By 5.30pm I’d written half a paragraph. I went home in disgust.”

Oh, Charlie. You’re in my head.

I walked around a village fete earlier with my Mum and girlfriend. Despite it being a sunny day, and being with loved ones climbing on a fire engine and laughing at morris dancers, I couldn’t resist a cheeky peek at Twitter on my phone, and to log in to see how many t-shirts Dizzyjam had sold today. None of this solved anything, made me feel better, or indeed more enlightened. I discovered that John was driving over to drop a boxset back to Jonny. But, y’know, so what? (sorry gents!).

Also, I’m increasingly conscious that these forms of social media play merry havoc with your ego. It’s all too easy to get drawn into the trap of caring how many followers you have, or actually planning the best time to post a blog or tweet to get maximum coverage. I know it’s crossed my mind before, and I hate that. I don’t think it’s healthy, and I want to engage in the positive parts of the internet and social media, but without deluding myself that anyone out there (apart from a few friends and family) is actually that fussed about what I think. Blogging for me has always been about getting my thoughts down, rather than blogging with a particular purpose or, worse, to gain a wider audience.

So, something needs to change.

I need to enforce a digital blackout for 72 hours or more. I need to cease all social media communication, all email contact and, maybe, all telephone contact. A complete shutdown. A means of “resetting” my need for constant informational update. Maybe if I can go without for a period of time, when I return to it I’ll have a little more “control”. It’ll also be an interesting experiment, I think.

Here’s where you come in. I need suggestions. I want to be away from social media and the like for between 3 and 7 days. I want to be without phone or laptop. I want to have a few books, a pen and some paper. But equally I want to do something. The weather’s getting worse, and the nights are drawing in, but the idea of cycling up to North Wales, or hiking out to Pembrokeshire appeals to me.

But, I’m completely open to suggestions. Maybe you know of some cave that I can go and hide out in, or a monastery that might have me for a few days….

29 responses to “Digital blackout”

  1. I know exactly where your coming from Neil, because I more or less the same if not worse. I think when I comes down to it good old fashion discipline is the way to go.

    I was blogging at Vision Bristol last week, and went to a seminar on Creative Leadership given by a couple of guys who work under the name of People Who Do. Amoung the many ideas for creative things to do to get your brain working they gave out a booklet with many exercises and tips to concentrate the creative mind. They mainly involve getting out the old pen and paper and writting stuff down, prioritising everything. I can copy it and send you all the tips if you’d like?

    But over all I have the same problem. I don’t think a social media/email/phone fast would be a bad thing at all. I like David Hieatt’s suggestion on his blog about having a fallow friday where you feed yourself, get outside go for a run/ride, by some magazines and actually read them, do anything that feeds your mind and soul basically.

    I think that social media has it’s place but everything in moderation as they say.

  2. I’ve been thinking of enforcing a weekly blackout for 24hours. An outside, whatever the weather day. I’m thinking Sundays, though here I am on a Sunday reading your blog at 8am…

    Tara and I used to spend time in a place in California called Big Sur, basically a post gold rush, old hippie/artist town. You can stay in a cabin with no internet or cell phone reception. There has to be a welsh cottage like that.

    • Thanks Maf. This got me thinking. How about a monthly communal “blackout”. Hire somewhere for everyone to go to for a day. Phones and laptops handed in at the door. One room for conversation and games. One room for quiet reading, writing…?

  3. Read with nodding head – seems like Simon hit the nail on the head about moderation and “fallow Fridays”, maybe it is about choosing a day where you commit to unplugging from the matrix and build it up into whole weekends once a month?

    “I want to engage in the positive parts of the internet and social media, but without deluding myself that anyone out there (apart from a few friends and family) is actually that fussed about what I think.”

    And maybe it’s the above you start to focus on when playing around in all these social spaces (and not just limiting it to your blog). Enjoy the unplugged-time πŸ™‚

  4. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for writing this post – I empathised with Brooker but couldn’t really put it into words on my own blog – you’ve said it all here.

    I too wandered around Abergavenny Food Festival glaring at my iPhone wondering why FourSquare wouldn’t let me check in before I realised I’d been neglecting my friend, the sights and smells.

    Problem with a digital blackout is I think when you come back to social media after a few days of no connection you will find the wealth of information to take in overwhelming.

    After a week away earlier this year I found the sheer amount of emails, tweets, messages, and social networking to ‘catch up on’ or at least just digest almost too much – I felt the offline goodness I’d gained from a week off slowly ebb away with each log-in.

    You may find this information overload means you either don’t want to come back altogether or you need a solid day to get back ‘on top of things’ (and never feel like you have done). I’ll be interested to find how you deal with coming back to social media after the blackout – let us know how you get on!

    • Thanks Hannah. I’d hope that by not engaging for a set period, I also get less “replies” because I’m not out there creating “content to be replied to. Although I know a few people who’ve declared email bankruptcy in order to reclaim their inbox. Interesting concept.

  5. the monks on caldy island will have you – thats where Chris went on retreat…failing that I suggest you book a holiday in a cottage in pembrokeshire – no internet reception anyway! just don’t take your missus – I need her!

    Failing that as one of your best mates, you give me your phone and laptop tomorrow and I’ll give em back to you in a week πŸ˜‰ tough love! up for the challenge cocker?

  6. Working for “The Man” (sorry Evan and Miles) it’s maybe a little easier for me. Checking my emails could easily mean I get involved in a long and protracted issue which might just make me cross or take hours.

    That said I work for an exciting, dynamic and fun start up so it’s hard to switch off completely.

    I have set myself a couple of simple methods for blacking out.

    1) Tell my wife in a loud voice that I won’t be checking my emails or fiddling with my phone for the next (insert time period here) whatever. If she sees me reach for my HTC or try and flick open the laptop she shouts at me. It’s the equivalent of the AA sponsor for the terminally connected.

    2) Think seriously about whether checking Facebook or Tweetdeck will enhance any enjoyment I am currently having. If the answer is Yes then go ahead but it never, ever is.

    Social media has become a tool of our working lives so keep it there.

    • Yeah, I definitely think being self-employed blurs the boundaries between life and work, and makes it more difficult to keep control of them.

      I agree that that “check” before logging on to see if it will actually make you feel better is a really good thing. It’s something I’ve been able to do really effectively with buying “stuff” for ethical and eco reasons. I consume so much less than I used to for that reason.

  7. I like your idea of cycling up to North Wales, going camping or just disappearing on holiday for a few days.

    My problem last time I vanished into rural Wales was that I wanted to share photos / write / post video of where I was and how nice the scenery is. The ultimate juxtaposition?

    Maybe not – the fact that there was no internet access for large chunks of the day (ALL day once north of Llandridnod Wells) meant there was more time for enjoying the tranquillity, and a finite time sharing it with the rest of the world.

    Meandering from town to town, calmly enjoying the castles, markets, hills and waterfalls I still took photos, made notes on my phone, used a sat-nav and generally used gadgets to capture what I was looking at.

    Updating, commenting and skim reading was confined to a couple of hours at most, with an emphasis on editing my content down to a Facebook sized update. These couple of hours were even more enjoyable because they usually took place in a pub, whilst charging the phone at the end of a day’s sight-seeing.

    I guess I’m saying sometime less is more. As the previous comment suggested though, maybe we need reigning in a bit when we’re back in 3G reception?

    • Paul – I totally agree. It did occur to me that I’d ironically want to tweet from the road, and share all the brilliant things that happened. Not an option, though! πŸ™‚

  8. The benefits of slave labour, well documented but usually overlooked by we, the supposedly enlightened owners of the latest communications gadgets. Isn’t it just plain weird that we love a hunk of plastic and metal so much and we’d rather communicate with people we’ve never met instead of those around us. What have they done to us?

    Neil – it feels more than a little ironic that your digital blackout is going to be staged, reported on and tweeted about and can we look forward to you blogging about it afterwards? Just switch it off, it’s not that hard.. πŸ™‚

    • Mark – I intend to take zero communications technology, so tweeting etc won’t be possible. Unless you’re talking about other people tweeting about it?

      As for it being “staged”? Not quite sure what you mean, but I’m sure I’ll probably blog about my experience, if only for others’ benefit. I don’t really consider this a “professional blog”, so I’m not staging it to get more readers or attention, if that’s your meaning?

      • I don’t mean it’s contrived in order to get traffic to your site! πŸ™‚ I’m going to stop here because I think my message above sounds harsher than I meant it to be. I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression.

  9. I can recommend the very north of Scotland for an enforced break from connectivity. I was there on holiday this summer and couldn’t get a mobile Internet connection (on 3) where I was staying in Sutherland. My phone signal was intermittent at the best of times, depending on which side of the river I was!

  10. Agree with others comments above and think this has sparked a much needed debate Neil!

    I too delve into the depths of rural Pembrokeshire for respite – choose somewhere with no mobile reception or internet connection – you’ll find it’s utter bliss and time goes by just as fast as when you’re plugged into the rest of the world!

    Enjoy your break Neil and I do think you should blog about it when you get back – will be an interesting experiment.

  11. There was an article in a recent Wired that followed group of people into the countryside on exactly such a retreat.

    The main finding, if I recall, was it took everyone several days to properly calm down and lose the urge to check their phones. One participant actually was surprised to discover he hadn’t remembered even to put his watch on.

    I couldn’t dig the article up right now, but will have a look again when I get home…

    • There’s a regular 5-a-side I join in with on Sundays. Only caveat is that you must be fairly rubbish to play. We don’t encourage anyone with any skill…

      You’d be more than welcome, I’m sure.


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