Not long ago I got into an elevator to find a young woman standing inside, staring at her cellphone. She did not look up, nor did she acknowledge me. I noted she had not pressed a button to choose a floor, so I hit the one for the underground garage.
The door opened and I got off, followed by the young woman, still staring at her phone. She followed me through the security door and almost to my car. Then she finally looked up, startled to find herself in a parking garage with a strange man.
I have no idea how long she had been in the elevator before I got in, or how long she would have stayed there had I not stumbled by. She was clearly consumed by her marvelous technology and oblivious to the world around her.
The woman’s absorption was extreme, but not all that rare. You see it all around us, people mesmerized by their iEverything, strolling nonchalantly into the street in front of your car or sedated into lethargy on a corner. Pedestrians walking into you on the sidewalk, lost in their Twitter feed or Facebook “life.” Travelers at the airport, rushing to electrical outlets to plug in and tune out.
Sorry, can’t talk, I’m in the middle of Angry Birds.
I bumped into the woman in the elevator about the same time I saw an article about Jesse Ventura, former Minnesota ’rassler and governor. Ventura announced he was “going off grid,” disposing of technology to essentially “hide from drones” and alleged government monitoring. Only Ventura could make something so prudent and reasonable as abandoning the Internet sound so deranged.
My wife may disagree with this, but I’m not nearly as attached to my cellphone and social media as most people I know. Still, I was beginning to feel weary of the whole thing. Was it really worth living if I couldn’t share a video of my dog with people I haven’t seen in person for four years?
I had to find out.
So I literally went back in time, flying to the West Coast without a computer or tablet. My cellphone would be turned off or set on airplane mode.
Of course, I announced this on Facebook:
“Like Jesse, I’m going off grid so drones (or editors) can’t find me. Until April 1. No social nothing. No Internet. Phone off. Try to find me, media jackals.”
I was trying to kick what researchers call “Digital Attention Disorder,” the “addiction” to social networks and computers. I had read that it was so bad for some people they paid about $20,000 for a 45-day “Internet rehab” program. I had also read a study showing that when people used cellphones they were less likely to be good to others, or to display “prosocial behavior.”
In other words, obsessive use of cellphones makes us jerks. But you knew that.
I landed in California, but before I could shut off the phone, it rang and I instinctively picked up. It was a source. She said I needed to watch a video of a hearing on the Internet. I told her I was on vacation, and had no access to the Internet.
Silence. It was as though that option was a foreign concept.
For the next 10 days I did not tweet or post or vine or snapchat or surf. I turned my phone on twice, to book dinner and call my sister.
I walked on the beach every morning, and though I brought my music device, I quickly decided the sound of crashing waves and sea gulls was way better than listening to clatter, maybe even better than Miles Davis.