As a tech journalist, I’m wedded to the internet and its constant demand for attention. Everyday, I’m on the prowl for breaking tech stories, trawling websites and social media.
I don’t enjoy the hunt. This craving for new stimulation and micro-hits makes me shift tabs, open new windows, vault from one task to the other. The cacophony of noise makes me jumpy and destroys my focus.
Which is why I enjoy going offline during my vacations. I just spent two weeks driving around New Zealand’s amazing South Island with my wife, and no LTE connection on my iPhone. I didn’t even touch Wi-Fi. The only concession I made was a pre-paid SIM card on a secondary phone with LTE, for when I needed to check maps or look for places to eat.
It was one of the best times of my life. Not just because of New Zealand’s amazing landscapes and its friendly people, but for how going offline magnified everything else.
I’m old enough to remember a time when travel meant leaving pretty much everything you knew behind — when all you had to rely on were your plans, your wit and your ability to get around.
When being lost couldn’t be solved with a few clicks, and finding a good place to eat meant sniffing with your nose and not tapping at an app. When you weren’t always tethered to the people you left behind, because phone calls and text messages were expensive. When serendipity was allowed, and your senses were constantly being exposed to sights and sounds beyond your comfort zone.
We seem to have lost that. I’ve gone on trips where friends were perpetually tied to familiar ground through the apps on their phones. Where a screen’s distraction was a safer escape than paying attention to where they were. Where they were away, but weren’t really away.
One of the saddest sights I saw in New Zealand happened when my wife and I were enjoying afternoon tea outside a café. We sat there in the cool breeze, enjoying the mountain view with a field of bright yellow flowers right beside us, when a family of other tourists joined us at the next table.
While the adults were busy with tea, their two children were tied to their iPads — preferring the digital sights on their screens to the incredible beauty of the world just beyond those rectangles. It broke my heart that they would dismiss the natural world so easily, for a shiny screen of entertainment.
The Lightness of Being
The last two weeks have been refreshing, for both my mind and body.
By consciously reducing our distractions, my wife and I were left with the most elemental of experiences: The company of another human being and the environment around us. We filled long drives and hikes with conversations, and let the remaining moments sit in silence, just being with each other and our own thoughts.
Over time, I realized that what I was escaping from wasn’t the internet. The internet is a wonderful tool, if you can keep it in its place as a utility. It helped me find great places to eat in new neighborhoods, and helped me find my destinations when I got lost.
What I was running from was the noise of social media, the clamor of other people telling you what to pay attention to and what to think. If using the internet as a tool means you going online to get what you want, social media is the internet gushing to you, flooding you with everything and more.
Thinking Like Nobody Else
We give our bodies times to rest; to lounge, nap, or snooze. But in a hyperconnected world, we seldom give our minds the same opportunity to relax. Whenever a moment of nothingness comes by, we rush to fill it with a clickable diversion.
Instead of filling in the empty moments while in New Zealand, I just let myself be. When I was waiting for my wife, I sat and watched outside the window. When I woke up early, I listened to the birdsong and watched the sun rise. When there was nothing to do or say, I just let there be nothing to do or say. We didn’t even play music during the long drives.
And in those moments, free from the world that tells you what to do, say or think, I could hear myself think my own thoughts. To think your own thoughts sounds easy, but it is the hardest thing in the world to do.
There is nothing easier than to take on the thoughts of others, to let others tell you how to think — or to think nothing at all, and hunt for entertainment instead. Especially now, when so many distractions are just a click away.
Those silences, the liberation from noise, and the space to think — those are the pleasures of going offline.
Portrait of me by my wife Sin Ye. All rights reserved.