I used to be a neo-luddite. In high school, I mocked my father’s dependence on his “crack-berry.” In college, I stood aside while my friends rushed for smart phones. After school I remained proudly analog while teaching English in Spain, a country that still valued life offline – communal lunches with friends, leisurely afternoons paseos, and languid hours in cafes, deeply immersed in conversation.
Then I started blogging. Initially, disconnection allowed reflection on my surroundings. I even mused about the irony of trying to blog about staying disconnected. But what began as a hobby soon became a full-time career as a travel writer and videographer. In 2013, my brother and I won a travel video competition and were thrust into the spotlight. Suddenly we were contractually obligated to produce videos, write articles, craft tweets, and snap Instagram posts from the road. Keeping my old cell phone was not an option. It was time to upgrade.
My phone has been part of my life ever since. Posting to Instagram is now a daily ritual, checking emails a nervous habit. In Spain, I used to wake up and meditate for twenty minutes. Now I grab my phone and browse Facebook for thirty.
Yet it seems I can’t stop – and neither can anyone else I know. Our lives are increasingly immersed in our technology. The internet has become the “ever-net,” a ubiquitous invisible presence constantly buzzing around us – like The Force, but more distracting.
I used to get a break whenever I would travel abroad. Now I’ve got an international plan with global data.
This constant distraction affects the quality of our travels. Many travel to get away from daily life, yet we bring our phones with us. Our bodies might be in Bali, but Facebook ties us firmly to home.
That’s partly why Cathay Pacific launched their #OneDayOffline campaign. Cathay Pacific is all about “life well traveled,” and so they encourage travelers to connect with the places they visit by disconnecting from their phones for just one day.
Earlier this month, Cathay Pacific teamed up with Mashable to assemble a dozen travel bloggers in upstate New York and put the idea into action. It’s hard to imagine a group of people more dependent on the internet than full-time bloggers.
In truth, I needed a break. I hadn’t had any time offline in months. I accepted the offer and flew to New York City to catch Mashable’s bus heading to the Hudson Valley.
The bus rolled through auburn hills blanketed in forest of russet and gold, flecked with villages of wooden farmhouses. As dusk enveloped the Hudson Valley, we pulled into our home for the weekend – an wooden farmhouse surrounded by apple orchards. Already, I could feel my attention returning to the moment.
I also felt strangely vulnerable. It was nigh Halloween, we were near the setting of Sleepy Hollow, and our farmhouse was ominously located on Cemetery Road. I couldn’t help but mention that it felt like the beginning of a horror movie.
“Without our phones,” asked another blogger timorously, “who would call for help?”
I pictured the horrors that could unfold – feeling phantom vibrations, twitching and itching with craving until we discover that one of us had secretly kept their phone – holding out on the rest of us. A violent melee follows. The bus driver returns to pick us up on Sunday, only to find one blogger alone, desperately clutching a bloody smart phone, pacing the lawn in search of signal. Lord of the WiFis.
In all seriousness, the true fear that gripped me is one most keenly felt by bloggers – the mirror of FOMO. Not missing what other people are doing, but the fear that something amazing could happen and we would be without the means of documenting and sharing it.
I wondered, in the social-media world, if you see an amazing sunset but don’t put it on Instagram, did it really happen? What is the value of an experience divorced from it’s social media validation?
The next day, I awoke at dawn and clutched my phone, eagerly looking for messages and notifications that accrue each night. Nothing. Airplane mode.
I fell back on my pillow. Instead of distracting myself from my first waking moment, I promised, I will remain present for each moment of this day.
We started off on the right foot – yoga in a beautifully restored barn. After breakfast, we picking apples from the farm’s orchard. I fed an apple a horse, who slobbered all over my palm.
Instinctively, I reached for my phone to share the moment on Snapchat. No dice. Instead, I turned to my friends and shared the experience with them directly.
With each passing moment I felt increasingly conscious, more more deeply connected to my immediate surroundings. We went fishing in a brook, watching deer trot by but catching nothing. But we didn’t care. It was chance to get to know the other bloggers and trade stories from our lives on the road.
At lunch, we spread out blankets and picnicked overlooking the Hudson. I absorbed the sound of birds, the smell of the autumn forest, and the taste of the food we enjoyed together. The meal passed languorously. Just like my days in Spain, I followed lunch with a siesta.
It occurred to me that an archaic word for fun is “diversion”, which is quite an honest word, really – especially in an era where we’ve become so reliant on our phones for just that.
However, there’s a difference between diversion through social media, and diversion by socializing in real life. Browsing our friends’ status updates on Facebook is an incredible way to keep in touch with people all around the world, but it’s not the same as catching up face to face. At some point, consuming social media ceases to be social and becomes addictive.
The truth is that we’re just starting to enter the internet age. Our connection to the net will only become more constant, ubiquitous and invasive. Therefore, we must be more conscious of how, when and why we use it.
Five years ago, a good wifi signal could be rare to find abroad, so they were valued. Now it’s disconnection that’s rare. Perhaps it, too, will become more valuable – like a sabbath for the digital era.
This is truer still for travel, because traveling well is dependent on your ability to fully witness what you experience. A digital detox is a good practice to make sure the world doesn’t pass us by while we’re searching for WiFi.
The idea wasn’t mine – it’s Cathay Pacific’s. But I like it a lot. And as my life as a travel vlogger continues to quicken in pace and become ever-more dependent on social media, taking a day offline might just become a weekly ritual.
Because if we don’t travel well, what’s the point in traveling at all?
See the video from Mashable below as well as Cathay Pacific’s #onedayoffline blog.