Author’s Note: this post on the five stages of a digital detox is intended to be humorous, but it’s also supposed to help us question our dependence on technology and how it affects us daily.
For example, I want you to try something: the next time you go to a restaurant, look around you. Count the number of tables that are filled with people who are completely ignoring all of the people they’re actually with in favor of the people they’re with online. Pay attention to the quality of the conversation the people around you appear to be having. Pay attention to the quality of conversation, the quality of life, you have when you give half of your attention to your phone.
Last week, a group of friends and I went to Costa Rica for a long holiday weekend, and it was so wonderful. Costa Rica is a beautiful country full of beautiful people, and I would love to go back… like, tomorrow. I may have googled “Project Manager jobs in Costa Rica,” and I may be updating my resume as we speak. (I’m not, actually, but I thought about it haha!)
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that I didn’t do a whole lot of preparation for this trip–deliberately. I wanted to experience Costa Rica with an open mind and heart, and with no preconceived notions. I wanted to trust it would be okay, not seize control to make it so.
And I did! And it was great! There were rain forests! And mangoes! And I loved it!
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Something I wasn’t expecting happened while I was on the trip, however: a somewhat-involuntary digital detox. I never bothered to arrange for a wireless travel plan for my cell phone before I left, assuming I’d be able to use the hotel’s wifi for whatever I needed–and then I was largely unable to ever get on the network for more than 30 seconds at a time. It was a miracle I was able to check in to my flight the day before we left, because other than that, I was in a digital blackout.
Forced Digital Detox, Stage One: Denial
I’ve occasionally been in what felt like a digital blackout, spending long weekends wondering if my phone was broken because no one was texting me. There’s nothing quite like that sad lonely feeling of posting something to social media and waiting for someone to like or respond to it, only to see all of your friends posting their own pictures or responding to each other’s posts, while your own observation about the world sits ignored in their feed. Maybe you’re not as funny as you thought you were.
If you take an amazing picture on vacation and you can’t post it to social media, is it a good picture?
This is different, though. Someone might have responded to my Facebook post or commented on my blog, but there’s no way for me to tell. And so I spend a long time our first evening in-country in denial of the digital detox that’s about to happen, turning my wifi off and turning it back on again, restarting my phone, moving into different areas of the room, and trying anything else I can think of that might help me get more than one fucking minute of shitty wireless.
Forced Digital Detox, Stage Two: Anger
While my friends are Instagramming pictures of their delicious Costa Rican coffee on their cozy Costa Rican balconies overlooking their beautiful Costa Rican rainforest views, I’m sitting there like an idiot refreshing my connection and wondering if my boss has emailed me. Why does everyone else get to have a normal experience with their phones? What the hell is the point of staying in a resort if I can’t even have my most basic needs met, y’all? Am I paying a resort fee for this shit? Am I?
Forced Digital Detox, Stage Three: Bargaining
Wait, I realize, I also have my laptop! And so I haul it out, hopefully turning it on. If my laptop will just hook up to the wifi, I pray to the Internet Gods, I swear I’ll pay Verizon the $10 a day for a travel plan next time I go anywhere. I swear. I’ve learned my lesson.
My laptop identifies the wireless network, tells me there’s a security issue, and then says there’s no internet. The Internet Gods spit in my face. My travel companions laugh gaily as they like each other’s pictures online and text their friends back home on how our trip is going.
I restart my phone again, though there’s no real hope in the gesture.
Forced Digital Detox, Stage Four: Depression
I fall into depression, gazing longingly at my phone where it sits on the table in front of me before slipping it sadly into the front pocket of my backpack. I know that it’s nothing more than a camera at this point.
If you carry your phone around all day and don’t talk to anyone on it, do you matter?
I see beautiful vistas and snap amazing pictures, but the only people I can show them to are the people who are there with me, who also saw those beautiful vistas. It’s a strange experience.
Later, when our driver casually mentions that some Americans tried to enslave the Costa Rican people in 1856, I automatically reach for my phone to google this fact, only to realize there’s nothing I can do. The severity of my circumstances hits me again in a wave, and I wonder if my only purpose on this planet is to suffer.
Forced Digital Detox, Stage Five: Acceptance
Finally, finally, I accept my fate. This will be an internet-free vacation. I am on a digital detox. It doesn’t matter if everyone else can get on the hotel’s wifi. I cannot.
And so I have conversations with the people around me. I pay attention to the scene around me. I focus on my meals, rather than splitting my attention with a tiny glowing screen. I reach for my phone only when I want to document something with a picture, not when I want confirmation that someone somewhere gave me half a second’s thought. I reach for my laptop when I want to write something, not when I want to scroll through what other people have written.
I read a book. I finish it and start a second. I curl up in a blanket with some tea and watch a rainstorm. I think about how many fun things I have in my future, how many beautiful trips with amazing people I still have yet to take.
It doesn’t matter if anyone texted me, because I can’t check it anyway. And I finally realize that it never mattered if anyone texted me, because other people’s texts don’t have anything to do with my actual life that I’m living right now.
And it’s like a band that has been slowly tightening around my rib cage for years finally releases. I realize that I have had a growing sense that I don’t matter when I don’t get daily confirmation from other people telling me I do. Somehow, some part of me bought into the false promises of Facebook, that these people online are my friends, and I should tell them what I’m doing every second of every day to make sure that they can tell me I’m okay.
The luxuriousness of being free of a digital tether and reading a book seems ridiculous in hindsight, but it’s a fact. These are such small things, and they are things I can definitely achieve at home if I let myself, but it took going to Costa Rica and having a forced digital detox to make me realize it in the first place.
This is acceptance.