Tech can leave our heads spinning (artwork by Brittany Truex)

Watching Thomas Balmes‘s Happiness, which premieres tonight on Independent Lens [check local listings], will leave one with a bittersweet feeling about technology. Most of us in the United States have a love-hate (admit it, mostly love-love) relationship with our gadgets, from computers to mobile phones to television — the arrival of the latter in a small Bhutan village is an integral aspect of Happiness and that bittersweetness. We may equally ask “How have we survived without it?” and “How do we survive with it?”

Into the (Tech-Free) Wild

For most Americans living on “the grid” (many of us seem permanently entangled in it), to really be able to enforce the “no technology” rule, it seems best to leave the grid entirely, rather than trying to do it at home. There, your partner, roommate, children, and friends all may not be especially supportive or able to go tech-free for very long themselves, and you’ll have readily available temptations at every turn. No, to really go cold turkey (or cold techie), one should basically leave the distractions of home and head for somewhere remote. In fact, here in northern California there’s even now a camp for adults wanting to break their “tech addiction” called Camp Grounded.

I’ll give you a more personal example, followed by thoughts on a shorter experiment from a tech-addicted colleague, and then we hope you will share your experiences.

Much of this may sound silly compared to what those who live in remote parts of the world experience (or as people say on Twitter, “#FirstWorldProblems”), but in my case getting away from tech devices involved going on a backpacking trip to a more remote part of the Sierra Nevada mountains. For someone who has a hard enough time not looking at his phone, email, Twitter, or TV for a day, doing this for nearly six days was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat after the first night. While we weren’t nearly as far away from Western civilization as the remote Himalayan village in Happiness, we were hours away by car, many more by foot of course, and just as importantly, out of cell phone range. This was an issue when I became anxious about keeping in touch with my girlfriend, who was home with our ailing cat.

It was far easier to go without television; we all had books to read (some brought their Kindles for as long as the battery would last; I brought books that were printed on actual paper), a notebook and some writing I was working on, we had games, cards, conversation, we walked for hours under the trees like Thoreau. And as is probably true with most people when they camp, we all conked out early when dark, to sleep under the canopy of stars.

I tend to fall asleep listening to podcasts, helpful in tuning out the noise and chatter that sometimes can settle into our brains when we finally have the quietude of our beds. I did this when camping, too (more out of habit as the only noise around was my snoring tent mate and owls), until my iPod battery ran out — our solar chargers were nearly useless — but at least by then I was more settled into the camping routine. [Side note: One concession to technology was that we also brought a transistor radio and I sometimes listened to this quietly at night mostly to hear sports scores — sort of an ancient iPod?]

For especially the first couple of days I’ll admit that I felt depressed and disconnected at times, again more from being un-tethered from loved ones than from being able to see what was happening in the world. There’s something freeing and even anxiety-reducing about not knowing the news. I wondered if there was anything terrible like a plane crash, a shooting spree, or any of the other terrible events we see news of almost instantly when we’re connected — but forced myself to stop wondering about such things. Occasionally I wished I could Tweet out a picture from my trip.

The lack of a usable phone may have caused anxiety, but otherwise, the trip was an important refresher course on how going without can actually reduce angst.

Peyangki's Uncle, with new TV, and old cat, in Happiness
Peyangki’s Uncle, with new TV, and old cat, in Happiness.

Isaac Unplugs — Sort of

Meanwhile, my colleague Isaac H., who never lets his smartphone leave his side, tried an experiment to see how long he could go without connective technology — or at least, his phone. While it may not have lasted long, and he broke some of his own rules along the way, it still led to some interesting revelations.

Isaac: “I went to bed the night before, I set up two laptops on my bed so I could get work done before my arbitrary technology cutoff at midnight — and then promptly fell asleep with my computers next to me without having done any work. Then at 4am our wireless fire alarms went off — this was my first experience with technology that morning. After the false alarm, I got back in bed and picked up my phone, out of habit, and then after about 10 minutes I realized this was my digital-free day, and put the phone down. Usually I have trouble falling asleep, but this time I fell asleep instantly. I’d taken my FitBit off, too — which is what I normally use as an alarm to wake up — and woke up a half hour later than usual seeing all my technology on the bed.

“So I thought this is great, I’m technology-free, and I got extra sleep.

“Usually in the morning I use the TuneIn app on my phone to listen to broadcast radio, and a wireless network connected to speakers, that’s my routine every morning. Instead I went to go find my transistor radio —but I figured, that’s technology, too, what’s the difference? This is where I started to cheat.

“Then I was reminded of something in, I thought, the movie Face/Off. It was a scene where Nic Cage is given a box of his favorite things. I was thinking at the end of the day this is what I want, someone to bring all my technology stuff to me in a little box. But I wasn’t sure I remembered the scene correctly, so naturally I picked up my wife’s phone to look up the movie on Netflix to watch the first 10 minutes — and then realized, ‘I’m cheating again.’

“So I decided to establish the Rules for me: no phone; no surfing the internet.

“Every morning I have two car pools in the morning; my daughter’s, and then I pick up two colleagues to head to work. I’d already warned the latter that I wouldn’t be sending them a text alert.

“At work, every time I walk out of my office I have my phone, I answer emails with it, see what meetings are coming up. But that day I didn’t do this. Just worked at my desk, ignored my phone, and the experience of even that was interesting — there was so many things I had on my to-do list that I was able to finally plow through because I was able to focus on things without the distraction of what was coming up next. However, I was constantly surprised by (and unprepared for) what was coming up next, but was able to get so much done with renewed focus. That was good.

“But this all changed when I got back in my car. Usually when I drive home I use a traffic app so I can see how bad traffic is, but this time (without it), I got a horrible headache. The traffic apps don’t take the pain of bad traffic away but they allow you to at least see where it ends, and knowing there’s an end makes it more tolerable. It’s like how a lobotomy works! You don’t lose the pain but the lobotomy severs the part of your brain that helps you project it into the future; not having a sense of time is the thing that makes the pain not matter. If you have a sense of time you need to know when the thing is going to end. So I had a headache and anxiety not knowing when the pain was going to end.

“I realized technology impacts your experience of space and time. It IsaacIchat2helps you plot out the future. It’s not so much about documenting the past or having a different experience of the present— it helps you anticipate the future. It’s like the three ‘precogs’ in the tub in the film Minority Report, you can see the future.

“Finally, when I got home I was doing well for awhile longer; then a friend texted me and I inadvertently picked up my phone and responded to his text.” [see: Isaac breaking the rules again, at right]

Going Tech Free: Inspirations and Exercises

Now here’s more advice on going sans tech — even if for many of us it may have to happen on a weekend, or away from work. Or at a camp.

Teens in Washington state were inspired by their teacher to do what none of us expect a teen to be able to do: go a week going tech-free, or at least social media-free.

Unplugging for a bit can also help creativity (even if in a “productivity” sense as this Inc. article posits it); Even the business magazine Forbes suggests unplugging after work.

Everyday Health magazine offers tips on 8 Ways to Unplug from Technology; and Huffington Post offers a number of articles, updated often, with even more ideas on How to Unplug. As Tanya Schevitz and clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair remind us, don’t neglect the “anxiety of unplugging and why we should disconnect to connect.”

And maybe join us in March to try to make it through another National Day of Unplugging!

Share Your Thoughts

Now let us know your own experiences with trying to cut back on, or cut out, technology from your lifewhether just a brief tech-free day, or going cold turkey for longer. What did you notice when you weren’t surrounded by your gadgets? Tell us in the comments below (or on our Facebook page), and then log off and take a break.

Learn more about the film Happiness here.