With the arrival of the new year, I have been reflecting on some of the themes and actions that defined 2017 for me. One consistent theme has been simplifying my digital life. Over the past year and change, I have taken a number of steps in this direction:
- Beginning in late 2016, and continuing throughout 2017, I have greatly decreased my social media activity and deactivated my profiles on most online dating websites;
- In May 2017, I installed internet blocking software that forces me to go offline at a set time every night;
- In August 2017, I canceled my Netflix subscription;
- In November 2017, I downgraded from an expensive internet plan with hundreds of live TV channels, to an internet-only plan;
In this post, I’d like to share my reasons for unplugging and some observations on what happened when I did.
Why I decided to unplug
When we encounter a new and pleasurable thing, our brains release dopamine, a chemical responsible for seeking and reward behavior. Dopamine is involved in many mental processes, and some dopamine release is natural. However, there is a growing understanding that the internet, which is designed to provide us with continual newness, can cause a harmful loop in which the constant release of dopamine leads to something approximating an addiction. Interested readers can check out articles such as this one or this one for additional information.
I have been a heavy internet and television user for a long time, to the point where I consider myself an addict. In fact, on those occasions when I previously tried to wean myself from the internet, I noticed many of the symptoms traditionally associated with addiction. I would become antsy and irritable, unsure of what to do with myself but certain that some important task was just beyond my fingertips. I would worry that I was missing a new message from a friend or the latest bit of news. What’s more, with all of the technology turned off, negative thoughts and emotions associated with events from my past would come flooding back.
Even when I got my newness fix, all was not clear sailing. I have always been a rabid consumer of political news, and for a liberal in recent years, most political news has been bad news. I was often left with angry, racing thoughts for most of the day. No matter what kind of newness I consumed, I found that my attention span was shorter and I was more susceptible to other vices such as candy and junk food.
Eventually, these symptoms not only convinced me of the reality of my addiction to newness, but also had a profound philosophical effect on me. Technology, rather than enhancing my life, was actually concealing my deepest self from me. Instead of sitting with my emotions in the present moment, as Buddhism teaches, I was numbing myself to them with quick dopamine bursts that ultimately left me unsatisfied.
My addiction had more practical costs as well. My expensive internet plan plus Netflix cost more than $100 per month. Long hours on the computer were also destroying my sleep schedule and taking time away from exercise, hobbies, writing, and other more healthy pursuits. It was time for a change, and 2017 was the year in which I finally took action.
Adapting to a life unplugged
The city in which I live tends to attract millenials who are extremely focused on both their careers and current events. This can make it a lonely place, combining the universal anomie of urban life with a focus on happy hours and political debates over genuine connection. Incomes are also relatively high, and nearly everyone has subscriptions to multiple online streaming services.
Given this environment, I worried that cutting off my internet usage would cut me off from other people. How would I find people to talk to if not online? Where would I hear about events? And what would I talk about at parties if not the new season of the latest Netflix show?
When I told others about my plans, they were equally skeptical. Most people couldn’t conceive of anyone canceling Netflix for any reason. Others told me they relied on their Facebook event calendars to learn about events. When I announced that I was leaving Facebook, one former friend even accused me of failing in my “duty” to engage in discussion with people I disagree with.
Over time, however, I adapted. I took classes in improv comedy, the Korean language, and swing dancing, which provided new opportunities to meet people. I grew closer to a smaller group of friends, and I found that our conversations were more personal and fulfilling, because we discussed more durable truths and fewer shiny new things. When I was alone, I rededicated myself to Buddhist thought and cultivating equanimity. In the process, I started to feel the parts of my inner life to which I had been numb before.
My unplugging is still a work in progress. I still use the internet more than I would like, and don’t block it strictly enough. There is also still plenty of free content out there to play or stream. I haven’t yet gotten up the nerve to downgrade from a smartphone to a dumb phone, which would cut me off from the internet on the go. Overall, however, I feel happier. Unplugging from newness has made me feel more in touch with my own life, and I can’t wait to continue on this path in 2018.