Possibly the most profound benefit I’ve found from my travels so far (beyond any cliche broadened horizons or new perspectives) has been the limitations it has placed on my digital life. Like most people, I’d become addicted to staying informed on the latest and oftentimes inconsequential occurrences in the news and on social media. Over time, I became disgusted by the primal twinge of pleasure and anxiety that came with each new notification’s vibration or chime.
Over the past year, I’d been gradually weeding out daily distractions such as newsletters, podcasts and RSS feeds that I had come to have little or no use for. Soon, I started to make an effort to be less responsive in online communications (at least as allowed by my work). I could answer this email in half an hour; that Facebook message sometime tonight. I don’t need to know anything about the latest and greatest gadgets until I’m looking to buy one. Those extra pages and folders of apps could all be deleted. If I ever desperately need something, I could re-download it.
I hoped that by doing so I could start to better understand my priorities in life and also develop a deeper awareness and appreciation for the things in my immediate surroundings. Over time, my phone wasn’t at the forefront of my thoughts while dining out with friends. The number of likes or comments my photos would get online started to lose meaning as I instead focused on what I liked and disliked in my photos. Where could my work take me rather than where could “networking” take my work.
Eventually, I started keeping Do Not Disturb mode enabled during the day. So long as I checked for urgent emails a couple of times each hour during peak hours, I could maintain proper work communications. Yet even at that point, I still fell into my bad habits. On buses or at bars I’d browse page after page of Reddit or jump between various Twitter feeds with the attention span of a goldfish. The act of simply being and observing was still too much for me.
As I prepared for my current trip, I considered my various options for data plans. AT&T’s travel packages don’t include Thailand in addition to some other countries. At first this worried me. Then I realized that as long as I had Wi-Fi overnight (and occasionally during the day) I’d be able to maintain productivity and communications as needed. The wonders of a 12+ hour time difference.
After almost two weeks, the effects are growing more apparent. During the day, my phone is now simply a clock, map, pedometer and camera. I’ve even stopped listening to music or podcasts during my walks. Partly due to the safety issues of walking distractedly into the ever-flowing traffic of Bangkok streets, but also to take in the noises of the city around me. While my fellow subway passengers are glued to their phones, I’m gazing out the window trying to catch each new wonder as it briefly flashes by.
At night, I’m usually either working, editing photos/videos, touching base with family, finding my next destination or taking the multiple showers that the climate here necessitates. I’m still guilty of checking Reddit, Twitter and RSS feeds sometimes. And I’ve recently been having short YouTube binges as some stomach issues have limited my energy and focus for other things. But even these are simply things to do in lieu of just staring at the walls of whatever hotel room I picked for that day. I’m lost enough with just American TV that I wouldn’t even know where to start with Thai TV.
I don’t know how sustainable this disassociation with the digital world will be in the long run, nor how feasible it is for other people. But I do know that my existence and the world itself haven’t suddenly stopped in the absence of these previous distractions. And if they did, at least I’d go out more fully appreciating my final moments.