My tech detox in Russia was a hidden blessing

My tech detox in Russia was a hidden blessing
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“I would die without my phone, even for a day,” claimed a friend. Well, I went without a phone during a four-day trip to Moscow and lived to tell the tale.

It was the first time I had travelled sans phone in 17 years. I intentionally left all electronics at home for cybersecurity reasons. But the experience of enforced separation from my devices became a meditation on the ubiquity of technology. Even though I was in one of the world’s largest cities, I was completely off the grid. 

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Logistically, I discovered that everything was doable. Yet advanced planning was required, as I printed itineraries and wrote down phone numbers (can anyone recite her mother’s digits from memory?). Tasks took longer, cost more and required effort.

 

I couldn’t check in for my flight online, so I used an airport kiosk that relegated me to a remaining seat in the back of the plane. I couldn’t listen to music or podcasts, so I lugged around a book. I couldn’t take an uber home from the airport, so I took a taxi at twice the price.

I couldn’t convert currency, so I found the exchange rate listed on a bank sign and did the math in my head. I didn’t know the weather forecast, so I looked out my window and threw an umbrella in my bag in case the skies turned. I never knew what time it was, having long since stopped wearing a watch.

I didn’t have an alarm (and my hotel room inexplicably didn’t have a clock), so I scheduled wake-up calls. I couldn’t take digital photos, so I bought a disposable camera, chose carefully what merited one of 27 snaps and dissuaded helpful friends from taking “one more.”

Without my phone, I felt isolated and a bit helpless. When my flight was delayed, I had no one to commiserate with via text. It complicated social plans, as friends couldn’t find me in real time (though one valiantly left messages on my hotel room voicemail). And it would have been hard for family to contact me quickly in the event of an emergency. 

Yet I was radically present. Like being sober in a bar full of drunks, I saw clearly while others were barely aware of their surroundings. Everyone — on buses, in restaurants, around meeting tables — was glued to their screens.

I watched friends frantically search for Wi-Fi connections in conference rooms, and I grew frustrated when they checked what far-away friends posted on Instagram rather than interacting with me next to them.

At first, I envied their connectivity, as I am also guilty of obsessive phone use. Then I realized my nervous system had relaxed in the absence of alerts, emails and Trump tweets. I had no choice but to be where I was. 

This year, Apple celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone, which has revolutionized our lives and is here to stay. I need only watch my 3-year-old nephew, whose entire life is being recorded by admiring relatives. He loves watching videos of himself doing things, with his toddler fingers ably swiping across the screen.

It’s no surprise that many techies — including Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — recognized the addictive nature of devices and limited their kids’ screen time. The challenge is that tech is increasingly difficult to escape. I returned from Moscow to concerned texts from someone who didn’t understand why I was incommunicado.

When a friend took a weekend digital detox and didn’t respond to my texts, a mutual friend suggested reporting her missing to the police. Why didn’t we just call or drop by? We crave instant, but not necessarily direct, contact.

Many aspects of life are undoubtedly more convenient with smart phones. My experience demonstrated the challenge of travelling without one, as so much of modern existence presumes internet access. But is efficiency the highest good?

To quote "Fight Club," “The things you own end up owning you.” When I returned from Moscow and joyfully reunited with my phone, I discovered that I hadn’t missed much. Sadly, I quickly lapsed into old habits. Yet, the memory of my time free from the screen’s glare has inspired me to consult my phone less often.

While going cold turkey is hard, it is rewarding to walk without texting and to talk to the person across the table. Be brave and leave your phone at home occasionally; you will survive and may even enjoy it.

Amanda Sloat is the Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.