Unplugging from the internet


In about 1998 (far enough back that my memory is hazy) I joined the 10th Bath Scout Troop, and from the age of 8 to the age of 18 I was privileged to have a childhood filled with remarkable memories. I don't know how many kids, let alone kids in the UK, had the life experiences that my friends and I had. We flew gliders. We went spelunking and scuba diving. We piloted powerboats and climbed mountains and slept in handmade shelters. And the highlight of any year with the 10th Bath was the summer camp, a week of dawn til dusk activities focused around rough camping in patrols of five. Every day had a certain pattern - get up, get a fire going, cook breakfast, flag break, be inspected by the scout leaders, and then get to an activity of some kind. Which could be anything from hiking to jumping off coastal cliffs in wetsuits to learning how to skin and cook a rabbit. And then afterwards get back, cook, play wide games, sit around the campfire, and go to bed.

What's notable about this routine is that for the whole day there isn't a single phone or social media post in sight. Of course back then phones were bricks used for texting and phone calls only, but the point stands: we were completely cut off from the outside world. I used to get home and ask what news I'd missed in the previous week. This couldn't be more at odds with the way I live my life now. Being a 'digital creative' means being plugged into the internet 100% of the time, and never more than a few minutes away from being contacted by anyone in the world. I'm constantly aware of what's happening both in the wider world, through news alerts, and in my personal world, from my obsessive checking of social media every few minutes.

So when I was invited to come back to my scout troop to help out on summer camp as a leader, I leapt at the opportunity. Not only would I be able to spend some time with old friends, some of whom I hadn't seen for ten years, but I'd be able to reconnect with that gloriously analogue way of living life away from my phone. To unplug myself from the internet, rather like how Neo is unplugged from The Matrix. To be actually present rather than constantly reacting to the whims of a tech company's algorithm.

All this and more happened. And it was glorious.

I wanted to write this blog post to discuss a couple of things about my experiences of the past week or so. Because as far as I can remember this is the first time I've been truly unplugged from the internet, separated from my phone, since I started using social media in about 2008. And I found some rather interesting things.

First of all I didn't miss being connected at all. There was no FOMO, no overwhelming desire to find out what my friends (and to a lesser extent, the governments of the world) were up to. Instead my reaction was an internal shrug, 'they'll be alright, I'll check in on them in a week'. Not callousness, but trusting that my friendship circles wouldn't disintegrate without my supervision for a week. Which, surprise surprise, didn't happen. I learned to chill out. Secondly, by not checking my phone or my laptop every few minutes I recovered a work ethic that I thought I'd lost. I actually got my head into doing jobs and saw them through without a single distraction. I had worried that as I'd gotten older my mental fortitude had slipped, and I was simply incapable of working as I had done in school. This week proved that actually I was giving myself way too many opportunities to get distracted. By removing the distracting influence (my Sony phone) I just... got on with things. Again, surprise surprise. Thirdly, not knowing or caring what time it is was a tremendously liberating thing. Certainly in my home life time is an incredibly important quantity: what time is it now? how much time do I have until I need to be done? what time am I eating? On camp these questions almost completely ceased. We got stuff done when it got done. We ate when we needed to. Whole days passed without knowing the time once. By removing time pressure things didn't just grind to a halt and tasks expand to fill the entire day, the tasks got done with greater presence. Things got done with actual care and attention and no rush. I was probably more aware and engaged and present over the past week than I have been for ten years.

Fourthly, in coming back to social media this weekend after camp finished, my phone sounded desperate. It was clogged with notifications such as 'In case you missed it...' or 'X, Y, and 3.2k other people liked this tweet from Z' or most bizarrely of all 'X just commented on their own status'. By going off grid for just seven days the companies who's social media I use went into an apparent meltdown - WE'VE GOT A RUNNER! GET HIM BACK BEFORE HE ESCAPES! It really showed me how deep these companies have their claws into everyday users, not letting them go more than a few days without using their products. The problem is that we've so deeply embedded their products into our lives that we don't view these controlling behaviours as strange - instead we view them as helpful reminders. An 'In case you missed it...' notification is greeting with 'Oh dear, I haven't checked into twitter today, I must do that now' rather than 'Twitter is clearly trying to keep me addicted to their website.' Companies like Facebook and Twitter have us almost completely under their control, and we're completely OK with that. We've traded our freedom to concentrate and be present for an ever-present free stream of information. And I guess being a 'digital creative' I'm an active part of that problem. But that's a discussion for a future blog post.

Finally, and arguably the most important thing I realised this week, being a scout leader is significantly more exhausting than being a scout. All the activities that I mentioned before - coasteering, gliding, hiking - are only possible because of a group of devoted volunteers. And as a kid you kind of assume that those volunteer leaders have a pretty easy ride on camp - after all, they make the kids do all the work like cooking and getting fires going. But this is absolutely not the case. Leaders do all the things that actually make the camp run - keep kids safe (we had a mere two near-fatal accidents this year), organise food, keep the toilet pits/tents sanitary, procure supplies like firewood, and pass on their expertise in activities such preparing the rabbits. I am still, three days after camp ended, absolutely shattered. And full of admiration for the leaders who made my childhood possible. I learned that taking care of kids and giving them the childhood that I was lucky enough to have is just about the most rewarding thing I could possibly do. And while yes there were a few little shits on camp, as there always are, there are some absolute gems of kids who are an absolute joy to work with. I really hope that in the coming years I can offer more of my time to scouts, and give more kids a childhood, and skills, to last them a lifetime.

And while you, dear reader, won't be able to have quite the experience that I had this past week, I do hope that you try and take a digital detox. Lock your phone away. Don't check social media. Give yourself the chance to be truly present. You might surprise yourself with what you find.