For three months, I collaborated with the Huffington Post France to share with you the highs and lows of this experience. Each hand-written note was sent through the mail, then typed and posted online by the editors. This post contains my impressions of the experience. Happy reading!
From October 15, 2014 to January 11, 2015, I ran a rather peculiar experiment... traveling from Paris to New York, and spending 90 days there without Internet, computer or a cell phone. Why? I needed to disconnect in order to better reconnect in a hyper-connected environment.
The origin of the project
I felt a real need for emancipation, and I was pushed by a quest for authenticity. At 25 years old, the Internet and its related technologies (smartphones, computers, etc.) make up the main part of my daily exchanges: virtual exchanges of information, not to mention virtual exchanges of emotion. Weary of the way technology can distort meaning, I decided to try the opposite. It would be an adventure: connecting to individuals and the world, guided by my intuition rather than a smartphone.
My project wasn't solely intended to be a "digital detox." Yes, I sometimes feel dependent on my electronic gadgets, and the decision to put them away for a while certainly feels like "detoxing." But if distancing myself from technology had been my goal, I would have headed somewhere with wide open spaces, instead of New York, with its skyscrapers. No way was I going to declare a war against Google. It is, after all, thanks to this technology that I am sharing my experience with you now! Millions of people on this planet still don't have Internet access, and as far as I know, they get by.
What really pushed me to make this apparently contradictory choice was the wish to better understand the ideas of "connection" and "disconnection." Have they been reduced to just "clicks" online? Convinced that the opposite is true, I decided to experience connection, rather than connectivity.
The rules of the game
No Internet, no computer (or equivalent), no cell phone. To communicate with my family, my friends or anybody I met during the experiment, I used public payphones, the landline in the basement of my building to make local calls, or the New York postal service.
The payphones at Grand Central Station
My precious tools: a paper smartphone...
To guide myself around a very spread out New York, I used a map of the city and a subway map. My paper diary also followed me across the Atlantic, as well as my "homemade" hand-written business cards. Then, in order to make sure I forgot no one and to stay in touch with the people I met along the way, I carefully recorded phone numbers and addresses in a little notebook.
My day-to-day life in New York
It's hard to summarize three months of living in a few sentences, especially when I was at the center of the adventure! Here, however, are some key episodes I'd like to regale you with.
The first few days following my arrival in New York, I felt very alone. Technologically isolated, surrounded by the silence of my situation, I was drowning in uncertainty: what would I do for the next three months?
First step, find a place to live. Not an easy undertaking when classifieds have become thin on the ground in the New York newspapers. After a few scares and with the support of some French expat friends, I finally found help from the French Consulate. There, I met a really friendly team who run an extremely efficient word-of-mouth system.
A few hours after my visit to the Consulate (5 days after my arrival in New York), I already had a serious offer: a room to rent in an apartment in Harlem, in northern Manhattan. I jumped at the opportunity. My flatmates (Adam and Clara) were French. They have since become my friends.
Apartment hunting...any takers?
Once properly set up, I decided to find something to do. Not only to keep myself busy, but also to give meaning to this experiment. My status as tourist didn't allow me to work legally in the US, so I decided to get involved with charity work. After gathering a few contact details from the French Consulate during my real estate expeditions there, I volunteered at three charities: Comptoir Pastoral de la Francophonie, New York Common Pantry and Murphy Center. For almost two and a half months, I served a purpose which was decisive in my adventure: resisting isolation. Faced with people who are less fortunate or completely homeless, these charitable organizations offer food, time and a place welcoming to all.
On top of feeling useful, I felt another form of disconnection: the absence of concerns. This marked a fundamental break in the way my experiment was running and made me be more daring, braver when going towards others, going beyond what I had often hidden in electronic communication. I also understand why I feel alone without this technology. Why I abused it in the past. Why some are dependent on it. The internet is a virtual other who "likes" my photos on Facebook, who "follows" me on Twitter or visits my LinkedIn profile. The Internet is the one who offers me consideration, attention, love. In the end, connecting to the Internet is an assurance I will never be disconnected.
To give meaning to my experiment, I volunteered at various organizations, such as New York Common Pantry, which welcomes and feed several hundred people each day.
When I wasn't volunteering, I was out meeting people. People from here, but mainly from afar. In New York, everyone has a story. People coming from Central and South America, from Africa, from Europe, from Asia become locals who live together and confer the title of world capital on the Big Apple. We met up in the cafes near the Columbia campus, in jazz concerts in Harlem or Brooklyn, in impromptu nights out on the Lower East Side. We cross paths on the street, on the subway. Day or night. People are everywhere, and everywhere there are people I am more attentive. By leaving aside my screens, I rediscovered the pleasure of chance meetings. Who's to say we will never meet again?
I also rediscovered the pleasure of writing by hand. For seven years (since the end of secondary school), I had only typed on a keyboard. Typed my homework, typed my emails, and type text messages. To "type"-- what a barbaric word when we think about it! Since my school days, opportunities to pick up a pen have been rare. In those three months, I rediscovered the dexterity of my wrist, rough drafts and ink stains. I personally find it charming.
I decided to give a sense of identity to my envelopes before they were mailed. They said "Imprint me."
I also discovered the intensity of corresponding by mail. Outside of a few postcards I had sent my grandparents while on summer holiday, I can't remember sending a handwritten letter before New York. How deep it is, though! How powerful! I often talk about it, and everyone agrees: they love receiving letters.
Is living without technology easy?
In practice, my New York life wasn't too different from everyone else's. I adapted easily to my new condition and kept the bet until the end without too much difficulty. Before setting off, I wondered "will I miss my computer?" In the end the answer is "no," a genuine "no." None of the crutches I left in Paris created any temptation once I arrived in New York.
What I did miss was checking my emails. Even though it doesn't have the same intensity as a letter, I always enjoy finding a personal email. Because if we think about it, checking one's emails, outside of a professional context, comes back to measuring how much attention others give us. Who has written to me? Who is showing interest in me? Who loves me?" And even more so: How many people love me? How many people like me? In the not-so-distant past, I used to confuse the two. Convinced of the existence of a quantifiable love, my online behaviour, especially on social media, was aimed at collecting "likes." The more my photo was "liked," the more I felt I was worthy of attention. By contrast, when it wasn't, I felt less valued. Realizing this today has helped me understand the causes of this, and adapt my behaviour online to detrimental effects on real life.
Living without this technology wasn't bad, but it wasn't always very practical. Especially in a city like New York! Lateness, not enough detail when making an appointment, forgetfulness...all of these situations are easily fixed when our cell phone is close to hand. In my situation, I needed to agree to appointments in advance, be on time, give myself strategic landmarks and come up with a plan B just in case. It was rather restrictive. Restrictive not only for me, but also for those who crossed my path. Thanks to them for playing along! To think that humanity lived this way for centuries, and the Internet and its accessories have revolutionized our interactions in less than a generation, is unbelievable. In any case, I am now a lot more tolerant towards tardiness.
The French Consulate, a vital place for my experiment.
The trials of disconnection: doubts, withdrawal and isolation
No, I didn't miss either my smartphone or my computer. Not even Facebook or LinkedIn, where I had spent hours. So... should we talk about isolation? Yes indeed. Because I missed human beings. Because I sometimes felt alone and the Internet often filled that emotional hole from in my life. This solitude is the experience of disconnection. This unease? The fear of the ultimate disconnection.
Faced with only myself in certain situations, I became aware that there is a beginning and an end. Without Google to give me answers, I needed to share this discovery, seek attention from others, trust strangers, show a side of myself we often try to hide through fear of being judged, misunderstood or rejected. It was in a moment of absolute doubt that I truly understood the power of human contact. Having the courage to be vulnerable and the luck of being well supported, the trial of "disconnection" left room for the relief of "reconnection." So, thanks for being there.
Installation by Richard Serra in Dia:Beacon, New York.
Intensity and new flavors off screen
"A wonderfully chaotic adventure" is how I like to describe it. Because before writing about it, you have to live it. I lived a poignant experience, a punch in the stomach of an experience. Away from screens, I rediscovered more intense flavours, deeper, richer. It was as if, from one day to the next, you rediscovered the taste of a tomato. It's still a tomato in substance, its composition hasn't changed. What has changed is the perception you have of it, the importance you give it, the eyes with which you look at it. Dear readers, this tomato is you.
New practices and behavioral changes once home
It's too soon to talk about "new habits" given that I was only reunited with my gadgets a month ago. Obviously, such an experience will modify my relationship to technology, but we will talk about that at a later date. For now, I often forget my cell phone, don't leave home without a map of Paris and have imposed a single rule on myself: no more emails after 8pm. I had completely lost my awe of my computer and finding it again, turning it on and opening up Google for the first time didn't move me at all! Having unsubscribed from most social media before leaving, my New York experience immunized me from it. The only one I continue to use for a professional reason is LinkedIn in my new adventure: finding a job!
I wish to thank all those who contributed to the unfolding of this wonderful experience. All of this is thanks to you. Thank you to Bastien, my best friend, and Charlotte, his sweetheart, for their warm welcome and generosity, to Stéphane (Adam) and Sophie (Clara), my two gold-star flatmates, for their open mindedness and their support, to Brené Brown, my source of inspiration. Thank you to Marianne and her far-fetched stories, to Claire, Chris and A. for their commitment, to my family and all those who took the time to write to me. Thank you to Shaï for the magical musical moments. To Sandra, Carolyn, Rachael and Will, for our interesting conversations. I also spare a thought for two Isabelles, who not so long ago, gave me a rung up on the ladder. Yes there are many of you! Thank you to Frédérique, Florent and Jean, who I have met since our epistolary exchanges. Finally, thank you to all those whose paths I crossed for the space of an evening, the time of a trip or on a street corner. That old lady on a bench, her smiling face. If the world is a better place, it's thanks to you.
Rather than the technology itself, it's more my own usage of the Internet, computers and cell phones that influence my daily life. I'm no longer a "victim" of their impact on my life, since I have understood the importance of my own "responsibility" in their usage. Once a prisoner of screens looking for recognition (in other words, love), I've understood, from taking a step back, that being obsessed by their powerful attraction, I'd forgotten to look around me.
Love is all. Through experiencing more natural, spontaneous exchanges with others, I grasped the richness of human contact. This was the key to my release.
Could better educating individuals on how to use new technologies be a future project?
Proust's madeleines, New York style
Exchange was an integral part of my experiment, I would like to pursue discussions with those who wish to. Don't hesitate to comment, give your opinion, ask questions and share your own experience of connection/disconnection. It's a broad topic, so let loose!
To get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org
This post was originally published on HuffPost France and was translated into English.