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Column

Have you ever unplugged in the middle of a semester?

As a class assignment my junior year, I had to track my media usage for 48 hours, then take a media fast for another 48 hours and journal my experiences.

The fast didn’t cover just social media, but all media and recreational technology, including books, music and texting. The only exceptions were textbooks, phone calls and unavoidable emails for classes or work.

I expected to have some extra time to kill, but I certainly wasn’t addicted, so I didn’t think it would really change anything.

Wrong.

First, I learned from all the then-seniors and my recently graduated friends that the project used to be a weeklong fast, and I should just quit complaining and deal already. No pity to be found there.

Beyond that, I experienced the feelings of loneliness, ignorance and boredom. According to technology blogger and author  John Dyer, these are feelings our society is becoming less and less able to deal with.

They say the loneliest place to be is isolated within a crowd of people. As a fairly quiet person rarely more than 20 feet away from other people in the res halls, classes or the dining common, I can confirm that is completely correct.

I instantly felt separated from the friends I was used to being in constant contact with, even though I was surrounded by people. I couldn’t take a funny picture or post a random thought.

During the two days of tracking my normal usage, I had decided to reactivate my Instagram account. Now I was stuck watching my phone light up with notifications, but I was powerless to interact.

Recorded music counted as media, so I couldn’t drown out the isolation even with earbuds or my car radio.    

I experienced the new sensation of literally having the world of information at my fingertips, but being completely ignorant because I was not able to touch it.

I couldn’t check the weather for the weekend. I couldn’t look up a phone number. I couldn’t see if a business was open before making the trip.

I didn’t grow up having this problem; I had only recently bought a smartphone, and my family didn’t have reliable Internet until my high school years. But this ignorance of anything beyond my immediate surroundings felt foreign.

Finally, I was bored. Not as a general state—there was always something to study or write—but those awkward 10 minutes between classes, waiting for my group in the dining common and sitting in chapel before the music starts and my chapel buddies show up?

So. Incredibly. Bored.

My journal started out as long, philosophical entries about my self-observations. It ended up sounding more and more like desperate texts to myself whenever I would normally have texted a friend.

So yes, I gained some valuable lessons as a result of that project. I learned I was certainly more dependent than I had thought. I learned my attention span had been shortened, and I couldn’t read a textbook for more than 10 minutes without reaching for my phone. I learned that I treated technology like a shield to hide behind when I was tired and introverting.   

But I also learned something about other people too. Even after telling friends I wouldn’t be responding to texts, they still got frustrated when their messages went unanswered. When I lost track of time because I left my (basically useless) phone in my room and showed up to dinner a few minutes late, I was considered rude.

I learned we have come to expect people to operate on the same timetable as we expect our information. We expect instant communication and connection and get annoyed when that is denied.

I’m not going to suggest everyone should run out and give up media for a week.

But think about how your usage affects you even when you’re not using it. What habits are you picking up without realizing?

Above all, remember people are not bytes of information. They are flawed humans who need patience and love.