“It was all completely serious, all completely hallucinated, all completely happy.”
― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
It is now common knowledge that millennials have become desensitized, anesthetized under the intangible weight of technology, like an amorphous cloud floating aimlessly between classes in a fog of Facebook posts and YouTube videos. It is now a well-known fact that our ability to carry computers in our pockets, to connect so superficially and quickly without face-to-face interaction, has become fucking absurd. It is unlike anything that has been seen in generations prior, and I can’t help feeling like we’re a throng of test dummies that have been packed into a van and hurled toward a concrete wall.
This is what I was thinking, at least, when I experienced a day of enlightenment and threw my iPhone into a lake last year, spending two months of my summer in a deliberate technological isolation.
When the summer started, I was determined to spend as much time as I could outdoors and as far away from civilization as possible. The spring semester that preceded June’s freedom was bland, dry, and uninspired, leaving me with a sense of underwhelming boredom and a Vitamin D deficiency. I wanted to emulate a Kerouacian summer: barefooted, wild-haired in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running. I therefore accepted the offer to hike with the desperately open mind that one develops when locked in a classroom for too long.
I did not intend, however, on illuminating my mind (or drowning my cell phone, for that matter) when the decision to hike into Desolation Wilderness was made. But, before my friends and I began the hike, the offer presented itself and I decided to oblige, meditating prior to its start. It has been said that the specific form of meditation we indulged in can be life changing and transformative, with the ability to shift people’s perceptions long after the immediate effects have gone, and this was exactly the kind of mental shift I was looking for.
The hike was long, but beautiful, with lakes sprinkled between series of mountain ranges, the tallest of which were still snowcapped from the winter’s storms, and a blanket of quiet covered the valleys and canyons. We hiked ten miles south of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay, toward Suzy Lake, which was, according to the forest ranger, a most serene and peaceful body of water at the base of a large peak. We walked slowly with large backpacks and, as we absorbed the scenery, I began to notice a sense of involuntary peace, partly as a result of the illumination, and partly, I realized, because we had finally left the menacing grip of cell phone coverage.
I had never meditated before, and despite a lot of nervous, skittish anticipations, the most pronounced effect it had on my mind was that of gratification, even joy, in the relief I felt from abandoning the force of my cell phone. As we reached our destination and the illumination grew stronger, I felt that I was becoming unchained from the burden of time, from the false responsibility to digitally interact, inspiring a euphoric vertigo that lasted well into the night, like water slowly becoming vapor.
It was at some point in these detached musings that, despite the insistence of my peers, I threw my phone, watching its soaring arc through crisp air, splashing into the water, and sinking to the lake-bottom, never to be retrieved. In that moment, the phone and I were one: I experienced the phone’s flight, as well as its descent into the bright, epiphanic waters of confinement . It was, in part, like a religious sacrifice - as if the inanimate object had become apart of me, as if I had to kill a part of myself to reach a reformative state of mind.
The next day, I awoke within the same warm, pleasant feelings of exile, without any desire to atone the prior day’s actions. In fact, I was drunk with memories of my phone’s aquafied burial. I raved to my friends, painting lyrical portraits of its murder and funeral, explaining how I was no longer a slave to its power and implications. I proclaimed, in an admittedly manic way, that as long as my phone was at the bottom of that lake, a part of me would always be there too, free from the burden of app notifications and text messages.
On the hike home I watched as my friends climbed slowly, and somewhat unwillingly, back into the harsh light of cell phone coverage. The descent marked an excitement of pure vanity - I basked in the thought of being different from everyone else, of not needing to return reality’s phone call. The moment we entered AT&T’s reign, their phones began to buzz with inquiries from loved ones and friends.
It was then, however, that I entered the oscillation of emotion that would become part of my daily struggle, swinging like a pendulum between two distinct and antagonistic emotions: withdrawal and acceptance. What follows is an explanation of the two emotions and the way they impacted my life.
I understand that withdrawal may seem like a heavy-handed term to describe being away from the phone for two months. But, after doing a minimal amount of research on the symptoms common to most drug and alcohol withdrawals, this hyperbole was set into a canyon of brutal reality, surrounded on both sides by popular psychological burdens.
As my friends began to call their mothers, fathers, brothers, girlfriends, and other loved ones, I began to feel the first traces of these withdrawals, brought on by the breadth and reality of my decision. Not only did I dispose of a fully functioning and expensive luxury, I did it without fully realizing the impact it would have on the people that care about me. What was initially a self-inflicted, self-centered decision to no longer participate in the ephemeral world, quickly became a decision that would affect my family and long-term girlfriend.
I first called my mother, who was in hysterics to begin with, because I had not told her about my trip to Desolation Wilderness in the first place. When her phone finally began to buzz and she saw that it wasn’t my designated series of numbers, but a close friend of mine’s designated series of numbers, she thought I had been injured, killed, or arrested. There was a moment of fluid relief when she heard my voice, but it quickly evaporated into a dry, angry lecture on keeping in contact with her through phone calls or text messages.
This was the first of many instances in which the people close to me felt entitled to my digital presence, which I was ill prepared for. They assumed that, since I had not responded to their texts, phone calls, or voicemails, I was purposefully, passively attacking them. They took it personally. I realized that, without knowing it, society had built a set of constructs and laws that were to be followed in order to be a functioning member, including constant availability, with punishments ranging from worry to taking aggressive offense toward my absence.
I would say that, along with the constant worry that something had happened to my girlfriend, and that I was going about my day without awareness or any way to become aware, this aggressive offense that my loved ones were taking toward my newly found lifestyle was most staggering. The phenomenon began with my mother, but it wasn’t long before my friends came to me with their own form of angst that was birthed out of insecurity, thinking I was deliberately avoiding them in some bizarre attempt at abandoning our friendship. These seemingly constant altercations, which would come randomly throughout my day as I ran into friends, began to have an increasingly strong impact on my psyche.
Although trepidation never lasted long, the conversation with my mother served as the catalyst to the series of panic attacks that lasted throughout my two months of phonelessness. They came in fast waves of dark, chilling anxiety, as if I had finally made contact with the icy waters of my confinement and was plunging toward the lake bottom. I didn’t realize that, when I threw my phone and let go of digital responsibility, I would be sending myself into a vacuum of unknown depths.
With time, I learned how to handle these shifts in emotional stability. What started as a daily ritual of freedom-waves crashing into rocks of insecurity and guilt, slowly evolved into a maintainable and productive lifestyle, free from distraction and superfluous interaction. Thus, the stage of acceptance:
As stated earlier, the two prior emotional arenas were, at one time, in a constant state of tectonic shift. But, with understanding, adaptation, and self-assurance, I successfully accepted my place in society without a cell phone, and created a lifestyle reminiscent of a different era.
Every morning, in order to assure that I would be available if something were to happen to my loved ones, I would plan out my day, giving it a vague and very loose structure. I would give this daily schedule to my girlfriend, informing her of my general whereabouts during any given hour so that, if something were to happen, she would be able to call the number of whatever establishment I inhabited. Now, I realize this may sound much more burdensome to people who are used to being accessible at any given point. But, with some getting used to, this structure became second nature and allowed for a hyper-productive day, in comparison to my time with a cell phone.
An example of one day without my phone, during that summer, would have mostly consisted of walking from my house to work in the Knowledge Center, to several bars around downtown, and back home. This gave me complete freedom, once I left work, to walk downtown with a book, to drink beer and read at my leisure. Although I was lucky, and nothing happened that necessitated a phone call from any of my loved ones while I was unable to be contacted, I’m fairly certain that this system would have been successful in the event of an emergency.
It was with this structurally equivocal schedule that I was able to get passed the unremitting admonishment by those around me. Because I took the time to plan my day, I was able to make phone calls to specifically important people on the library telephone before leaving, letting them into my world and inviting them to infiltrate my day at their convenience. This, as I had hoped, made my friends feel just as loved as if I were available for a text message conversation and, ultimately, ended up being more gratifying than the latter. Without the consistent dilution of conversation through texts, my friends and I were able to genuinely converse when we saw each other face-to-face.
Ultimately, it took a weird experience in the woods to make me realize that I had attenuated my relationships by making myself eternally available. With the death of my technological handiness, I reinstated the genuineness that was reminiscent of my childhood, when I would play, work, and speak with my body. My daily productivity increased with every passing day, allowing me to write, read, and research without the distraction that is inherent to the cell phone experience. My relationships, which I thought had been thriving, received a shocking kick in the ass. This created new levels of interaction and connectedness.
I’ve never been one to impede on other people’s agendas, or pronounce any heartfelt call to action, because I don’t normally enjoy pressing my opinions or lifestyle choices onto others. However, with this experience, I believe I grew a temporary third-eye that allowed me to view our current societal state from the outside, and what I saw was a colony of obsessive, constantly unaware drones, with cell phones as an extra extremity. I would whole-heartedly recommend that we, as a demographic, as a generation, as a family joined at the temporal lobe by electromagnetic waves, take a step back and reflect on how these technological advancements have had an effect on our relationships.
I think we all could benefit from hiking into the woods and escaping its grasp, if only for a while.