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Unplugging From the Internet Nearly Destroyed Me

A totally true account of a time I went off-line

A group of trees with a sign that reads, "Get ready to say goodbye to all of your digital technology"
Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

Most days, I am tethered to my phone. I walk around gorging myself on news from my mobile devices, constantly absorbing information, soaking in stories without satiation or satisfaction. I am bombarded by alerts and notifications, retweets and likes and faves. I’ve been on Twitter pretty much continuously for seven whole years, and the algorithm of virality and in-case-you-missed-its has all but replaced the chemical and emotional signals in my brain. My anxiety mounts with each passing day, and even in my sleep—which is of course bracketed by Twitter browsing sessions—I have recurring nightmares about getting ratioed. My fingers burn from touch-screen use, my eyesight is strained, my spine is slowly changing shape to accommodate my hunched-over poring. I am becoming post-human, in the crappiest and least-cool way possible.

That is, until last night, when I decided to do something about it. Inspired by a slew of stories on the virtues of “unplugging,” I decided: Hey, wait, I can do that! But I didn’t want to just replicate the New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo’s two months of totally not unplugging. No, I can do better, I thought. I called my editors first before making my fateful decision, and dropped my final pin to my wife. I literally unplugged every single electric device in my hotel room.

I smashed my cell phone with a dress shoe, melted the pieces with a hair dryer, stowed the pieces away in a military-grade Faraday bag, and then buried it in a shoebox under a floorboard. As I meditated in total darkness above the broken corpse of my former mobile device, I felt my digital self fade into the wind with the vapor of silicon. I took a deep breath. This was freedom.

And freedom looked good on me, almost instantaneously. Just an hour off the grid I felt less anxious. Released from my miserable existence of retweet farming, I felt my anxiety melting away. An hour into my sojourn, my eyes began to adjust to the dark like a cat’s, and I felt the strength of my senses amplify. Two hours in, I picked up a glass and accidentally crushed it with newfound strength. Alarmed, I ran to the bathroom mirror to examine myself. The visage was almost unrecognizable. Before me stood a perfected version of myself: taller, skin cleared, teeth straight, muscles rippling beneath my shirt like windblown waves over water. I prowled my hotel room for hours, growing in power and greatness, basking in the glow of the setting moon.

Before I went to sleep for the night, I handwrote a letter to the concierge directing the hotel to deliver me physical copies of the best newspapers, and even some of the worst newspapers. Just after dawn, I heard him approaching before he ever knocked on the hotel door, armed with a stack of newspapers. He seemed alarmed by the odor of burnt plastic wafting from the room, and I felt his heartbeat quicken when I wrapped my hands around his and shook them, but never mind. Now was time for phase two of my experiment. I unfurled the papers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Jefferson Jimplecute, and The De Queen Bee, among others. With my new adamantine attention span, I tore through the dailies, absorbing every iota of information inked on the pages. There were new stories on blockchain, which I now understood for the first time ever, White House scandals, box scores, classified ads, and 14 op-eds about political correctness on campuses. After I devoured the last line of the last paper, I ripped the mountain of pages to shreds with my bare hands and howled. I’d done it.

It had worked exactly the way everyone said it would, more or less. Instead of digesting preformed takes about the news, I consumed the raw fiber of news directly. I understood things better, I read more quickly, and even the most odious columns rarely threatened my newfound serenity. The clarity that descended upon me was profound, like a bracing winter wind. Eight hours into my digital asceticism, and I had become a new, pure-news-based being. I felt the last vestiges of my earthly hungers and desires ebb and vanish into nothing. This was my life now.

So it came time to retreat back into the hotel room and begin preparing myself for day two of pure news. The sunlight pouring in through the windows hurt my eyes, so I closed the blackout curtains. The hum of power lines and traffic around the hotel grated on my newly acute hearing, so I wrapped myself in blankets, insulating myself with the shreds of yesterday’s news. There, I meditated and waited for tomorrow’s headlines.

But not much later, even in the stifling silence of my news chrysalis, the doubts began to penetrate. What had I read, really? I knew the ins and outs of Trump’s Heisenberg-like uncertainty on gun control, but where was he at the moment? Did teachers have tanks yet? Were there interesting stories out there that I’d missed? Was there reporting somewhere that might challenge the consensus that I’d taken in from the biggest dailies? What if everything I’d just learned was wrong?

I could cope with those doubts, but even more began to invade my pillow fortress of solitude. The overwhelming homogeneity of the columnists hadn’t bothered me at first, but it struck me as a critical flaw in their elite sameness. My memories of my previous digital life had faded and I could no longer recall: How and where did people receive news and analysis from the other corners of the world? If news was supposed to inform me about what was happening, why did I—with all my new power—feel so inadequately informed about what was happening?

The doubts mounted, twisting the wisps of information floating around my head into tendrils of dread. The white walls of my cocoon closed around me and began suffocating me. I fell into a fitful rest, somewhere between sleep, awareness, and death. I lost track of time and space, and somewhere the silence of my delirium was punctuated by a buzzing sound, coming from the floorboard underneath which I’d stashed my destroyed phone. It grew louder and louder, filling the room and my mind with the sounds of texts, tweet notifications, and Slack messages. I gnashed my teeth and tried to cry aloud, but no words came out. My body was no longer my own.

The next thing I remember, I came to in a room that had been hit with a whirlwind. My blankets lay shredded and filthy in pieces across the floor. New scraps of newspaper lay littered across the entire room. Instead of clothes, I now found pieces of The New York Times op-ed pages plastered all across my body. I felt the information of a new day’s news coursing through my brain, although I’d had no recollection of reading anything. The buzzing was no more.

But how had I received new papers? Where was the courier? Had he seen me in my state of wild, unthinking despair? I looked to the door, and light from the hall spilled into the space left ajar. I walked over and found a shoe, which I’d recognized as one belonging to the courier from the day before. Looking back at my path, and I noticed a string of his clothes leading back into the bedroom. I recoiled in terror, though, I saw no other signs of the man.

The buzzing began again, jarring me from my horror. This time, it came from the end of the trail of clothing. I walked over, entranced, and picked up his cell phone, its face alight with new notifications. Without thinking, I pressed on the latest ICYMI alert from Twitter, and the world went black again.