Switch Off Your Devices and Have a Week Off: Why Headspace, Silence and Human Interaction is Good for Us

27.8.17

A view of the sea edge of the ancient salt pans at Trapani, in western Sicily (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.

 

I’m just back from a fortnight’s holiday with my family in Sicily, and am also just back online after a week with no internet access at all, which was a wonderfully refreshing experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I make a living — or what passes for a living — mostly online, and I know more than many how the internet can enable individuals to become truly independent media sources and activists, and how we can reach out across the world in a way that was never possible before the advent of the world wide web. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last eleven years, and will continue to do so long as there are appreciate people out there who are prepared to support me in what I do.

However, the permanently connected world is not without its pitfalls — and I’m not just thinking about fake news, bigotry, and the horrendous rise of cyber-bullies and cyber-misogynists. Every year, when I switch off, I return to a time when there was space in our lives — space to think, to reflect, even to be bored, which can be a constructive experience. It’s somewhere I try to get to regularly in my everyday life, cycling around London taking photos, with no mobile phone connecting me to the online world (or able to track my every move), but I always return to my laptop, to the blizzard of emails, notifications, status updates and more from the absurdly large number of people who purport to be my “friends,” but who, in reality, are a relatively small number of friends and acquaintances vastly outnumbered by people I don’t know at all.

In the online world, seeking attention, we are encouraged to ignore how often our words and our thoughts disappear into the ether, and yet how much we are encouraged to keep on chasing interest and approval via likes and follows, like hamsters in a wheel that only gets smaller and faster-moving the more we go round in it. I’m still avoiding being tied to a mobile phone, in part because of an absurd, old-school desire to be “free”, but also because I genuinely find their use to be alarming — like an extension of people’s bodies, statuses and likes checked relentlessly like nervous tics, attention spans shrunk to almost nothing, intellectual capacity reduced to 140 characters or less.

I have no serious desire to be a Luddite — although I do find myself frequently fantasizing about how pleasant it would be to generally return to an analogue, pre-digital age — but every year, when I do switch off from the internet for a week or so, I come back with the belief that we should all switch off our devices more regularly than we do — if we do at all. I am convinced our brains need room to breathe, and that our relationships with each other cannot be sustained if we constantly have half an eye on the little device in our pockets that tells us in so many ways that it is our best friend, when, in reality, it can often be smothering and damaging to our well-being.

I’ll be interested to know what you think. What, for example, would you think about a campaign that encouraged us all to switch off our devices one day a week? Is it something that is even imaginable, or is the grip of the powerful hand-held computer so powerful that we can no longer imagine any amount of time spent without them?

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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33 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this online, I wrote:

    I’m just back from a week offline, and wanted to share with you my thoughts – which I always have after a week or so offline every summer – about how it would be more healthy for all of us to switch off our devices more often, allowing us room to breathe, to dream, to talk to one another. I’ll be interested to know what you think! The photo, by the way, is from the ocean edge of the ancient Trapani Salt Pans in western Sicily, which I took five days ago.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Adrienne Murphy wrote:

    No you are absolutely right I do it for a week or so occasionally

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I only generally switch off during the family summer holiday and at Christmas, Adrienne, although I know many people don’t even manage that. I would, however, love to see someone promote a day’s abstinence a week as an important way to reclaim some head space!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Pesky wrote:

    I think that a daily routine is necessary. Three hours on the Internet, like that.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You are very disciplined, Aleksey! 😉

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Maria McAllister wrote:

    I did it in Spain Andy but as soon as I got back I was on line again. It was a nice break though xx

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well, me too, Maria. One day back and I’m writing an article online about the importance of being offline. Irony, or what?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Aseea Mahmoud wrote:

    I’m usually up early and spend time in the garden. I leave my phone beside the bed … sometimes 3 hours pass and it feels like 45mins. I think not looking at a screen every few minutes can change perception of time … also helps if you’re doing something you love

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Aseea. Good to hear from you. I definitely agree that “not looking at a screen every few minutes can change perception of time.” That’s really at the heart of my fears about what’s happening to our attention spans.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Sophie Lamarche Harkat wrote:

    Because of Moe’s bail conditions, I still don’t own a phone. For that reason, I’m one of the very few people on the planet who can enjoy the view, a show, concert with my real eyes and not through my screen. While on vacation this summer, I did not check my emails for days and it felt good (however when you come back you have hundreds of them) Yes, I glance through the window when we are in the car and I’m enjoying the view and the company!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Sophie, and thanks for your thoughts! People can find out about Moe’s case here: http://www.justiceforharkat.com/news.php

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    An interesting article here by David Byrne, formerly of Talking Heads: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608580/eliminating-the-human/

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    I don’t willing let it go (my link to technology) but I’ve been in situations where there has been no service and I haven’t liked being forcibly cut off.
    I was very late in getting a phone compared to others in my generation, it’s only been a few years now that I’ve had one, but I love it. For me, getting a mobile was one of the first symbols of my freedom (after my seperation.) I’m also obsessively, crazed about documenting. This amazing contraption that I hold in my hand allows so much possibility. I feel like I have access to so much knowledge and information at my finger tips! It’s really quite incredible, if you think about it! I can find out what is happening on the other end of the planet immediately from this one little black box!
    I actually don’t care if people “like” stuff or want to be my friend, etc. My posts are mostly a way of containing information that I find of interest. I like FB because it allows me to download those posts to my home computer and keep track of my posts and pics. It’s my very own online scrap book.

    Just think about how long it took for information to get back and forth in past generations. We are very lucky to have this ability and it connects us together in ways people never imagined before.

    I’m glad you got a well deserved rest Andy! 🙂

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    I agree about all the positive things you say, Tashi, but I don’t think it’s as positive or constructive for everyone!

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    KaramaJamila Sani Yaro wrote:

    I switch off mine for a whole month every year dats during ramadhan (muslim fasting period) its refreshingly amazing

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, KaramaJamila, for describing your positive experiences of switching off during Ramadan.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Afsana Kayum wrote:

    Humans need time to connect with nature. After all, we’re made from the Earth. For me, it fills a void… makes me feel calm and at peace. Reminds me of my purpose too. It’s therapeutic really.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    I love that, Afsana – “Humans need time to connect with nature. After all, we’re made from the Earth.” So true, and yet so easily forgotten. I’m thrilled to see that this article is producing such a range of responses!

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Noel Rooney wrote:

    I have never used a mobile phone, and only used a camera a few times in my life; I also hardly ever watch television (my kids think I secretly live in a cave in the side of a hill). I guess I spend a fair proportion of my (free) time offline, and I don’t envy those who are tied to a screen, large or small.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Nice, Noel – “my kids think I secretly live in a cave in the side of a hill.” We non-mobile owners must be slightly more numerous than we’re encouraged to think. A bit like when those pretending to steer what passes for our culture insist that everyone likes football, when in fact only 1 in 4 people have any interest in it. And to that list, of course, can be added the whole of celebrity culture, most pop music, most films, quite possibly most of everything that humans do in the hamster wheel of capitalism. What would we do if freed from the profit motive, I wonder?

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Noel Rooney wrote:

    absolutely; I confess to liking football, in a generic way, but I’m out of the pop music loop these twenty years, listening to classical and traditional music. ‘Everyone’ is a white bloke in his thirties who thinks he’s in his twenties, and acts like he’s in his teens. He is the person our culture (and I use the word advisedly) points its misshapen self at. He has a twin brother, with the same name, and consequently think that Everyone is like him

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Now that’s refreshingly out there, Noel! “He has a twin brother, with the same name, and consequently think that Everyone is like him”

  23. Anna says...

    Hi fellow mobile-resister 🙂
    I have one – a prehistorical Nokia 🙂 – but it’s always off and lying on my desk. No camera, internet or GPS and I only switch it on when I am meeting someone in town, so I can inform if I’m late and vice versa. Public telephone booths are rapidly disappearing, so that is becoming a bit of a necessity.
    The idea that I would have phone conversations while walking on the street – let alone during dinner with friends, oh horror of horrors – is beyond me.
    Why on earth would I have to read mails while walking in the street – unless maybe I’d be a reporter who’s on an assignment?
    And why should every one of my moves be recorded in some server? I’ll stubbornly hang on to the little privacy that is left to me.
    No social media, no ‘smart’ TV (or any for that matter) or fridge which would check the expiry date of any processed food I might keep there.
    I am too much addicted though to computer internet when I am at home. AJE livestream in the background, in-mail up front.
    For me the main advantage is quicker contact with friends scattered all over the world, and that you can instantly look up some background info, rather than having to go to a library.
    The rest is a lot of frustration : press pay-walls or cookie blackmail, relentless ads popping up and thus making the text you’d like to read jump up and down, etc. I do not allow cookies. Yet since I checked flights from A to B a few days ago – but bought the ticket through a travel agency as I have no credit card either :-), that airline’s invitation to get a ticket for that connection keeps popping up at every turn, so their booking page records your search-but-not-buy behaviour …
    Soon there will be an app for people waiting at a traffic light, to inform them that it has turned green …
    O tempora o mores!
    As for escapism, do you remember the Mother of Soap Opera’s, Peyton Place? Mid sixties, now all on YouTube, Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal etc. I’ve become addicted.
    No mobiles but payphones, filing cabinets with cardboard cards, typewriters, few (huge) cars, printed press, people walking and talking with each other (not to mention the incredible hairdo’s of Dorothy Malone et al :-). Give it a try, just 20 odd minutes of black-and-white soothing time machine : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTQqqhZ9qd8

  24. Gorilla Radio with Chris Cook, William Laurance, Andy Worthington, Christina Nikolic August 30, 2017 - Gorilla Radio says...

    […] Andy Worthington is freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker, and singer-songwriter. Co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative) and co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, he has made an annual pilgrimage to America from his native Britain to lobby for that infamous prison’s closure. […]

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you as one of the mobile resisters, Anna, and to hear your details of when you’re online and offline and what all that means to you.
    Fascinating how so many of us find ways to keep our headspace, while so many others don’t.
    I’ve heard of Peyton Place, of course, but have never watched it. I’ll have to check it out. Just trie having a lot, but YouTube has revamped its entire site – and the result is that it doesn’t seem to be working properly!

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Lance wrote:

    Andy, I recently deactivated my FB account and took off a month, from July 4th to Hiroshima Day. It took several days to lose the habit of checking online. Throughout the month, I was more engaged and present with my family and friends, the world outside, and my self. I was also more content, more in tune with my creative energies, and I overall enjoyed better levels of energy and clarity of mind. I woke with a different sort of spirit each morning. I regretted all the time I’ve wasted online, even as I devote it almost entirely to activist-related work and information. There is something about the daily online presence that detaches one from life. I’ll be deactivating my account again soon.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s a powerful analysis, Laura, and I think strikes to the heart of what happened to me – actual transformation by being offline. That said, I’m selfishly hoping you don’t disappear completely, as my friendship with you is one that has only become possible through the internet, and is one of the great positive aspects of the world wide web – the ability to make new friends anywhere in the world, even when we might never actually meet in person.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Rosalinda Much wrote:

    Thank you Andy. Yes it’s interesting. I have had a sleep deprivation issue for about four years, only getting about 3-4 hours sleep a night. It has had all sorts of negative effects. Finally in the last couple of weeks, I started switching off my devices around 6.00, 8.00pm is late for me now! Then, if I’m not going out, I prepare for bed at what sounds like children’s bed time. The results are amazing – I feel so much better already in so many ways including more creative. I think I produced the problem myself by being an internet addict. I live in Mallorca now where people are much less addicted to their smart phones than London, it makes us relate to each other much more.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very interesting, Rosalinda. So I’m starting to think we should ration our internet use, and perhaps, as your example demonstrates, switch off in the evening.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Rosalinda Much wrote:

    Totally Andy.

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Unfortunately, that will be difficult for me, Rosalinda, as I’m trying to cram too much into the day. I tend to do admin in the morning, related to my work – answering emails, preparing articles etc. – then I ride my bike and take photos in the afternoon, then publish articles on my website, and promote my work via social media in the evening, while trying to square this with wanting to be with my family – and offline. Not enough hours in the day!

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Lance wrote, in response to 27, above:

    Thank you so much for your comment, Andy. I have met a number of people online who are, like you, souls of the earth who give so generously of themselves to right injustices, be a voice for those who are powerless or marginalized, to protect the planet, and to make the world a better place. And I very much missed that presence during my hiatus. It occurred to me that these people provide a sorely-needed counterpoint to what is sometimes an overwhelming bleakness. Your work and your music are the very embodiment of hope.

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, you’ve just made my day, Laura, with your wonderfully supportive words! Thank you so much!
    So we seem very much to be left seeking some sort of balance between the positive aspects of two very different worlds – our modern, globally-interconnected one, and the older, human-cantered one – an edit seems to me that finding this balance is a particular interesting contemporary quest.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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