Digital Diaspora: 24 hours without a phone

Words by Edward Wong 
Art by Sara Teh

No phone, social media or attachments to the pixelated streams of consciousness that blind us from the real world. Don’t worry, it’s only for 24 hours! 

I guess Generation Z would prefer death than being subject to such deprivation. Alas, I am made of harder, tougher things. The blood of millennials still courses through my veins, and surely being an older millennial immediately entitles me to be more disciplined, right? This challenge was supposed to be easy until it wasn’t…

I love exploring, reading and playing board games. Basically, I’m good with activities that do not require one’s eyes to be glued to the digital crystal balls we call mobile phones. By now you probably think that I’m going to rant, “I don’t believe in technology and I condemn it as the malicious corruptor of our moral values blah blah…” but this isn’t the Cypherpunk Manifesto. On the contrary, I do love the occasional online stalk on a person of interest, I’m no stranger to the binge-worthy prowess streaming platforms offer and I engage in shameless promotion whenever I update my LinkedIn profile. I do not have Twitter or Instagram though and barely check my Snapchat since Facebook pretty much combines Skype, Snapchat and WhatsApp. 

Despite my best efforts to avoid it, I unconsciously share a symbiotic relationship with the greater digital diaspora we have learnt to call a second home—the World Wide Web. I did not have a grandiose plan on how to approach this task, except that I extended the parameters of the challenge to include “no internet access on any digital device” for 24 hours, and that I wouldn’t hibernate my way through this ordeal. Initially, I revelled on the notion of being unplugged from society and how I would be free from the anxiety of graduate job applications, assignments and whatever echo-chamber YouTube videos the algorithms had in store for me. However, it only took less than two hours after waking up to realise that I couldn’t read my digital subscription of The New York Times, I wouldn’t be tagged in any memes today and that my TV and car-radio would make the greatest technological comeback of 2019. Forget about finding free sheet music online or letting off steam on Age of Empires II multiplayer. Today was supposed to be about freedom, a sweet escape from the golden-handcuffs of modern life. Why couldn’t I embrace it?

The Ancient Chinese believed in the concept of Yin and Yang; a Taoist concept that literally translates into darkness and the light. The philosophy of Taoism mainly involves ideas of natural ease, nonaction and living life seamlessly and formlessly along with the flow. It was the ultimate manifestation of Bruce Lee’s quote, “be water”, which advocates for individuals to embrace flexibility in their lives in contrast to the restrictive dogmas we impose upon ourselves. It’s a timeless, universal concept that merely seeks harmony through balance and is equally applicable to both our external and internal conscious realities. As I took my beloved Golden Retriever out on our daily ritualistic walk around the neighbourhood, I couldn’t help but reflect upon this ancient wisdom. “A life of moderation”, an over said cliched expression, and yet somehow so powerful and relevant for me as I paced away with nothing but the howling winter winds, my thoughts and the ceaseless wagging of a grateful dog to keep me company. Yin and Yang, a life of harmony and balance seemed almost antithetical especially when one finds himself so bound to earthly attachments buried deep within the maze of circuit boards.

No, I did not get high and trip on psychedelic drugs to pass time. Rather it was a simple question that plagued me that made me ponder upon teachings of Taoism, “why couldn’t I let go of my phone?”. Fleeting thoughts of missing out plagued my weary mind as a voice within me whispered, “how did anyone live like this before?” Did they read to contain the maelstrom of frustrated thoughts coursing through the neural networks of the mind? Did they write to channel such energies into something productive? 

I bought Tao Te Ching, a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism, not to feign being a man of culture but out of genuine curiosity as to what alternative definitions of success entailed. It’s a short read and I completed it during my day of pensive, digital solitude. Did I understand it all? Absolutely not. I am happy though to have read it. As the day lingered on, what felt like entrapment soon evolved to a perverse form of liberation as I found peace within the silence of my mind. The boundaries between time, noise, touch and sound soon dissipated into meaningless euphoric symphonies that were chaotic, but beautiful nonetheless. I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely.

Life was simply too short to be waiting for messages that only ended in split-screen sadness. 

The twilight of my 24-hour exile dawned. Yin and Yang danced to an eternal tune that sang songs of frustration, joy and anxiety. For a moment, I drowned my senses amidst a kaleidoscope of emails, messages and notifications that bombarded the screen that was both a window and a prison. I had returned to reality. Perhaps this time there would be equilibrium as I decided what it was I wanted to do…

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