Just about a year ago, while glued to my laptop on the comfort of my couch, an interesting opportunity came across my Facebook feed. Posted by a California company called DreamJobbing, it read, “Welcome to ESCAPE: A Digital Detox, a social experiment set in the epic location of Thailand. We are searching across America to cast five millennials willing to give up their digital devices and embark on a life-changing 12-day adventure.” As the slightly cynical New Yorker in me tried to say this was too good to be true, a moment of ‘why not’ led me to dream a little.
From my quaint corner in Brooklyn I proceeded to develop a submission detailing why I needed a digital detox. I didn’t know it then, but this is precisely the moment my journey began. As a 24-year old freelance writer and social media editor, it was the first time I had ever asked myself why I would need a break from the digital realm. I used social media to make a living, but did I want to use it to make a life? And thus began a train of thought that would change my relationship with social technology forever.
Of the many ways one could be defined, I have always resonated with what Ruth Hill Useem has dubbed the ‘third culture kid.’ I was born in New York, and raised in Tunisia, Morocco, Argentina, England and Dubai. I am certainly culturally confused, and while life on the move has had its obvious perks, it has also left me with a few emotional longings. To sum it up, I have felt like a passive presence in everyone else’s permanent existence, and an escape to new surroundings sounded like my kind of medicine.
Emotional anxiety aside, this also just seemed like a free ticket and great way to see Thailand. I knew I had a type of addiction to my phone, but had placed the blame on a larger societal addiction rather than my own. Everyone I knew started their day with a scroll through social feeds and stayed up a little too late reading listicles at night. So what was so wrong with my daily dose of digital?
A few interviews later I received the news betwixt two innocent bystanders in the middle seat of an Uber Pool. It was official, I had been selected to embark on this adventure with four other millennials in just two weeks’ time. A scream of sheer excitement amidst strangers was stunted by a sudden alarming realization. What in the actual f*ck was I getting myself into? I had no idea where I would be going, what I would be doing, who I would be doing it with, and it began to feel like the greatest internet scam of all time.
With the added concern of friends and family, I still decided to set my fears aside and embrace the unknown. Here is what I learned through five revelatory moments when I decided to ditch my digital world for 12 days in Thailand:
Getting myself there.
I will start with this; I was an anxious mess. The person I had thought I was- brave, worldly, open-minded- began to shut down as I opened the door to leave. It wasn’t the idea of leaving behind my phone, it was the idea of doing it under unknown contexts. I was going to be at the mercy of people I didn’t even know halfway across the world. Alone in the back of my cab on the way to the airport, I fully realized how dependent I was on my phone as a sense of security. I couldn’t just call an Uber and leave if I wasn’t in the exact situation I wanted to be in.
Phones have become literal extensions of our brain and body. Without which, we believe that we can’t fully function. We are essentially rewiring the way we live, think, and protect ourselves to be entirely reliant on technology. Gone are the days when our brains were required to actually remember things, in 2017 we set reminders on our phones. The same goes for our sense of security. Our phones have become our comfort zones.
It is almost as if we don’t know who we are without them. They are the modern day mask that we hide behind to avoid genuine, or any, human contact. While technology makes us feel safe, humans make us feel scared, and it goes down to the simplest of interactions. I would rather abandon my hour-long pursuit of ordering Chinese food online if it requires that I pick up the phone and speak to another human. It’s that bad.
Takeaway: Our comfort zones shouldn’t be confined to our phones. That’s backwards. We should seek to regain comfort in the humanity of those around us, not in the technology that separates us.
Bangkok to Surat Thani.
My fear evaporated shortly after arriving, within 48 hours I had come to adore my fellow adventurers. I felt like I was the luckiest girl in the world. I couldn’t wait to spend the next 10 days free from the burdens of my digital devices. As with every day that would follow, we woke up that first morning unaware of what the day would hold. For our first in country-adventure, some 30-minutes prior, we found out we would be boarding a 12-hour overnight train to the southern city of Surat Thani.
It’s crazy how quickly you bond in the context of new surroundings. Amidst an old, industrial train with harsh lighting and even harsher smells, our lives began to unravel. Unconsumed by phones these strangers quickly knew more about me than some people I’ve known for years. What I realized was that although social media can bring us closer from a distance, it takes us further away from the physical present. We use our phones in everyday conversations as references that distract our attention from going beyond surface level interactions. We no longer use our words and emotions to describe our experiences, we use content on our phones that disable us from going deeper emotionally and intellectually.
Takeaway: Social media can bring us closer to our far away friends, but take us further from those in our physical present. It hinders deeper emotional and intellectual stimulations in everyday dialogues.
A Monk’s Life.
One of our journey’s many surprises consisted of a hike 1,222 steep steps up the serene Tiger Temple. Tropical trees surround the dramatic cliff that leads to one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the province. Before our spiritual climb even began I was able to converse with a friendly monk, as one casually does, and it lead to many lessons in self-discovery.
I have always admired the will of someone who devotes their life to a single cause. We now live in times where we are seduced by an illusion of choice. How could we be happy with one lover, job, location, when we have so many options in the palm of our hands? According to said monk, the illusion of choice is eliminated when you are fully aware of your present. A study in subtlety. If you’re eating something, really f*cking eat it. Acknowledge the tastes, the process of chewing, how your body reacts. When you are aware and paying attention to the present (#woke), you are not focused on what other choices you may or may not have.
In other wisdoms, he shared that our relationship with social media is also a choice. We can choose to live primarily in the digital world, or live in the present physical world at any given moment. We have become observers of our own lives rather than participants. We would rather see pictures of the trips we have been on then actually live them. We take it further by comparing our digital existence to those of people we don’t even know. But actually, if we are aware and in the present, we can free ourselves from the jealous and comparing mind. We must not be owned by the environment we are in, but be able to freely move in and out of it.
Takeaway: Understand that the digital and physical worlds are separate. Be aware, live in your present self through every breath and action.
A Homestay in a Floating Muslim Village.
After two boats and buses into what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we landed at a sleepy floating village. The predominantly Muslim island of Koh-Klang was a serene and simple place, seemingly unaffected by Western influences and technology. As we finally approached our homestay and hosts, we felt immediately welcomed. Their home felt like a sacred place. One of simplicity, walls and a roof built to hold moments of human connection. Dinner was served on dark wooden floors without the distraction of television, games were played with a ball in the yard instead of through a screen.
It was what traveling used to be like. When you went somewhere new, it was because you had a genuine interest in learning about a new culture. You had real conversations with everyday people about how they lived their lives. And it wasn’t just to say you did. You actually listened. The quality of your experience wasn’t defined by what might look the coolest to my friends on Instagram back home. It wasn’t about bragging rights, it was about genuine curiosity and cultural connection.
This stay was a lesson in living in the moment. Actually, the entire adventure was. I had been to many countries and have met many families, but this time it was different. It dawned upon me how fortuitous I was to truly experience what it means to live in the moment. How often in life can you do something without having to plan it, pay for it, stress about it or be fixated on documenting it? In my existence, this was certainly a first. In every essence and through every breath, I was fully aware and engaged with my surroundings. I was not living in my past or future self, it was just me in the present. And damn did it feel good.
Takeaway: Using social media to document a moment is exactly the opposite of being present in it. ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’ is not real.
It’s funny how things come full circle. The anxiety I felt leaving my phone behind was replaced by the anxiety of emails and Instagram when I finally got it back. Aside from hearing the voices of the people I love, I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t miss social media for one second. It took going cold turkey to realize my relationship with my phone wasn’t mindful, but mindless. It was a habit turned addiction, and it was holding me back.
None of the lessons I learned would mean anything if I was to go back to the same old regime. Sure, I may not change the world, but if I changed the way I treated technology perhaps I could influence those around me too. I also wanted to be realistic. It is virtually impossible to entirely abandon the digital world today. If you have a bank account, family far away, or do work that requires email, you need a digital device.
Maybe it is not about extremes, but rather about intent. Have a phone, but have a healthy relationship with it. Do things mindfully, using technology with purpose rather than passiveness. We can use our devices to enhance meaningful connections, if the intent behind it is to do so. No one is perfect, and a slip into an occasional social scroll is inevitable, but it shouldn’t consume hours of our time. Tomorrow is a new day, and it’s never too late or too soon to begin acting with intent.