By Deborah Lubanga
My younger sister was the last person to text me as I boarded my flight to Ghana. Unfortunately, our conversation ended abruptly the moment I stepped onto the plane and lost cell service. In fact, I would spend my whole spring break completely cut off from everyone except for the 20 others students I was traveling with as a part of the New York University Presidential Honors Scholars Program.
However, this was not just a week without cell service. It was a week without technology because I decided to forgo using all my electronics, particularly the Wi-Fi-enabled devices. This decisions stemmed from a class assignment for which we had to spend at least one day without technology.
The first seven hours of this experience were effortless, largely because I slept the entire flight to Amsterdam, where we had a two-hour layover. I am one of those lucky travelers who fall asleep before the flight attendants can even finish the safety instructions.
Unfortunately, this meant that I was wide awake for the second leg of our journey – from Amsterdam to Accra – while most of my travel group was sleeping. So for lack of better options, I reluctantly decided to do the homework I brought with me.
I was expecting to spend the whole flight working my way through dense reading and to not even get to the written assignments I had. But much to my surprise, I was done with everything after three hours, which was about half of the time it would normally take me.
What’s even more surprising is that I was by no means fully focused the entire time. My mind wandered more times than I could count, which is completely normal according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a technology futurist and author of “The Distraction Addiction.”
Pang says people are hardwired for this kind of self-distraction. In fact, it often precedes an “ah-ha” moment when we are working on something challenging because our subconscious is still working through the problem. However, technology can highjack this process and divert our attention to something else entirely.
“There’s a big difference between the kind of mind wandering where you allow your mind to continue to work on something without your conscious intervention versus the kind of mind wandering that involves text messaging or ‘liking’ things,” said Pang.
Without Internet access, when my mind wandered off there was no rabbit-hole of tempting and time-consuming distractions to fall into. I had no means of capitalizing on these brief instances of distraction and turning them into full-fledged unproductivity.
So as the plane touched down in Accra, I was ready to enjoy a burden-free vacation from real life. However, this was also when the reality of the technology-free part of my vacation started to sink in.
My first full day of what Pang calls a Digital Sabbath was a little unsettling. My bag was noticeably lighter without my phone or iPod, so I constantly felt like I was forgetting something.
There were moments when I would wonder what was going on in the world beyond our little travel group. Did that person I wanted to interview email me back? Did my professor post midterm grades? Did I get hired for that job?
But after a while, I started to embrace a new sense of freedom. The pressure to be constantly accessible, regardless of where I am or what I am doing, was lifted. It was nice not to feel obligated to respond to anyone outside of the immediate vicinity.
Although, this sense of freedom does not mean that I did not feel like relapsing. At times, I felt envious of my fellow travelers, who were taking advantage of the hotel Wi-Fi. I have never thought of myself as someone particular invested in using Facebook, but I could not help but feel left out when I heard people talking about adding each other on Facebook and uploading pictures to a group someone created.
The idea of not feeling like you are really friends with someone until you are friends on Facebook is rather odd, but a thought that has crossed my mind before. It seems that sometimes we get so caught up in building digital friend circles that we forget about the people around us.
“We spend quite a bit more time on [social media] than we have in the past. And for some people there seems to be a kind of substitution effect in the sense that it’s what you do instead of hanging out and spending time with people or interacting with people who are right beside you,” said Pang, who has spent years researching the way technology not only affects us, but also our interactions with others.
While in Ghana, I realized that not being friends with someone on Facebook right away does not hinder the development of our relationship in real life. I do not need Facebook to validate my friendship.
Besides, once we left the hotel, no one had Internet access, which was instrumental in the establishment of our group dynamic. I would even go as far as to say we got to know each other more in that one week than we did the previous semester.
Prior to the trip, we had biweekly meetings but did not interact with each other very much. Most people – myself included – just fiddled with their phones until the meeting started. Short greetings would be exchanged when someone sat next to you, but you would quickly return to your own little world, which is only accessible via Wi-Fi or with a hefty data plan.
However, in Ghana we only had access to each other and that brought us significantly closer together. If we did not talk to each other, we would not talk to anyone and no one wanted that. This trip was a once in a lifetime experience for each of us and we had the opportunity to share it with 20 amazing people.
As I got off the plane back in New York, text messages flooded my phone the moment I turned it back on. Spring Break and my Digital Sabbath were officially and unfortunately over. I was back to real life and back on real time. I wanted to text my sister, but I figured we both could wait a little longer.