Digital detox, anyone?
Electronic gadgets have been invading our lives for years, but it may be time to reflect on their long-term impact -- if you can find a few moments of solitude to think about it. Once, the problem was confined to hardware, advertised in magazines and on television. Now, it's more about the software updates and apps that keep pushing us to replace what we have with newer things.
I have been pondering these issues as I prepare to spend 10 days at a meditation center as a Theravada Buddhist monk. I'm not worried about the limited meals, the strict code of conduct or the need to keep silent for hours on end. What scares me is the idea of being away from my gadgets. But I'm not sure why.
I don't think I will miss my laptop, with its hoard of documents and photos. It isn't about not being able to use my tablet to read that article I downloaded over free Wi-Fi at a cafe to save for a future date, or to see that movie I downloaded before it was removed from the site. I'm not worried about the call I won't be able to make to a friend I have not talked to for years. So what is it that unnerves me about this digital detox?
One answer came when I took a family holiday in July, and went off the internet for four days. It was tough. I didn't mind that I couldn't stay in touch with my friends over WhatsApp, or see the stupid jokes and videos that people send me. I didn't miss the Facebook posts from friends, or LinkedIn messages from people wanting me to find them work or buy stuff I don't need. I certainly didn't miss Twitter.
But I did miss being connected. I was scared. People in the Slack messaging channels knew I was out of reach. My email accounts carried a well-worded vacation message. Anyone who might need to connect with me in an emergency could reach me in seconds. But still, I felt there was something missing. Pondering my upcoming 10 days offline, I have a chill in the spine. Could something go wrong?
My wife has tried to set my mind at rest. According to her, my gadgets have a spiritual connection, like everything else around us. Gadgets don't drive us, we drive them, she tells me, adding that if I was stuck at the Everest base camp after an earthquake I would be thinking of my family, and it is the gadgets' connectivity that would help me. Your concern is for the family, she says; the gadget is just a tool.
She may be right. But I can't help thinking that there is more to it. The proliferation of gadgets across the world has happened in part because people's choice of hardware and software has become inextricably linked with how they are seen by other people -- especially among those who cannot really afford the expense.
The smartphone a person carries has become a marker of his or her status. Volunteer teachers in countries such as Cambodia and Nepal share stories of how students have become obsessed with gadgets that they cannot afford -- and of the problems that this obsession is causing in developing societies.
All over the world, family time is turning into me time as families sit around their dining tables interacting through their gadgets with people doing the same thing somewhere else. Dating has been transformed from a private matter into a public event where each partner broadcasts via social media while the food goes cold on the table.
It is high time to reconsider what these gadgets -- with their plethora of apps, software and channels -- mean to us. A good test would be to think about going through the kind of digital detox I am about to undertake and try to judge what it would do to you.
Would abandoning your online identity for 10 days give you a sense of freedom from electronic harassment, or do you worry about losing control? Would it improve your awareness of the power these gadgets have to distract? Would it provide a fresh lens through which to look at your relationship with technology?
I don't yet know the answers to these questions, but my Buddhist detox will shortly help me find them -- assuming I can overcome my fears sufficiently to go through with it.
Sujeev Shakya, a Kathmandu-based author, commentator and entrepreneur, is CEO of beed management and author of "Unleashing Nepal" (2013).