What I Learned From My Digital Diet

12/10/2015 5:21 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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If I had to draw a stick figure of myself in 2014, my iPhone would have been my sixth finger. I'm acutely aware of this because, for six months, I went without the internet.

Too much to do, too little time; the catch-cry of the 21st century. We are in an age of overachievers attached to our internet devices, flooded with instantaneous information.

In 2014 Forbes reported that Apple had sold over 500 million iPhones in seven years; that's an addictive little internet box for every person in Australia, USA, Canada and Japan.

The internet (through the all mighty iPhone) became a manic undercurrent of my body; I breathed, I beeped, I coughed, I rang. If I woke up at 2 am for a glass of water, I'd refresh my inbox. With every answer in the world at my fingertips, I'd never felt more under-prepared; this is the "information overload" futurist Alvin Toffler predicted in 1970.

In Busy, Tony Crabbe explores the modern day dichotomy: "In this world of too much we are simultaneously overstimulated and bored; enriched and empty; connected yet isolated and alone." Going on a Digital Diet is scary and isolating, but completely possible.

There are over three billion internet users, roughly 40 percent of the world's population is online. Almost 90 percent of Australians have access to the internet, and standing on the outside in that 10 percent enabled me to look at internet use objectively at restaurant tables, bus shelters, sport stadiums; it seemed anytime anyone anywhere is feeling anything, an iPhone is pulled out.

For the first week without the internet I reached for my iPhone, feeling the phantom of impending urgency. I had no idea how much I relied on the internet to carry me through life, and how diminished my patience and problem-solving skills were as a result.

2015-10-06-1444096558-1703005-OverstimulatedandBoredAnnaJames.jpg Source: Anna James

YouTube was the soundtrack for my parties, behind the six dinners I'd cooked and Doctor Google diagnosed me within three seconds, and never once sent a bill. Once spoiled for information, I felt sheer hopelessness when I couldn't answer a question within one second, but as the weeks wore on I tried new (old) tactics.

I began reading again -- from a dusty set of Britannia Encyclopaedia, the 'Paper internet'. I started talking; asking others how things worked and playing around with ideas in my head until they sat right. I photocopied from library books and baked cake from patchy memories. I thumbed ancient copies of National Geographic in the medical centre's waiting room.

Replacing my dreaded iPhone calendar, I hand wrote -- sloppily -- a daily to-do list; my notebook filled with ideas and quotes instead of anxiously buzzing memos. I crossed off the tasks in my notebook regaining a feeling of completion. When I turned the net off, my body awoke. I ran, stretched and moved the nervous tension built over a lifestyle hunched around a screen.

I visited old haunts: the video store, waterslides, movies, the art gallery and roller rink, passing from one activity to the next, without the dread of having to be somewhere at the 'right' time. Without email notifications and social media updates at my heels, I learned how to be present; in one place at time identifying between immersion and mindless absorption.

It wasn't all fun and games; sometimes the Digital Diet is downright frustrating. It took a fair amount work to stay abreast of the goings on of the world without the internet, and I never fully shook the sense of isolation.

The biggest lesson I learned was that the internet was not to blame for me being overwhelmed, it was how I self-regulated its use. I don't have to be attached to my iPhone, or at the mercy of my inbox. I have choice in a world full of options.

Today when I sit at my laptop feeling overwhelmed, I pause and get out my notebook.

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