Living off the grid: what happened when The Drum sent one unlucky reporter off on a digital detox

The group; dreaded toilet; fire spinning; the neighbour; dining room

The Drum’s Angela Haggerty reports from deepest darkest Norfolk where she logs-off, unplugs and remembers what life was like before smartphones, tablets and, erm... indoor plumbing.

“Time was the beginning of technology,” was the profound statement which left us pondering in deep, red wine-induced thought as we watched the day’s light slowly fade and banished thoughts of visiting the communal toilet bucket in the dark. It was day one of the digital detox weekend and it didn’t disappoint. Yours truly had pleasant notions of a bright little cottage with modern facilities, simply lacking smartphones, tablets, TVs and computers; a nice chance to relax and let the world drift away amid luxurious facilities – oh dear. How stunned I was to arrive at a marshman’s cottage in Norfolk after a two-mile cow dung-dodging hike through a field to discover we’d be sharing our abode with insects I never knew existed and electricity would become a long-lost thought. And then there was the bucket. The communal toilet bucket in a stone hut with a wooden door. The only thing worse than a communal toilet bucket and no electricity is a communal toilet bucket, no electricity and no running water. The doctor thinks the nightmares will subside soon. I cast my mind back to that fateful day in the office when I said: “That sounds like a good idea, I’ll go,” and promised myself I would never agree to anything again. I could only wonder what my fellow detoxers were thinking. Taking the plunge with me into the unknown, or at least the forgotten, were Martin Talks, former president of digital Draftfcb who kindly sponsored the experiment; Liveminds founder Hugh Carling; Lexi Mills, head of digital at Dynamo PR; Shell communications man Barnaby Briggs; and Martin’s outdoorsy brother Lawrence, who I’m pretty sure was there to make sure we all survived. A recent study by Versapak showed that more than a third of people in the UK felt a loss of control when separated from their gadgets and over half said they suffered from “extreme tech anxiety”. Amid the wonders of the digital revolution, people have become more and more dependent on new tools of communication to keep on communicating. And so here we all were, ready to face our modern digital fears. My detox kicked off with a major protest from my body (note: booking a weekend break in a field isn’t a smart move if you’re riddled with hay fever). A double dose of pills didn’t even dent it. But beaten I was not, and off we all went to the field next to the cottage for a game of cricket. A day of sport, dinner, chatter and even fire-spinning ensued – cue Lexi Mills, poi instructor extraordinaire. For those who don’t know what poi is, it’s the performance art of fire spinning. Yes, fire spinning! After a few quick lessons from Lexi and several potential injuries from the practice twirly things as we got the moves right, it was time to light the fire. Never in a million years did I think I’d ever partake in anything which involved me spinning fire around me on the end of a chain and promptly smacking myself on the head with it. But I did it – and it was great. It went straight on the list of things to pursue. While I was enjoying feeling like a kid again, there were elements of detox I found more difficult to settle with – to add to the detox it was decided we would banish time. Watches were thrown into the forbidden bag and all sense of technology was gone. For me it was the hardest part. The inability to measure every activity, plan a day and countdown to our return to normality suddenly filled me with unease. The middle of nowhere, no electricity or technology, and now no time; it felt like a real break from the world and I suddenly didn’t know what to do with myself. I’m sure my fellow detoxers felt that same hesitance and together we rediscovered something truly lost in the social media age – real conversation. I’d forgotten how engaging people were on their own, without the screens. We learned some fascinating stuff about each other; the kinds of things you don’t chat about over email. For example, Hugh was the survivor of an IRA bomb attack in London in 1991. His story was incredible. He brought with him to the detox the cricket bat he carried in his bag and which saved his life that day, and we all listened in awe to the story of a 12-year-old boy who found himself in the middle of The Troubles. He still lives with shrapnel in his body and he was even the second ‘bong’ on the 10 O’Clock News when he was released from hospital, he told us. This was a huge life event and we were all stunned. As the night wore on and others shared their own stories it struck me how little time so many of us devote these days to really getting to know new people. You can’t do it in 140 characters and I defy anyone to tell me the image they project on Facebook is a true representation of who they are. Our first night in detox gave us a lot to think about. The next day I was awoken under my sleeping bag by a growing inability to breathe through my nose and a throat that thought it was battling razor blades. I opened my eyes to the sight of roughly eight spiders on the ceiling straight above me and the heavy thought of a morning toilet visit. But with the summer day emerging and a refreshing early morning wash in some collected rainwater, I realised how liberated I was feeling. I didn’t have to carry a bag around with me, I wasn’t constantly checking for my phone, the next week ahead at work was far from my mind and this new found group of friends were having a real laugh with one another. My expectation before the detox was to spend the period missing my technology desperately and hanging on to the thought of getting it back. A weekend isn’t a long period and it may be that the novelty was a big enough distraction, but I didn’t feel as lost without my smartphone as I was prepared for. Rather, I found myself enjoying the technological liberation, and the same seemed true of the group. Within our digital detox bubble, we were all without technology and didn’t have to worry about missing out on friends’ activities through a lack of gadgets. The whole group reported feeling surprisingly calm and at ease – apart from Hugh, perhaps, who must have seemed deranged when we walked at least three miles to a ‘nearby’ pub on the second night and innocent drinkers were bombarded with frantic queries about the cricket score. That said, I’d love to report that I wasn’t ecstatic when Martin handed me my smartphone back on the train platform as the detox ended and that I was ready to jack it all in and take up life in the hills, but it would be a splattering bare faced lie; I was delighted and I wanted to tweet. However, Martin’s idea of a reunion next summer and an update on how we all got on with pledges we made to factor in technology-free activities to our lives was warmly received. Aside from my body thinking pollen was life-threatening and behaving accordingly – my eyes were glued shut when I woke up on the second day – I thoroughly enjoyed my time away from the modern world. It didn’t take long to adapt, and neither it should.You can find out more about the digital detox project by visiting the website.This article was first published in the 30 August edition of The Drum, which you can buy here

AH

Angela Haggerty

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