A week without mobile data freed me up to enjoy the real world

By Keith Pereña

Modern horror story: for a week, I was ‘forced’ to speak to other people on the phone because I had run out of mobile data to send them a message. As I write this, my phone is at a table across me, not within arm’s reach. During that week, it was nice to finally have some peace, even as I was thinking how sacrilegious it must be for a journalist to not know what was going on around the world.

Living a day without my phone was an idea I read on a website, a list of 20-such things millennials ought to try. The story, if I recall, had some cheesy but practical advice such as travelling, learning to cook, volunteering, and leaving your phone for a day. While I didn’t technically ‘leave’ my phone, being without internet, without a connection to the ‘rest of the world’ was equally inconvenient.

For a week, I had to call and talk to people to get things done. It had been a while since I spoke to people on the phone. There’s a world of difference between calls and messages. First, the banter had emotions: My grandmother’s concern felt like an embrace as she told me to stay safe in Dubai. I could hear my brother sound passive as I gave him a list of chores. I felt excited hearing a blogger say he was looking forward to our interview.

Hearing a voice at the other end has a lot going for it. It’s not the same as sending replies on WhatsApp. Those sound flat even when you add emojis.

Just the other day, I rung a friend who recommended I listen to a song by a band called Agsunta. After giving it a listen, I had to tell her, “This so good!” rather than typing as much in uppercase with exclamation points. During our conversation, I was aware of my stuttering, and reminded myself to go slow and be measured so that my friend could also respond.

When sending messages, I’ve always felt that you can send ten — one after another — and hope the other person replies. But in actual conversation, thoughts rally back and forth. And endings have a sweeter touch. There is a response from the other person when you say, ‘see you later’ or ‘bye’, not just the blue ticks denoting ‘seen’.

Since I was little, I suffered from stuttering and pronouncing ‘r’ like ‘w’. These impediments made me veer away from socialising because after all, who would want to speak to someone who pronounced ‘rock music’ as ‘wock music’. While the slurs and stutters have reduced, the effects of isolating myself from conversation has made me more comfortable with texting rather than calling. Yet there I was, calling people up and talking.

Other than being able to refine my social skills, the jump from offline to online taught me a couple other things: my week without internet made me mindful of the adrenaline rush when I got it back. The urge to become part of the internet’s conversation surfaces and the pull of social media to share something comes to the forefront.

During the week, my home and office were the only places I had internet. Whenever I reached either place, my phone would buzz as soon as it grasped a signal. It was like a tug saying that I’m back in the spotlight where the world recognises my existence based on the sole fact that I’m online.

Those ‘tugs’ reminded me of a comic adaptation of a quote by Marc Maron — a stand-up comedian. He said that every status update is just a variation of a request to be noticed. He even goes as far as saying that our hyper-connected world is a culture of seven-year-olds yearning for some sort of self-validation; and he’s right. When I was online, I sent emails and posted updates about my life so others can see me. I felt an emotional high with every email reply and ‘like’ that I got.

But going back, maybe we ought to put our phones down every once in a while. During the week of my online sabbatical, it wasn’t just talking to others, it was also… living; It reminds me of the Monday I went jogging along Jumeirah Beach. A bunch of local kids were flaunting their supercars. Rather than shy away and snap a photo of the cars, I spoke with them and even persuaded one of them to rev one up so I could record a video. Shortly after, the sun dipped into the horizon, an orange orb painting the sky purple. Had I had a data connection, I’d be stooped down, reading tweets. Thank goodness, I wasn’t.


Keith is scrounging through his inbox to catch up on email he’s missed

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