How being temporarily offline made me appreciate what digital technology brings to life

Yesterday I had the rare, terrifying but ultimately educational experience of being disconnected from the internet for about four hours. Here’s what I learned about myself and about digital technology.

The setup

I was visiting London for an afternoon/evening and my first stop was the Apple Store to get an iPhone camera problem looked at. I expected either a replacement or an instant repair – instead I got a four-hour repair turnaround and asked to come back later.

But… but… that means I won’t have a phone, I protested. Apple Store dude shot me a half-patronising, half-sympathetic look. Two “I’m incommunicado!” messages later – one business, one personal – and I was thrust into the teeming metropolis disconnected from my digital life support system.

The experience

First feelings: discombobulated. An eerie, vague sensation that someone might be trying to get in touch with me and I wouldn’t know.

But then a zen-like calm descended. I decided to accept the incommunicado aspect. If I got really desperate I could jump into a coffee shop and get on wifi with my laptop. I found my mind could focus on my surroundings better without the nagging perma-distraction sitting in my pocket. I enjoyed actually being in London, rather than skimming the surface of it, occasionally looking up from the phone screen.

So far, so virtuous. But then, having ‘shed the chains of connectedness’ (bear in mind this is 15, maybe 20 minutes in…!), I started to miss some specific things. I kept instinctively going to my coat pocket, not for random unnecessary distractions (messaging, social media, games) but for very specific functions:

  • Without Google Maps I had to find my way around by stopping at street maps posted outside tube stations
  • Without a Tube app I had to trace my finger over station maps to plan my route
  • Without the internet I couldn’t find out what time the Science Museum closed (I decided to pass at least some of the time in a cultural pursuit)
  • Without the Fitbit app I couldn’t tell whether I was getting in my target exercise for the day
  • Without a phone I couldn’t call my wife to arrange where to meet (I had to use a PAYPHONE! And not all of them actually work, which may not surprise you)

So I went from panic, to serenity, to missing very specific utilities upon which I’ve come to rely. And then got my phone back and started breathing normally again.

The lessons

I learned that I can be unplugged from the matrix (at least for a few hours), and that the edgy feeling of ‘disconnectedness’ passes. What remains is the strong sense of loss for the particular tools that digital technology does so well.

Will this have any lasting effect? Well, I’ve had a clearout of phone apps, dividing my digital world into Distractions and Utilities. Most of the Distractions got deleted (not all; I’m only human). My apps fit on one screen now, and they all deserve their place 🙂

Digital technology is improving our lives in so many ways. In other ways it’s giving us more ways of being distracted – which is perfectly fine, we all need a bit of downtime.

So if you’re developing new digital tools, products or services for your customers, make sure that they’re either Highly Useful or Highly Entertaining – or both.

In other words – make yours the app that users miss most when they’re unplugged!