The advice offered to me by people when I explain I am going to live by myself in the woods for a week varies from the sensible (“Develop a routine”) to the frankly awful (“Take some weed!”).
But it is Michael Harris, the Canadian author who published a book in 2014 called The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, who I pay most attention to.
Like me, Harris decided to try and face his fears. He gave up the internet and his phone for an entire month, though not, it must be said, human contact altogether. Nevertheless, “crushing loneliness,” is how he describes the initial effects of his experiment.
“You have to remember, people who design our online experiences have devoted enormous resources toward making them as addictive as possible,” Harris says. “Walking away from it makes you feel like shit, because suddenly all your magic powers are gone.”
He is talking about the way email alerts and social media notifications are rewiring us by triggering endorphins in our brains.
“You have to burrow through that discomfort before you start to see the rewards on the other side. When you’re living online, there is a certain apparatus of approval. What you do, what you think and what you believe is governed by certain corporate interests and the interests of your friends—something becomes worthy if it gets 12 retweets, say.
“When you cut yourself off from the internet,” he says, “you’re forced to construct a personal approval system—something that is not beholden to the opinions of others.