What Happens When You Go Offline

Alastair Grant / AP Photo

Stressed by constant connectivity, exhausted by having to rely on his computer and phone to communicate, artist Sam Winston decided to see what would happen if he tuned out all of modernity’s noise. Instead of just going camping or leaving his phone at home during a long bike ride, he isolated himself in the dark for a few days in his east London studio. “No screens,” Tom Lamont writes in 1843 magazine. “No sun. No visual stimulation of any kind.” Winston taped all his studio windows. He prepared all his food, slept, and worked in darkness. His experiment revealed a lot about the function and capabilities of the human mind under the opposing conditions of constant stimulation and the calm of deprivation. Many of us can relate to Winston’s urge to tune out, if not the way he went about it. Now that so many of us are hunched over our phones during shelter-in-place, relying on screens for news, entertainment, socialization, and work, the onslaught of information is more apparent than ever. Winston wasn’t simply escaping a glut of screens and information. He was escaping our era, one which has evolved so quickly that humanity has barely had time to adjust. A study in 2011 found that on a typical day Americans were taking in five times as much information as they had done 25 years earlier,” Lamont reports, “and this was before most people had bought smartphones.”

The world in the 21st century is no more richly textured or exotic to touch than it used to be. It smells about the same and there are no new flavours. Not since the coming of factories, then aeroplanes, domestic appliances and motorways has there been a serious uptick in sound pollution. Yet the spill of information and distraction that comes at us by eye has grown and grown ceaselessly for two decades, without any sign of a halt or plateau. DM! Breaking-news! Inbox (1)! This is a time of the scrolling, bottomless visual, when bus stops and the curved walls of Tube platforms play video adverts and grandma’s face swims onto a smartphone to say hi. People watch Oscar-nominated movies while standing in queues, their devices held at waist height. A Netflix executive can quip, semi-seriously, that he covets the hours we sleep (hours in which we do not, currently, stream Netflix shows). Apple has put an extra screen on our wrists and Google retains quiet hope that we will eventually wear a screen inside our specs. Big news lands in 140 characters or less, ideally with a startling picture or piece of video, else it doesn’t register as big news.

Our brains tend to lean on the visual, heavily prioritising sight over the other four senses. Ever since we climbed on to two feet as a species, taking our noses farther from the aroma-rich savannah floor, we have been wired to be seeing creatures and for better or worse we usually experience the what’s-next-what’s-next of this world through our peepers. As an artist, Sam Winston was often on the lookout for topsy-turvy projects – weird, sidelong ways to unmoor familiar habits or nudge his work in new directions. He wanted to know what would happen, to him and to his work, if he hid away from the ocular blitz for a while.

Now, working and sleeping in his blacked-out studio, he began to notice new things. Without sunlight as a guide, the day’s rhythms came via aural clues he had been only dimly aware of before: the cessation of London’s air traffic overnight, or the sound of idling vehicles as they took fractionally longer to move off from traffic lights during rush hour. When he brewed cups of rooibos in a rote-remembered action at his tea station he noticed that he could hear the difference between hot and cold liquids as he poured them. He began to see, he later told me, “how intelligent our senses are. And how we just drown them in the tsunami.”

Winston found that he was productive in the dark, too, drawing until his pencils were nubs and creating a series of huge sketches – broad-stroked in places or crowded with overlapping sentences in his crabby handwriting – that would later become part of an exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London. Between drawing jags he had vivid daydreams, even hallucinations, “as if my brain was a digital radio left on search, constantly searching for an available channel”.

Read the story