To understand the ever growing impact of digital media on his life, Robert Hassan walked away from it and on to a container ship for five weeks of technology detox.
Professor Hassan teaches media and communications at the University of Melbourne and much of his life revolves around digital media.
He Joined Jesse Mulligan to share what he learned about living in the digital age by living without it.
He describes his experiences in a new book called Uncontained: Digital Disconnection and the Experience of Time
He says the influence of what he calls digitality – the suffusion of digital media in our lives – is significant.
“Most of humanity is undergoing a gigantic experiment which we never really signed up for and it’s being run by tech companies who do everything in their power to keep us online. And they do it pretty successfully."
Though he normally cycles to work, he says he’s always stunned by the behaviour of passengers on buses and trains.
“I was on a train this morning and I’m struck everytime, every single person in a packed carriage is occupied on their social media – and the place is quiet. There’s no sound, there’s just people plugged in and preoccupied with being online.
“It’s invisible in plain sight, we don’t even realise how much we’ve changed, but changed we have, and in pretty profound ways.”
Professor Hassan says he thought himself to be above the digital addictions he saw in other people.
“Like the alcoholic who’s the last person to realise he has a problem, I slowly began to realise I did have one too. I spent much of my time distracted and less and less time with myself and my family – with analogue life, if you like.”
One day on his cycle home he got a puncture outside a shipyard in Footscray.
“I decided there and then to see if I could get on a ship.”
He ended up booking through an agent in New Zealand who got him on a container ship as a paying passenger.
“I had a room and I was left to myself with no devices and no communication for five weeks.”
He says part of the reason he wanted to go on a digital detox was because time seemed to have sped up.
“I wanted to rediscover a slower time, or another aspect of myself which is not driven by imperatives of the moment and the demands of the digital.”
Prof Hassan says the crew of the ship were either French or Bangladeshi and had limited or no English at all.
“I had a brief meeting with the captain where he showed me where my cabin was, and that was it. And that was fine by me.”
He had his own table to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner and was given a carafe of wine each day.
“I had no TV, no radio, nothing like that. I had to think about how to organise my thoughts, how to spend my time, and write about what those experiences were as I became more and more enveloped in them.”
He says he ended up exploring his own memories for days and days on end.
“That was fascinating. I found aspects of myself I didn’t know were there. I found memories I wasn’t sure were real or not. I found memories that I re-remembered and remembered as real. It was a strange sort of inner life I began to inhabit.
“It was slightly unnerving because I began to feel a bit like I was going mad exploring in my own head – something I never do.”
He says the more time he spent exploring himself, the more comfortable he became with it.
After the initial shock wore off, he says he loved the experience. By the time reached Singapore after five weeks at sea, he felt like he could go on for longer.
While he might not recommend doing what he did, Prof Hassan says we can all benefit from limiting our social media use.
“Be with yourself more, as opposed to outsourcing your brain to the network. We can all do that. But it takes a bit of willpower and it takes, I think, the knowledge that there is something different within you which you can discover, it’s there waiting for you to knock on the door and enter.
“We all have that and, in terms of the proof of concept, for me, it worked. I found a different person inside myself and I carry part of that person with me today, although I’m connected again, working again, and busy again.
“But I really curate my life now in terms of my online life. I don’t use a mobile phone very much, I don’t use social media. I really think about how I use my online life and I feel better for it.”
He says it might be more difficult for people who are so-called digital natives, the ones who grew up with Facebook, Instagram. Many of them, he says, find life difficult to imagine without those apps, whereas older people remember a life before them.