Updated: Apr 25, 2019
It's been a few months since I last posted something this long. I’ve been on a journey and have just returned. Much of my day-to-day travel was done by train. I love trains. It’s affordable, hassle-free, and you get to see the countryside roll by as you chug along.
Train rides are also a great metaphor for life. At different stations and stages along the way, different people hop on and off. Just like you, they’re on their way to some destination but for a short interval, you get to share your carriage with them. What makes train rides so great is the opportunity for conversation that's open-ended, spontaneous, and unpredictable. And during those moments when there’s nobody sitting beside you or in front of you, you get to reflect on the questions in your heart.
Interestingly enough, those moments of conversation and reflection demonstrated to me the human need to carve out time and space for doing just that — free from all the distractions and interruptions and temptations that social media affords.
This was one of the best consequences of travelling on a budget: no data. For most of my journey, besides the occasional wifi connection, I was unplugged from the internet. It took a while to get used to this. But after a day or two, I was glad I didn’t have a connection: I wasn’t losing myself in the infinite unspooling of news feeds and timelines. Neither could I get messages from the people back home. This gave me every excuse to talk to people. I asked for directions and translations, which led to more questions. I had the time and space to be completely present in my conversations with people and to be completely at peace as I reflected on my own thoughts.
Since coming home, I’ve become even more conscious of how easy it is to slip back into the habit of fishing out my phone whenever there’s a dull moment to check up on what everyone else is up to online. Don’t misunderstand though, there’s nothing wrong with doing that or connecting via social media — it has a role to play in communication — but not if that leads to an over-dependence or a diminishment in the quality of my conversations and reflections in real life.
In her book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Sherry Turkle articulates the issue eloquently, “face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanising — thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.”
Yet, once online “we often find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information, and entertainment. We are forever elsewhere. At class or at church or business meetings, we pay attention to what interests us and then when it doesn’t, we look to our devices to find something that does.”
It’s not just an escape from boredom that drives us online but an equating of online connections with offline conversations. Aren't they the same?
- Stephen Colbert -
The answer is no. The quality of communication is not the same. Travelling by train these past months without a data connection has shown me the value of making time and space for conversation and self-reflection.
Perhaps it may be timely to end here with this call-to-action: log off. It’s time to take this offline. Find a friend or sit with your family and have a face-to-face conversation about something meaningful in your life, because that’s what's needed most now, more than posting an update or reading articles on your timeline.
It’s not at all ironic that I’ve come online to write this post asking you to go offline once you’ve read it. In fact, I think it’ll be a great conversation starter.