Four years ago, I spent a Friday night travelling up and down the Northern Line, filming people trying to talk to strangers on the Tube.
The gathering was organised by Barbara, the sister of a Portuguese friend. Tired of Londoners burying themselves in their phones and ignoring each other, she wanted to create an offline space where people would have real-life conversations. The Tube party was a starting point; I didn’t quite get how her venture, Offline London, would work in practice or who might pay for it. But I liked the concept, liked the people, and thought filming might be fun. (It was. We were buzzing for hours afterwards.)
A few years on, the appeal of time offline is all too clear to me. What changed? I’ve since acquired a smartphone, for one thing. And I’ve settled into a freelance/portfolio career, with its highs and lows of multi-tasking, weekend working and constant pressure to maintain the pace I want.
Barbara’s idea has evolved, too: in 2016, she and a business partner opened a smartphone-free B&B on the coast of Portugal. Last week, a few of us went there to relax, eat, do yoga, surf, walk, drink — and disconnect for a few days.
There are dream-catchers and motivational slogans hanging on the walls, and you can have a Tarot card reading — but there’s no pressure to go full hippy. One guest insisted on using his iPad at times (admittedly, he was 8 years old), and we spotted the group from Porto out in a restaurant one evening, using their phones. There’s a TV in the living room, and you can use Spotify on a communal laptop. And while your phone goes into a locker on check-in, surprisingly, you’re given the key.
There’s little incentive to use it, though. The differences of a life disconnected provoke curiosity, rather than frustration: how unusual it is to have no idea what time it is, to speculate what the weather might be like, or to look at paper maps before setting out on a walk. To bring along a camera, or just take no pictures at all. To have no podcasts to listen to and no torch to read with, if you can’t sleep at night. To Google nothing. To have no WhatsApp snapping at your heels.
Of course, that’s easy for a short break, when everyone around you is doing the same. There’s even a tiny thrill of stepping out of normality, knowing how connected the rest of the world is, and consciously choosing otherwise.
It doesn’t last, though. Much as I hoped the weekend might prompt healthier habits, back at Faro airport three of us stood in the line for security with phones in hand, eyes on screens.
Which is probably why digital detox holidays are a growing business. I hope it won’t always be that way: I hope that we won’t need to be lured away from our everyday lives with sand dunes and moonlit skies and red wine before we turn away from our screens.
Maybe it’s a generation thing. The other guests were in their 20s, 30s, maybe early 40s. Judging by the (Polaroid) wall of fame, so were most previous guests.
That’s partly Offline Portugal’s target market, of course — but I wonder if the addiction to being online/desperation to get offline is most deeply felt by those of us who’ve known life pre-Internet, but also embraced it to the extreme in work, dating, friendships and almost everything else. Generation Z have never known anything different, so it’s no big deal (maybe); they’re arguably quicker to give up on or take a break from apps or social media sites they don’t like, and some studies find they’re less addicted to their phones than older people. Maybe in another ten or fifteen years, being disconnected will be as mainstream as vegetarianism or choosing not to own a car.
In the meantime, us oldies need a bit of guidance. And if there happens to be sand dunes and red wine nearby, that’s ok.