Connecting to real life in a hyper-connected world

In a world of infinite choices, choosing one thing is the revolutionary act

~ Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

A few months ago I decided to pay more attention to my offline life. By that I mean my real life. Yes, the one that is informed, illuminated, and influenced by the online world. But also my day-to-day life, the one that requires me to step out of my home, greet the gardener who trims the bushes as I exit my condo which is protected by a friendly security guard, and nod to the driver of the bus that takes me to my office. The life in which I breathe deeply into my lungs, walk barefoot on freshly mowed grass, and share a cup of coffee with a colleague in the office pantry. 

My focus had been so consumed by what’s on my screen and not what’s under my nose that I felt the need for a serious rethink. It wasn’t a mutiny against social media but a small act of rebellion in a life that is heavily dependent on technology and remote interactions. 

And it all began with a green screen.

Phoneless and frantic

One minute I was speaking to a friend and the next, my phone lit up with a green screen. I had not dropped it or dunked it in water. I hadn’t lent it to anyone or tried any tricks. My phone stopped working for no apparent reason.

Smartphones can be smart but when the screen goes nuts, there’s nothing much you can do. In case you are wondering, I did try to turn it off – my usual remedy for all electronic gadgets, but guess what, when the screen is flickering a sickly shade of green, you can’t even turn it off!!

I spent a Sunday afternoon lingering in a street studded with shopping malls. A few hours later (after spending a fair amount of money), one of the many geniuses at the genius bar (I thought geniuses were rare, but I was wrong) gave me the bad news that the screen needed to be replaced, followed by the good news that I did not have to pay for it.

Of course, I was pleased with the second part of the verdict but life is seldom simple even when you have a clear diagnosis.

I couldn’t book a taxi without the phone app, and getting on the metro was a challenge since I use my phone for public transport, which meant I was pretty much stuck. I could not authenticate my account on my office laptop the next day because it requires, no surprise here – a smartphone.

Other than breathing, there is very little we can do without a phone. 

A group of people on their phones
A group of people on their phones and not in conversation (image credit: Unsplash)

Returning to the good old days of low-tech

Until I got my phone back I was forced to return to my low-tech ways. Instead of plugging in my earphones and listening to my audiobook, I looked around at the people on the train. I considered taking a print book along but challenged myself to pay attention to the world around me.

Before mobile phones came along what did I do while waiting in line? Or at the doctor’s office? Or while on a walk?

In my phoneless existence, every time I moved from one place to another, I was automatically unplugged. I was not constantly bombarded with posts, music, or ads. My brain got a break. 

A luxury that we don’t seem to have anymore. 

Except when your phone dies.

Once my phone was switched on, I was tempted to dive back into my regular ways. But the short unplugging resulted in an epiphany.

Diving back into real life 

There are things I do in everyday life that make my days special – sipping my morning cup of tea while I read the daily print newspaper, solving Sudoku with a pen, looking up a family recipe written in my late mother’s handwriting in an old notebook and so much more.

None of these involve a smart device.

I decided to focus more on these quaint, seemingly insignificant acts that actually bring me down to earth from the hour spent in the virtual cloud and ground me. 

In my newsletter, I began writing about these small pockets of time in which the digital world took a back seat. Unwittingly, my newsletter changed into a chatty old-fashioned letter (although delivered via email). And before I knew it, I began receiving enthusiastic responses from readers.

Despite the slow return to life as we knew it before the pandemic, as humans we crave connection. Authentic connection. With people, we can see and be with in real time.

While much can be accomplished online, there is a different sensibility when we have face-to-face conversations, and tactile experiences while reading print books (or newspapers) and connect with people, places, and also the past in ways that involve all our senses.

A book club

Not long after the epiphany, a  friend and I decided to start a book club in Singapore to test the hypothesis of whether we could actually get a group of book lovers to gather in person once a month. 

We set the bar fairly low, acknowledging that we might be the only two people to show up. We contacted people who were likely to be interested and at the first meetup gathered eight avid readers who shared brief summaries and opinions on their current (or past) reads and participated in the enthusiastic bookish conversations.

Buoyed by the success of this experiment (followed by two more similarly successful meetups), convinced that life in all its messy unpredictability is more exciting, I have decided to prioritize more such in-person experiences – in-person classes, impromptu lunches, and paper over digital whenever possible.

Lucky for me, the festival season has just begun – more excuses to meet, eat, talk, and rejoice.

In a few weeks I may feel the need to escape the demands of excessive gatherings and run into a cave, but until then, let’s celebrate. 

Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash

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Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My...