Longform

What Would Life Be Like Without Technology? A Onetime Addict Finds Out

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I often pirate music and check out DVDs at the library, so I know the lay of the land. The Information Desk, however, is unknown territory. The librarian has that stern — and sexy — glare that makes it clear she's aware of my outstanding fines. A "Rules of Conduct" brochure sits on her desk like a sheriff's badge.

I manage to say a few words about my project when she directs me to the bank of library computers. "Yeah, I can't do that. I'm on a digital blackout."

Not looking up, she begins surfing the system's database. "Do you know about Dick Proenneke? He went to Alaska and cut himself off from society." Before you can say Dewey decimal, she's busily writing down numbers and titles; the woman makes Bing look like a beeper. Transcendentalist poets, Amish authors, off-the-grid living, simplicity, neurological studies. I have to literally stop her brainstorming. "Please, just show me the books."

I sit in a very tiny chair in the children's area and lose myself for hours in Henry David Thoreau's journals. I even find a quote that might make me seem wise about my newfound awareness this week: "It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?"

On my way to checkout, I grab the librarian's card: Leslie Sumida, Children's Librarian. "Good luck with your project," she says with a smile before turning back to the toddler at her arm. Google's got nothing on her.

"Part of being bored is just being okay with it," my 15-year-old sponsor explains. "I just do stuff that keeps me busy. I cut wood or go to the gym or draw. In a way, my phone was a big distraction. After a while, you won't even remember your friends on Facebook or whatever."

In fact, I haven't thought of a single Facebook friend this entire week; only 16 of my now 527 "friends" do I actually see in the real world. I take Robbie's advice and go to a yoga class, where my teacher talks about something else I haven't thought about in a while: the sound of my own breath, moving into my chest and lungs.

Dragging a journal around often brings unwanted attention. "What is that, your diary?" spits a drunken inquisitor. Whereas you might think a man silently jotting his thoughts down on paper would create space for the scribe to think, it's now a strange odyssey, like finding a rotary phone, a jukebox, or a leper. "Are you grading a paper, or what?"

I've been journaling for almost 40 years; writing by hand allows me to flow in a unique way that a voice recorder or keyboard cannot. With only one take, you can't go in reverse, replace the cursor, or insert parenthetical ramblings after the fact. You've also got to move fast, or momentum will grind to a halt.

I now realize how much time I spend popping off on my social-media platforms. While I have some tremendously witty friends, I need to turn my own satire into cash money. I may be freelance, but I can't give it all away for free. Uninterrupted in my efforts, I've had time to go back to half-finished essays and plays I haven't touched in years. Many of these are crap, which I will wait to post on Reddit.

Focused like a laser, I am checking items off my list: bills (requiring the archaic act of check-writing), toenail clipping, revising a book pitch for my publisher, a Home Depot run, an assignment for Shambhala Sun magazine which can finally get some peaceful attention.

My realtor pulls up in his Range Rover to show me a rental property. As I get in, I hand him a Washington map and an almanac. "If you don't mind, Kevin, I'd like to find the listings with these." Powering down his navigational system, he mutters, "This is gonna take awhile."

For 4,500 years or so, mapmakers have helped us navigate the world. But, lest you forget, for the first millennium cartographers thought the Earth was flat. Computer mapping started in the 1960s and GPS (global positioning systems) came along in the '70s, followed by Garmin receivers in the late '80s, MapQuest in the '90s, and finally, turn-by-turn navigation at the turn of the century.

"Seriously," Kevin whines, "if this was how I had to find stuff every day, I'd quit my job." Even though it makes me carsick, I bravely take over navigational duties. "Whip a U-ey, man."

"Are you kidding?" Kevin asks.

"Recalculating," I reply, thrashing the 12-foot map in my hands. Of this there is no doubt: Voice-activated turn-by-turn navigation is the greatest technological advancement of the Digital Age.

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Michael A. Stusser