It takes a boat ride, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, to get me to finally feel offline. Which makes me feel pretty sad. But it reminds me of the impossible goal I keep failing to attain: staying away from screens. Or, more accurately, the internet.
It feels impossible to disconnect because I work in tech. I. I wear headsets ( ). I have . What absurdity am I discussing, me being disconnected from tech? It’s more that I’ve realized my attention being sapped away. Or my kid saying to me, hey, spend less time on the screen. Which only proves that I’ve become known as the Person With a Phone on Their Face.
I’ve tried Reclaiming Conversation. I’ve never found screen timers to work. Not for me. They feel like fitness trackers without the coaching., cutting off notifications and being in the present moment like Sherry Turkle, who’s studied online behavioral psychology for years, wrote about back in 2015 in her excellent book
What has worked? Spending a week and a half, roughly, where I go as offline as I ever can. It’s become a tradition each summer: I’ve joined my in-laws to go across the Atlantic. I’ve done this, now, six times.
I didn’t expect to be this person who cannot unplug. And you don’t need to be this person, either. But I’ve come to realize, the more I take this trip, that I love being forced to live without the internet.
When I travel to the UK for the summer with my family, I can feel the ties being cut, one by one. My phone doesn’t have roaming. Cellular is lost. I stare out the window and wonder about where I am instead of pinging Google Maps.
The disconnection grows as I board the ship: the Queen Mary 2, headed on an eight-day trans-Atlantic ride from Southampton, England to Brooklyn, New York. No stops. A massive boat, and the endless seas for more than a week.
I feel like I’m stepping off into the forest, and at first it’s uncomfortable. But I used to feel a deeper need to get back online. Now, I love the feeling of disappearing.
Like most cruise ships, the Queen Mary 2 has internet access… but it’s awful, and slow, and expensive. It’s just fast enough to maybe scan Twitter from a cafe. From my room, it doesn’t work at all. So I just stay offline, mostly. I get on for about 10 minutes a day, and get off.
Even then, I was slow to accept being unplugged. I’d wait for my emails and a chunk of Twitter feed to load up. I’d peek at work emails. Then even that was taken away from me a few days in, when my phone had somehow kicked me off my work email certificate. I have to be dragged to a state of internetlessness.
When I’m not online, I read a book on my Kindle, or my no-longer-connected phone when I realized one book wasn’t downloaded to my Kindle, but my phone app had it. This summer, it was How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley, all about trying to be observant of small details. Then I read All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, a weird dark fairy tale about (among many other things) the clash between magic and tech. Or, I played with a deck of cards. I used to love taking one pack of cards with me as a kid, to practice card magic, play solitaire, imagine I could predict cards with ESP. I just hold onto them now as a meditation, in a way. As if they’ll hold all the answers.
The Queen Mary 2 is a massive ocean liner. It’s filled with activities. But after a while, what kept hitting me were the silences. Living without playing music that’s streaming from somewhere. Not streaming shows. Not getting endless updates on unfolding news. It made me feel irresponsible, or lazy. Or like I was missing out. Then the anxious feelings faded, a little. I started to feel like I felt decades ago, when I spent summers in camp as a kid with no way to connect to anyone at all.
I took bridge classes! Sitting in a card room, on a quiet morning, meeting new people sitting next to me who also weren’t on phones. We had conversations.
I sat down, on a balcony, staring off at the sea.
If I chose to go somewhere, I wouldn’t know what’s happening somewhere else. I couldn’t send a quick tweet about it. I couldn’t text someone. I couldn’t Google something that wasn’t popping up in my head, like I always do now as a memory aid. I didn’t start going down rabbit holes of related links and searches, either.
I still used my phone on the ship — but as a camera. (These photos were taken on the.) Occasionally, a music player. To take notes. Or to play Hold Em Poker, which obsessed me for a few days. It was more of a basic iPod than an always-connected doorway. More like the was to me when I went on my honeymoon back in 2007.
Every time I’ve been on this seven-and-a-half-day trip, I’ve tried to spend less and less time online, and more time enjoying the feeling of being in a completely closed-off, at-sea, unique little ocean world. At times, it feels as far off and alien as a starship making an interstellar journey. Even with TV in the staterooms, and headlines in the daily programs each day, I have more moments of staying removed than at any other time in my life. Minute by minute, I’m not checking down at my phone to see what thing I was missing. I get used to it, even. This is what I used to be like. When I was a kid, I didn’t have a phone, and I didn’t go online. I can do this again.
All fantasies have to end. My last night, pulling into Brooklyn, phone service returned.
It felt like turning the fire hose back on. My wrist started pinging. Messages led to other messages. Suddenly I was absorbing a long backlog of conversations upon conversations about the world. I was at breakfast, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. And, then, I realized I was back glued to my phone again. Or, as a friend on Twitter put it, the facehugger returned.
I want to learn a lesson from this. I tell myself this every year. Stay offline. Stay disconnected. Learn to absorb the real world, breathe in the small details, don’t look at the phone. It’s so hard. The world is made for connection. I’ve breathed the internet for so long. I’m steeped in it. A few days after getting back, I’m deep in feeds. My anxiety levels feel like they’ve gone up a bit.
At home, the night after getting back from vacation, my son reminded me to stay offline at dinner, like I always did on the ship. I half-joked that I’m going to call it “Queen Mary 2 mode” from now on. I hope I can keep myself disciplined enough to stay away from the pull of the screen. I need to honor that, and sever the cord.
You don’t need a fancy boat ride or a vacation to do this… you just need to disconnect. It could happen anytime. For me, though, that usually feels impossible. I’ve realized how bad my self-control is. My advice: Find some way to force yourself to be offline. I’ve enjoyed when the decision has been taken out of my hands. I wish I could give better advice. I’d follow it. Less than a week later, I’m buried so deep in my phone and my unending tentacled array of notifications that I feel those moments of remove already far away.
I should just enter Queen Mary 2 mode, again.
The fantasy of a world offline is pretty nice, sometimes.