The first thing I do when I wake up is check my email. I have 3 emails configured to my iPhone. Then I find myself checking Facebook, and every time I do, I tell myself, “This is not a nice way to start your day.”
I remember 6 or 7 years ago when I still lived in Lebanon, my bed was by the window. I would wake up, greet the trees and the sky, smile, and then jump out of bed. Back then I only had access to the internet at university and my father’s company.
If I had to do some research or send an email on the weekend, I would ask my father to open his office for me. We managed, it wasn’t so difficult. After graduating from university in 2006 I started working and I still only used the internet at work. I had social media accounts but I rarely paid attention to them. Then I moved to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and everyone around me started buying Blackberry phones and began interrupting their conversations to answer instant messages. It annoyed the hell out of me.
It created fights between my husband and I. At the time I had started using the internet on a daily basis from home too. I did to look for jobs and talk to friends and family back home. But still, I hadn’t formed what I call a “virtual identity” yet. I was still more present offline than online and I wasn’t concerned with posts and updates. Then I moved to Dubai in 2010 and still, I was reluctant to buy a smartphone. I had started to get addicted to checking my email even after going home from work. I also started receiving Facebook invitations for small events with friends and I would criticize that. To me invitations were supposed to be personal. I thought people might miss an event had they forgotten to check their Facebook.
Then it happened! I received the iPhone as a gift for my birthday. It is definitely a double-edged sword. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t received it. The first few days I was completely distracted by looking through music videos. Then after a while I started realizing that every time when in a conversation a question is asked or someone is wondering about a general fact I found myself drawn away from the conversation and completely consumed with finding the answer online on my smart phone. It also concerned me. I felt a change in my habits due to the upcoming of this new gadget in my life. I wondered why is it that now I was impatient to find answers and I wanted the information to be available on the spot.
I couldn’t even wait for a couple of hours to go home and look it up. I couldn’t stand theorizing about something when in a few minutes I could find the accurate explanation. Soon my friends and I would start a conversation and end up each looking through his/her phone and discussing what we are reading as we are reading it. Our eyes shifted to our screens even when we were talking to each other.
I was using the internet more and more to talk to family and friends in Lebanon and Saudi, and to apply for schools abroad. I was checking my email every few minutes. I once put an hourly alarm on my computer to force myself to only check it once an hour. In the beginning I was awaiting important emails but after a while I wasn’t expecting anything important but the habit grew on me. Then I moved to the Netherlands a year ago, in 2011. In the first month I had no internet connection on my phone. I was using a paper map and I would make stops on my bicycle to check an address and find out where I was. I would stop, park on the side of the road, unfold this huge map, try to remember which way to ride for the next few minutes, then fold it again, and ride. I have to admit the rides were fun like that. Lately I was checking an address on the phone while cycling and ended up bumping into a metal gate and falling to the ground with my bicycle on top of me. I was lucky to only hurt my leg.
When I first moved to the Netherlands I was shocked at how people are so sucked into their smartphone screens while waiting for the train or on the train. I found it a bit impolite –coming from a very sensitive and diplomatic culture– to completely isolate oneself with one’s phone when sitting in front of someone on the train for example. I kept resisting this tendency for quite some time but after a year I was part of the herd. Also, because I lived alone for the first time in my life, I needed some kind of conversation. So I found myself posting pictures or statuses on Facebook waiting for people’s reactions. I started to accept that it was some kind of expression that’s inevitable in our time. I am a little introverted and on Facebook I speak another language. I speak what I would write to publish in a book. What sounds like poetic or witty remarks about life and incidents. I do that in periods of time. I’m not always present online. But I do keep up with parties and events online. Now I’m trying to use the internet mainly for self publicity as I’m starting a new career. But I did realize that the more I live in different places, the more I spend time online to keep up with previous ones.
I do intend to keep travelling so I hope I get to see more of the new place then my computer screen.
I am thankful for writing this letter for I have taken a distance from my habits and observed them in a more critical way. When I look around me I can’t help but noticing that my most talkative and extrovert friends, who still engage in long conversations with people and give every new encounter enough time to get to know the person well, are the people who don’t have a Facebook account. I think I will challenge myself to be Internet free for a period of time. I’ll see where it will take me.