Aron Rosenberg was on a road trip last summer when he realized his mind wasn’t working the way it used to.
He was alone in the car without a phone. His only potential companions were the meager offerings of his car’s AM/FM radio, which didn’t interest him much. He sat in silence, stared at a point on the horizon and lowered his foot down on the accelerator. Lost in his thoughts, he barely noticed the miles ticking by. He reached his destination in what felt like 45 minutes. It had been six hours.
Mr. Rosenberg is no monk — deep focus, especially on car trips, had never come naturally. That changed when he swore off the internet completely.
Mr. Rosenberg, a former high school teacher concocted this offline experiment in 2019 as part of his education P.h.D. research at McGill University. His work examines how student use of the internet shapes their learning and behaviors. He figured that by removing the internet completely from his life, he might better understand its grip on our brains. He set strict guidelines: no computers, no smartphones, no Wi-Fi, no public internet, no streaming, no asking other people to look things up for him or glancing at their screens.
Plenty of people have adopted weekly tech sabbaticals, and expensive digital detoxes have gone in and out of vogue over the last decade. In most cases, including Mr. Rosenberg’s, the idea is to use the absence of the internet to make sense of what it has done to us and our brains.
“We’ve gotten so used to toggling our attention between our offline and online lives that most of us don’t even remember what it’s like to not be distracted all the time,” Catherine Price, the founder of Screen/Life Balance and author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” told me. Ms. Price, whose work focuses on helping people create healthier relationships with digital technology believes that the pandemic has made people more aware of how fragmented their attention spans have become, and has increased their interest in unplugging.
“People were already struggling to create healthy boundaries with technology before the pandemic, and now that we’re working and schooling from home, the situation has only gotten worse,” she said. “The good news is that people are finally waking up to the fact that this isn’t healthy or sustainable, and are starting to look for solutions.”
But what sets Mr. Rosenberg’s experience apart is the context of his yearlong experiment: Just two months into the experience, the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down.
Mr. Rosenberg forced himself offline at almost the precise moment when the rest of us were forced almost exclusively online. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve leaned heavily on our devices. One estimate from the app tracking company App Annie showed that average users spent 27 percent of their daily waking hours on their phone — a 20 percent increase in screen time compared with 2019. While many of us retreated to the internet during moments of extreme stress and isolation for entertainment and connection, Mr. Rosenberg lived out an unfathomable mirror image of quarantine.
But, as it turns out, riding out a pandemic offline was the easy part. The struggle came one year later, when it was time to plug back in.
The thought of being offline during a pandemic panicked Mr. Rosenberg at first. At the end of February 2020, while in Berlin, he wrote in his diary that being offline could prove hazardous to his health if the virus kept spreading: “A couple of my friends went to a club last night that was collecting everyone’s emails as they entered so that they could be in touch if they found out someone there had Corona. If this gets big and email becomes the way people figure out who’s been infected, I’m [expletive].”
But, to his surprise, when he returned to Canada and entered lockdown, he found that navigating the pandemic while fully analog was manageable. For news, he’d listen to the radio. This, it turned out, was less panic inducing than the constant scrolling many of us engaged in last spring. (It helped that Mr. Rosenberg’s partner is an epidemiologist).
“Having less access to all the unverified information and speculation that was rampant in March and April was almost a blessing,” he told me.
He took advantage of the solitude and thrust himself into his work. That’s when he saw a change. Most obvious was his ability to engross himself in books for long periods of time. Academic texts that had previously felt onerous were unlocked. He started following the trail of endnotes and exploring more obscure works that he might have otherwise overlooked.
“I realized just how much reliance on the internet caused me to privilege what was simply new over more durable ideas,” he said.
He began rereading books and articles, and found himself drawing connections he’d missed before. It dawned on him that for most of his life he’d been engaged in what some scientists refer to as “surface reading,” a superficial way of absorbing ideas that results in low retention. With his brain less clouded by digital input, he was able to engage in “deep reading,” which is believed to lead to better comprehension and increased empathy.
But there was also isolation and homesickness. His brother had a baby during the summer, and he was unable to see pictures or video chat with his family. He struggled with online classes and the guilt of forcing his teachers and fellow researchers to indulge his offline experiment during an already difficult year. To counter the disconnect, he wrote letters, sometimes up to 250 per month. When hundreds of letters, cards and heartwarming drawings from friends’ children poured in, he didn’t feel the nagging sense that his inbox typically triggered.
“There was no red notification icon or even really any expectation that I had to respond,” he told me. “I could let them sit as long as I liked. There was no sense of urgency, which meant I didn’t resent the sender.”
This became a theme of Mr. Rosenberg’s offline year. It wasn’t necessarily his devices he detested, but the feeling of being on call at every moment. He revisited a passage from Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” about how the installation of the first phone in a small town tormented its residents: “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”
With some distance, this is how Mr. Rosenberg began to feel about the internet. It had provided him with “a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment,” which had left him feeling constantly on edge, never knowing what person or news item might barrel into his life at a given moment with a ping. His attention had been held hostage without a ransom demand.
During this offline year, Mr. Rosenberg had to break his rules once. When it came time to sign up for his fall semester classes, he realized the online system was his only option because the university registrar was working remotely. He was forced to ask a friend to register for him. Afterward, he felt dejected, having betrayed the experiment.
A later conversation with his academic adviser changed his perspective on the supposed infraction. Yes, he’d relied on a friend to use the internet on his behalf. But he’d also been reliant on information networks throughout the year — for directions, for information on the pandemic. He was walking through the world in an analog fashion, but dependent on those who were still connected.
“We’re taught to feel like we’re being independent when we use these technologies to do things,” he told me. “But we’re really just tapping into massive networks and relying on huge groups of, well, people.”
In other words, it broke his superficial distinction between the offline world and the online world.
Swearing off the internet was always designed to be temporary, and Mr. Rosenberg assumed the new perspective he gained would make coming online again a painful experience. As January 1, 2021, ticked closer, he began to fear what was waiting for him. He imagined recoiling at social media, being unable to adjust.
The opposite proved true. Returning to his laptop, he found himself overwhelmed but rapt. Twitter, especially, became a fixation. The early morning hours that he’d previously devoted to “deep reading” were now spent hunched over a glowing laptop, unsatisfied and unable to wrest himself from Twitter
“I really underestimated the power of these platforms,” he told me recently. “I thought I was using the tools, not being used. But I’m seeing the extent to which they’re priming me toward particular ends.”
A month after his return online, his partner — noticing a change in his behavior — asked him a simple question: What was he trying to get out of all this time online? “That’s when it hit me that the things I was going for — engagement, retweets — they make me feel great but I don’t actually value them.”
When we spoke in late February, I could sense Mr. Rosenberg’s restlessness. He felt unsettled, as if he was “in hyperdrive.” He was unable to break the hold of his platforms and devices. The experience of his yearlong sabbatical had left him more disoriented. He can remember the quiet of his mind and the intentionality with which he was able to direct his attention, but he can’t replicate it. Maybe he doesn’t want to.
After all, his experiment was never meant to be permanent. Mr. Rosenberg thinks that the internet and a great deal of the technology we use is exploitative. He thinks that it can be used to manipulate people and prop up oppressive personalities and systems. He also believes in the transformative powers of the internet — as an organizing tool, as a way of sharing knowledge. He sees value in our connected world, which is why he felt he had to experience it from a remove.
“I’m not a Luddite,” he said. “I’m only trying to understand the way we’re entangled with these tools and to suss out how much agency we really have.”
His struggle with that last part — the agency — resonated. I’ve often tried to tell myself the story that I’m in control, despite straining against the constant demands for my attention. But the truth is that I don’t really know what my mind is like when it’s quiet. I grew up online, work online and live online. And, if I’m being honest, aside from the occasional vacation, I’ve rarely unplugged and given myself time for my mind to settle. Few people have.
“In a way, he’s turned himself into a control group for what our brains would be like if they weren’t consumed by constant information overload,” Ms. Price told me, when I recounted Mr. Rosenberg’s year off for her. “It’s really a cautionary tale. He stepped away during a tumultuous time and had a chance to reset. Now he’s back at the mercy of these tools, and he’s experiencing all the consequences we experience every day, only we’re habituated to them. He’s showing us how sustainable our dependence on this frenetic system really is.”
Mr. Rosenberg seems to realize this. “We’re all expected to engage with technology as if we’ve had my experience,” he said. “But most people don’t know what the absence of this from their lives even feels like.”
Their observations have stuck with me. We frame our use of digital tools as a matter of choice. But are you making a choice if you are only familiar with a single option? Maybe. But is it an informed one?
Maybe that’s why our relationship with the internet and technology feels so fraught. Because right now we can’t imagine any alternative. We’re all residents of Mr. Márquez’s village, stuck in that “permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation.”
That sounds a bit like 2021 to me.