Learning to Unplug: Confessions of a Tech Junkie

by Maxwell Tielman


Alright, you guys. Confession time. I’m a technology addict. Like so many of my twenty-first century peers, my life has become hopelessly, utterly consumed by devices and their requisite apps and programs. On one hand, I love my technology. Like, really, really love it. My smartphone, my tablet, my computer—all of these things have helped to turn my world into a binary-powered ecstasy fun house: an endless parade of neuron-firing, dopamine-dispensing images, conversations, comments and culture. It’s a big ol’ party 24/7. The flip side? As with most addictions, this one comes with its own brand of self-sabotage. While I live for my daily information fix, I also loathe it, resenting the way that it has taken over and controlled nearly every aspect of my life. While the sweet nothings that fill my Facebook and Twitter feeds are truly benign—just friendly conversation in most cases—they tend to become grating and oppressive when taken in such large, uninhibited doses. “Oh, God. Another photo of a cat? I don’t think I can go on living.”  Still, no matter how overwhelming or unhealthily bitter my relationship with my technology becomes, I cannot stop. Even the suggestion of removing myself from it seems outright ludicrous, akin to giving up food—or air. Clearly, there is a problem here.


Despite my more or less constant state of tech-mania, there have been brief glimpses of clarity—moments of reckoning, if you will. It was during these moments that I began to question my internet-addled mindset, wondering how I got to this state and what I could do to undo it. On one hand, I knew that technology—to some extent—was good. It has allowed me to meet amazing people and form wonderful, fulfilling, real-life friendships. It has given me a platform on which to express myself creatively. It has provided a way to sustain myself and earn a living. I knew that I didn’t need to eradicate technology entirely from my life nor—even in these moments of clarity—did I want to. The real question was: what made my technology go from helpful tool to unrelenting, life-draining succubus? What I needed was a middle ground: something between outright luddism and manic technophile. Little did I know that the answer was right in front of me. I just needed to travel 3,000 miles—to The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival—to find it.

I know, I know—the bro-tastic “Scenester Nightmare Hellscape” known as Coachella seems like the last place on earth anybody would experience a tech-liberation epiphany, but just go with me for a minute. Amidst all of the cacophony that took place in Indio, California this past weekend—gaggles of inebriated faux-hemian MDMA enthusiasts, fist-pumping beefcakes in Native American headdresses, the sounds of the folk-tinged Neutral Milk Hotel mingling with the club beats of Calvin Harris—I found myself in a bit of a tech-predicament. Stranded in the middle of the desert, surrounded by this mirage-like temple to the Adderall generation, my poor little smartphone struggled to maintain a signal, its battery life draining whole percentages by the minute. In an effort to conserve my battery life so that I could use it when I actually needed it, I put my phone on airplane mode. All texts, calls and data sent in my direction were temporarily placed on hold, only accessible if and when I wanted it.  This teeny-tiny little gesture—turning on airplane mode— allowed me to discover something that had been evading my grasp for years. Not the concept of technological exile (something I had been toying with to no avail), but technological freedom.

Let me explain a bit. Although the so-called Information Age has been widely regarded as a time of unprecedented narcissism, with our technology functioning as conduits for the culture of Me-Me-Me, the sad fact of the matter is that our technology, at its core, allows for much more dependence than independence. It strips us of all sense of autonomy, making us subservient to any number of seemingly urgent duties: answering that e-mail, responding to that text, checking the score of the game, investigating that Twitter @reply.  Even the ostensibly self-centered act of updating one’s Facebook status becomes dependent upon other people—people who we think want or need to hear about our lives. This is not freedom. This is self-inflicted codependence—and it’s not healthy. But how do we break free of these proverbial shackles? The answer, as I found, is surprisingly simple: you need to put the power of technology back in your own hands—you need to make your technology work for you and not vice versa.

I typically loathe the term “luddite” and try my hardest not to fall under that umbrella, but let us revel in some good old-fashioned ludditry for a second. Imagine life a century ago when your mailbox wasn’t in your pocket and the town square was down the road, not on the home screen of your laptop. It was during this time that there was a clear delineation between your own life and others’, a tangible line between personal volition and external intrusion. While, in previous centuries, we may have ventured to our mailbox when we were good and ready to receive messages, our present technological culture allows for (and even mandates) immediate access and immediate response. To top it off, it’s not only people who are vying for our attention, but millions of apps and bots, pinging our phones every time a news story breaks or an update is available. This is, quite frankly, unnecessary and probably way too much for a normal human being to handle. It’s no wonder that all of us feel as if we’re on the brink of insanity at any one moment! Do we really need to keep abreast of every cultural event as it unfolds in real time? Do we really need to provide our friends with a response as soon as we receive a message? For the sake of our collective sanity, can we all just agree that the answer is no?

So—how do we get to this state of technological nirvana? We can start by silencing our phones. And turning off our e-mail notifications. Or all notifications, for that matter.* You are in control of how you interact with your technology and you get to determine when and how you will use it. It’s a scary idea, I know. But try it. You might find that the feeling is not only liberating, but wildly exhilarating.

Perhaps Coachella was the perfect place for me to have this life-changing discovery. In a way, my relationship with technology up until this weekend was not unlike my relationship with the bobbling, strung-out girl in front of me at the Lorde show. When it comes at you out of nowhere, shoving and kicking you on its own terms, it can be unspeakably irritating. But when you are ready and willing to open yourself up to it, it’s pretty much A-okay. If I could remove myself from aforementioned girl’s vicinity, I could also remove myself from the burden of all my technology. Unburden yourself, dear readers. You will thank yourself later.

*Don’t worry, you can still keep them on for work or family-related purposes—I’m not that insane.

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  • Thanks for sharing this, Max!! I’ve been feeling the toxic symptoms of information overload, not only mentally, but physically. The past few weeks, I’ve been making a concerted effort to not have the internet be the boss of me! My progress is woefully inadequate at times, but little things like NOT looking at your phone during a meal or refusing to check my email or social media after waking up can feel like major victories sometimes. And you’re right–exercising temporary abstinence or moderation with media (same with food, drinking, shopping, etc.) isn’t a prison but freedom!

  • ” In a way, my relationship with technology up until this weekend was not unlike my relationship with the bobbling, strung-out girl in front of me at the Lorde show.” Love that :) kudos to you on your healthier perspective! It’s a constant battle behind this screen.

  • I loved this – completely hilarious. I’ve never had a problem turning the power off on anything. In fact, I used to leave my smart phone charging downstairs all evening – only checking for any important messages once before bed. I recently had surgery on my feet, and so for the past month I’ve kept my phone on me at all times (including charging it right beside my bed), and it’s amazing how quickly I’ve become dependent on it. Looking forward to unplugging again in a few weeks when my stairs are easier to navigate and I can choose to check in when I want to. Hopefully it’s an easy habit to break.

  • I’ve been feeling it lately too and have been thinking a LOT about doing social media with intent rather than on auto pilot.

    For me it feels like a fire hose with an unending stream of content. I can’t.keep.up. And I know it’s a problem when I feel worse rather than better or if it’s getting in the way of my own creating/making. Too much “inspiration” actually causes me to create less rather than more.

    I tried going without this past weekend and it was hard. And I wasn’t successful! Less often on but I was still checking in a few times.

    I think it’s like anything, three steps forward, two steps back and it’ll be managed better.

  • Max, you’re an awesome writer with a unique voice of a young generation with smart stuff to say. I wish there were more of you out there! (There are, I know, but they’re not always easy to find) I hope you can keep up “airplane” mode… in our day and age, that’s a tall order! Kudos to you also for braving Coachella AND enjoying it!

  • As a 20 something who is also sick of technology, this article really resonated with me. In January I gave up Facebook as I found it was a drain on my time, and I used it mostly for procrastination. I wanted to focus on my studies without that distraction. I really struggled with this decision since I have lived all over the world and it’s one of the best ways for keeping in touch with distant friends – but honestly I don’t miss it at all. I have found though, that I waste time in other ways, but they are more positive, so I don’t mind as much.

  • It’s interesting to me how often I hear that people feel truly bogged down by technology in their personal lives but also feel unable to unplug from it – it seriously sounds like addiction. I’ll admit that I don’t know how strong the pull of such technology is – I have never owned a cell phone (and plan to keep it that way), I don’t have an account on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and I don’t follow any one else in any of these arenas. Obviously, I do read blogs – I spend about 20 minutes every morning with a cup of coffee and my Feedly list. I then check and reply to e-mail for about 10 minutes, and I check my e-mail again before I go to bed. That’s it. I’m definitely missing out on pop culture references and am sometimes out of the loop socially, but I am so happy not to feel tied to devices. “Unburden yourself” – amen! There’s too much other really good stuff in life on which I’d rather spend my time, money, energy, and mental space.

  • So agree! I recently had to go off-line due to an injury and it was so refreshing. It is easy to be immersed into social media (which can be fun at times, but can also be a time-suck). I do turn off notifications and truly try to live in the moment I am experiencing!

  • Yes, yes, yes! Very much agree. I too disconnected from Facebook earlier this year not so much because of annoying cat/dinner/random updates but more because I found that instead of writing short stories I was on Facebook, instead of painting, I was on Facebook, instead of doing pretty much anything creative, yup I was on Facebook! I work from home, so the feeling of wanting to be connected to other people socially is always strong and feels temporarily sated by Facebook, and like Kelly, I miss it sometimes because friends are all over the world.

    But my measure of whether I’m using technology or its using me is: does it leave me inspired or numbed? If I scan pinterest or instagram and get buzzed with ideas, or I read twitter and find tonnes of interesting stuff to read, then great, technology has done its job. But if I am just mindlessly reading non-important email at midnight, well I’m doing something wrong.

  • What a great article! I have ditched Facebook, Twitter, and no longer update my blog. Frankly, 99% of the stuff on FB, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, etc., is just junk, and no one NEEDS to see or be involved with any of it. Twitter, especially: so much of it is just the inane brain barf of uninteresting people, most of whom should NOT be telling ANYONE their inner-most thoughts! I do read my favorite blogs a few times a week just for entertainment. I’ve deleted a lot of apps from my smartphone, and now I use it just for the occasional text or e-mail, navigation from point A to B, and occasionally to look up something on the internet, but I mostly keep it in case I need to make an emergency call. Otherwise, I leave it in my handbag. I love being disconnected!

  • So very true. My “oldtimer” dad always said to me (of his cell phone), “this is for my convenience, not everyone else’s” He used to only turn it on to make calls, and would then check any messages.

    Thanks for the reminder :)

  • I’ve blogged about this a little– Do Not Disturb on the iPhone, which is a little less scary than Airplane Mode, is a great solution. You can just turn on the little moon icon, flip your phone upside down, and your Favorites can still reach you by calling if it’s an emergency.

    Turning off all of the notifications you can on your devices is also another mind saver.

    Great article!

  • Love it, Max! Thanks for sharing this great perspective adjutment. (P.S. I love the way you write. As soon as I realize it’s your article I get excited because I know it’s going to be funny and clever and honest.)