Opinion | Breaking the Habits of Technology

By Kathryn Wheeler

May 22, 2018

female NOLS student sits in the grass looking across a river toward thick forest and mountains
Photo by Oscar Manguy

Since moving to Lander, I’ve developed a bit of routine around technology. My weeks are comprised of long days in front of a computer, with constant access to the web, and all of the baggage that brings. My weekends tend to look the opposite, as I attend to my need for uninterrupted experiences outside with others. This weekly routine casts me into two different worlds: one where I am totally absorbed by screens, and the other where I try to forget the existence of technology for a clarifying breath of fresh air.

It seems that many outdoors people exist in this kind of dichotomy. The reality of life for many of us is that we need to engage daily with tech in order to keep our jobs and social lives in check. But, for me at least, I find that the times when I leave tech behind for an outdoor adventure, I yearn more and more for a break from it. During these experiences, I, as I imagine many people do, begin to see the habits that tech creates, and the beauty that comes from breaking those habits.

In my own forays abandoning tech, which I’ve done either out of necessity or to have a certain experience that’s uninterrupted, I’ve recognized three stages to the endeavor. It’s important to note that these stages require an adequate period of time in order to occur—typically more than a week—as it’s hard to break such an ingrained habit in just a few days. Additionally, this sort of experience is one that comes with the privilege of access to the outdoors, and the ability to take a break from daily life, which isn’t possible for many of us.

For those who are able to spend extended time in the outdoors, these stages of device-separation tend to follow a similar trend…

Stage One: Habit Breaking

NOLS student stands on a rocky outcrop on the shore of the turquoise blue ocean in the Caribbean
Photo by Lynn Petzold

Stage one of a hiatus from technology is marked by the initial breaking of habit, which generally comes paired with resistance. Cell phones introduce ritual: checking your phone leads to feeling known and remembered by others and assumes a comforting weight in your pocket. This quickly becomes a load we must carry. In this stage, we reckon with the fear of not having this weight, and maybe even check our pockets for phantom phones, wondering what benefits could eventually override our fear response.

Stage Two: Acclimatization

Just as those traveling to high altitudes (like Lander, Wyoming at over 5,000 feet) will eventually be able to climb stairs without muffled panting (speaking from personal experience here), those without a certain object, like a cell phone, eventually adjust to daily life without said object. And, importantly, daily life will be different. Much of the time that you might spend with technology, through text, social media, or perusing the internet, you will spend observing what’s around you. Face-to-face interactions and sensory experiences of sight, sound, and feeling.

This new way of life will engage our sensory nervous system, the part of us that processes our external environment. We might smell sagebrush, which will trigger a memory, or hear a beat in our footsteps that becomes the music that pushes us on. Through our five senses, we are delivered enough stimulation to begin to forget the device that once took their place.

Stage Three: Abandonment

This is the stage of realization. Here, we become aware of a difference in ourselves and our perceptions of the world without our devices. This stage tends to hit us before we realize it. One day, while engaged in a conversation, or simply watching a sunrise, we’ll realize that we have no real desire to have our phones, or to communicate anything we’re doing to anyone other than the ones by our side. Where our phones were once our way of feeling in touch with people, we may realize that all we need to feel connected is right in front of us. We’ll begin to see that our tech devices have just become placeholders for our true reality, which is all around us, and happening right now. This connection to what’s around us is perhaps why many of us return to the backcountry.

By leaving behind this modern comfort, we daringly expose ourselves to an alternate reality, one that people lived in for thousands of years and many couldn’t perceive of as ever changing. In the backcountry, we remember that interacting with the present—the humans around us, the mountains above us, the shocking colors and smells—is essential to who we are. Technology attempts to fulfill the same human need of true connection, but it doesn’t do the job nearly as well. Tech will never allow us to feel as connected as we might feel when we look someone in the eyes, or when we can sense the warm pockets in a mountain breeze on our skin.

As we ready our packs for new adventures, and consider the possibility of leaving the modern world behind for awhile, let’s not forget the real importance of what we’re doing. We are resisting the norm; we’re saying that we can do better by living in this moment. And, in time, maybe we can even create a new norm. But for now, abandon your tech, because what you find may surprise you.

Read: Reasons to Take a Longer Trip

Written By

Kathryn Wheeler

Kathryn works at NOLS headquarters. She enjoys playing with pups, writing letters, and marveling over the bison she glimpsed when she first moved to Wyoming.

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