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Andrey Sitnik for Evil Martians

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How a Month without Computers Changed Me

No emails left for me to read. Nor write. I’ve sent a message to my family and delegated my open source projects (Autoprefixer and PostCSS) to my friends. With my last tweet sent, I turn off my laptop, phone, and tablet. My Digital Sabbath begins in 10 minutes: no digital devices for the next month.

From the¬†days of the¬†Butlerian Jihad when ‚Äúthinking machines‚ÄĚ had been wiped from most of the¬†universe, computers had inspired distrust.
‚ÄĒ Dune Messiah

Laptop, smartphone and other digitals devices on the left side and books, notepad and other old things on the right side

On the¬†left are things from my old, digital life‚ÄĒcarefully, I turned them off, got together and¬†put¬†into¬†a¬†bag. What I got myself for the¬†new life is on the¬†right.

The Month of Ramadan

It¬†began with a¬†post about the¬†Islamic month of Ramadan, when one is not allowed to¬†drink or eat until ‚Äėthe¬†first star appears in¬†the¬†sky‚Äô (imagine how difficult it must be fasting like that in¬†Norway, during the¬†polar day). The¬†Ambassador explained that religious people deny themselves what everyday life has to¬†offer to¬†understand how great God‚Äôs grace is. This idea¬†gave birth in¬†my imagination to¬†a¬†technocratic state where people do without soy and genetically modified foods for a¬†year just to¬†see: natural agriculture is costly and might lead to¬†global hunger.

Then I asked myself if ‚Äėtechnological fasting‚Äô could do one good in¬†modern society. Technology has changed the¬†world in¬†the¬†blink of an eye, leaving us no time to¬†reflect on it. What if a¬†month without modern technology could ‚Äėtravel‚Äô you to¬†the¬†past? What if there is a¬†way you could compare your technology-relying self to¬†what you once were?

I had doubts. My love of IT and addiction to¬†digital overload were not going to¬†make it easy. But then I learned about this¬†effort of a¬†computer-weary The¬†Verge journalist. My life, he wrote, had become so much better without the¬†computers. To me, his report seemed not without bias, and I decided to¬†take my own journey into¬†the¬†pre-digital world‚ÄĒthis¬†time to¬†be seen through the¬†eyes of a¬†programmer.

The Preparation

Doing without my laptop was not gonna¬†cut it, I thought. Smart chips being now used in¬†every domain¬†of life, I must use no digital device at all. I read about fasting in¬†other religions and decided to¬†make precise rules to¬†guide me through whatever difficulty arises. In its final form my covenant was, ‚Äėyou must not operate any device that stores a¬†programme in¬†its memory‚Äô‚ÄĒin¬†other words, no von Neumann architecture-based devices were allowed.

This was the criterion I used to prepare for my journey. Just like a James Bond, only the other way round: the small, shiny and functional gadgets gave way to things old, cumbersome and one-purpose. Thanks to the hipsters, this vintage could easily be found in flea markets.

My friends tried to scare me away from taking the journey by telling the tale of the Mozilla programmer whom two month of life without the internet made him delete his twitter account.

To burn all the bridges, I told everyone about my Digital Sabbath plans. Doing any work during that time was out of the question, so I took a leave and explained my colleagues how to contact my girlfriend in case of emergency.

Evil Martians played a trick on me though, by deciding to run an internal competition with prizes for the biggest open-source contributions exactly during my Sabbath month.

But there was no going back. My fasting began on November 6, 2013.

The Photography

Andrey Sitnik making selfie in the mirror by Zenit-122

For¬†my forced dive into¬†the¬†world of analogue photography, I picked a¬†light-meter equipped Zenit-122. My camera¬†would take care of the¬†process‚ÄĒI only needed to¬†keep turning the¬†dials until it told me everything was alright. While most cameras make the¬†focus right using special split screen and microprism to¬†align the¬†two sides of an image, a¬†light-meter is a¬†small solar cell and three LEDs that are seen in¬†the¬†right side of the¬†viewfinder. The¬†upper one is lit if your photo¬†is going to¬†be too dark, the¬†lower if too light, and the¬†middle one turns green if the¬†options are set in¬†the¬†right way.

It¬†was not that hard taking pictures, but I understood it was the¬†computers that had made photography such an easy-to-do, everyday thing. Of course, even our parents didn‚Äôt do it the¬†hard way‚ÄĒthey didn‚Äôt need to¬†know chemistry or develop the¬†photos. Yet, analogue photography reminded me of driving: you start with theory, then they show you what to¬†do and how, and then you practice in¬†a¬†place without other cars. It¬†is not until you have developed the¬†skill that you go and take actual photos. With digital photography, everyone is a¬†photographer now. It¬†only takes opening your phone app; even a¬†child can do that.

Another discovery I made was the¬†incredible power that modern digital cameras have gained in¬†the¬†last decade. Before the¬†Digital Sabbath, we got stuck at the¬†Ukrainian border, where we witnessed the¬†wonderful tradition of putting a¬†whole lot of candles in¬†graveyards during All Saints‚Äô Day. At night we took many a¬†wonderful picture without using a¬†tripod‚ÄĒall thanks to¬†the¬†immense light sensitivity and optical stabilisers that modern cameras have. It¬†was no use carrying my analogue camera¬†at night: the¬†photo¬†film is 30 times less light-sensitive, and in¬†semi-darkness there is no taking any half-decent photo¬†without a¬†tripod.

If I saw a¬†rapidly developing event, I would not even bother to¬†take out the¬†camera‚ÄĒeach photo¬†demanding two parameters (focus and exposure time) set, I would not be fast enough to¬†take one.

But at the¬†same time, I felt film to¬†be a¬†blessing a¬†disguise. Modern cameras are too powerful. You push the¬†button‚ÄĒyou get the¬†photo¬†you need, always. As a¬†result, not only do you stop thinking about the¬†how but also about the¬†what. Film is hard to¬†use, film makes you find a¬†way. Analysing all the¬†parameters and options available makes a¬†good warm up exercise for your brain: you start looking for a¬†better angle or composition.

The¬†grain¬†and warm colours that film has are all the¬†rage now. But¬†personally, I didn‚Äôt see any real magic in¬†them. That‚Äôs just what photos had been back in¬†the¬†days. Our parents were younger, and we were kids‚ÄĒwe get nostalgic, of course. Exactly like pixel art is just the¬†style of games childhood from our childhood. It¬†doesn‚Äôt make a¬†game better per se. Will our children value the¬†effects produced by a¬†bad phone matrix, a¬†reminder of their warm past, as high as we do the¬†grain¬†and warm colours?

My Digital Sabbath made me realise I would use my phone, not my big-ass digital camera, to take photos in my travels. I understood I had no need for the extra options it offered.

The Watch

Soviet Raketa watch

For the Digital Sabbath, I bought a Raketa (Rocket) soviet mechanical watch. Pity I didn’t manage to find a special 24-hour face version for polar explorers and divers.

In my opinion, each era¬†has a¬†technology that serves as its symbol. The¬†mechanical watch is the¬†crown of the¬†industrial era. Technology was not developed enough for portable devices to¬†be precise, yet people did everything in¬†their might‚ÄĒused their ingenuity, diligence and skill‚ÄĒto¬†make the¬†most of whatever they had. They did manage to¬†make a¬†watch based on pure mechanics. They used gimmickry such as having small rubies in¬†the¬†mechanism to¬†decrease tension. That was why it was not until the¬†advent of synthetic rubies that watches became cheaper and available to¬†general public at the¬†beginning of the¬†20th century.

My mechanical watch was like a¬†small living creature‚ÄĒits heartbeat kept reminding me it was fragile and needed proper care. For¬†your watch to¬†work for long and show precise time, you need to¬†wind it up every day at exactly the¬†same time. I expected this¬†necessity to¬†turn into¬†a¬†burden, but it didn‚Äôt. On the¬†contrary, this¬†nice little duty gave me the¬†opportunity to¬†better feel the¬†passing of time.

Most importantly, time had become somewhat inaccurate. Contemporary quartz watches have a tiny error of a second per day. Synchronising via the internet, computers and phones don’t accumulate even that much error. It means we really are used to our watches being accurate. When we get to the railway station and there is five minutes left before the departure, we can be absolutely sure we will make it.

A mechanical watch accumulates an error of up to a minute per day. It means your train may have already left the station because during the week the error has grown as big as five minutes. My watch having an unknown error was getting on my nerves throughout my travel, so I was always looking for sources of exact time to adjust my watch to.

quartz clock and alarm clock

Unfortunately, one day my watch simply stopped, never to¬†work again‚ÄĒno surprise, taking into¬†account how old it was. It¬†is indeed nice carrying a¬†small mechanical life on your wrist; nevertheless, I went to¬†a¬†shop and bought myself a¬†quartz watch (by that time I already knew there was no computer inside it, only simple electronics and mechanics). I do love my time exact; can‚Äôt do anything about it.

Yet I liked having a watch on my wrist. This childhood feeling had been long forgotten, and I was positively surprised that a watch did help you control the time. It is so much easier to take a look at your hand than to put your phone out of your pocket.

After the Digital Sabbath, I decided to buy a smartwatch like Pebble or Android Wear.

The Map and the Compass

The map of Lucca city and compass

The¬†technology that is the¬†symbol of our era? I would say, GPS and GLONASS. On the¬†one hand, they use the¬†most advanced things one can imagine‚ÄĒrockets to¬†take satellites to¬†the¬†orbit, quantum physics to¬†produce atomic clocks for the¬†satellites, Einstein‚Äôs theory of relativity to¬†compensate for the¬†loss of time due to¬†speed and gravity, computers to¬†make complex calculations. On the¬†other hand, unlike other brainy things easy-to-use maps are something that everyone on Earth needs. Satellites provide exact coordinates to¬†every person, in¬†any part of the¬†planet, for free‚ÄĒso long as he or she has a¬†cheap receiver.

But during the Digital Sabbath, when I visited a new town, I would have to find a newspaper stand, buy a map and then closely read the names of the streets.

During my preparation, I bought a¬†compass. Primarily for the¬†sake of the¬†warm analogue style. But it actually proved itself useful‚ÄĒso long as you at least know the¬†direction of the¬†street you walk along, it will make reading the¬†map easier.

I didn‚Äôt have much difficulty using a¬†GPS-less, paper map. Moreover, paper maps have their advantages, too: which one can be easily drawn and written upon‚ÄĒa¬†digital or a¬†paper one?

The Notepad

Pen and notepad with Cyrillic vyaz

During my trip I found old church with old Cyrillic calligraphy. It impress my so much, that I then created @linguopunk account in Twitter for calligraphies like it.

I wouldn’t have taken any pleasure in my Digital Sabbath if it wasn’t for the small spiral-bound notepad I bought to carry in my shirt pocket. It’s not that I had much choice either: digital life had degraded my memory, and I needed an external device to make notes in.

Honestly, I don’t consider the bad memory the younger generations have to be that big of a problem. True, we have to search for information all over again, but it might be a good thing. Information is so quick to change now. What you learned yesterday might have already become all wrong today, while bad memory has you find the latest, most accurate data every time.

I liked using the notepad. You always have a pen to spin in times of idleness. Unlike the touch displays that most phones have, a notepad provides for quick drawings. Another thing I liked was that everything you did at a certain moment was at the same place. The computer makes you follow a hierarchy that is alien to you: one application to search for video, and another for notes. In the notepad, there is only one timeline.

The Thoughts

Andrey Sitnik sitting on the roof

Boredom was the¬†thing that scared me the¬†most, so I did a¬†lot of preparation: took a¬†few thick books, drew up a¬†schedule (when I leave one place for another) and made up several evening rituals to¬†follow every day. The¬†internet-less reality turned out to¬†be a¬†boredom-less one, too. Recreation does not require anything special‚ÄĒin¬†the¬†end, you can always go out and hunt for good photos.

On the¬†very first day, I went to¬†bed early and woke up early‚ÄĒmy biorhythms adjusted to¬†the¬†Sun in¬†no time.

Your battery is never low if you don’t have one. Nor will rain ever ruin your expensive phone. I always had time to think everything over and always felt the pleasant sensation of doing the right thing at the right time. My heart was filled with bliss and confidence.

But soon I saw the¬†difference between IT and other technologies. For¬†example, a¬†lack of electricity or water supply results in¬†immediate discomfort. The¬†internet does not‚ÄĒtake a¬†look at our grandparents, who do perfectly fine without computers. Yet without the¬†internet, you sometimes feel so painfully nostalgic that it seems as if you have left your hometown and old friends and reminisce how good it was there.

Digital technologies are something more than routine tools we use without thought. The¬†digital world has grown into¬†our souls, created whole new worlds for our imagination and creativity, introduced us to¬†so many people we would have never met otherwise‚ÄĒwithout us noticing it.

The digital world needed no neuro-interfaces or cyberpunk-books to become part of us. The most painful thing about my Digital Sabbath was the feeling of something missing deep down inside.

I came to the conclusion that IT hadn’t changed the world around, but created another, a parallel one. The reason we are always nervous and never have enough time is that we are living two lives now. It’s without a doubt difficult, yet how interesting it is to be living two times as much!

By the¬†middle of the¬†month, I felt low‚ÄĒso big was my desire to¬†code. It¬†seemed I was wasting time instead of doing anything useful. When the¬†pain¬†was too bad, I would tell myself the¬†story of _why, an iconic person in¬†the¬†ruby community. One day he disappeared from the¬†internet, deleting all his vast contribution to¬†the¬†world of open source. His final tweet was ‚Äúprogramming is rather thankless. u see your works become replaced by superior ones in¬†a¬†year. unable to¬†run at all in¬†a¬†few more‚ÄĚ.

GitHub contribution statistics with huge gap in Novermber

My Digital Sabbath was in November, as it can be seen from the GitHub contribution graph.

A little later, my anguish and longing faded into¬†the¬†background, but I got a¬†feeling of my personality dissolving. The¬†internet allows us to¬†express our I much more clearly and intensely. We listen to¬†music that we ourselves find interesting‚ÄĒit doesn‚Äôt matter if there is hardly any people in¬†the¬†world that like the¬†same thing. We can pursue hobbies rare, yet intimate. The¬†ability to¬†communicate with anyone, beyond the¬†boundaries of your city, results in¬†relationships with people as congenial as it ever gets. But this¬†all pales in¬†comparison to¬†the¬†opportunities IT gives us in¬†the¬†domain¬†of creativity, a¬†person‚Äôs brightest form expression. Time spent without the¬†internet returned me to¬†my school days: you could only listen to¬†whatever music you happened to¬†get and read books that were available in¬†the¬†local store. My personality seemed to¬†be merging with society, majority opinion, and popular music.

The¬†other side of being calm was a¬†loss of motivation. The¬†internet gets you to¬†do things. You see the¬†successes of other people and try to¬†keep up with them. You value time much more dearly, as you know that any extra¬†10 minutes you can steal is a¬†chan—Āe to¬†read an interesting article from your archives that might produce a¬†small change in¬†you.

My Digital Sabbath made me re-evaluate my attitude towards social networks. Everyone knows that likes and statuses are no real communication. But when you are far from the place you live in, real communication is impossible. In a few weeks I started to miss my friends and relatives badly. It is true that in the modern world we rarely manage to find time for a heart-to-heart talk, but the little actions and pieces of information from Twitter and Facebook at least give us a connection to others, no matter how small. I may not know all the details, but I keep track of the lives my school friends from another city live. I do know about the most important things in their lives.

Most importantly, social networks allowed for a new stratum, people who are always on the road, to develop. It’s not that people hadn’t moved to other countries before, but those had been a rare case. Even moving to another city meant having no close friends for a year or so, just because it would take time for your new friends to become close. Changing cities every month would mean having no close communication. Now, you can live far from home and yet feel a certain thread connecting you to your close ones. That’s why there are so many more people travelling non-stop nowadays. Citizens of no particular country. Almost everywhere in Asia or Europe I meet my friends and acquaintances who are living there just at the moment.

What a¬†strange thing‚ÄĒcomputers are nothing but little devices solving small-scale, mundane problems for us, but without them, I would be a¬†completely different person.

The End

It is December 6, 2013. A month has passed, and my Digital Sabbath is over. My excitement has kept me awake for the last 24 hours. There are hundreds of letters and thousands of RSS news waiting for me. I’m so emotional and busy I will not have more than four hours’ sleep a day, for the next three days, and instantly become a night owl, again. Yet I will be so glad to have returned.

The Conclusion

The¬†‚Äėanalogue‚Äô world didn‚Äôt feel that much special and spiritual. The¬†internet is not unlike a¬†new flat‚ÄĒit seems empty and lacking soul. Not because the¬†old one was better, but because the¬†old one simply had many things to¬†bring back good memories. The¬†digital world is soon to¬†get filled with our feelings. Just give it a¬†little time.

Despite the¬†fact I am not going to¬†do another month without the¬†computers, I liked my Digital Sabbath. A month was too much though. Two weeks would have done just fine. I changed my attitude towards technology and the¬†impact it has on society. I overcame my fear of boredom and now can easily take a¬†cruise or visit places where there is no internet. I stopped worrying I never had enough time‚ÄĒit had become a¬†logical thing, as I understood that with the¬†internet I live two lives in¬†parallel. I stopped getting fancy with the¬†quality of photography. Taking pictures with my phone is good enough, I decided. I also bought a¬†watch‚ÄĒsmart, not mechanical though.

I would not recommend digital fasting to everyone, but a temporary abstinence of some sort seems a very right thing to do. All religions have compulsory fasting. Abstinence from meat in Christianity, or refraining from work in Judaism (btw, see eruv). The one I like the most is the keeping of silence in Hinduism, for example, Mahatma Gandhi would be silent one day a week: he would be reading, thinking, or writing.

It¬†doesn‚Äôt take us much time to¬†get used to¬†a¬†way of living and start doing things on autopilot. Our brain¬†likes to¬†save energy, so it turns our extremely voracious conscience as soon as it understands that everyday life can be done without it. As a¬†result, our perception gets dull and replaced by thoughtless habits. Not letting it happen requires leaving the¬†comfort zone, requires entering a¬†new world, where you don‚Äôt know anything and have to¬†start from scratch. You could take up a¬†new hobby each month. Or travel from one city to¬†another. Or do without things you are so used to, like having conversations or using computers‚ÄĒjust for a¬†little while.

Translated from Russian by Yaroslav Shtyrbu

Top comments (22)

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Great post, I look forward to my next extended break. The closest I've come is a two or three days with pretty much no computers.

I can't remember my last true extended break of any kind. Probably not since age 16 when I last attended computerless summer camp. 14 years ago!

devgrips profile image
Batuhan • Edited on

I can't really understand how people can do this no computer thing. I had to leave my laptop for one week, it felt like there was missing piece of me

maxdevjs profile image

That's the point, isn't...?

david_j_eddy profile image
David J Eddy

"...I overcame my fear of boredom and now can easily take a cruise or visit places where there is no internet. I stopped worrying I never had enough time‚ÄĒit had become a logical thing, as I understood that with the internet I live two lives in parallel...."

Best part. Technology is not the reason for living, simply an augmentation to communication.

jaakidup profile image

Thanks for sharing this story.

It is something I've been considering doing on a regular basis too, especially as a developer who spends large amounts of time staring at screens.

Maybe this type of break needs an official name.

xatenev profile image

"The other side of being calm was a loss of motivation. The internet gets you to do things. You see the successes of other people and try to keep up with them. You value time much more dearly, as you know that any extra 10 minutes you can steal is a chan—Āe to read an interesting article from your archives that might produce a small change in you."

I think the opposite is true. The internet constantly steals your time by distracting you from what you originally wanted to do. Lets just quickly watch a video on youtube. Oh theres a new tweet from , let me see what he wrote quickly. Oh Amanda wrote me a message on facebook. ... 3 hours later you don't even know what you originally wanted to do.

Aswell looking at successes of other people (usually) doesn't make you feel more motivated, instead it makes you feel worse about yourself and you'll be less likely to do useful things. (Of course there are exceptions here.)

Mobile phones are another distraction - the amount of people staring at their phones in pretty much every situation nowadays is astonishing... But thats another topic ;).

I realized for e.g. coding its very useful at some points to just download the docs you require and plug the ethernet cable out to get things done.

Great written post.


iskin profile image
Andrey Sitnik

Yeap, I know this feeling. But I think we have this feeling of not using time right just because our culture force as to be 100% effective (which is not possible). I think that watching YouTube is a relaxing time, which I need to be productive in another time. Talking with Amanda is especially important because we are social and we love to communicate.

Just say yourself ‚Äúyes, I can be not productive sometimes, yes I can do think online just for fun because it is important‚ÄĚ.

Anyway, even with YouTube and other things, you still more productive than without the Internet at all.

(But yeap, everyone still needs good time management on Internet too)

voronoipotato profile image
Alan Ball

When I go on vacation I usually do a "computer break". I put my phone on do not disturb, and I only use it for things like maps, time, and calling a cab. I bring a book, maybe a math problem or two, and a concept to mull over.

webketje profile image

I love how this experience didn't turn into an all-in for either way of life.
My fave takeouts:

Your battery is never low if you don’t have one.

[...] IT hadn’t changed the world around, but created another, a parallel one.

Modern cameras are too powerful. You push the button‚ÄĒyou get the photo you need, always. As a result, not only do you stop thinking about the how but also about the what. Film is hard to use, film makes you find a way

The internet is not unlike a new flat‚ÄĒit seems empty and lacking soul

I especially like to relate in part, the last two.

eladc profile image
Elad Cohen

That's exactly why we do Sabbath every week... ūüėĆ

yorodm profile image
Yoandy Rodriguez Martinez

Cool! Shabbat Shalom!

iskin profile image
Andrey Sitnik

Yeap, Sabbath rules really inspired me for this whole experiment

rhymes profile image

Great post Andrey, so much to think about. The closest I got was not using social media apps for a few months (except Facebook which is still in the gutter :D). I read a lot when I did it :D

First let me say this: film cameras "for the win". You truly become a different kind of person when you have 36 shots and you have to pay for each of time.

my biorhythms adjusted to the Sun in no time.

so true, how fast the body adjusts if we respect it. I spent the entire summer without alarms and after a couple of days I noticed I was waking up at the same exact moment, give or take a few minutes

I didn’t have much difficulty using a GPS-less, paper map

Until a couple of years ago Europe had expensive and senseless international roaming. I had to relearn how to use paper maps :D

When the pain was too bad, I would tell myself the story of _why, an iconic person in the ruby community

This is a gem! I hadn't read his name in a long time. His poignant guide is how I learned Ruby. A legend!

There are hundreds of letters and thousands of RSS news waiting for me. I’m so emotional and busy I will not have more than four hours’ sleep a day, for the next three days, and instantly become a night owl, again. Yet I will be so glad to have returned.

Ahahah I feel you, even if this expectation defeats the purpose a little bit. I think now in 2018 it would be even harder because our brains are addicted to outrage and social media :D

I changed my attitude towards technology and the impact it has on society

Nice to hear! I wonder if after your usage of technology has decreased in general (not just when away) or it's just more pragmatic

iskin profile image
Andrey Sitnik

His poignant guide is how I learned Ruby. A legend!

Absolutely. The whole his story is amazing.

codango profile image

This was an excellent read. I don't know that I could have made it as long; I have done much shorter periods. Even during those shorter periods, I can relate to some of your findings. For a month, though - you're a better man than I. : )

avelino profile image
Thiago Avelino

Great publishing, tell more about your day to day, I'm in the process of disconnecting

iskin profile image
Andrey Sitnik

At the time of experiment I traveled from Italy to Spain. It helped with boring.

avelino profile image
Thiago Avelino

You're not traveling today? Would you go back to a Nomade life?

plaoo profile image
Paolo Monni

I have not stopped since 1990, I was 6 years old

maestromac profile image
Mac Siri

Wow what a great read, thanks for sharing this!

dangolant profile image
Daniel Golant

Every trend you highlighted in this post from 2013 seems like it's just gotten more pronounced in the last 5 years

computersmiths profile image

Nice, thanks for sharing your adventure!

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