9 months ago

Girl Offline: Building My Forest and Tearing it Down


I have this app, on my phone. It grows a tree in a tiny, empty digital world for every 25 minutes you spend not touching your phone. Functionally, it obeys the same principal as the Pomodoro Technique – 25 minutes of work, five minutes break, then 25 minutes of work again. The ‘Pomodoro’ title comes from a little kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato that can be used to keep the timing honest. It’s a time management, focus-oriented technique that has been replicated in this tree app. For every 25 minutes of no-phone-touching, your resistance to the pull of the phone grows another plant into an empty field which, if you’re good and productive, becomes a forest.

I want to be really clear here: I hate this app with my life. I have about two trees in my forest and the rest of the space is empty, void: yet another monument to my inability to live a productive life. There isn’t anything wrong with the design of this app, or the idea necessarily of gamifying productivity – it’s quite innocuous, the whole thing (almost suspiciously so) – but because it shows a forest, and I really am reaching a point where I believe the internet is the opposite of a forest. I know there is an easy metaphor here wherein we compare the social groupings and organic developments of technology to flora and fauna but honestly, I have spent this week watching the Amazon full of smoke on tiny video screens on my tiny phone screen and thinking about actual forests – the ones outside. The internet isn’t tactile: nor are many of the advancements made my technology. I realise it sounds heavy handed to say I am trying to tell you that you can’t touch the internet with your hands, but this is something I feel like I come to every time I sit down to work. It is something I tell myself as I pull myself away from the internet.

It’s why I work on paper mostly, then on a computer when it’s necessary. It’s why I feel a deep, abiding shame when I lose an hour to a scroll, when scrolling is the first thing I do in the morning, or it sneakily occupies time in my day that I don’t even realise it is stealing. It’s why most e-mail makes me feel sick: invisible, psychic demands. Nothing here can be touched. Nothing. I know I need to log off. I know.

In 2018, when I was physically healthy again after a serious injury the year before, I walked seven days of the Camino to raise money for a hospital that had helped my family when we were in a bad position. I have been trying to write about this weird hike ever since, always falling short of capturing what I need to say. Here is one thing: I was standing in a forest, a real one, trying and failing to capture the sensory explosion of the place with my stupid, ailing iPhone, when it died in my hands. My heart went out of my body with fear. How expensive the technology: all of those photographs gone: my lifeline to home: my map: my notes folder. I wish I could tell you that I just surrendered to the green world and forgot about the phone but with my absolutely no Spanish whatsoever I managed to buy a cheap, unfamiliar Android to tide me over until I got home. I think about this choice a lot and wonder why I wasn’t strong enough to move on without my open emails, my camera, my access to the invisible world. I wonder about how I couldn’t sacrifice my tiny crutch, even on this ancient trail. I don’t have an answer to why and maybe saying addiction is too simple here. This is why I’m writing all of this – working out why I lean so hard on it. This little Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this miracle box. This huge, untouchable landscape. This unforest.

It’s why most e-mail makes me feel sick: invisible, psychic demands. Nothing here can be touched. Nothing. I know I need to log off. I know.

I try to spend as much time as I can, since then, up the sides of mountains and in forests. I try and do two Big Hikes a year: in late 2018 myself and CB, my husband, did the Wicklow Way and just this summer, the Burren Way. Both were different to one another, and difficult in different ways, and hugely important experiences. I am not out there as much as I would like and I know, intrinsically as a city bird that I am being pulled out of the grey and into the green more frequently for a reason. Being out there for days at a time strips something hard from me: my outsides, and my insides, too. It makes me softer. Happier. I want to somehow work towards a life where I have access to that softness more often.

Importantly, I can’t do any work when I’m on the side of a mountain, or in a forest, not really. I also can’t pretend I’m working. I have to surrender to the fact that being out in the wild means not working at all, means coming face to face with the reality that there are things more important than working. Than pixels becoming novels. Than keeping up with every second of every news story for fear of not knowing the right thing to say. Than remaining at all cost productive, or at least, performing productivity.

Once, on the Wicklow Way, CB and I climbed up the side of a hill on a rocky, seemingly endless natural stairway for almost an hour. There was mist, and it blinded us, and slowed us. At one point, I saw a doe loping along the hillside and thought I would lose my mind from the sheer joy of it, catching it by surprise on an Instagram story. (I still don’t know if broadcasting it pollutes it as an experience, I don’t have answers, only questions). We were soaked from the damp air and our own sweat when we finally, mercifully reached the next plateau we would walk on from and we collapsed in a heap on some soft, bright grass. I took out my phone to snap a selfie of us, our faces red, still buzzed from our unexpected doe. And I say this with no expectation that anyone would ever believe me, but a red, silken butterfly landed on the tip of the finger with which I was taking the picture: precisely out of frame, precisely in the most impossible location to be captured, ever – right in front of our noses. It remains one of the most incredible things that has ever happened to me and I can never show you, only tell you, that it happened. As it opened and closed its wings I was at once frustrated: think of the content I could wring out of this visitation – but also stunned that this tiny creature had come to us, like a congratulations for navigating the steepness of the way, like something tiny and holy. It took its time, then lifted off, unpostable.

Maybe by writing about it at all I am effectively turning the experience into content: but writing feels more human to me than posting and I do believe there’s a difference, though I can’t be sure what that difference is just yet. I suppose that’s why we’re here, isn’t it, working it out.

There is an interplay here for me between the growth of a forest and staying away from my phone. I understand that. I get that the app works like that, like a metaphor, but it lands deep in an uncanny valley for me, maybe striking a nerve I don’t like the feel of. I want to focus less on the growing of digital trees that I can never touch, or the construction of a pixelated forest that I can never walk through, and more on… you know, going outside. The forest-work game doesn’t work on me because of that precise discomfort. That knowing that I need to go the hell outside more often. That gnawing, growing concern that the buzzing interior landscape of the internet is exactly what is stopping me growing at all.

To read more from Sarah Maria Griffin visit THEGLOSS.IE/GirlOffline


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