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Reflections on the Disconnected Life

Not long ago, an Australian media professor named Robert Hassan boarded the CGM CMA Rossini, a container ship, at a dock in Melbourne. He had arranged to stay on the ship for its five week passage to Singapore. He brought a handful of books, but no phone, no computer, no digital media at all. The crew didn’t speak English either, so it would largely just be Hassan alone with his own thoughts on the sea.

This solitude was, of course, the point. He was conducting an experiment on himself as part of the research for his book, Uncontained, published by an Australian university press last June. What he discovered was poignant.

After reading through his small book supply too quickly, he was faced with endless hours with nothing concrete to do, and soon found his relationship with the world around him began to change.

First, there was his memory.

“I began to think about my own history and my life and things that have happened and to begin to explore those memories [and] think about what was around them, what was behind them,” he told an interviewer on an Australian radio program. “And I began to make discoveries.”

New details emerged. A particular t-shirt someone was wearing, the jokes told, the specific sound of the laughter.

“It is amazing to think that [these details are in] there, in all of us, mostly undisturbed unless we devote the time to concentrate and go looking.”

Then there was his relationship to the world around him on the ship.

He contemplated a screwdriver mark on a hinge. “He or she was standing exactly where I am now, like a ghostly presence who leaves a permanent trace,” he remarked about the phantom source of the mark.

Dust became a preoccupation.

“It’s the stuff that literally falls away from us and our things, traces we don’t even realize we leave.”

He took apart a chair just so he could rebuild it. He became an expert observer of the sea surrounding the ship. (For more on the deep pleasures of observation, there’s no finer source than my favorite minimalist manifesto: Walden.)

Finally, his sleep changed. Operating on an unconstrained schedule, Hassan fell into a biphasal pattern, in which you sleep for a while, wake up and do some activity, and then go to sleep for a while longer.

(Such patterns were common in earlier eras. I remember reading about American colonists who talked about “first and second sleep,” and would be up writing letters, or visiting neighbors, in the middle-of-the-night hours between the two sessions.)

“I woke up and didn’t feel that I had to try and get back to sleep or feel the stress of needing to sleep. I was relaxed about sleep,” he recalls.

Hassan’s experiment (by design) was extreme. But it implies some troubling questions about our current, artificial, digitally-mediated lifestyles.

The screens we carry with us as constant companions don’t amplify or support our natural ways of being, they instead push us into an entirely new mode of existence.

This is not de facto bad; our understanding of the naturalistic fallacy leads us to distrust the assumption that the evolutionary factory presets are always necessarily best. But it would be wildly optimistic to hope that these new behaviors, which are largely driven by the profit motives of attention economy monopolies and device manufacturing giants, would just coincidently happen to also make our lives richer.

Which brings us back to digital minimalism. Most of us don’t have the ability to drop everything for a disconnected life at sea. But we do have the ability to deploy careful experiments and reflection to figure out what we really value, and then — and only then — work backwards to figure out how best to deploy technology to support these aspirations.

Perhaps the most telling clue that there’s somethings off about our current configuration, is that after his five weeks of self-imposed solitary confinement Hassan landed on a simple conclusion.

He’d do it again if he could.

(Photo by Simon Matzinger.)

18 thoughts on “Reflections on the Disconnected Life”

  1. The biphasal pattern of sleeping has always intrigued me. From what I can gather, it was the norm for most of human history. There are so many journals about people waking up and making sure the fire was still burning, balancing books, writing letters, journaling or reading their bible, etc that it feels ridiculous that we suddenly are being told that 8 consecutive hours is the requirement for optimal health.

    Gas streetlights in the early 19th century seem not to have disrupted the pattern, but the electric streetlights that showed up towards the end of the 19th century appear to have started a movement away from our natural patterns by introducing the concept of nightlife to society.

    • Learning about “first sleep, second sleep” literally “cured” my insomnia several years ago. Once I realized that waking up in the middle of the night is perfectly natural, I quit stressing about the fact that I kept waking up in the middle of the night!

      Now, I just get up. Sometimes I’ll meditate, other times I’ll read. Eventually, sleep comes again and I wake up just fine: rested and ready to go.

      I also realized that my sleep needs vary substantially. Some nights, 5 hours is all I need. Other nights, it’s closer to 8.5. I don’t worry about being “consistent” with my sleep any longer…I just do what my body feels.

      If more people would realize that their so-called “insomnia” is simply a natural biphasal sleep pattern, a whole industry would go out of business overnight.

      • Joel, was there a period of “getting used” to this new way of sleeping or did it pretty much feel natural? I too sometimes function incredibly well on as little as five hours sleep, and frequently wake up in the early hours so would be interested in learning more about your experience!

    • At first, when I read it, I thought it was talking about siesta, which was common in tropical countries, like the one I live in. I think it was the 9-5 schedule that changed this habit, but I’m not sure.

    • The Carthusian monks, based at La Grande Chartreuse in the Alps of France, but who have monasteries other countries, and who are the owners the famed liqueur ‘Chartreuse’ have a schedule that involves two sleeps. They go to bed around 8 and rise at midnight to chant the long Night Office in the church, which can take up to two and a half hours. They then return to bed and rise again to begin their day fully around 6. They are known to be extremely healthy and live long lives. I had the good fortune of spending about 6 months with them. It was hard to adjust to that schedule at first but I began to get used to it.

    • As read in “Why We Sleep?”, waking up in the middle of the night is cultural, not biological. Our sleep is biphasal indeed, but it is a straight 8 hours sleep during the night more 1 hour or so after lunch – a siesta.

  2. I find myself more and more leaning into my introversion. What I previously thought was a bug might actually be a feature.

    I’ve long since deleted Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. I’m not on chat platforms outside of work. My only social platform is LinkedIn, which I use for maybe 20min a week to catch up on NASA and aviation news (things I’m actually interested in).

    But I nonetheless found myself insanely busy. For 7 months in a row, I thought to myself “next month will be quieter”, only to be wrong. I finally decided I would *make* November quieter. I decided I would say “no” to all plans for a month.

    I find myself reading more (I just finished “Waking Up” by Sam Harris last night), contemplating more, figuring out how I want to spend my time and with who. I’ve been sleeping better, more focused on my health, more excited for what I’ve been doing.

    It’s very easy for digital life to run away with you. It turns out that real life can benefit from some heavy pruning as well.

  3. I’ll depart from talking about sleep… I find as a writer and photographer that it’s possible to do a deep re-set just about anywhere. When an experimental tour of a photographic assignment venue yields thin results owing to my less than integrated operating system, I’ve learned that i can find a place to sit away from the stream and breathe deeply for a long time, as needed, and be calmly stern about rejecting mental distractions until I find the deepest sincere place in my heart. People imagine that meditation is about “still the mind” and “focusing attention,” but the mind tends to follow the first feelings of the heart. From that integrated quietness I can spend the next 10-12 hours doing excellent work.

  4. I’m in the same boat (no pun intended) as Joel above. Once I discovered that biphasic sleeping is literally how we’re programmed, my own sleep irregularities went away overnight (again, no pun intended, I swear). I wasn’t considered an insomniac, I was just waking up multiple times through the night, then laying there worried about why I wasn’t sleeping soundly.

    Once I found out about biphasic, it allowed me to relax about being awake. Problem solved. I don’t necessarily get up and do anything, but I’m able to roll back over and just lay there for a few minutes. Before long I drift back to sleep for another cycle. I’ve since found out that my waking up corresponded to a perfectly normal 60-90 minute sleep cycle, which is why I was never tired in the morning. I’d been getting enough deep, restorative sleep all along. I was just waking all the way up between those cycles, unlike the masses.

    All of that said, I find myself envying the professor and his 5-week retreat. Which tells me it’s time for a quick, weekend version for myself.

    Thanks as always Cal!

  5. Cal, would you mind saying something about how the biphasal sleep pattern relates to your famous “don’t take naps” study tip?

  6. “The screens we carry with us as constant companions don’t amplify or support our natural ways of being, they instead push us into an entirely new mode of existence.”

    Profound truth.

  7. In recent(ish) history US Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz, who commanded the US Navy in the Pacific from 1942-1945, was famously a biphasic sleeper. As documented in his biography by E.B. Potter, Nimitz’s regular routine was to sleep from 10pm to 3am, then to get up and read reports, intelligence briefings etc from 3am-5am, and then to sleep again from 5am – 6.45am. Some of his junior officers marvelled at his volume of reading using this routine.

    • This is basically how I have slept, as a wife and homeschooling mother, for 20+ years. In the “wee small hours of the morning” I am able to get much completed without interruption, go back to sleep for a “nap” and still get up before the rest of the family. I always feel fresh and rested.

  8. Muslims do this.
    In Islam there is Five prayers per day. One of them is at 3 to 5AM depending on the season and country. What they do is waking up for prayer and then after prayer is done they go back to sleep.


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