June 20 2016 12:07 AM

Processing the Orlando massacre without a phone, computer and TV

Analog selfie with Snapchat filter
Photo by Ryan Bradford

"Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months."

So begins J.G. Ballard's brilliant dystopian 1975 novel High Rise. The premise of the book concerns the moral degradation and societal collapse of the residents living in a state-of-the-art high-rise apartment building. The novel serves as a chilling portrait of how dependency on technology paired with isolation can lead to barbarism.

I think of this dog-eating line when I set out to see if I can avoid screens for 24 hours.

Later, as he sat eating his cat and commenting on ranty Facebook posts, Ryan Bradford reflected on the unusual events of the past 24 hours.

The challenge to avoid screens was partially prompted by the state of social media and fever pitch of shitty-ness that seems to have been caused by the election. Every day I wake up to long-winded rants typed out by otherwise thoughtful people (one of the many unforgivable offenses that this election has wrought is the normalization of the social media rant). Facebook is 99 percent garbage; Twitter is getting close. But like the residents of Ballard's High Rise, we're losing our humanity and nobody seems to notice.

But hypocritical ranting aside, the main reason for attempting 24 hours of darkness is just to see if I can.

I try to think of the last time I had a screen-free day. Certainly not in the three years since I got my first smart phone. And even before the ubiquity of computers, there was always television. Have I ever actually had a screen-free day?

I plan to shut down from 9 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday to Sunday. Before unplugging, my wife Jessica and I go out to dinner. During our meal, I ask Jessica what she thinks the next day is going to look like.

"Will it be the most boring day of our lives?"

"I'm excited," she says. "It means I'll actually be able to hang out with you."

This is the part where, if we were in a movie, the music would swell and there would be a slow zoom-in on me as I discover the sad reality of how screen-saturated my life has become and discover What's Really Important™. Yes, it makes me a little sad, but it also gives me resolve to live my best life for the next 24 hours. Carpe the shit out of that diem.

We go home. The clock tolls 9 p.m. I shut down my phone and put it away in a drawer. Jessica and I sit in our living room. We listen to clocks ticking and faraway traffic.

"What do you remember about how we met?" she asks. We fall into a warm stream of nostalgia that takes us through our relationship up to that point. We remember first kisses, drunken parties; the time when we were trying to watch a movie and my drunken roommate took an hour to order a pizza on the phone. We laugh. I look at the time.

It's only been 15 minutes.

I become restless, twitchy. Gotta get out of the house. I go to a punk show at Soda Bar, but don't really know anyone. I stand in the corner and sip on a tallboy. It's not that bad. The band performs but there's no way I can post a picture of them to prove that life without screens is not that bad.

I drive home and go to bed. Maybe I can just sleep through the next day.

Jessica wakes me up at 9 a.m. Twelve hours in and I'm still alive—a good sign. She suggests we go to Cardamom Bakery in North Park for the hazelnut French toast. A fantastic plan.

In the car, we flip through radio stations.

"Wait, stop," Jessica says. "Did they just say that 50 people were dead?"

We turn back to NPR. The news-anchor keeps repeating the phrase: Deadliest mass shooting in the history of the U.S.

This is how I learn about Orlando.

We park and sit in the car and listen, stunned. Any other day, I'd race to the Internet to find more information, to see if anyone else knows more than me. Today, we're at the mercy of this anchor who's having a hard time keeping it together. He interviews someone who speculates that ISIS-related social media emboldens these acts.

We eat our French toast in silence. Even if I did have my phone, I wouldn't be in the mood to snap a pic of my food (not true).

After breakfast, we take a stroll around North Park. Outside, people are walking their dogs, saying hello. Without the overbearing mourning cycle that occurs on social media in the wake of a tragedy—sadness into anger into accusations into grandstanding—it's a reminder of what natural grieving feels like, and also a reminder that life goes on.

Back in the car, NPR is still grasping to come to terms with the shooting.

"Let's listen to music," Jessica says.

We turn to 91X, which is playing The Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize??" instead of Sublime or Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's a strangely beautiful moment.

You realize that the sun doesn't go down. It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning 'round.

That night, at the end of my screen-free Sunday, I turn on my phone. People are frothing at the mouth. They are blaming the NRA, Obama, Hillary, Trump, each other.

I turn the phone back off.

Photo by Ryan Bradford


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