It was sunny and I had nothing else to do and I felt like it, so I drank a coffee. All of it. And for the first time in two years, the caffeine coursing through my body didn't immediately make me feel like I was going to die. Three weeks ago, before I went offline in Cuba, it would have.
This is not really a story about my panic attacks or the various half measures I've taken, the compromises I've made over the last two years to keep my body from telling me that I am going to imminently pass out. Instead, it's about unplugging, about getting off the internet, about the pitfalls and constant anxiety of being connected, all the time. It's about oppression and perspective and free thought and self determination. It’s maybe a little bit about feeling stuck.
In the weeks before I left to go to Cuba, millions of people had grabbed their digital pitchforks and pointed them squarely at a dentist who killed a lion. Reddit's CEO had just been forced to resign from the company, thanks at least in part to a prolonged misogynist, racist campaign that became some of the site's most popular content. Donald Trump was and still is happening thanks in part to the collective power of clicks and inertia.
This is what most of the world has chosen to use the internet for. The ability to connect to any other human, to send and receive information at a moment’s notice from any number of devices is used, among many good things, to ruin lives on social media, to sequester ourselves away in hateful filter bubbles, to hack and steal and torture, to create and consume listicles and other viral content, to plug our ears and scream into the internet with our fingers.
Here, there is no wifi. Talk between yourselves. If you're here, it's because you were supposed to be here. Image: Jason Koebler
And then, I went offline for three weeks. This is not meant to romanticize a complex situation in which Cubans have been systematically kept offline by an authoritarian dictator. Instead, I had the unique opportunity—without chucking my phone in the river and becoming a wood-dwelling hermit —to more or less travel back in time to an era where the internet wasn’t a constant in our lives.
At home, I am acutely aware of what’s happening on the internet during every waking moment of my life. Partly because I am a journalist who publishes on the web, partly because I am a human being living in the 21st century in a developed country, I am bombarded with text messages and Twitter notifications and emails and headlines. When I'm not being actively pushed notifications, I seek them out via an almost imperceptible impulse to check Reddit or Facebook or, in moments of weakness, Chartbeat, a tool that measures real-time traffic on news websites.
I do this whether I am alone or with people, in the middle of the night when I wake up to pee, when I am waiting in line or in a cab. I do it when I am eating and when I am not, when I am happy and when I am sad, when I am anxious and when I am calm.
"You must put this decision in the hands of the people and let them decide"
Study after study has found that Facebook turns us into nervous wrecks, that “likes” and notifications trigger a dopamine response in our brains, that the seemingly minute distraction of checking our email diverts our attention for more than 20 minutes at a time. These findings suggest that we as humans have not had the time to evolve to deal with the demands exponentially improving technology places on our brains, our attention spans, our psyche. We’re privileged to have the opportunity to be connected all the time, but what’s it really doing to us?
“Technology-induced anxiety is absolutely not something to be trivialized,” Nathalie Nahai, a London-based web psychologist told me. “The panic attacks, that's crippling. A pronounced case can stop you in your tracks. If you’re otherwise always on, you can have increasing levels of anxiety you don’t recognize immediately that can cause lots of problems.”
Last month, I got on an airplane and flew to an island where many people dream of being as connected as I am. More than once, I found myself thinking: Why would anyone want to be on the internet all the time?
Cubans are not technoprimitives. They have smartphones and computers and pirated movies and television shows and music. They do not, however, have easy, free, or open access to the internet. This was the choice of the Cuban regime, not the Cuban people.
This must and will change, and will bring about long overdue improvements in nearly every facet of Cuban life. The internet is a human right, and in both overlooking it and actively denying it to their citizens, the Castro brothers have denied them their sovereignty.
For a Cuban, the easiest way to get online is to spend 10 percent of their average monthly salary for a one-hour scratch card to access a network that's censored, surveilled, and insecure in a public square filled with security cameras. Most don't bother. For three weeks, I barely did either, getting online purely to experience the process (for journalistic purposes) and tell a select couple people that I was fine.
Author playing stickball. Image: David Osit
Cubans are missing out on the largest repository of information mankind has ever created. They are missing out on economic opportunities and they are missing out on friendships and many of them go years without speaking to family members who are living in exile—the cost and access of a Skype call remain out of reach. Editors of an illegal Cuban magazine must collaborate by driving flash drives from town to town, must publish the magazine by buying illegal ink and illegal paper from the illegal black market.
Cubans also don't currently deal with some of the bullshit we do. There is no Twitter harassment, few text message protocols, no personal #brands to manage. Tinder is mercifully not a thing and checking your email once a month is totally cool, socially speaking. There are no faux-outrage cycles, no jackass commenters, no Gchat misunderstandings.
Their attention is not yet, at any given time, split dozens of ways across a handful of screens and apps and real, honest-to-god IRL faces. I sat outside with locals talking until long after the sun had gone down, with only whatever was in our brains to fuel the conversation. I watched friends get in animated discussions at restaurants without ever stopping to look at their screens. I spent two hours standing in line to buy a bus ticket talking to a guy who was stoked to go to the beach, instead of whining about the wait to my Twitter followers.
"We were given Pandora's Box and it was an AOL disk that became a cable modem that became an iPhone"
People without headphones feel approachable. Dates are not interrupted by dating apps. I drove across the country without the assistance of GPS or Google Maps or, really, road signs—stopping dozens of times along the way to ask for help and directions from people who were delighted to help. This is what being a human was like—what it is like—I felt myself thinking more than once.
For large stretches of time, no one I knew could contact me and I could contact no one, but I rarely felt alone, because locals actually wanted to talk. A friend from home eventually met me and we were there, together, with no way of contacting anyone else besides maybe our bartender if we happened to catch his eye. Silences between us actually were silences, a time to think or notice strangers’ interactions instead of a time to like something on Facebook or ship off a few quick texts.
This is not to say that every social interaction in Cuba is idyllic, just that the absence of screens is both obvious and, for someone who stares at one all day every day, refreshing.
The "tarjeta" used to access wifi in Cuba. Image: David Osit
When they do use the internet, Cubans really use the internet. They pay by the hour, and only during this hour do Cubans stop paying attention to each other and stare at their screens. They do not spend time aimlessly clicking through Reddit or YouTube or Pinterest. If they are talking to someone who is physically with them, it’s only because the pair or group of them are talking to a far-off relative or friend on Skype or because they are teaching them how to navigate the Cuban government’s series of login forms and security warnings.
This, of course, is not really the internet, not as we know it. There is little Googling, few academic pursuits, no idle conversation or chatting or killing time, which is certainly an important part of becoming a global, internet-using citizen. I suspect there are few Cuban YouTube commenters, few Cuban GamerGate members, few Cuban social media personalities.
It’s in this mostly disconnected world that I felt more at peace, more centered than I have in years.
Admittedly, my first panic attack was not caused by technology. Instead, a thoroughly stupid amount of alcohol and iced coffee and dehydration at a music festival landed me in the emergency room as I started disassociating the real world from whatever was going on in my head at the time.
It was unpleasant, and the feeling has creeped up on me over the past two years when the constant stress of notifications, email, and whatever else causes people to feel like they might be having a heart attack washed over me on days in which I couldn’t turn any of these things off. It got better, mostly, through exercise and therapy and just getting accustomed to the feeling of my heart racing in my neck.
And then, in Cuba, work was still there but the notifications were gone. The feeling of being on was off. And so, I sat down at a restaurant, ordered a coffee and felt, well, normal. Amazing, even. Three weeks later, I still do. The panic and anxiety was and is completely gone.
Part of this could be the standard response to taking my first prolonged vacation in two years. But it was also important, maybe totally necessary, to get the fuck off the internet, to be just a human being instead of a dozen digital avatars and social media profiles. Not for a day, but for a while.
Image: Jason Koebler
The difference is that most of the world has a choice, even if it can feel like a false one. There's nothing stopping me from withdrawing from the modern world, I guess, though using the internet feels utterly compulsory to be a professional adult and, especially, an employee of a new media company. Cubans, on the other hand, have had their disconnectedness thrust upon them through a series of purposeful moves by an autocratic dictator.
"If it were up to the Cuban people who said, 'We don’t want to be connected,' and it were a democratic decision to say we don’t want to be connected or we'll just use the internet if and when we need information, then fine," Jose Luis Martinez, communications director for Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba told me. "You must put this decision in the hands of the people and let them decide."
We were given Pandora's Box and it was an AOL disk that became a cable modem that became an iPhone that will one day inevitably become devices implanted into our bodies. Cubans will inevitably be given the same box, and they will, they must open it.