You Don’t have to be a Technophobe to Unplug

unpluggedTechnology alarmism is obnoxious, but it’s also annoying for a bigger reason. When alarmists sling around half-baked warnings about using the Internet, social networks, TV, etc., they contribute to a storm of confusion that yields precisely nothing.

As just about every survey of media use shows, people are not spending less time in front of the screen despite warnings telling us that X number of hours watching TV or using the Internet per hour/day/week “causes” X disorder or malady. The technology is too much a part of peoples’ lives for these warnings to stick. Instead, the information is shelved, either because the recipient doesn’t want to dwell on the frightening potential of the news, or because she’s already skeptical and sensationalism pisses her off—or because she doesn’t care. In any case, nothing happens.

And since much of the alleged evidence is faulty and over-hyped correlation posing as causation, most of the time nothing is exactly what should happen. But, even those of us who devour new media day and night realize—intuitively if not otherwise—that there’s an armistice line between effectively using the tools at our disposal and compulsively using them. Crossing that line isn’t hard, and I’d venture to guess most of us flirt with it more than we’d like or even realize.

Since we’re all potential captives of our toys, some vigilance is warranted, and the discipline to periodically unplug is a good one to have. And it’s going to become an even bigger asset as the technology tide pushes into every corner and crevice of our lives.

How someone chooses to unplug might be simple, like not watching TV or using the Internet one night a week. Or it could be more elaborate, like taking a trip somewhere without a wireless connection, cell phone or laptop. There isn’t one way to do it—the more crucial issue is why it’s worth doing.

I have three reasons, and right upfront I’m not going to claim a scientific basis for any of them. They’re anecdotal offerings with nothing but common sense and personal experience to lean on. 

The first is also the most obvious: periodically unplugging helps avoid burn out.  For me, staring at a computer screen eight or more hours a day takes a toll, and it’s more than just strained eyes. The best word for what I’m talking about is overload. After a day of focusing and thinking and typing and editing and communicating, my brain wants to shift down and get out of the fast lane. String enough days like that together and the cumulative drain creeps closer and closer to exhaustion, a few short steps from full-scale burn out.

The next reason is less utilitarian, and can best be illustrated with an example. A few years ago, my wife and I were trapped in our house during a hurricane. It was nighttime, the power was out, and we were sitting in our living room with a couple candles and only one battery powered item: a combination radio and mini black and white television with a six-inch screen. After struggling with the antenna, we managed to get one network TV channel, and even that was choppy. For the next few hours we sat under blankets on the sofa watching that one shaky channel. 

The weird thing—it was very cool. The 90 mph gusts outside were disconcerting, but there was something calming about the simplicity of seclusion with barely functioning technology and candlelight.  This pleasure of the basic, minus the hurricane, is a great way to unplug because it reminds us that we can live without our gadgets, without being accessible all the time—and it might even be enjoyable for awhile.

The last reason is the most ambiguous of the three, so bear with me. One outcome from being online all the time is that we see a lot of ourselves. Or, rather, we see a lot of our online personas. I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s the logical result of putting ourselves “out there,” on social networks, blogs, dating services, Skype, name it.  The problem begins when you’re unable to gain some space between the flesh and blood you and the online you. Ideally, these “yous” aren’t too far removed from each other (and there actually is some good research suggesting that people usually do mirror their real personalities online).  But I think the temptation to become caught up in the online projection of “you” is strong enough that periodically stepping away isn’t a bad idea—sort of like taking a vacation from your online persona’s full-time job.

The big problem with the technology alarmists’ approach is that by hyping the worst outcomes—however poorly evidenced they may be—they miss the opportunity to highlight reasonable responses to our tech temptations.  Periodic unplugging is a reasonable response, and not an ounce of alarmism is required. Just a dose of common sense.

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One thought on “You Don’t have to be a Technophobe to Unplug

  1. Bravo David, resist the pull into simplistic over-hyped pseudo-controversies! There’s an incredible passivity in how we use emerging technologies, as though asking “why am I doing this?” makes one into some sort of uncool techno-phobe. But yours is precisely the question to be asked, we need to be active and reflective as technologies develop in part because there are already far too many technologies to consume than anyone would ever have time to do.

    I really liked you comments about all the different “yous” we are. 120 years ago William James wrote one of my favorites:

    “In its widest possible sense, however, a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”

    While typically sexist and classist (it was the 1880s when he wrote it) this theory of self always resonated with me. Today we have to add all the technologically-mediate selves we are and have. And there are now too many possibilities for anyone not to be unplugging some techno-possibility. We just have to ask: why this, why now, who am I trying to be and what do I want?

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