Technology Sabbaths and Other Strategies for the Digitized World

We avert catastrophes by making adjustments.  At times those adjustments are sudden swerves out of the path of some suddenly on-rushing disaster.  More often our adjustments amount to subtle course corrections as distant dangers become visible on the horizon.  My sense is that a growing number of people are beginning to make just these kinds of small but deliberate adjustments in their interaction with the wide array of technologies that envelop our daily lives.

In a remarkably helpful post (complete with charts), “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist?  The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society,” Adam Thierer surveys the major voices in the debate and proposes a pragmatic middle ground between unbridled optimism and reactionary pessimism.  In his view, the pragmatic middle should, all things considered, lean toward optimism.  The pragmatic middle is not a bad place to be, although my tendency is to slouch toward pessimism.  I attribute this to my sense that we are more likely to embrace technologies uncritically rather than the reverse, so it is important to advocate for a certain critical distance.  Again, this is just my sense and I could be off target.

One thing I am sure about though:  very few people care about the criticism you offer unless you also have some solutions in tow, practical solutions that can be readily implemented.  Now, in the case of navigating the world the Internet created, I’m not sure that solutions are quite what we’re looking for.  Perhaps the better word is strategies, and a growing number of people are talking about the strategies they employ to strike a more fulfilling balance between the technology in their lives and other significant priorities.

A constellation of these strategies can be group together under the heading “slow movements.”  These are strategies designed to counteract the break-neck speed of our digitally enhanced world.  In his article, “The Art of Slow Reading,” a somewhat skeptical Patrick Kingsley tells us,

First we had slow food, then slow travel. Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement – a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.

Along the same lines, in his 2009 article, “Not So Fast,” John Freeman advocates “slow communication.”  We have come to take progress for granted, but Freeman is surely right in observing that “the ultimate form of progress … is learning to decide what is working and what is not,” and, in his view, the pace of our digitally enhanced communication is one of those things that is not working for us:

The speed at which we do something — anything — changes our experience of it.  Words and communication are not immune to this fundamental truth. The faster we talk and chat and type over tools such as email and text messages, the more our com­munication will resemble traveling at great speed. Bumped and jostled, queasy from the constant ocular and muscular adjust­ments our body must make to keep up, we will live in a constant state of digital jet lag.

The remedy Freeman suggests is simple and yet elegantly stated,

The difference between typing an email and writing a letter or memo out by hand is akin to walking on concrete versus stroll­ing on grass. You forget how natural it feels until you do it again. Our time on this earth is limited, the world is vast, and the people we care about or need for our business life to operate will not always live and work nearby; we will always have to com­municate over distance. We might as well enjoy it and preserve the space and time to do it in a way that matches the rhythms of our bodies.

Like Freeman, Linda Stone is attentive to the forgotten significance of our embodiment.  In “A new era of post-productivity computing?” Stone takes issue with recent applications such as Freedom which are designed to “force” us to focus on our work by locking us out of the Internet for predetermined amounts of time.  She is concerned that with such an approach,

… we re-assign the role of tyrant to the technology. The technology dictates to the mind. The mind dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.

For example, she draws our attention to something so basic that it easily slips beneath our notice:  just breathe.

At the heart of compromised attention is compromised breathing. Breathing and attention are commutative. Athletes, dancers, and musicians are among those who don’t have email apnea. Optimal breathing contributes to regulating our autonomic nervous system and it’s in this regulated state that our cognition and memory, social and emotional intelligence, and even innovative thinking can be fueled.

Neither Stone nor Freeman suggest that we abandon our technologies; they carry no pitchforks or torches.  Their very legitimate concern is that we not allow our technologies to determine the pace and shape of our lives.  Better that our lives be attuned to more humane rhythms that honor our embodiment and our personhood.

Jaron Lanier, a tech-industry insider if ever there was one, also voices concerns about the loss of personhood in his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.  In a recent post at Text Patterns, Alan Jacobs helpfully summarizes the very practical advice Lanier offers for those interested in preserving their integrity as a human person while online:

“These are some of the things you can do to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others.”

  • Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
  • If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
  • Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
  • Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
  • Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
  • If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

All of it very good, and very practical advice.  Like Stone and Freeman, Lanier is not advising people to disconnect and unplug.  His advice is for those desiring to navigate the Internet world rather than retreat from it.  There have been some, however, who have experimented with the option of unplugging altogether.  James Sturm, for example, has recently concluded a four month experiment in Life Without the Web.  He has chronicled his experience through a series of columns at Slate (he used a third party to submit his columns).  He writes engagingly about his experiment and he appears to have inspired more than a few others (look up “quitting the internet” on Google, all the while noting the irony, but then keeping it to yourself because it is really not that clever).

In his last post, Sturm reflected on the possibility of writing a book based on his experience.  Feeling four months might be unreasonable for those whose livelihood now depends on the Internet, he wonders if a 30 day hiatus might not be more manageable.  But then he writes,

… even if a few of you could disconnect for 30 days, then what? It’s only a finger in the proverbial dike. One month might be a futile effort—how long until you’re back in front of the computer, incessantly updating your Facebook page? When dealing with something as powerful as the Internet, perhaps a more extreme measure is needed, a manifesto along the lines of Jerry Mander’s 1978 classic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.  I’m not hard-core enough to write a book that advocates living entirely without the Internet, but I do find taking such a forceful position appealing.

In the end it might be a less severe approach that turns out to be most helpful.  In a 2008 post on his blog MediaShift, Mark Glaser observed a growing trend “among bloggers and media people who are overwhelmed with the always-on nature of the broadband Internet and smartphones.  [And for whom] the overwhelming feeling, is exacerbated by instant messaging, social networking and services such as Twitter, that allow us to do more informal communications electronically rather than in person.”  It was a trend toward taking a “Technology Sabbath.”  Not surprisingly, it was also a trend emerging in certain Jewish and Christian circles.  In the two years since Glasser wrote, the circle of the overwhelmed has almost certainly expanded.

There is a good chance that talk of keeping Sabbath will most likely suggest a rather drab and joyless affair, a relic of a grayer age.  Either that or it conjures images of debilitating attention to countless puritanical  rules regulating the life out of an otherwise pleasant day.  We tend, after all, to equate restriction with loss.  But consider this alternative vision articulated by Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel in his class work, The Sabbath:

To observe the seventh day does not mean merely to obey or to conform to the strictness of a divine commandment. To observe is to celebrate the creation of the world and to create the seventh day all over again, the majesty of holiness in time, a day of rest, a day of freedom …

Heschel goes on to quote a Jewish prayer that describes the Sabbath as “a day of rest and holiness, a rest in love and generosity, a true and genuine rest, a rest that yields peace and serenity, tranquility and security, a perfect rest with which Thou art pleased.”

This vision of the Sabbath should resonate with those who may be experiencing tech-fatigue accompanied by that disquieting sense that their tools are running, rather than facilitating their lives.  The Sabbath was intended to remind us that while we must work and work can be noble and useful, we were not made for work and work is not our highest calling.  Taking a day, or even some hours in a day, to disconnect and rest from our technologies, useful and noble as they may otherwise be, can likewise remind us that we were not made for our technology and being connected is not our highest calling.

The idea of a technology Sabbath presents a number of advantages.  It is simple, practical, and effective.  It recognizes the significance of intentional practices in shaping our habits and our dispositions.  It avoids extremes.  And it creates a space for both  silence and introspection on the one hand, and on the other, celebration and joy in company friends and family.

It may be that deliberate and regular unplugging can help us rediscover a more humane rhythm for our lives, one that is attuned to the needs of our bodies and in sync with the world around us.  If so, then perhaps celebration, rest, freedom, love and generosity, peace, serenity, and tranquility may more frequently characterize our experience.

About these ads

57 thoughts on “Technology Sabbaths and Other Strategies for the Digitized World

  1. Thanks for the link Michael! Terrific post. I recently took a week-long digital sabbatical while in Germany and it was terrifically refreshing. Simply not having to carry a smartphone with me all day long was a huge relief. But ignoring email for days at a time was wonderful too. Of course, things had really piled up upon my return to the States.

    I’ve tried a different strategy recently: mini daily sabbaticals. I try “uplugging” for a couple of hours each day (turn off email & phone, close browsers, and just generally get away from my computer). Usually I’m offline for an hour in morning and then also in afternoon, and then a couple hours offline during evening. My wife and kids certainly appreciate it! But it also helps me spend more “quality time” with books and other things. And I’ve even started telling people NOT to expect a quick response from me when they call or write.

    Nonetheless, the struggle will continue. Assimilating new communications and entertainment technologies into our lives has always been challenging, but I am optimistic that we humans can do so sensibly.

    • That sabbatical in Germany sounded delightful, I hope it was enhanced by some good German beer.

      I agree, the mini-daily sabbatical is an excellent strategy, particularly for those with families. I especially appreciated the notion of letting people know in advance that they may not get a quick response. That helps to mitigate some of the evolving social pressure to be nearly instant on the reply.

      Thanks for the comment, very helpful.

    • I think what you’re driving at here is a measure of control. Computers and cell phones are really good at telling us when things arrive that require attention, but they aren’t very good at helping us focus that attention.

      Merlin Mann is one of those “modern gurus” who speaks on the nature of productive and creative attention; his ideas make a world of sense to me; Mike’s post here is arguing much the same point: Control what controls you.

      As one who works online, I can’t disconnect for a month. Often, two days is getting a bit challenging to recover from. However, I’ve learned that I can be connected to the internet to different degrees, and reducing the flow of inputs makes a terrific difference. Just like taking the office phone off the hook prevents interruptions, telling myself that whatever’s happening on Twitter and Facebook can wait, and that I can turn off Instant Messenger for a while really increases my productivity pretty dramatically. Then, when I’m in the mood to browse social networks, I’m far more efficient with it than I would have been had I checked periodically.

      Your break in Germany is the exact reason I like taking cruises: I cannot, no matter how badly I want to, connect to the internet. (Yes, I can pay for it, but that’s a sufficient barrier to me.) It forces a time-limited disconnect, and I can truly enjoy the vacation as a separation. It’s because my attention is completely focused on the act of vacationing. Later, I can focus on the act of working and the act of catching up online.

      In short, Adam, I completely agree that chunking one’s time is invaluable in making the most of it.

  2. I am reading this the morning after I just deactivated my facebook account, because I’m really sick of it. So your post made a lot of sense to me.

    I love the idea of thinking of it as a sabbath, and the chance to reconnect with ourselves and others physically and emotionally.

    I also really like the idea of writing/posting what is internal, rather than the mundane external events. Excellent post. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for this article, I am glad that others share the same ideas that I do. I am in favor of the slow movement…I say, as I sit here, having recently reduced my overall responsibility, I get to enjoy this slow read and sip on my coffee. Thanks.

    Cheers,
    Angela

    • Forgive me if this reply is too direct, but I noticed something I’d like to point out. Check out the way your post is worded. The first verb is “try”, not “do”, then there’s a qualification after the dash. The next sentence re-phrased the scenario, so now it’s *the internet*, not all technology. But then that last sentence says, “But this one thing snuck through.”

      I couldn’t help but chuckle and want to ask, “So how’s that goin’ for ya?” :-)

      Again, I in no way mean to be attacking or criticizing. I just think that we should all be aware of the limits we set for ourselves. What does each of us say is an acceptable amount of internet access? Of technology use? Of TV watching?

      Personally, I hate television, so I got rid of mine. Back in 2000, I moved to a new apartment, and I never bought a TV for it. Best decision I ever made. I love how much of my brain I’m able to use without it being fried by commercials. To me, moderation wasn’t an acceptable option.

      Within a year, I decided to cut my addiction to caffeine. Same thing applies: I wanted nothing to do with it. Except for me, chocolate is far too valuable to be sacrificed in honor of kicking a habit. So I stopped *drinking* caffeine, and the only caffeine I ingest comes from cocoa beans. I’m okay with that. :-)

      I guess my point somewhat echoes those other comments here that proclaim the virtues of moderation. I just think that we need to be consciously aware of the choices we make and why we’re making them. That way, we know when we’ve gone far enough or if we’ve gone too far.

  4. I don’t think it’s always necessarily to break completely from technology. Like everything else, moderation is the key. Personally, I have a cell phone that acts as a glorified calculator – most days I don’t bother putting money on it, and half the time it’s not charged. Being at work for 8 hours a day in front of a computer means I do not want to continue to do so when I get home.

    Thanks very much for the links and quotes…the slow movement sounds delicious! I believe that there are times when I practice it…heading out into the outdoors is a perfect opportunity to leave the technology behind and enjoy life!

  5. Great stuff! I love the idea of a ‘Sabbath’ as a regular thing, like a ‘fast’ if you like yet more routine. Time to spend with family/friends and an opportunity to be intentional with it. Great. I just did a ‘friend cull’ on facebook as I realised that I had so many ‘friends’ who were seeing stuff that my actual friends were putting up. It’s tempting to leave altogether, but I really want to avoid extremes. Like you say, a Sabbath is a great way of doing that. Most of the tech I use is really useful and a ‘good’ thing. But balance is crucial and it’s easy to get out of balance with reliance on tech. Thanks for the post, and well done on Fresh Pressed!

  6. Fantastic post. As someone who regularly keeps the Sabbath (I’m an Orthodox Jew), I can say that it is such a refreshing and balancing time. To be unplugged from tech for a whole day, and to have personal interactions with people, well. It’s super.

  7. An interesting and a very timely post. It sort of gave justification to the thoughts I was having since a couple of months. You’ve made some very good points!

    Though I too am more inclined towards technology, I have looked at the internet and social networking more for the content it provides (food for thought) rather than just ‘being connected’. I guess that a pragmatic and middle path is for each one of us to find.

    Congratulations of being featured on Freshly Pressed :)

  8. Great post–we all need to take a break from the norm once in a while, no matter how extreme our “norm” might actually be. I started my blog, “Ditch Your Cell Phone” here on WordPress because something that I typically depend upon broke and I was forced to do without it briefly. Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience…Cheers!

  9. Thank you, I found this very interesting.

    Similarly, my local public radio station has presented it’s listeners with a challenge they are calling “Face-to-Face Fridays”. One day a month to turn the tech off and actually interact with people … in person. It is a great idea .. I think they should have gone for every friday, though.

  10. Absolutely love this post and congrats on making Freshly Pressed! I was actually thinking about this very thing earlier today and about how frequent and dependent I seem to be on technology and updating my Facebook status. Many have advised me to take a long extended break from the internet just to regather myself, but I felt that would be taking it a little too far for me. What I think we all need is as you say, an occasional, deliberate rest from the technological world just to breathe. And in all honesty, I feel that taking such breaks would actually help our writing for it would give us time to truly reflect over thoughts and ideas and enable us to express them more efficiently. Again, great post!

      • Wow, that’s such a great read. Thanks for the link. It’s very true; so many readers now expect writers to just publish every bit of what they write simply because we think writers write to publish and get paid. But some of the greatest writers in history never wrote to be published, but just to express what was on their heart and mind. And when I think about it, I have written 530 pages worth of a journal on my computer, but only maybe 5% of it has been put to a blog or Facebook note. In fact, it’s probably less than that even. But yeah, thanks for the link!

  11. I think it’s great idea to part with my computer periodically, and also the TV. Unplug to plug into ourselves, yes, and, as a Christian, it affords me the time to plug back into God, as well. (i.e. reading the Bible more thoughtfully, praying more intently, etc.)

    Good post. I think I’ll repost it on FB. Congratulations being freshly pressed!

    • So true; it does open up prayer time, Bible study, and passage meditation. I find it most helpful – just for the day-to-day life – to disconnect for even a few minutes and pray before I read Scripture and before I begin the day. The less I disconnect, the less connected with God I feel. But it works the other way around, too; the more connected to God I am, the more thoughtful I read and write. And honestly, I think my writing is of a better quality after I’ve reconnected with God.

  12. A couple of Sci-Fi books and short stories have touched on the same idea, the need for technological sabbaticals. It would be nice if it became part of our culture to take a weekend or a week long break from time to time from our always-on lifestyle.

    In reading this I kept thinking back to the movie “The Hangover” where they guy’s cell phone message ends with, “And don’t text me. That’s so gay.” Tech is too much in our faces some times…

  13. I turn off my phone during my yoga class and I cherish that time of solitude and reflection. I always feel like I could use more of that time to be disconnected. I am glad to hear I am not the only one who thinks this way.

  14. Great quote about how the celebration of the Sabbath is a reminder to celebrate the creation of the world all over again. And about slow reading, we’ve heard so much about how this generation is losing its literacy, that we’re becoming a visual generation. I think that if parents could get their kids to read just a few books for the fun of it and truly experience them, no one would turn their back on reading for a quick splash of visual media. I’ve got a related post on slowing down on my blog here: http://ajquinley.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/slow-down/ and one about how our rest gives our work it’s value here: http://ajquinley.wordpress.com/2009/04/06/work-stop-rest-repeat/. If you’ve got some time, check them out and let me know what you think.

  15. Slow eating and living are essential to appreciating life. Slow reading helps too.
    There’s something about writing letter that encourages the flourish and meander and telling tangent.

  16. What a thought-provoking post. You gave words to a haunting prodding that I have been experiencing. The observance of a tech Sabbath is just the notion I was seeking but didn’t know it. In case other friends were in a similar place, I posted the idea with link on Facebook. Thank you for taking the time to write such a compelling piece.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s