Unplugged

I’m back. In fact, I’ve been back for more than a week now. I’ve been back from several days spent in western North Carolina. It’s beautiful country out there, and, where I was staying, it was beautiful country without cell phone signal or Internet connection. It was a week-long digital sabbath, or, if you prefer, a week-long digital detox. It was a good week. I didn’t find myself. I didn’t discover the meaning of life. I had no epiphanies, and I didn’t necessarily feel more connected to nature. But it was a good week.

I know that reflection pieces on technology sabbaths, digital detoxes, unplugging, and disconnecting are a dime a dozen. Slightly less common are pieces critical of the disconnectionists, as Nathan Jurgenson has called them, but these aren’t hard to come by either. Others, like Evgeny Morozov, have contributed more nuanced evaluations. Not only has the topic been widely covered, if you’re reading this blog I’d guess that you’re likely to be more or less sympathetic to these practices, even if you harbor some reservations about how they are sometimes presented and implemented. All of that to say, I’ve hesitated to add yet another piece on the experience of disconnection, especially since I’d be (mostly) preaching to the choir. But … I’m going to try your patience and offer just a few thoughts for your consideration.

First, I think the week worked well because its purpose wasn’t to disconnect from the Internet or digital devices; being disconnected was simply a consequence of where I happened to be. I suspect that when one explicitly sets out to disconnect, the psychology of the experience works against you. You’re disconnecting in order to be disconnected because you assume or hope it will yield some beneficial consequences. The potential problem with this scenario is that “being connected” is still framing, and to some degree defining, your experience. When you’re disconnected, you’re likely to be thinking about your experience in terms of not being connected. Call it the disconnection paradox.

This might mean, for example, that you’re overly aware of what you’re missing out on, thus distracted from what you hoped to achieve by disconnecting. It might also lead to framing your experience negatively in terms of what you didn’t do–which isn’t ultimately very helpful–rather than positively in terms of what you accomplished. In the worst cases, it might also lead to little more than self-congratulatory or self-loathing status updates.

In my recent case, I didn’t set out to be disconnected. In fact, I was rather disappointed that I’d be unable to continue writing about some of the themes I’d been recently addressing. So while I was carrying on with my disconnected week, I didn’t think at all about being connected or disconnected; it was simply a matter of fact. And, upon reflection, I think this worked in my favor.

This observation does raise a practical problem, however. How can one disconnect, if so desired, while avoiding the disconnection paradox? Two things come to mind. As Morozov pointed out in his piece on the practice of disconnection, there’s little point in disconnecting if it amounts to coming up for breath before plunging back into the digital flood. Ultimately, then, the idea is to so order our digital practices that enforced periods of disconnection are unnecessary.

But what if, for whatever reason, this is not a realistic goal? At this point we run up against the limits of individual actions and need to think about how to effect structural and institutional changes. Alongside those longterm projects, I’d suggest that making the practice of disconnection regular and habitual will eventually overcome the disconnection paradox.

Second consideration, obvious though it may be: it matters what you do with the time that you gain. For my part, I was more physically active than I would be during the course of an ordinary week, much more so. I walked, often; I swam; and I did a good bit of paddling too. Not all of this activity was pleasurable as it transpired. Some of it was exhausting. I was often tired and sore. But I welcomed all of it because it relieved the accumulated stress and tension that I tend to carry around on my back, shoulders, neck, and jaw, much of it a product of sitting in front of a computer or with a book for extended periods of time. It was a good week because at the end of it, my body felt as good as it had in a long time, even if it was a bit battered and ragged.

The feeling reminded me of what the Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about his stay in a monastery early in the late 1950s, a kind of modernity detox. Initially, he was agitated, then he was overwhelmed for a few days by the desire to sleep. Finally, he emerged “full of energy and limpid freshness.” Here is how he described the experience in A Time to Keep Silence:

“The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”

“[T]he tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries”–indeed, and to that we might add the tremendous accumulation of stress and anxiety. The Internet, always-on connectivity, and digital devices have not of themselves caused the tiredness, stress, and anxiety, but they haven’t helped either. In certain cases they’ve aggravated the problem. And, I’d suggest, they have done so regardless of what, specifically, we have been doing. Rather the aggravation is in part a function of how our bodies engage with these tools. Whether we spend a day in front of a computer perusing cat videos, playing Minecraft, writing a research paper, or preparing financial reports makes little difference to our bodies. It is in each case a sedentary day, and these are, as we all know, less than ideal for our bodies. And, because so much of our well-being depends on our bodies, the consequences extend to the whole of our being.

I know countless critics since the dawn of industrial society have lamented the loss of regular physical activity, particularly activity that unfolded in “nature.” Long before the Internet, such complaints were raised about the factory and the cubicle. It is also true that many of these calls for robust physical activity have been laden with misguided assumptions about the nature of masculinity and worse. But none of this changes the stubborn, intractable fact that we are embodied creatures and the concrete physicality of our nature is subject to certain limits and thrives under certain conditions and not others.

One further point about my experience: some of it was moderately risky. Not extreme sports-risky or risky bordering on foolish, you understand. More like “watch where you step there might be a rattle snake” risky (I avoided one by two feet or so) or “take care not to slip off the narrow trail, that’s a 300 foot drop” risky (I took no such falls, happily). I’m not sure what I can claim for all of this, but I would be tempted to make a Merleau-Ponty-esque argument about the sort of engagement with our surroundings that navigating risk requires of us. I’d modestly suggest, on a strictly anecdotal basis, that there is something mentally and physically salubrious about safely navigating the experience of risk. While we’re at, it plug-in the “troubles” (read, sometimes risky, often demanding activities) that philosopher Albert Borgmann encourages us to accept in principle.

Of course, it must immediately be added that this is a first-world-problem par excellence. Around the globe there are people who have no choice but to constantly navigate all sorts of risks to their well-being, and not of the moderate variety either. It must then seem perverse to suggest that some of us might need to occasionally elect to encounter risk, but only carefully so. Indeed, but such might nonetheless be the case. Certainly, it is also true that all of us are at risk everyday when walking a city street, or driving a car, or flying in a plane, and so on. My only rejoinder is again to lean on my experience and suggest that the sort of physical activity I engaged in had the unexpected effect of calling on and honing aspects of my body and mind that are not ordinarily called into service by my typical day-to-day experience, and this was a good thing. The accustomed risks we thoughtlessly take, crossing a street say, precisely because they are a routinized part of our experience do not call forth the same mental and bodily resources.

A final thought. Advocating disconnection sometimes raises the charges of elitism–Sherry Turkle strolling down Cape Cod beaches and what not. I more or less get where this is coming from, I think. Disconnection is often construed as a luxury experience. Who gets to placidly stroll the beaches of Cape Cod anyway? And, indeed, it is an unfortunate feature of modernity’s unfolding that what we eliminate from our lives, often to make room for one technology or another, we then end up compensating for with another technology because we suddenly realized that what we eliminated might have been useful and health-giving.

It was Neil Postman, I believe, who observed that having eliminated walking by the adoption of the automobile and the design of our public spaces, we then invented a machine on which we could simulate walking in order to maintain a minimal level of fitness. Postman’s chief focus, if I remember the passage correctly, was to point out the prima facie absurdity of the case, but I would add an economic consideration: in this pattern of technological displacement and replacement, the replacement is always a commodity. No one previously paid to walk, but the treadmill and the gym membership are bought and sold. So it is now with disconnection, it is often packaged as a commodified experience that must be bought, and the costs of disconnection (monetary and otherwise) are for some too hight to bear. This is unfortunate if not simply tragic.

But it seems to me that the answer is not to dismiss the practice of disconnecting as such or efforts to engage more robustly with the wider world. If these practices are, even in small measure, steps toward human flourishing, then our task is to figure out how we can make them as widely available as possible.

7 thoughts on “Unplugged

  1. I’ve disconnected from the Internet for the simple reason, if that’s what it is, that I value my eye-sight, which, at thirty-three years old and the result of eye surgery some years ago, is beginning to give out, ever so slightly. Using the computer in any way, shape, or form is not possible for me and I don’t have an e-mail address anymore. What I’ll miss, though, are the comments and conversations around these topics of technology, humane limitations, and so on. I’m, of course, not comfortable leaving my full name, home address and telephone in a comment box, so, if you can think of some way of keeping in touch outside of e-mail and the Internet, please let me know. If you have a post-office box address, or some work address, I could send a hand-written letter your way. It’s been a pleasure, as I wrote, and I”ll miss the conversation. Still, the time saved will be spent re-vivifying my neighbourhood and learning to love my neighbours; my in-laws have no trouble living without e-mail, so it can be done by most people who do not or cannot scare up the means to get online or see no reason to do so.

  2. Sounds like a nice week!

    I suppose if you had the time and really wanted to, you could have continued some of your writing projects on a non-internet connected laptop, or in a paper notebook. Clearly you couldn’t post to the blog, but you could probably get some useful work done- reading and writing, both.

  3. I recently decided to deactivate my facebook account, just as an experiment. It’s given me a bit more free time so far, but hasn’t resulted in much more physical activity. I’ve noticed the disconnection paradox, myself, when on road trips without internet access. The disconnection almost feels like a given.

    There’s also a feeling of being sucked into the online world. The outside is always available through the front door, but something about the internet often draws me to stay inside.

  4. Hi Michael, I just discovered your blog. I appreciate your thoughtful approach, but I suspect we’ll have significant differences from what I can tell. I’m a farm boy from the Midwest, now living in LA. I’m not a romantic about nature or its effects. My father wasn’t either, not really anyone else I knew from his generation was that I ever knew. We never went camping, and I may never go camping.

    In fact, I’m not a romantic about anything, and think it harmful. Or maybe I should say I’m a recovering romantic. I think we’re all romantics by default. I’m not saying you are a romantic, but at least I’m an anti-romantic. Take the hiking in the woods you described. My body gets tired and sore from office work and reading books at home. I found a standing desk and walking in place some of the day much better for my back. But the best thing is massage therapy. I’ve been going to the same woman for seven years now who must be the best therapist in LA county. It is a very deep muscle therapy. For me that is better than any activity I can ever do to put my tired and stressed muscles back into shape. The service the therapist provides is most certainly “packaged as a commodified experience”, but how exactly that is bad I don’t see. How that is “disconnected” I don’t see. She’s like a sister to me. I don’t see any of this as unfortunate, tragic, or disconnected. I think we too easily accept romantic viewpoints.

    On risk, I absolutely agree that risk is necessary and good. My main risks are financial, as were my father’s on managing his farm. He wanted more for his family that the average, and he worked harder and risked more. I’m glad he did. I may have an office job, but I work harder and risk more than most on the set of things I think are important. I think and by now see my efforts will redound to those I love and those I care about. In fact, many men do have jobs where we must be good at managing risks of all sorts. It isn’t just the financial folks that do this. Many may not vocalize this, but many of us see the risk management as an upside to a job. I do. Just to be clear, I’m in no way saying people like me risk as much as those who perform physical tasks such as the farmer, those in the military, firemen, or construction workers. I’m just saying the place of the risk element is the same.

    1. Mark,

      Thanks for your comment. I apologize for the slow response time. Blogging is what I do when I have some spare time to devote to it, and, lately, the spare time has not been forthcoming. In any case, I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts, even if, especially if, they are in fact significantly different from mine.

      Just a couple of thoughts in reply. I don’t think I would describe myself as an “anti-romantic,” but I do strive to avoid any romanticism in my thinking about technology and its consequences. In this particular post I was especially conscious of the temptations to romanticize nature, disconnection, etc. Consequently, I tried to make rather modest claims for own experience and ground them, so far as they could be grounded in something beyond my own experience, in tangible realities such as our embodied condition.

      That said, there is no one generic version of “embodied existence.” Age, health, injury, etc.–all of these matter. I certainly wouldn’t claim that everyone would benefit from an experience similar to mine. For some, it might be downright foolish. Clearly, you’ve taken some measures to look after the well-being of your body. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest that your relationship with your therapist is inauthentic or whatever else.

      I don’t if this might come off as romantic or not, but I do think, based on my limited experience and on a variety of studies (e.g., http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494409000838) that there is something valuable about being in “nature.” (I put quotation marks around nature because I realize that it is a contested term.) When folks spent a good deal of their time outdoors, it would not make sense for them to romanticize being outdoors or to seek it out as something novel. Rather, it was taken for granted. It would only be after most of our work and play was moved indoors that we might begin to feel or sense that something was perhaps lacking.

      Regarding risk, there are certainly a variety of forms risk might take in our experience. The risk you describe is certainly real and consequential. I may not have done a very good job of articulating it, but I had a more specific kind of risk in mind in the post above. Physical risk perhaps, as a opposed to emotional risk, or financial risk, or risks to reputation, etc. Now, like you, I want to distance my sense of risk from that of those who put their lives in peril as a matter of course for the work they do. The more moderate, physical risk I encountered simply had the effect of enlivening some aspects of my person that would otherwise be dormant, and I found this to be generally conducive to my well-being. Perhaps other forms of risk do much the same thing; I’m not sure, they seem different in their kind and effects.

      Again, thanks for reading and commenting. I always appreciate thoughtful readers who encourage me to think again about what I’ve written.

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