January 9, 2012

Turn off, tune out, log off

Taking breaks from technology is key to finding time for real-world pleasures.

Online and in print (I assume someone, somewhere, must still be reading actual newsprint), everyone is suggesting you observe the Digital Sabbath. The Computer Detox. As we enter the tail end of that silly season in media where everyone tries to tell you what your New Year’s resolutions should be, it seems like going off the grid has become a perennial favorite.

There’s good reason for this. It has become a cliché to point out how utterly deluged we are with information. We wake up and check five different websites before rolling out of bed. We’re glued to our phones on the way to class. If we’re sitting somewhere, there’s an excellent chance we have a laptop open and are flipping between homework and Facebook. At parties, at dinner, and out and about, we pivot constantly between the people we’re actually with and another world entirely.

There have been no comprehensive studies yet of the physical and psychological effects of a lifetime of being connected to the Internet or watching television almost every waking moment, but this is what social researchers tell us is the life we are leading. A study released two years ago found that the average American youth spends more than seven and a half hours per day using entertainment media, and because of multitasking was actually exposed to almost 11 hours of content. Those interviewed who used media even more heavily tended to have lower grades and were more likely to report boredom, sadness, and behavioral problems.

I’m no Luddite. I like digital technology. I like how it has made keeping in touch easier. I enjoy having a wealth of information at my fingertips. I LOVE setting bills to Auto Pay. But a big part of the dream of this technical revolution, like so many others, was to have more time to spend on what is really important, instead of less. That’s clearly not what is happening.

There’s something worrisome about this assault on our sense of the here and now. The fear, I think, is that we are becoming a society of distracted and disengaged individuals. Even as we’ve gained an incredible platform with which to connect to people across town and around the globe, we sense an erosion of the close physical interaction—and, when needed, opportunities for solitude—that once seemed so essential to human life.

Yes, there is something enjoyable and even addictive about sites like Facebook. But if you think about the most significant moments you’ve had in your friendships and relationships, I’m willing to bet most of them occurred in real life. There are plenty of amazing and worthwhile things to check out on the Internet, but the sense of wonder, the immense satisfaction of hiking a trail or standing in front of a painting can’t be so easily digitized. I don’t think I’m the only one who wants more of these types of experiences in my life.

So how do we get there? Eliminating technology completely from our lives isn’t viable, or even desirable, for most of us. One compromise plan is the previously mentioned “Digital Sabbath,” in which you cut yourself off for a day, or even the entire weekend, every week. I haven’t given this a shot but, as someone who instinctively reaches into his pocket for his phone every 15 seconds, even when he knows it’s not there, this sounds pretty difficult. The various accounts (on blogs!) of people who have participated seem to agree, though many wind up loving it.

However, going offline once a week doesn’t really sound like a holistic solution. You’ll still be getting bombarded six days out of seven. Perhaps what we need is a constant, conscious effort to indulge a little less. Putting our laptop away when we’re not working, and keeping the phone in our pocket if we can help it. We could also use a change in practice by our schools and employers, who have decided that they are now entitled to email us 24/7 and expect a swift response, tethering us permanently to the Internet even if we don’t want to be.

Sometimes the best resolutions are the ones we might actually be able to keep. So don’t worry if you can’t shut it all down every week. But let’s see if we can’t make 2012 a time when, just a little more often than last year, we try to be well and truly here.

David Kaner is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.