Sunday, October 2, 2011

Disconnect from Technology for an Hour Today

I saw on a friend's blog reference to a program that tries to address the problem of technology addiction by asking people to unplug for just an hour today, October 2.  Now, I, and all my Jewish friends, just emerged from a period of three whole days of Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashana, moving directly into the Sabbath) during which observant people refrain from using any electric or electronic devices.

Instead, we spent hours in synagogue, concentrating on the idea that God is in charge of everything, not us.  That as urgent as the buzzes and ringtones and symbols that flash on a screen seem--whether on my 24-inch desktop flat-screen or a three-inch phone display--they're really only ghosts and whispers of real life.

The organization that sponsors this campaign suggests in its excellent video that the problem is that attention to devices causes us to ignore the humanity around us.  That's definitely a problem, but a tech-obsessed teen might answer that what he's doing, gazing downward to text or return an email on his smartphone, is just as much communication as saying the words directly.  In fact, he might argue that because his device allows him to reach so many more people than can be in his immediate environment, it actually expands his connections, and gives him more closeness with people he'd otherwise ignore.

But the issue comes down to the degrading of the connections we have.  One voice in the Ohr Naava video says, "I used to phone my wife; now I just text her, using little words."  This reminds us that there's a continuum of quality in communication.  Best is physical presence, when you can read a person's body language, touch him, watch his facial expressions as he says something.  Physical proximity alone--even without directly speaking--allows its own type of sharing.  I feel so much better when I know my kids are safe at home in their beds, asleep; I have happy comfort when my husband's writing an article or listening to music at home, even when we're in separate rooms.

Technology isn't bad; in fact I consider it a second-best form of contact. I'm sure glad my daughter in New York has her cell phone, so I can be reassurred about her well-being at just about any time.  I loved Skyping with my son in LA, getting a virtual tour of his new apartment, commenting on its dated pink tile and the Pergo floor that attempts to simulate wood.  But it just made me eager to visit his abode for myself, because there's nothing quite like seeing him settled, clothes in the closet, refrigerator stocked, for myself.

But I signed up to turn off my phone and leave my computer for three hours today not because I'm personally umbilically-tied and need the cold-turkey experience, but because I support the idea of owning devices, rather than them owning us.

Here's a little secret:  When my husband asked me to marry him, with great passion, I might add, he tacked on one deal-breaker condition:  No TV in our home, ever.  Now, this was 26 years ago, when cell phones and laptops were not a factor, but TV was (and continues to be) ubiquitous and addictive.  I'd never spent much time with it--though I did adore Masterpiece Theater--so, being ga-ga over the man, I agreed.

As a result, I never saw The Cosby Show, Frasier or any other boob-tube icons of the late 80's or 90's.  I was a bit culturally illiterate, and tuned out of conversations centered around whatever TV show was current.  But I soon found out that just by reading about the shows in the newspaper, I was pretty well caught up on the big picture about the small screen.  The point:  Once you don't have the attraction of electronics, you focus your interests and attention on other things, usually in the real world.

Now, TV is very different from a Smartphone, but not so very different from the entertainment we glean on our computers.  Aside from Hulu now offering TV fare, and downloading movies on Netflix or its competitors, the most addictive laptop activity is net surfing.  My son has wasted hours on StumbleUpon, which suggests sites of potential interest based on previous choices.  There's always Pandora, where you can engross yourself in listening to new songs for hours.  And that most insidious time-leech, shopping.  My friend and I both spent many hours trying to find a rug for my living room.  And how about researching vacation rentals?  Shoes.  I have a close relative who I won't mention who shops for shoes online.  It's a guilty pleasure.

OK, while we're on it, how about Angry Birds?  Anyone spend time on that wisdom-enhancement?  FarmVille?  Or...even Granny's on Facebook for hours on end, especially with that compelling feed that they've now got on the right edge of the page.

Oh, you can fool yourself.  I read newspapers online, clicking from one story to the next.  I get the physical, ink-on-your-fingers newspaper, but then I want to send an article to someone (innocent enough) and, ooops, it's two hours down the drain.

That's what I mean by our computers owning us.  Our time, the most precious commodity, the irreplaceable stuff of our lives, slips away without our even being aware of it.  Procrastination, life-avoidance, no-pressure entertainment.  The problem is we do not choose to take control.

Unless we make a concerted, direct effort.  And decide to give sensory experiences, and direct contact with others priority over virtual contact.  If we can phone rather than text, do it.  If we can talk in person rather than phone, do it.  If we can engage with the outdoors rather than the indoors, do it.  There are new dangers in the world, for sure, but why subject ourselves to smacking into something solid, walking while texting?

So today I'll stroll through a local street fair with my husband, enjoying the exhibits and bands and families and sights--including salmon leaping upstream to spawn--with my cell phone off.  I've pledged three hours of no technology.  Not really that radical, but it's a statement.  One that bears repeating--and living--often.

Here's a link to the page I set up, as part of the campaign to turn off technology among participants for a total of a million hours.


  1. I will join. 9-12 this morning. Phone off and no computer...

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