When I Decided to Unplug
I went cold turkey. Just, went onto Twitter & announced a week of being unplugged, didn’t blog or check email, logged into Facebook only once, to leave a message for my mother that I’d arrived safely in the land of the golden sun. (O.K., so I also Facebook-whined about the disappointing temperature, but after the pounding New York took this past winter, I thought Florida could do a little better than 40° overnight. )
I decided to unplug because I had no room left inside. I was stuffed with tweets, facebook messages, coursework, emails. The only way I could explain it was that I wanted to go deep. To sit with my thoughts and think them, seek connections, sparks of possibility, to write. It made me tired, lugging around all that…weight. It made me feel lonely for myself.
The first morning I walked for a long time on the beach. Then I sat on a damp patch of sand and looked at the sea. Just sat. I don’t remember now if I felt that urgent gotta check gotta check that pokes at me when I’m writing something hard. (Truth be told, when I’m writing something hard, the urge is actually run away run away masquerading as gotta check gotta check.) I missed my friends, many of whom have crossed over from the virtual world into the physical. But I just needed to… go deep.
Each day I felt more and more space open inside of me. I buried myself in a writing project; the lack of online access didn’t make the writing go faster, which was a relief, because if it had, I would have felt compelled to rewrite some rules of digital life for myself. I think time seemed to move differently, more slowly, as I worked. Maybe it felt slower because there was just more room.
Or maybe it was that I was living only one life, the physical life in front of me, and not two lives– my physical and my virtual lives layered one on top of each other.
I’d read people’s advice about holding off on email, Twitter, anything else, until getting a big chunk of writing work done. I’d pooh-poohed it– I’ve never been one to sit right down and start writing. But after several days of disconnection, I realized a couple of things. Re-ordering which tasks I tackle first can have several different motivations. If I sit down to work before connecting digitally, I might get more done. If I hold off on connecting digitally until I’ve had a chance to ponder/go deep– which could certainly include work– I get something different. I get the inner life that is me. Accomplishing work is not a big-enough payoff to change my work habits; the expanse of self is a different matter.
It was with a few misgivings that I logged into Twitter last night. I scanned about a day’s worth of tweets and learned about a conference this summer that looks interesting, several tech tools I’m curious about, a conference I’d missed (darn!) but which had a link to a 750-page packet of related PDF materials (good stuff!). I learned about the high radiation levels in spinach and milk near the Japanese power plants, at least three hours before I heard it on CNN. I heard my friends’ voices. I didn’t tweet, though. I just wanted to be there.
Part 2 Everything Relates to Teaching
I had decided to disconnect before I picked up Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers. The book has three sections; I read the first: “What Larks? The Conundrum of the Connected Life” & third: “In Search of Depth Ideas in Practice”. The second was Powers’ explication of key principles from philosophies of Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin,Thoreau, & McLuhan that apply to the connected age, but about two pages into Plato, I felt like Powers was fitting Plato to his view of things rather than drawing from Plato, so I dismissed that section. Also, methinks Powers sometimes doth protest too much. Yes, his point was to argue for the necessity to unplug, but while he acknowledged the positives of a digital-connected life, he seemed at times to be beating a dead BlackBerry horse.
Hamlet’s BlackBerry in a nutshell: being connected seems to offer more efficiency but also makes it more likely that we won’t stop working. It makes us busy mentally, to the extent that we give our immediate lives partial attention, or divide our immediate lives into partial tasks that we try to juggle. The result is inefficiency, distraction, lack of creative thinking, a life that’s more outwardly than inwardly focused. Powers is arguing for “depth.” Powers comments (60),
William James once contrasted ‘the sustained attention of the genius, sticking to his subject for hours together,’ with the ‘commonplace mind’ that flits from place to place,
Powers also claims that businesses are starting to see the coast of distractability in the bottom line. In 2009, Basex, a research firm that focuses on technology issues in the workplace, estimated that information overload was responsible for economic losses of $900 billion a year (61).
So Powers & his wife decided to take digital sabbaths. On Friday night, they’d unplug the modem and wouldn’t turn it on again until Monday. Any internet use had to take place outside the house, at a library, for example. The result? It felt very strange at first. BUT when he told people he didn’t answer email on the weekend, he found that they worked around that. “Oh, right, you don’t check on weekends– I’ll get it Monday, then.” He found himself planning ahead, tackling digital tasks before the weekend. He found the family being together in the same spaces, even if they were each doing something individually, instead of sneaking off to check on a screen.
Powers is talking about being digitally conscious. Choosing the parameters for one’s use based on personal priorities– priorities that one makes a point of articulating, clarifying, over the course of a digital lifetime. I’m reminded of Howard Rheingold’s work on “attention literacy” (his term), and Henry Jenkins’ writing about the different skill sets kids need for the digital age. Our kids need to be meta-thinkers. They need to be able to think about what matters to them, how that relates to the choices they are making, the likely outcomes of their choices, etc. If our kids need that, then so do their teachers.
Which is why my students this summer will be taking a look at issues related to attention, time, balance between virtual & physical lives, and what connections, if any, exist between these and “English.”
“Attention Class” by Maggie Jackson. In the Boston Globe June 29, 2008