Friday, January 28, 2011

Going Off The Grid

I normally try and go "dark" at least once a year. I'll choose a day, usually when I'm on vacation, and set aside my phone, iPod, laptop, and whatever other electronic devices are in my life at that moment, then go twenty-four hours without using them. Nor will I go on the Internet or receive communications from anyone else's machines.

What always surprises me every year is how easy it is to put everything aside. I consider this a good sign. True, twenty-four hours is not a lengthy amount of time, but I don't find myself missing the constant texts, the perpetual music, or the gnawing anxiety of unanswered emails. The hardest part about going dark last year was refraining from checking Wikipedia to clarify the rules of a board game.

It's a nice thing to do every once in a while, if nothing else just to prove that I can. We hear so much about how bad the Internet is for us - it's killing our attention span, it's devaluing our friendships, it's making us bad writers, it's sealing us up in a self-serving solipsistic blogosphere, et cetera. All these things may be true, but I'm growing just as tired of the histrionic screeds against technology.

Case in point: I read an article in my (analog) newspaper this week about the Maushart family. The matriarch, an aspiring writer named Susan, decided that her family was too addicted to technology, and she pulled the plug on the Internet for six months. You can read about the family here; apparently, a book is in the works.

You can probably guess how this experiment went - Maushart reports that her children rediscovered the joys of playing games together, began to learn musical instruments, and their grades improved. Family meals became a time for conversations, rather than texting and Twittering.

This is a popular story, and I'm sure Maushart's book (The Winter of Our Disconnect) will sell a fair amount of copies. But I feel like this is a narrative I read about every six months or so. An individual/couple/family unplugs from the Internet, with the predictable results of old-fashioned happiness and familial bonding. Throwing aside the fact that Maushart clearly just wanted to sell copies of her book, what's to make of her experiment? Is the Internet killing the nuclear family? Is digital asceticism a proper response?

My problem when I read any of these stories is how the humans are always portrayed as helpless victims of technology run amok. There's always an introduction about how iPods have killed communal listening, how family time is constantly interrupted by a stream of digital communications. Reading these articles, one could get the idea that human beings have no control over the devices they use, and the only proper response is to pull the plug altogether.

But we're not living in a robot-ruled dystopia (yet, anyway). If you don't like your children texting at dinner, tell them to put the phones away. Kids playing too many video games? Tell them to go play outside. Tired of the impenetrable wall of earbuds? Put on some music for your friends, or find a concert to go to.  If you don't like the fact that you're checking your email fifty times a day, stop, and if you're tired of chatting via Twitter, call somebody.

There's a way to moderate our interaction with the Internet without becoming full-fledged Luddites. If you can only control your electronic urges by abstaining altogether, then that is a real problem. In writing these anti-digital manifestoes, I feel that many writers assume that we are powerless against our pocket devices, but it is possible to receive a text message and not read it right away.

William Major, an English professor at Hartford, wrote an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week about his experience teaching Thoreau's Walden to college students. Struggling to find a way to convey Thoreau's utter isolation in terms that twenty-first century students would understand, he offered extra credit to any student who would hand over their cellphone for five days.

Again, the results are somewhat predictable. Major reports students who can't bear to part with their precious phones, as well students who report a newfound liberation once giving them up. Like Maushart, Major is suspicious of all modern technology. Unlike Maushart, though, he stresses taking time to reflect on the changes in our culture that these devices have brought about, rather than simply pulling the plug in order to write a book.

And, unlike Maushart, there's nothing self-righteous or sanctimonious about Major's aims. He's simply using his experiment as a frame to reflect on Thoreau's nineteenth-century exercise in self-reliance. No need to cut the power lines to your house; instead, take a few days off from using one device, and reflect on how this alters your routine. Major's approach seems much more human, reflecting on the specific changes that a cellphone has brought to his life, rather than the abstract cliche that machines have made us all terrible people.

This is a better way to go about things; rather than quit cold turkey, why not take a few days and cut back on the Internet, the texting, the iPods? If it really is that hard for you to stay away from Wikipedia, perhaps a stronger cure is in order. But I think that most of us - moderate consumers of digital devices - will find it far easier to step back than many of these writers would have us believe.

It's easy to stereotype "people these days" as perpetually plugged into the Internet. Some people are undoubtedly too obsessed with their little toys. But if you're unhappy with your life, the power to change it lies with you, rather than the devices that supposedly exert so much control over us. People have felt alienated and dissatisfied with modern life for longer than cellphones have been around, as Thoreau proved when he published Walden in 1854. 

But though Thoreau removed himself from society, he wasn't a hermit; he often received visitors and walked to town. Likewise, I think one can live a simple life while still owning a cellphone. Rather than blame technology, perhaps we need to take a step back and look at ourselves. A machine is only a machine, after all.