Unplugged: No Internet, No Cellphone, No Life

Posted on December 14, 2011 by

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Guest Post by Suzanne Hegland 

At the end of this fall semester, I asked my college writing students to digitally disconnect for 24 hours. I anticipated more than the usual groans of despair and litany of complaints. When I pitched the assignment to my own kids (aged 14 and 17) they reacted as if I asked them to literally digitally disconnect – as in chop off one of their fingers. But here’s the cool part – later that night the 17-year-old told me it sounded like a “sick experiment” (in his parlance, sick is good…I think, sort of like phat isn’t fat). It might be kind of cool, he admitted, to see what kind of things you notice when you’re not staring at your phone.

Given that this was a college assignment, I had to couch it within a larger scholarly debate – a surprisingly easy task once I started googling around the topic. Most interesting is MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together, which posits that our reliance on technology has corrupted our authentic relationships.

“We turn to new technology to fill the void,” Turkle says, “but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”

Her work is supported by countless psychological, sociological and mass communication studies ranging from the detractors (Nick Carr asking in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid?) to the wildly enthusiastic proponents, who insist that social networking actually helps us form and maintain meaningful friendships.

But let’s face it – teenagers, college students and the “millennial generation” aren’t the only ones susceptible to this addiction. I remember those so-called good old days of the card catalog and inter-library loan, when the research for this assignment would have taken months instead of hours. I also remember the crushing boredom of waiting for the bus (although now that I think of it, I usually had a book with me) before I could scroll through my “friends” updates on my iPhone.

This was a risky assignment, because just as lawyers never ask a witness a question without knowing what the answer will be, teachers generally don’t assign a project without at least some sense of what kind of outcomes to expect. Who knows? Maybe, like addicts, they couldn’t go cold turkey without some kind of medical supervision. Maybe I needed to dispense some kind of internet methadone so they didn’t get the shakes.

So to be fair, I made myself digitally disconnect in advance of my students. And here’s what I found out: I will not be sharing any of that methadone, because I needed it more than they did.

All but two of my 27 students successfully completed their digital moratorium. It was tough, they admitted, one or two commented that they felt strangely unbalanced while off-line all day. Sure, they were more productive, but as one student said:

“I kept getting panic attacks, wondering how many Facebook notifications I was missing.”

I graded their papers and we talked about quality vs. quantity in friendships, the deterioration of our attention spans, and the blurry line between our private and public selves.

But here’s one what I didn’t discuss with my students: I could NOT disconnect for 24 hours. What follows is a random and mortifying sample of the times I lusted after my iPhone: standing at the kitchen counter waiting for my toast to pop, driving to work (Who says you can’t text and drive? I’ve been driving the same route to work for over 10 years. I could do it with my eyes closed. Get it?), waiting in line at Starbucks, idling in the school parking lot to pick up my daughter, stopped on the way home at the-longest-traffic-light-in-the-world, standing at the curb, leash in hand, silently willing my dog to hurry up and complete the damn digestive process.

Who knew my so-called “busy” life was full of this many moments of crushing boredom? The day was painfully long, but I thought the end was in sight when the evening came. My husband and I had plans to meet another couple for a night out in the city – clearly I wouldn’t need the distraction of my IPhone, right?

We were having a pre-show drink, and one pomegranate martini lead to two, and then the contemplation of a third, which was vetoed when we realized we’d left ourselves only ten minutes to cover the fifteen minute walk to the theatre. Sadly, the sprint of shame from bar to theatre was not long enough to sober us up for an evening of tragic comedy. And that’s when I learned a lesson – though maybe not the same one I had hoped to teach my students.

There we were, sitting in the gilded seats of a hundred-year-old theatre, lucky enough to see what one reviewer called “Shakespeare’s profound understanding of human complexity” in a modern reinterpretation of The Merchant of Venice. So sophisticated, so cultured, so highbrow. But you know what’s wrong with a live performance? You can’t DVR it, and you can’t even fast forward past the boring parts,

Here is the text I broke down and sent to my husband, who was slumped next to me, his chest rising and falling in the rhythmic cadence of a deep sleep – a sleep which was interrupted by the gentle vibration of his iPhone, the device which conveyed this most crucial and timely piece of information from his wife: I’m too drunk for Shakes!

(Full disclosure: while writing this post I read and responded to 8 texts, checked Facebook 4 times, my work email 3 times, my personal email twice, and most damning, clicked around an unnamed celebrity website for over twenty minutes.)

Suzanne Hegland recently completed her MFA at Lesley University and is currently working on Comfort Measures Only, her exploration of a volatile mother-daughter friendship, replete with brownie binges and cabernet escapades. Suzanne serves as the token non-musician at New England Conservatory, where she is the Assistant Dean of Students and a Liberal Arts faculty member. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The World Scholar, and – in her imagination – on Oprah’s bookshelf.

(Image: GoogleImages)