How and Why Do You Unplug?

While reading the New York Times this weekend, I could not help but notice that at least five different articles dealt with creating a kind of cultural, philosophical, or religious permission-giving for taking time away from electronic connectivity in everyday life. Is this a noteworthy constellation? Just an editorial accident? My sense is that it speaks to a gathering crest in U.S. culture regarding the felt limits of constant electronic connection: the need to check email, to have a cell phone handy, to get the latest update from one's various online social groups. Electronic connectivity seems, for most people, to take on a life of its own and crawl into as many available nooks and crannies of daily existence as possible.

The articles in question include this Bob Herbert column about flesh over screen; this Gary Shteyngart column about unlearning connectivity; Laurie Winer's review of William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age; Ben Brantley's essay on the lack of ability and interest in cultivating reticent mystery in an age of Internet publicness and self-branding; and Judith Shulevitz's report on inventing new Sabbath practices that erect ritual firewalls against the seductions of the electronic habitus and that teach a different way to inhabit the week.


These writings reminded me that, like many others, I search constantly for a way to balance it all, and I find that I learn a lot when others tell me about their practices for situating electronic life in a wider existence. It helps me refine my own choices.

The Internet is now so important for life as a citizen, as well as for scholarly resources and personal relationships, it would seem now almost irresponsible to refuse being part of the electronic world if one has such a privilege. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that since I checked my first email in September 1988, the twenty-two years gone by have been an unending negotiation with the habits that electronic connectivity wants to install in my life, and my attempts to refuse or creatively use those habits.

Many of us in the relatively privileged classes find that we have to make decisions over and over about the shape of our days and weeks. I have quit the Internet once or twice, only to return a few months later; I have set all sorts of limits on my own email (and later web browsing, and still later blog-checking, and still still later blog-writing) time allotments; I have tried to err on the side of electronic disconnectivity regarding devices for as long as possible (no television for the last six years; no cell phone for many years, until I became a father and felt irresponsible without one; no IPod until a few weeks ago, when the benefits of having all my music in one place seemed too much to ignore). I have noticed the emergence of a distinct email culture in academic life, one that during the school year shifts ever closer to a 24/7 mode, in which messages are assumed to require immediate replies, and in which emails sent even one minute before classes or meetings are taken to be relevant material for the class or meeting. I don't wish not to live in these cultures; only to learn how to live in them.

Here are a few things that I have found that work for me: decelerating email activity over holidays and summers; taking most of August entirely away from email; stating on my course syllabi that email replies may take up to three "business" days and more urgent communication should happen by phone; aiming to check email once or twice a day for no more than 60-90 minutes total. I try to remind myself of the reasons for and practices of "slow communication," without becoming a drag unnecessarily on others' schedules. But if there are three words that characterize how I feel about all this, they are: work in progress. I think the constellation of Times articles is on to something.

Tom Beaudoin
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Cross-posted, using the Internet, to Rock and Theology

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 8 months ago
Much as I bemoan the constant connectedness of today's world, I believe that it is leading us (however painfully) to a different (higher?) level of consciousness whereby the individual life will no longer be able to be seen or known as a separate and isolated existence (or soul).

There is a fascinating story in today's NYTimes about the trillions of viruses that live within and make-up our physical bodies.  All this new biological and physical discovery is going to force us to reframe our notions of what and who we are - and how we understand and live the Gospel as the Body of Christ.  "Love one another, as you love yourself" will take on deeper significance.

All that being said, I think that the only way we will be able to wade through this territory without drowning in it is as contemplatives who treasure solitude, silence, and slowness.
James Lindsay
8 years 8 months ago
If I have had a very e-intensive week at work or on the blogsophere, I will take an Internet sabbath on the weekend unless there is some burning issue that needs my attention.  If there is a moral issue to be addressed, I will speak to it on my blog or this one or write an Examiner article (likely all three with crossposting).  The sabbath is no excuse to ignore the spirit of prophesy.   Also, if I am feeling isolated, Facebook is a nice antedote. 
8 years 8 months ago
I don't have an iPod or cell phone or tv or Blackberry.  I do blog though, posting almost every day.  Having read a lot of science fiction, I can see things getting more and more connected in the future (Feed by MT Anderson).  I really value the internet, both the information that's available and the social interconnectedness, but I wonder about things lost  - individual prayer, self-reflection, being in nature.
8 years 8 months ago
The connectivity that most wearies me is Facebook with all its social interaction.  So, I've taken a summer sabbatical from FB.  I stopped my status updates and responses to friends the first day of summer.  I plan to return to FB after Labor Day.  Now I have more time for prayer and meditation, both of which center me and give another time of connectedness, a connection with God, as well as a sense of my uniqueness and inner peace.  I limit my cell phone communications to immediate family only.


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