Why Unplugging Matters

Unplug
Image based on photo by Tom Magliery

Every major shift in culture engenders a backlash. Every backlash  engenders a contra-backlash. Round and round the dialectic goes, and with Casey Cep’s recent critique of unplugging, currently the most popular story on the New Yorker’s website, the “always-on” lifestyle’s contra-backlash has arrived in the mainstream.

What Cep Gets Right

“The ‘real’ world, like the ‘real’ America, is an insidious idea. It suggests that the selves we are online aren’t authentic, and that the relationships that we forge in digital spaces aren’t meaningful. This is odd, because some of our closest friends…are people we’ve only ever met on the Internet.”

My only complaint is that she doesn’t go far enough. Not only do many (most?) of us have deep and authentic relationships that exist solely online, but it is the rare offline relationship that doesn’t move fluidly across the online/offline border. Introductions are made at a party and formalized with a Facebook add, leading to social media interactions that lead to new offline meetings.While some relationships are exclusively online or offline, most are not limited to one sphere or the other.

Indeed, social media refuseniks run the risk of social isolation, rather than benefiting from deeper and more authentic relationships. A 2011 Pew study found Facebook users have an average of 9% more close social ties than Internet users who do not use Facebook. One of the challenges I have faced when I unplug for Sabbath is having a social life without the aid of text messages, Facebook, and other social media. Being an introvert, I have found accepting these periods of disconnection to be relatively easy, and these days are filled more with reading and writing than socializing (unless I run into friends while reading at my neighborhood coffee shop).

Cep is also correct when she says “it’s strange to think of these unplugging events as anything like detox,” but not because “the goal isn’t really abstinence.” I doubt the goal of any detox is ever abstinence; she confuses means with ends. Rather, the language of detox is problematic because it implies that something external to the body is ingested, and once in the body it accumulates pathologically. Certainly there are many who unplug because implicitly or explicitly, they believe our computer-mediated-connections become toxic; however, many don’t and in ignoring the many reasons people unplug, Cep does a disservice to her argument.

The Value of Unplugging

Before launching her critique of unplugging, Cep tells a story of traveling abroad to provide examples of the value of being connected (but never hinting she sees any problems with international travel). Given what follows, this is a problematic starting point. She variously writes:

“We are only ever tourists in the land of no technology, our visas valid for a day or a week or a year, and we travel there with the same eyes and ears that we use in our digital homeland.”

and

“Few who unplug really want to surrender their citizenship in the land of technology; they simply want to travel outside it on temporary visas.”

Travel is a great metaphor for the unplugging experience. A trip to Myanmar is not meant to be a permanent relocation, but will perhaps provide valuable and lasting insights upon return. Permanently unplugging is now virtually impossible if one wants to maintain social ties and a professional life (without permanently re-locating to a community of dedicated luddites), but temporary periods spent in a different modality can still have great value.

Alternating between plugged-in and unplugged states can encourage a greater range of mental experiences and processes.

Cep repeatedly invokes “unsustainability” as a problem with unplugging (e.g., “let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life”), but never defines what she means by the word. If she means that no one can unplug forever, few, including the proponents of unplugging, would disagree. However, routine temporary unplugging, such as with a Sabbath, is entirely sustainable, as evidenced by 6000 years of Jewish history.

One of the great benefits of always having Internet access is that users always have access to something new and interesting to watch and read. However, boredom is underrated. In a study presented last year, individuals were found to be more creative after a period of boredom. Research from 2012 found empirical evidence for a phenomenon already experienced by many people: daydreaming serves as an incubator for creativity, possibly because it provides the mind with an opportunity to consider more deeply what has already been ingested.

Perpetual access to Twitter and Facebook and RSS readers and all our other great media is terrific for providing new material to ingest, but can hinder the subsequent digestion. Alternating between plugged-in and unplugged states can encourage a greater range of mental experiences and processes.

Communicating the Intent

Cep seems nearly as bothered by the way individuals advertise their unplugging as she does by the unplugging itself.

“The ostentatious announcements of leave-taking…are inevitably followed by vainglorious returns.”

I understand her discomfort here. In my own process of routine unplugging, I have struggled with how, or even whether, to tell others about my unavailability. Because I like tying this “ritual” to natural cycles, I follow the rhythms of the Jewish sabbath, despite not being Jewish myself. I always start on a Friday and ending on a Saturday, but the precise times vary with the seasons.

Not wanting to be “ostentatious” about my intent, I have rarely told many people what I am doing (and for many friends, reading this might be the first they’ve known that I maintain the practice). The result has been that when I turn my phone back on on Saturday, I often find text messages inviting me to do things on Friday night, invitations that went unanswered. Because I did not advertise my unplugging, I subsequently need to offer a mild apology.

The examples of ostentatious announcements that Cep provides can easily be fit into our new narrative of “universal narcissism,” but they also serve the function of an out-of-office message: “I may not get your message for a while, so please don’t take offense if my reply is slow.”

Who Said “Either/Or”?

Easy access to Internet-based services is wonderful. I came of age before the arrival of smart phones and universal broadband and I don’t romanticize the lack of either. However, moderation is good. Experiencing and interacting with the world in different ways is excellent. Rather than pathologizing connection, occasional periods of unplugging acknowledge a deeper, richer, and more subtle interplay between our different ways of engaging with ideas and environments, and celebrates a diversity of experience.

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