A new ritual: Unplugging for a day of rest

I've been meaning to make a suggestion for a while now: Let's use the Sabbath as an occasion to take a break from digital communication. The only problem is, I'm kind of agnostic.

Maybe it doesn't matter. Here's my proposal: Regardless of your religious persuasion, treat Sunday (or the day of your choice) as a special day where you don't get sucked into the vortex of online communicaton, infotainment, social media and e-shopping.

Instead, do all that stuff you enjoy: walking in the park, going for a drive, playing games, cooking a nice meal for your family and friends, riding your bike, calling your parents or grandparents, hiking in the woods, reading books, having a picnic, visiting the museum… Your stuff is probably different from mine, but never mind. Just do, you know, restful stuff.

I remember when, just 20 years ago, a lot of stores were closed on Sundays. When I lived in England (not the most devout country), it was kind of big news around 1990 or so that some department stores started staying open on the Sabbath. OMG, you can go shopping on a Sunday now! But, do you really need to?

What with it being Holy Week, this seems like a good time to push the idea. Lots of spiritual traditions emphasize spending time in contemplation, fellowship, communion with God and/or nature, so it can be nondenominational (or multi-denominational). Just put aside technology for one day, only 14.28 percent of your week.

I'm happy to report that many people are sharing my wavelength. CNN recently did a story about Reboot, a group of secular Jews urging people to observe 24 hours of freedom from their devices on a "National Day of Unplugging," for the Jewish Sabbath. And no, they're not Luddites! The New York Times describes them as "hip, media-savvy Jewish professionals" from gadget-loving New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Their principles, available at SabbathManifesto.org, are:

  • Avoid technology.
  • Connect with loved ones.
  • Nurture your health.
  • Get
    outside.
  • Avoid commerce.
  • Light candles.
  • Drink wine.
  • Eat bread.
  • Find silence.
  • Give
    back.

I might not be Jewish, but those sound like 10 fine commandments to me.

The fading art of letter-writing

WNYC’s Leonard Lopate caught my attention when he began this radio program about letter-writing by asking, “Can you remember the last time you sat down to write someone a letter that was more than just a note?” (My answer was: Yes! That very morning I had written a letter to my friend in Paris, even though I could have posted a note on her Facebook wall… or sent her an e-mail… or commented on her blog.)

What followed was an intriguing interview with the author of a book called Yours Ever: People and their Letters, which discusses the loss of these social and historical artifacts. Thomas Mellon, who has also written about diary-keeping, said he started this project 15 years ago when e-mail was just nascent. It evolved into an “elegy” to the genre, he said — which suggests that he thinks letter-writing is dead, though perhaps not beyond resuscitation.

Some other questions Lopate could have posed: Do you think that you’ll be re-reading old e-mails, text messages and Facebook posts some day in your golden years? Will your children be able to browse through your e-mails after you’re gone, to see what their parents were like as younger people? Are future scholars likely to delve into your old digital messages and revel in the valuable insights they offer?

“Workers of the World, Unplug!”

What does the Slow Media Movement have in common with Slow Food? Roger Buddenberg of the Omaha World-Herald explains this, and more, in his story about the digital backlash.

The article describes how people are giving up the Internet for Lent; students are taking stress-management classes to learn how to not be distracted; and coaches are taking cellphones away from players to improve performance.

Buddenberg also quotes a clinical psychologist who says that digital media is
"fundamentally ruining the quality people's lives" and jokes that he wants "to be the mayor" of the Slow Media Movement. (No Foursquare required for that!).

Postcard experiment redux

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Attentive readers will remember that last fall, I began a little experiment by sending some vintage postcards (above) to a couple dozen friends and family members. I was interested in seeing what kind of response they got, in this day and age that's relatively postcard-less.

The response was a loud and clear "meh." A few people replied to acknowledge and thank me for the missive. Notably, most people did so via online media, e.g. a Facebook message asking me to be someone's penpal and a text message to the tune of "Love the postcard!"

As for everyone else, maybe they didn't get the cards? Did I put the wrong postage? Did they accidentally slip inside a catalog or some piece of junk mail that got thrown away? Or maybe people just don't care about postcards enough to remark on them.

Or, more likely, they were confused by the kitschy ones I sent, featuring jackalopes and "bratwurst beauties" and trout gobbling chum and advertisements for products such as sliced bread, antacids and water heaters that must have seemed more impressive in the 1960s.

One highlight of 2009 for me was receiving perhaps the only postcard of the year from my dissertation advisor, a terrific journalism historian. About a week after talking to him on the phone about my Slow Media project, I received a postcard featuring a photo of our old university library and the message:

My mother, who is 94 and never has had a computer, always types letters on a manual typewriter. So, I type to her in return, often sending postcards. That's about the only use I get out of my old Underwood these days. It always works, though. Typewriters never "crash," although the movers dropped my mother's' when she moved recently. I had to give her one from my collection.

Someone with a collection of typewriters sending me an unsolicited postcard? My hero.

Digital divides: Going offline in South Korea and online in Nigeria

Recent BBC reports reveal some strange goings-on in South Korea, the "most wired nation on Earth," where social networking was practically invented. In a recent BBC survey conducted across 26 countries, four in five adults said Internet access should
be "a fundamental right of all people," with South Korea showing the highest level of support (96%).

First, BBC News reported that a South Korean couple obsessed with caring for a virtual daughter online let their real baby starve to death. The parents became addicted to the Internet as an escape from reality after losing their jobs, according to police, and only fed their three-month-old baby once per day because they spent 12-hour stretches at an Internet cafe.

Then, as part of its "On/Off" project, BBC recruited two South Korean families to spend a week without the Internet. Some said that living offline was inconvenient and felt "suffocating" but others enjoyed "rediscovering lost time" to play with their kids and drink tea with neighbors. While one person never wanted "to go through this again," another recommended that "everyone should spend a week without the Internet."

Another segment of this project followed a rural community in Nigeria, where people usually travel 30 miles to get online, after some villagers got mobile Internet phones. It's striking what a difference these devices can make in a context — unlike developed nations — where there's no running water or electricity yet alone basic access to e-mail communication and online information about, say, health or politics.

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