Happy Unplugging Day!

Sickstaringscreen

 

A little humor in honor of the National Day of Unplugging (March 23-24 this year). Reboot, who promotes this annual event, even participated in panel discussions and threw an unplugged party at SXSW Interactive, where the Sabbath Manifesto pledge to avoid technology has been gaining support. (The pledge to drink wine seems pretty popular, too.)

Is it ironic that uber-connected people are getting unplugged? Of course not. You can love digital devices and still relish taking a break from them. Life feels a little flat when you stare at screens all day and again at night, during the week and then on weekends, too.

Hope you're enjoying life in all its dimensions with some screen-free time today…

 

Signs of slowness in Australia

Slowsign

With Australia in the news now, it reminded me of a lingering question: Why do people down under seem especially interested in Slow Media and Unplugging, compared to other countries? Not sure I can answer this, but please share any theories you might have!

There’s mounting evidence that Aussies are really into being Slow (guffaw). I’ve been tracking this matter closely and found five compelling indicators:

  • Richard Watson, a business strategist who writes for Fast Company and foresaw the credit crunch, predicted to The Australian newspaper that Unplugging would become a “watchword” as people started feeling too connected. The Sydney-based Brit envisioned digital diets and renewed interest in analog media such as fountain pens, wet-film photography and vinyl records.
  • Transformations Journal, edited by some great blokes at Southern Cross University and University of Queensland, recently devoted a whole issue to articles about Slow Media. If you’re interested in how this subculture originated, you can read my contribution here. There's a great piece on Facebook suicide, too.
  • The Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired an hour-long radio program in 2010 about the Slow Movement, with a big segment on Slow Media. On the show called Future Tense, reporters asked me how my college students react to their Unplugging assignments and interviewed Carl Honore (In Praise of Slowness) about Slow Food and Citta Slow.
  • Another article in The Australian dropped the term “Slow Media” into a 2010 story about media impatience with parliamentary independents who deliberate slowly. I don’t really see the connection between the two, but it’s interesting that they casually cite the idea and assume people will know what it means.
  • Susan Maushart, who just published a book fantastically entitled The Winter of Our Disconnect that chronicles how she and her three “totally wired” teenagers gave up technology for six months, lived in Western Australia for many years. She’s an NYU grad who lives in Long Island now, but she went back to Perth to write her book.

Someone once told me that going to Oz is like traveling back in time 50 years (she meant it in a good way–that Aussies are more trusting than Americans, and stuff like that). Maybe they're just behind the curve, or maybe they're ahead of the next one…

Have you ever had a “Melonballer Moment”?

Sally Herships of NPR’s Marketplace coined a great phrase in this broadcast, which aired in February: Melonballer Moments, referring to the time you unintentionally waste doing online research to make trivial decisions. Being able to access scads of information about quotidian purchases is great, in theory… but when there’s so little at stake, how much time do you really want to spend reading user reviews about melonballers or whatnot? 

The story marked my going back online this January, after avoiding the Internet since last July. I had challenged myself to unplug from the Web for six months and give up my cellphone for a year. (I just started using one again last month, and even got a new one—though it’s a cheap, dumb clamshell.  I sometimes consider getting a smarter phone but still resist, for now!)

Somewhat inaccurately, the subtitle describes my offline project as a ‘chore,’ when for the most part I loved it. There were some frustrations, sure, but I was thrilled by the challenge of finding workarounds for device dependency. And I found myself in some bizarre, humorous situations:

  • throwing rocks at a friends’ third-floor window when her doorbell didn’t work, since I couldn’t call to let her know I was there. In retrospect, I would have set off my car alarm to get her attention;
  • hunting for payphones in New York City, which is easier than you probably think—though you need to get in the habit of memorizing or writing down in advance any phone numbers that you might need later;
  • wandering up and down a city block at midnight, unable to find a New Year’s Eve party because my fiancé didn’t know the address and assumed he would be able to look it up on his cellphone, which he had forgotten at home;
  • waiting patiently for a clerk to print out a “Wines of the Month” list from her shop’s website when she could have shown them to me… on a “Wines of the Month” shelf only 20 feet away from us. Turned out, her computer printout listed the wrong wines, too.

With only three minutes to tell the story, Herships doesn’t get into the background of why I went offline and what Slow Media means in the context of a new subculture of people who practice similar rituals like “Digital Detox” and “Unplugging” and “Internet Sabbaths.”

My search for a wedding dress, especially, resonated with her—perhaps because she also had recently begun shopping for one? I hazard to guess that she loves kittens, too.

Back online, somewhat ambivalently

Roll1022ed

People sent me a lot of postcards during the digital-detox experiment, but this one is probably my favorite since it combines postcard, newspaper and typewriting all in one.

 

After six months of immersing myself in Slow Media, I’m back online now — though still not using a cellphone. Interwebbing was fun for the first few days, but surprisingly the excitement faded fast.

Since starting the experiment in July, I have used payphones and yellow pages and typewriters… penned piles of letters and postcards… watched all my VHS tapes and listened to all my audiocassettes (along with some vinyl, until my record-player broke)… devoured a huge stack of newspapers and books… deciphered many a printed map…. and taken photographs with disposable cameras, 35mm film and Polaroids.

It was really fun. And honestly, life without digital media wasn’t that hard, folks. You should try it. Maybe just for a day, or a weekend?

Next up: I might perform a week of silent meditation to challenge the assumption that we need to speak, or maybe I’ll stop washing my hair for a few months to prove that we don’t need shampoo.

Going Offline: How to Become the Proverbial “Fish out of Water”

With three days to go before taking the red pill, it's probably a good time to sketch the contours of the Slow Media experiment that I'll be conducting until 2011. I've had these guidelines floating in my head for a while but haven't put them in writing until now.

My main priority is to escape the gift/curse of constant communication and infinite information, in order to 1) free up time to spend on other things, such as analog or material forms of media, and 2) enable some contemplation about the role of digital media in my life. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, no one knows who discovered water, but it probably wasn't a fish.

The overarching scenario is that I'll adopt the media technologies of 1990, just before the Internet and cellphones began their ascent — which holds some rhetorical and romantic appeal (for me, at least) in being a tidy 20 years ago, at the dawn of my adulthood. Forgive me any accidental anachronisms but hey, I'm not a historian… yet. I'll be living largely in the less-connected spirit of that time.

This means: Any print is kosher — newspapers, magazines, books but no Kindles, iPads, e-books. I'll listen to vinyl records, audio-cassettes and CDs but not iPods and their kin. Watch cable TV and VHS but not DVR or DVDs. Use a typewriter or an offline computer for word-processing, statistical analysis and desktop publishing, but nothing networked or downloaded or "in the cloud." Make calls on a land-line phone but not a mobile one. Listen to terrestrial radio but not satellite or online broadcasts.

A few new habits that I envision picking up:

  • Going to libraries to borrow videotapes, instead of Netflix.
  • Sending letters, postcards or faxes and making phone calls, instead of writing e-mails.
  • Publishing a zine, instead of a blog. 
  • Going to more brick-and-mortar stores, instead of shopping online at Amazon, Craigslist, eBay or wherever.
  • Paying monthly bills with checks, instead of online bill-payer.
  • Calling my bank's teller-phone, instead of accessing my accounts on the Web. 
  • Using printed references like dictionaries, phone books and thesauri, instead of online resources.
  • Buying plane tickets through a travel agent, instead of Kayak.com or airline sites.
  • Checking the forecast in the newspaper or on the Weather Channel, instead of at Wunderground.com.
  • Visiting libraries to do research, instead of trawling online catalogs and electronic databases from home.
  • Looking up directions in a map or atlas, instead of Google maps or Mapquest.

When it comes to media technologies that other people use, I'm neutral. I appreciate that many friends, family and colleagues are eager and/or willing to cooperate with this Slow Media experiment of mine. But I won't direct them to do (or not do) anything for me that they wouldn't have normally done on their own. If someone uses a cellphone, I will talk to them on it. If a travel agent goes online to book my flight, so be it. If people providing me products or services require the Internet to do their jobs, que sera sera. Whatever they do behind the scenes essentially doesn't change my experience.

The few technological devices I'll still be using are probably better than whatever was
available back then, but I lack the time, money and inclination for
scouring garage sales and junk shops to build a rec room replete with
Betamax and Commodore Amiga — though I probably wouldn't resist a
princess phone or Atari 2600 if I stumbled upon one.