Happy Unplugging Day!



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…


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.

More Student Reactions to Slow Media

A few months ago, the students in my Media & Culture class spent some time engaging with Slow Media and then reflecting on their experiences. Why? Because I made them!

This assignment was motivated by the fact that they had found it difficult to stick with the Digital Detox for one whole day. Detox focuses on what you can't do, creating a void in which students got bored and time passed slowly. Instead of presenting the experiment as a negative — "you can't go online or use your cellphone" — I reconceived it as a positive: You have an opportunity now to devote a few hours to entertaining yourself with the analog "devices" of your choice.

An earlier post described the surprising reactions of students who played musical instruments, wrote in journals, watched videotapes and practiced calligraphy for their Slow Media Experiment. The surprising part, for me, was how nostalgic these 19-to-23-year-olds felt for activities that they enjoyed and made time for just a few years ago — activities that have been pushed aside, in part, by the increasing demands of cellphones and computers.

Here are more extracts from their essays, where one student calls her experiment "the weirdest three hours I have ever had" and another says she feels freer when untethered from a computer:

  • The first part of my experiment was doing pottery for my
    Introduction to the Potters’ Wheel class. I was either on the wheel making, or
    trying to make, new pieces, trimming the feet for pieces that were already
    finished, or glazing them. The first couple of weeks had me worrying about how
    I would do in this class; I never seemed to make anything good and it got me
    really frustrated. I turned out to be one of my favorite classes I’ve taken
    during my entire time in college. I think that it being not the typical class
    with desks or computers makes it better and gives you more freedom.
  • I chose to listen to vinyl records because my parents collect
    them and own a record player, but I’ve never actually listened to any of
    I felt this desire to dust them off and play the Beatles the
    old-fashioned way.
    When I listened to [them] for the first time, I couldn’t help but smile.
    really is the simple things in life that make us the happiest (…) It was
    great chance for my sister and I to hang out and just be teenagers all
    again. We felt like a couple of rock’n’roll kids from the sixties. I
    felt as
    though I really bonded with my sister through it.

Continue reading “More Student Reactions to Slow Media”

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
  • Avoid commerce.
  • Light candles.
  • Drink wine.
  • Eat bread.
  • Find silence.
  • Give

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

Postcard experiment redux


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.