Saturday, April 13, 2013

Unplugged: 24 Hours of (Almost) Low-Tech Bliss

The Assignment

For 24 hours, you must completely unplug from technology: no cell phones, no internet, no computer use of any kind, no TV, no iPads, no iPods, and no radios. You may use electricity for other things and you may drive, though I’d rather you not listen to music in the car. (Spending a little time with your own brain will not kill you, I promise.) Record the date when, and location where, you unplugged.
  • What was challenging about being unplugged?
  • What did you like about it?
  • What did you notice about yourself or your surroundings that you didn’t notice before?
  • Would you ever impose an unplugged-time for yourself again?
  • Overall, what did you learn about this time?

My 24 Hours

I began my unplugged assignment at noon on Saturday, May 6. I chose this time because I had several social things planned, and I thought I would make the best of connecting with people face-to-face instead of having the urge to check my phone at every lull in the conversation. I went into the project feeling pretty confident - I'd unplugged before, especially when traveling, because when out of the country it's too expensive to use the data or texting on my phone. And I actually enjoyed not having the option to retreat into electronics, because I feel like I am more aware, more social, and more introspective. So I thought, no big deal. I'll show this Unplugged assignment who's boss.

The first part of my day was relaxing and enjoyable. Several people came over and we had a casual life drawing lesson, as taught by a friend who teaches elementary art classes. I left my phone and laptop in my office, and didn't feel the need to go for it once. There was a moment I had to shy away from a friend trying to show me an article on her phone, but I otherwise barely noticed that I wasn't using electronics.

On our drive to my boyfriend's college friends' house an hour away, I apologized to him and the other friend we drove down that we couldn't listen to the radio. At first my boyfriend and I were silly and sang some a capella jams, but then quickly fell into a conversation with our friend, so I barely noticed the lack of radio. My boyfriend did ask me to navigate with GPS as we got closer to our destination, but as I didn't want him to wreck the car I decided that was an acceptable "cheat." No big deal, I thought, that will be the only time I'll "cheat" the rest of the night.

We arrived at the birthday party, which had a nostalgic slumber party theme, and I realized this was going to be a tad harder than I originally thought. Part of the night was spent coloring, painting nails, having shoot-outs with Nerf guns. It was when we started to play vintage Nintendo games that I decided I needed to think about what this unplugged assignment was supposed to do.

What I wanted, but what wasn't on the topic paper for my students, was for us to reconnect with people, notice the world around us, and participate in life without being lost in our own cyber worlds. As others at the party migrated to the room with the Nintendo, I thought about how I was participating in life, and realized that if I sequestered myself in the coloring room by myself all night, I was just as bad as if I was with everyone else but distracted by my phone.

I celebrated this decision with several games of Super Mario 3. Then we played a drinking game to the movie Willow. It was an interactive community experience, and I felt not even a little guilt at using electronics (and beer) to achieve that fun.

The next morning everyone was a little groggy from spending the night in sleeping bags and on air mattresses (when we throw a slumber party we're not joking around), so we munched Dunkin' Donuts and watched Aziz Ansari standup. Again, I felt a little bad that I was watching TV when I was "supposed" to be unplugged, but again it was what I had to do in order to be experiencing life with the people around me.


When noon came around and I got home, I knew I would be forced to plug-in in order to grade papers and lesson plan. I knew I would be lured into Facebook, email, and IM in the process. Going back to these things didn't excite me. I knew that being unplugged from them would be easy, but I didn't expect being so reluctant to plug back in. I finally realized why when I thought more about what unplugged really means to me.

Unplugging means a true vacation. Very little of my work these days is done off the computer. I lesson plan electronically. I keep track of grades in Excel and read articles on the web. I make comments to papers using Word's review features. When I unplug, I not only connect more to my world because I can't mindlessly scroll Facebook, I also don't feel compelled to reply to students' emails or grade a quick paper. I literally cannot work, which is the only time I feel free from it.


I think that when we do the majority of our work or school on the internet, we're so susceptible to taking quick breaks to surf Facebook or check email that those things become tied up in the pressure of obligation. We're afraid we're going to miss something social almost on the same level that we're afraid we're going to miss doing an assignment or submitting a report. Surfing the internet, being on email, and chatting with friends heightens our need for immediacy and, I think in a lot of ways, our stress. 

It's kind of like our excitement about getting candy as kids: the less we were allowed to have it on a regular basis, the more a treat it was when we finally got it. But as an adult I can get candy whenever I want, and it no longer represents the treat it used to. 

I believe that it's only when we can unplug altogether that we can truly relax. From the many student responses I've read, it seems like a lot of them agree, though the majority of them say they are unwilling to participate again. I want to feel bad for them, but at the same time realize that they grew up in a different time. I'm just glad they gave it a shot.