Blog Post

Virtual Vacation

Chef Mark Bittman has written a very thoughtful piece about going unplugged and looking inward, turning off the cell and the PDA and the laptop and giving oneself a moment to be unplugged. Howard Rheingold says when he teaches a class, the first thing he does is have everyone shut down the laptop, shut off the cell phones--and then shut their eyes. Again, to go inward and to attend to what happens to your attention when it is unplugged. Rheingold then plugs things back in again, but with everyone having a different understanding of what they are thinking about when technology is constantly distracting one way from their thoughts. I earlier wrote a "Thinking on Leave" posting about my year of thinking about ideas, including sometimes just going for a walk to figure things out, moving away from the keyboard. ( And I'm intrigued at how many of my most technology-proficient and obsessed students talk about going hiking or kayaking, doing things that won't allow the cell phones. In science fiction, one recurring motif is the technology that you cannot ever turn off, the technology that invades your mind, your body, your dreams. Even sci fi from decades and decades ago has this dystopic Tech-Outa-Control theme. And, implicitly, the admonition: sometimes, turn it all off and allow yourself to think, feel, dream. Unplugged.
Here's Mark Bittman, my fav chef, on imposing a little thoughtfulness in everyday life. Enjoy!
REBLOGGED from the NY YORK TIMES, March 2, 2008:
March 2, 2008

I Need a Virtual Break, No, Really

I TOOK a real day off thisweekend: computers shut down, cellphone left in my work bag, land-lineringer off. I was fully disconnected for 24 hours.

The reason for this change was a natural and predictableback-breaking straw. Flying home from Europe a few months ago, I swipeda credit card through the slot of the in-seat phone, checked my e-mailand robbed myself of one of my two last sanctuaries.

At that point, the only other place I could escape was in my sleep.Yet I had developed the habit of leaving a laptop next to my bed so Icould check my e-mail, last thing and first thing. I had learned how toturn my P.D.A. into a modem, the better to access the Web from mylaptop when on a train. Of course I also used that P.D.A. inconventional ways, attending to it when it buzzed me.

In short, my name is Mark, and I?m a techno-addict. But after myairplane experience, I decided to do something about it. Thus began my?secular Sabbath? ? a term I found floating around on blogs ? a day aweek where I would be free of screens, bells and beeps. Anold-fashioned day not only of rest but of relief.

Like many, though, I wondered whether breaking my habit would beentirely beneficial. I worried about the colleagues, friends,daughters, parents and so on who relied on me, the people who knew thatwhether I was home or away I would get back to them, if not instantlythen certainly before the end of the day. What if something important was happening, something that couldn?t wait 24 hours?

Or was I just one of those Americans who?ve developed the latest in American problems, Internet addiction disorder?

As a baby boomer, I knew mine was no unique thought; we?ve alwaysbeen part of some trend or other. And sure enough, as soon as I startedlooking I found others who felt the need to turn off, to take a stab atreconnecting to things real rather than virtual, a moderate butcarefully observed vacation from ubiquitous marketing and the awesomeburden of staying in touch.

Nor is this surprising, said David Levy, a professor in the information school at the University of Washington.?What?s going on now is insane,? he said, assuring me that he used theterm intentionally. ?Living a good life requires a kind of balance, abit of quiet. There are questions about the limits of the brain and thebody, and there are parallels here to the environmental movement.? (Dr.Levy coined the term ?information environmentalism.?)

?Who,? he then asked, ?would say you don?t need time to think, to reflect, to be successful and productive??

THIS movement to unplug appears to be gaining traction everywhere,from the blogosphere, where wired types like Ariel Meadow Stallings ( brag about turning off the screen one day a week (and how many books they?ve read so far this year), to the corporate world.

For example, Nathan Zeldes, a principal engineer at Intel(employees there read or send three million e-mail messages daily), isrunning a couple of experiments, one in which people spend a morning aweek at work but offline, another in which people consciously reducetheir e-mail output. Though he?s not reporting results, he?s encouragedand he says people are participating.

?Even many corporate leaders now believe you need time to hear thevoice of the new inside,? said Anne Dilenschneider, a spiritualityconsultant in Montara, Calif., a coastal town 17 miles south of SanFrancisco. ?And this time need not be a day, or even a specific period,activity or lack of one. It doesn?t necessarily mean a Zen sit, justsome time of solitude.?

Even without a Zen sit (enough to scare me away from anything) or aphrase like ?the voice of the new,? I found that the secular Sabbathwas not all that easy to maintain. Something as simple as turning offthe electronics is easy, but try to make a habit of it.

On my first weekend last fall, I eagerly shut it all down on Fridaynight, then went to bed to read. (I chose Saturday because my rulesinclude no television, and I had to watch the Giants on Sunday). I wokeup nervous, eager for my laptop. That forbidden, I reached for thephone. No, not that either. Send a text message? No. I quickly realizedthat I was feeling the same way I do when the electricity goes out and,finding one appliance nonfunctional, I go immediately to the next. Iwas jumpy, twitchy, uneven.

I managed. I read the whole paper, without hyperlinks. I tried tolet myself do nothing, which led to a long, MP3-free walk, a nap andsome more reading, an actual novel. I drank herb tea (caffeine was nothelpful) and stared out the window. I tried to allow myself to be lesspurposeful, not to care what was piling up in my personal cyberspace,and not to think about how busy I was going to be the next morning. Icooked, then went to bed, and read some more.

GRADUALLY, over this and the next couple of weekends ? one of whichstretched from Friday night until Monday morning, like the old days ? Iadapted.

But recidivism quickly followed; there were important things to do ?deadlines, urgent communications. You know how it is. I called AndreaBauer, an executive and career development coach in San Carlos, Calif.She assured me that, oddly enough, it takes work to stop working. ?Ittakes different formats for different people, and you have to build upto it; you can?t run five miles if you?ve never run at all.?Increasingly, I realized that there is more to the secular Sabbath thanan impulse, or even a day off from e-mail. And there are reasons thatnonsecular Sabbaths ? the holy days of Christians, Jews and Muslims ?have rules that require discipline. Even for the nonreligious, thoserules were once imposed: You need not be elderly to remember when wehad no choice but to reduce activity on Sundays; stores and offices ?even restaurants ? were closed, there were certainly no electronics,and we were largely occupied by ourselves or our families.

Now it?s up to us, and, as Dr. Levy says, there?s littleencouragement. ?One of the problems with needing to slow down is thatwithin the climate of our primary culture it sounds wishy-washy,? hesaid.

But what?s wishy-washy about taking time off? It didn?t seem to methat I had to collect Social Security before I realized that a 70-hourweek was nearly as productive as an 80-hour one, and if I couldn?t getit all done in either, it certainly wasn?t because I was taking toomuch time off.

I went back to nonwork, diligently following my rules to do less oneday a week. The walks, naps and reading became routine, and all asenjoyable as they were before I had to force myself into doing them.It?s been more than six months, and while I?m hardly a new man ? no onehas yet called me mellow ? this achievement is unlike any other in mylife. And nothing bad has happened while I?ve been offline; the e-mailand phone messages, RSS feeds, are all there waiting for me when Ireturn to them.

I would no more make a new-agey call to find inner peace than Iwould encourage a return to the mimeograph. But I do believe that therehas to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at leastcalm, into modern life ? or at least my version. Once I moved beyondthe fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experiencedwhat, if I wasn?t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being. Ifelt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think,and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.


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