Autoethnography – offline activities

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I, along with Minna, embarked on a ‘digital diet’ for 24 hours. It took me a while to work up to the concept: At first I decided to not check email all day, then to not go online all day (but still be able to use my computer).  In the end I convinced myself to shut off everything digital for 24 hours. This meant that I put away my laptop and media hard-drives, turned off my cell phone, and even covered up the digital clock on the stove in my kitchen:

I allowed myself to use my home phone – though it wasn’t much use as I only have, I realized, 5 phone numbers memorized or written down on paper, and no phone book. I also allowed myself to take 36 photos with my digital camera, e.g. an amount analogous to 1 roll of analog film.

Perhaps the first thing I noticed was how nice the light is in the morning at my desk. Usually I put down the curtains immediately as I begin work because the sun makes a glare in my computer screen. But, working with pen and paper, the light was lovely!

As the day wore on I decided to write a few letters – one to a friend, one to my grandmother – though I was limited by the addresses I had written out by hand vs. the ones stored on my computer. I remembered that I used to have an address book …

Later in the day I decided to bake a cake with the hope of inviting my lovely neighbor to tea (which I did). I usually look up recipes online, but I was confident that that would not matter as I knew we had a few cookbooks at home. One was for pasta dishes: not that useful. Another was for healthy vegetarian meals: no good deserts.  But, there was a lovely Swedish holiday cookbook. I was able to decipher all of the ingredients for a honey cake without the aid of an (online) dictionary, as well as the instructions for baking. But … I then realized that the measurements were metric and I had no reference (like Google) for converting them. I toyed with the idea of trying to make the recipe anyway – just going by the basic proportions – but I got stifled by the difference measuring systems for the liquid and dry ingredients – grams vs. dl:

Interestingly enough the most difficult thing for me during the whole diet was not having a clock readily available. I realized how much I usually glance at my computer clock, the clock on the stove, and/or my cell phone throughout the day – adjusting my activities accordingly. For example, deciding whether to eat lunch or wait a bit, calculating whether to call someone or not, to go outside and take a walk or wait an hour, etc. Living without that measurement felt quite different.

*****

Now, a few days later, there are a two specific things I have been thinking about related to my digital diet. Firstly, most of the things that I was not able to do because I was not allowed to use my computer or phone were things that would have been easily and quickly accessible to me just a few years ago. That is, by having a (paper) address & phone book, cookbooks, and a watch most of my difficulties would have been solved. Digital technology has not necessarily made these activities – calling a friend, writing a letter, cooking a quiche, knowing what time it is – so different; similar information has simply been transferred to digital places.

The other thing that I have been reflecting on is the question: Do digital technologies save us time? If so, what do we do with the time that is saved?  I think that the question is more complex than I’d initially assumed. For example, during my digital diet it was quite clear to me that the digital world did allow me to accomplish things more instantaneously, but not necessarily always faster.  For example, if I write a friend a letter the actual act of writing takes me about the same amount of time regardless of whether I put the letter in the mail or if I send it by e-mail. I do perhaps save a bit of time by not walking down to the mailbox around the corner if I send the letter digitally – but, it’s often quite pleasant to get five minutes of fresh air, and I typically pass by the mailbox at least once a day on another errand which can’t be accomplished online.

Therefore, the difference in time between the act of writing and sending a letter online vs. by post is, in some ways, not so large for me. What is different is the time it takes to arrive at my friend’s residence – instantaneously by email vs. a few days wait as a paper letter.  During the days that the letter is on its way to her house, and her reply on its way back to me, I have plenty of free time to do other things: that is, this time of waiting is not “wasted”. Of course the speed or iterations of our correspondence can multiply significantly with the use of the internet – we can send many more messages back and forth within a shorter period of time. This iterative speed can of be quite useful in some situations: but, can it lead to not-so-useful clutter in others?

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Gender & [Digital] Living: Passionate Opinions

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[Image from Flickr The Commons, the Galt Museum collections]

One of the great contribution of the feminist movement, and later gender studies, in the academia is the idea of personal as political, one’s own situated knowledge as legitimate, one’s passions as research-worthy (precisely because one feels strongly about something). This doesn’t mean, and has never meant, that one could not see beyond that, take a few steps back, observe, and deconstruct one’s passions.

But, as bell hooks writes in Teaching Critical Thinking,

The ability to be awed, excited, and inspired by ideas is a practice that radically opens the mind. Excited about learning, ecstatic about thoughts and ideas, as teachers and students we have the opportunity to use knowledge in ways that positively transform the world we live in.

For their first assignment, Fordham students of the course of Gender Images and the Media are to examine something they feel passionately (+ or -) about regarding gender and the media — whether a media celebrity, a blog, a book, a movie, a TV series or radio show, a social networking site or a related phenomenon, and so on. They can express themselves by writing an essay, a poem, a song, painting a picture, making a video — or by blogging right here.

Autoethnography — another diet failed.

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(Image: The Italian Voice under the Creative Commons license).

The researcher tries to diet. A brief summary just after breaking the fast. I was certain this would not be a problem, and I’ve tried this before. So I shut down my phone on Sun 1/23 around 6pm and swore not to go online — take a full-on diet for 24 hrs.

But oh no. My awful, cheap ‘eco’ ‘smart’phone was the problem. At first I just routinely checked that non-functioning phone. Also, I don’t have a watch, or an alarm clock, and some addresses and other info were buried in text messages. And when I turned on my phone to check the time, and  saw a message…  I had already replied before thinking. I listened to some new agey music and more than once, hearing certain sounds, thought the phone is ringing. Admittedly, I also felt so anxious about all imaginary work emails. Truly stressful.

Now off to reply to those ‘important’ messages, 3 out of some 60 total that landed in my inbox actually require action. More soon.

*****

A day + later: I’m actually happy the experiment went as it did. It wasn’t a leisurely break from communication, a kind of mini-vacation during which I’d do what I normally wouldn’t (I’ve taken a few of those, as I frequently spend time in yoga retreat centers). It begun after a lovely brunch I threw for some 20+ friends (so I thought there was no need to keep in touch with any of them for 24hrs 😉

However, most of the diet happened on the Monday of the 2nd week of classes at Fordham where I teach. I was in the work mode, composing emails in my head, wondering whether it would be too late to email students some class-related details after 6pm when I’d officially be back on track. Maybe I shouldn’t go to my kickboxing class so I could be right by the computer when I can log on again? And what might my colleagues think of me if I’m not responding to work emails on a weekday!

It seems clear to me that the computer is my work tool, and my phone is the personal lifeline. As I noted before, during the fast I got a few nice personal texts — that I couldn’t help but reading, when I turned on the phone to see what time it was. And, I couldn’t help but responding immediately, once even routinely (meaning: without even considering or remember that I was dieting; almost like sleepwalking to the fridge). This echoes the instant response culture that my students documented last semester: We expect instant replies to text messages, unless the circumstances are truly extraordinary (the respondent is exceptionally busy, in a very special place/situation, or mad). Hence, I felt compelled to answer without delay.

Also, midday Monday, working from home, I all of a sudden felt the urge to call my best friend in Finland. I don’t do that often (so she’s an exception to the phone as personal communication tool rule); we normally Skype. But it was as if I just needed to use my phone, and to reach out to that person who’s dear to me but not physically close –as if all of a sudden it was so important to do, right then. I don’t know where that came from, subconscious at work?

So what did I do with my day? I planned things in my head, ran errands, did laundry, walked the dog, read — and a friend came for lunch and a reiki treatment (she knew I’d be dieting). All in all, the day passed quickly.

The biggest takeaway for me was my antsiness about work, about the need to perform 24/7, to be available for colleagues and students. As said, I’ve easily survived diets when traveling, or when staying in a place that encourages a media fast. Silence doesn’t bother me, not even the absence of texts. But now that protestant work ethic intervened, brought about a sense of guilt and irritation, that I’d be disconnected when I maybe shouldn’t be.

The U.S. pilot of our study will take place late Feb and early March. Stay tuned for more blog posts and insights from our wonderful participants.