A snow storm here in Sweden snapped the frayed, old telephone-wiring running to our house on Wednesday, which also carried our internet service. In the two days that the internet was off I worked on projects in very concentrated ways: re-writing a book chapter, and reading for hours.

I couldn’t stop being aware of the absence of the internet. I kept forgetting that it wasn’t there, thinking “oh, I’ll do this / check this / read this …” and then remembering a moment later that I couldn’t.

How long would it take for its absence to feel normal?

snowstorm

During the snowstorm I reflected:

I realize how much of a distraction it usually is to have the internet on my computer – I spend time checking my email, looking at Facebook, and the news – but also checking my various blogs and doing other random things online. But as soon as it [the internet] returns I don’t think I’ll be able to resist turning the connection back on. I find it a relief as well that we don’t have access to movies or TV, which we usually might watch online. For about eight years I did not watch TV. Now, with the internet it is so easy, but I don’t like how it makes me feel. Not having it [the internet] gives me the feeling of having more space and peace. Yet, when it’s there, and I’m feeling tired and lonely, the temptation is often too great….

This passage could perhaps have been written by many of us living now. What strikes me is what it’s not about. It’s not about the practical issues of being only semi-connected. I could still get online with my cell phone to check and send emails, but I had to reschedule a phone meeting, I couldn’t get the work done I’d planned to do, and wasn’t sure how soon I’d be able to. These practicalities certainly did give me some anxiety, but what I wrote reflects something else: a sort of underlying desire for more peace/concentration/quiet, constantly defeated with compulsive connecting.

It seems to me that this peace–compulsion dichotomy is something in and of itself. It is as though the experience of working and living with digital media is enveloped by these bigger behaviors (compulsions) and desires (peace). Objectively, we could participate in the digital world — just using these tools to get our work done without experiencing this tension. But, is that actually possible?

Re-reading the excerpts of interviews with this project’s NYC participants I was struck by H’s comment about being digitally connected:

So, you’re always on, but not present, so your mind is in another space. That’s something I want to get better at, being present.

She’s talking about this peace/compulsion conflict too, I think.

I feel this relates to what ethnographer and psychologist Sherry Turkle means when she talks about how technology itself is not bad for people, but we should be wary of the “habits of mind” it allows us to practice. In this very interesting TED talk she notes:

We’re letting technology take us places we don’t want to go” … “those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t just change what we do, but who we are” … “we’re getting used to a new way of being alone together [e.g. three friends sitting together in the same room texting other people] … people want to be with each other, but also elsewhere” …

And also:

We can end up hiding from each other [by doing stuff on one’s Blackberry] even when we are together” … “human relationships are rich, and they’re messy, and demanding — and we clean them up with technology and when we do we can sacrifice conversation for mere connection” … “that feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ is very important in our relationships with technology … it makes us want to spend time with machines” … “we’re lonely but we’re afraid of intimacy”…

Near the end of the talk Turkle emphasizes the importance of learning how to be alone with ourselves — of feeling comfortable when others aren’t around and not immediately reaching for our devices for connection and distraction.

Or, could we look at this as a more complicated dilemma?

We desire to be connected with other people, so we spend a lot of time connecting with them digitally. These digital relationships which sustain, but do not necessarily nourish us allow us to “survive” mentally and emotionally with fewer physical, real-time relationships. And, so we in fact have fewer physical, real-time relationships. This can even be true if you work, for example, all day in a busy office. Most of your time, and most of your colleague’s time is likely spent not with one another, but alone together — each typing away and looking at the screen. The same can be true at home with one’s family, with everyone plugged into their own device, or attention fixed together at the TV screen — together but alone.

And, so if we “unplug”, what’s there…?

Space. Quiet. Ourselves?

We express a desire for this “peace”, but I also wonder, is the quietness that we do experience by disconnecting a lot more quiet than it would have been before all the devices we now have? In other words, by disconnecting are we dropping into the world where we — not too long ago — used to live all the time? And, when we drop in, do we see that this world become weak and thin compared to before? (in that, in it’s current state of few relationships or even daily habits, it alone could no longer sustain us…)

We do of course still have relationships, and do of course still live in the physical world. But, maybe differently and even not as fully as before? Did reading a book or listening to a story be told take us as “far away” as digital devices do?

I was talking a few weeks ago (by Skype) with a friend in New York, and I think that what he said referred to this. He said that he had a strong desire to not be so busy, not be so online, to clarify things and focus. At the same time, he said, the thought of stepping into that SPACE was also terrifying.

But still, so many of us seem to think that it’s important not to lose it whatever it is that is there.

 

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