When the Electricity is Off

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I found these notes in an old journal today. They are reflections on what could be considered another type of digital diet. That is, what happens when we can’t use electricity, upon which digital devices depend?

The power went out the other day because of a really hard rainstorm that caused a tree to fall down over the power line at the bottom of the driveway. The tree was huge and rotten, so we think the weight of the water on the leaves finally caused it to fall over.  We couldn’t drive anywhere because the tree was blocking the cars in, so I spent the day at home listening to the rain drip down the chimney.

I made a list of the things that you can and can’t do when the power is out. I found the list interesting because the can/can’t activities didn’t seem to fall into any rational categories, in the sense of one set being things that I prefer to do. For example, when the power is out, you can’t: toast bread, use the electric tea kettle, read at night, use a computer, connect to the internet, vacuum, blend with the blender, use the sewing machine, watch TV. When the power is out you can: kiss, talk, brush your hair, cook on the woodstove, eat a salad, laugh, run, look at the things growing in the forest, go swimming, chop wood, feed the chickens, write with paper and a pen.

(The some what radical, but often interesting) James Howard Kunstler writes about how we tend to think that “the internet will save us” as energy becomes more scarce and if things become unstable socially. Because, we think, using the internet, we would be able to work, share information, stay in touch, etc. without leaving our houses. But, he points out, if “electricity is on the fritz” and is only on a couple of hours a day, or not at all for a week, then that would seriously hamper any thought to continuing a normal life via our computers.

So, that’s some interesting food for thought..

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snow storm

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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.

 

Inner Noise / Quiet

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An interesting quote from philosopher Thomas Merton:

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.  More than that, it is cooperation with violence.  The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace.  It destroys his own inner capacity for peace.  It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

 

How do digital technologies play a role in our inner noise or our inner quiet?

Diet is going viral! Global research results by a new study!

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The University of Maryland has expanded their study of college students to a global initiative (blog and results here).

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?

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.

Digital Diet / Digital Fast

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Many of us have experiences about more or less voluntary or involuntary ‘media diet’ or ‘media fast’ in special circumstances: Courses, vacations… There were numerous great stories in response to Amelia’s blog entry on Digital Time.

Recently, the NYT posed the Unplugged Challenge:  It asked some readers, ‘ordinary people’, to experiment on being offline. Here are their stories. This seems to be almost a trend: There are numerous bloggers (!), such as this one, who advocate a media diet and let the world know about their efforts. Also, several academic research projects are currently addressing the question, like this and this one (thank you, David).

But what if we tried a media fast on an ordinary day — no cell phones, computers, no games, no movies (or even those old-fashioned TV, radio, and news papers)? Or even a diet for half-a-day? How about that for each of us as an experiment in autoethnography?

Fordham students: blog about your experiences by Fri 10/1. Describe and analyse — think of reasons and possible consequences regarding your experiences in terms of communication. Read some comments on Amelis’s Digital Time post, for your inspiration!