As a new digital generation emerges, we find that our lives are completely integrated with technology. New versions of smartphones, tablets, laptops and MP3 devices keep us connected to each other and to the world. We thrive on a constant relationship with the media.
Recently, the Huffington Post promoted a day dedicated to discovering the importance of disengaging from technology and reconnecting with community. The National Day of Unplugging, from sundown on March 7 to sundown on March 8, encouraged a complete withdrawal from technology. Huffington Post called it a “Digital Detox.” One day. No computers. No phones. No television.
This disconnection provided participants with the opportunity to go outside, cherish the fresh air and have face-to-face interactions with other people. Without the distractions of technology, there is more time for contemplation, or even reading and studying.
Although many of us might find giving up technology for a day rather annoying, committing to just one day is relatively easy. When that 24 hours ends, though, it is tempting to completely reintegrate into the world of technology. Given that it is such a short window of time, does a National Day of Unplugging make any difference?
In 2009, eight Carleton students worked together to create a documentary called “Disconnected.” Three students willingly unplugged their computers for three weeks.
For students, giving up technology for one day is merely an inconvenience, but any longer becomes almost unreasonable. College classes demand constant connectivity with the world. These three Carls learned how to work a typewriter, reverting to writing their papers by hand and carefully typing up the final version. Without computer access, research for papers became more time consuming. Many libraries only have online card catalogs, so they found new ways to acquire research.
Perhaps the largest disconnection came from the loss of email. St Olaf students understand the necessity of email. The college assumes we constantly refresh it, notifying the student body of important information solely through email. Professors announce assignments or cancellations through email. Peers become worried when another student stops responding to emails, and they immediately assume something must be wrong. Three weeks without email would leave our inboxes bursting with messages.
To take the study further, one Carleton student stopped texting. He used the traditional method of phone calls and voicemails to reach people. Unsurprisingly, waiting for returned phone calls proved inconvenient. In a culture in which quick communication is facilitated by texts and social media messages, it became frustrating for the student to reach others.
These Carls survived three weeks without technology. Without computers, they had more time to focus on their classes. On the other hand, they missed certain peer interactions and were horrifically behind on their emails. While we might not enjoy how connected we’ve become, it is challenging to live without constant access to technology.
In some cases, benefits emerge from social and societal disconnection. St Olaf’s study abroad programs create a sense of disconnection and integration with different cultures.
Over Interim 2013, I took a study abroad course in Tanzania. During the trip, my cell phone became merely an alarm clock and a flashlight. The only Internet access I could find was the occasional Internet cafe. But during my time of exploration abroad, walking along the dirt roads in small towns, the desire for connection was nonexistent.
Then in January 2014, I took the Theater in London course in which St Olaf tested an iPad pilot program. The school issued everyone in my class their own personal iPad. For that month, the entire class posted theater reviews to a class website. The need for physical books disappeared, all replaced by
e-versions. Constant access to Facebook meant that even though we had left the subarctic temperatures of Minnesota behind, we were still connected to life back on the Hill. We uploaded pictures to Facebook daily to keep others in touch with our experiences.
Did we lose something by having our iPads? Yes. During my month in Tanzania, there was always the yearning to explore more, to sit outside late at night talking. But in London, we sought out Internet cafes for online connection. We made plans with one another through emails. At night we laid on our beds, lost in our own digital worlds.
Contrary to what we may believe, certain moments of disconnection provide opportunities for new experiences and broaden our worldviews. But we still panic when our phones break. We fear that disconnection.
Unplugging from society feels like isolation from the rest of our generation. Disconnection is not a viable option for everyone, but we can be careful not to let technology destroy other experiences.
Katie Haggstrom ’14 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Omaha, Neb. She majors in English.