No Service

At the beginning of June, I spent several days visiting my childhood home. The photo below was taken on some of my father’s land in south-central South Dakota.


This yearly trip is always a chance to visit family and breathe in the expansive landscape, but, in recent years, it has also been an excuse to unplug. Not completely. I had my iPhone and used it to take and send photos, answer the occasional important message, keep up with (albeit sporadically) my friends’ Facebook postings, and, yes, ask Siri about nearest restaurants along the way. I even had iPad WiFi access in my dad’s house this year, thanks to a router he had recently purchased. However, I spent no time “live blogging” or tweeting my trip or even considering doing so. Time passes with delicious slowness on the farm. To get decent cell phone reception, one must drive or walk to a nearby hill (ala Michael Bluth), usually not worth the effort. Unplugging is easy rather than a challenge.

Too easy, perhaps. I’ve been home for over ten days, and I’m finding it hard to plug back in. The emails I’d planned to catch up on remain unread in my inbox. My Twitter account is on life support. This blog post is my first step toward powering back up.

I have never been as connected as author and entrepreneur Baratunde Thurston (I’m still not exactly sure what Foursquare is and can barely navigate my LinkedIn profile), but I think that most of us can identify with some of what he experienced during his own, much more deliberate decision to “leave the internet” for 25 days:

“The greatest gift I gave myself was a restored appreciation for disengagement, silence, and emptiness. I don’t need to fill every time slot with an appointment, and I don’t need to fill every mental opening with stimulus. Unoccupied moments are beautiful, so I have taken to scheduling them…. Perhaps the most life-affirming change is that I rarely walk down a street while looking at or tapping on a device. My reading or writing can wait, especially if it means I will be alive later to deal with it.” Read More

Since returning from my trip, I find myself thinking about what aspects of the internet and social media I enjoy, what parts I need (in particular for my writing career), and what I can do (better) without or find downright annoying. Finding whatever our personal balance is between wise consumption of today’s technological wonders and being consumed by them is different for everyone, but it’s a need that more and more people are talking about. Whether you just want to cut back on your Facebook time or, like Neil Gaiman, take a longer sabbatical from social media, advice abounds on everything from how to practice conscious computing to how to unplug in the morning, in the afternoon, and on weekends.

While we like to think of ourselves as a groundbreaking generation in this regard, our challenge is nothing new. As William Powers reminds us in Hamlet’s Blackberry, our internal tug of war between distraction and focus is as old as the South Dakota hills, and we have—and have always had—the power of choice. Do we check our email for the sixth time in an hour or maintain eye contact with the person in front of us? Do we preoccupy ourselves thinking about the perfect status that describes what we are doing or do we remain immersed in the experience?

How do you manage your use of information and communication technology? What balance works for you, and has it evolved over time?

4 thoughts on “No Service

  1. Lisa, I also read Thurston’s article in Fast Company and have been thinking about how to at least slow down my connectivity. I found myself envying my daughter’s stay at overnight camp, where no devices are allowed. I’d like to say our summer vacation might be a way out, but realistically, a cell phone will make the trip go much more smoothly. Complaining about the Internet feels like complaining about having too much food — it has given us so much in terms of connecting with wonderful people we would never have met without the Internet, finding topics to write about, learning from others. I think the solution for me may be self-governance: setting up rules for when to use, how long, etc., at least until new habits form.

    • Frances, I think you are spot on about self-governance. The surprising thing for me is that what I thought I’d learned in terms of self-management skills in the past doesn’t automatically transfer to what I need for working and living online–sometimes I feel I’m starting all over!

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