“Unplug From the Net to Connect With People”? Why Not Drive an SUV to Fight Global Warming?

Posted Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Apparently tomorrow will be the “National Day of Unplugging”, when people who are ready to “take the unplug challenge” will obey the call to “put down your cell phone, sign out of email, stop your Facebook and Twitter updates”. But this isn’t just some kind of stunt or willpower exercise; there’s a point to it. Unplugging is supposed to help people “reclaim time, slow down their lives and reconnect with friends, family, the community and themselves.”

Uh, what?

Let me get this straight: Not posting any updates on Facebook, and not checking my friends and family’s Facebook updates, is supposed to help me connect with them? Turning off my cell phone, and refusing to send or check my email is supposed to bring me more into connection with other people?

What in the world do this event’s organizers think the rest of us are doing with Facebook, with email, and with cell phones?

The organizers are a group called the Sabbath Manifesto, and they espouse ten principles. The first two are “avoid technology” and “connect with loved ones”, respectively.

How the hell am I supposed to connect with my loved ones without using technology? Fewer than 10% of my friends, and absolutely none of my family, live within walking distance of me. (And I’m a fast and powerful distance-walker.) If I drive down the Peninsula, or take CalTrain to go see a friend, that’s using technology. If I quit using technology, I’d have to give up at least 90% of my social circle.

I’m not the only one to notice this contradiction. The very first comment on the Connect With Loved Ones page says:

…technology has brought my family together closer than it ever has in the past. If it weren’t for social media, I doubt that I would know what’s going on in the lives of many of my family members. We are spread out all over the country. I’m several thousand miles away from one of my favorite nephews, and yet I was able to congratulate him within hours of him becoming a father. That all happened on Facebook.

Another user commented on both the Connect With Loved Ones page and the Avoid Technology page, pointing out in both places that the two principles conflict. Like me, his family is spread out across North America; he says he’s told his grandchildren that it’s OK to use the phone to call their grandparents on the Sabbath. Another commenter on that page points out how useful technology can be: “I happen to like Bach (YMMV). I can’t have a small orchestra of live people come play for me in my house, but I can put on a CD anytime.”

The problem with the entire “Day of Unplugging” concept is that its core assumption is that technology inherently promotes isolation and dehumanizes us. But the reverse is true: Creating and using technology is at the core of what it means to be human. Technology doesn’t isolate us; it brings us closer together. In many cases, it’s the only thing that enables certain connections at all — or the only thing that makes it at all practical.

Over and over again, surveys of people’s online habits show that the most plugged-in among us are using technology to connect to others. We use email, chat, social networking, web forums, bulletin boards, wikis, mailing lists, and IM. And yet somehow, the bizarre myth of the “lonely computer user, sitting alone in their house with nobody around them” still maintains its currency in the marketplace of ideas. It’s time we got rid of that idea, just as we wouldn’t believe that “people who drive cars are antisocial and lonely”.

My social circle isn’t any more “addicted” to technology than any other these days — it’s a bunch of mostly 30- and 40-somethings, in fields ranging from web development to arts therapy to academic psychology to a literature professor. If someone in my group took this “unplug challenge”… well, for only 24 hours? We probably wouldn’t immediately notice their absence. But if they were unplugged for a week? When they popped up online again, we’d be asking, “Where were you? Are you okay? Is or was something wrong?”

“No, I’m fine”, they’d respond. “I was just taking the Unplug Challenge for a week.”

“And why were you doing that?”

“To reconnect with my friends, family and community!”

“Uhh… you mean us? The people who haven’t heard from you in all this time?”

For the past decade or more, every time I’ve heard someone say they’re going to be off the Net and have their phone turned off, they’ve meant: “I’m going to be inaccessible. I’m not going to be communicating with anyone.” It’s the exact opposite of connecting to people. (It usually goes with a vacation — which used to be a much more effective way of disconnecting from people, back when mere physical removal was enough to cut off all communication.)

The computer doesn’t isolate me. It helps me connect to a much richer, more diverse group of friends than I could otherwise stay in touch with. Even my Bay Area-local friends don’t get to see me face-to-face all that often; after a day at work, we’re all too tired to spend another hour on the freeway just to have to turn around and go home early. But by posting on Dreamwidth and Livejournal and Twitter, we can converse with each other for as long as we can stay awake. We can even rejoin the conversation the next morning, catching up on whatever we missed overnight.

And friends who’ve had to move across the country can stay in touch, and even form bridges between their old communities and the new social circles they find in their new areas.

Ever since the telegraph — heck, ever since the invention of smoke signals, talking drums, and signal mirrors — people have used technology to talk to each other. Just today, I’ve comforted a friend in Boston; maintained contact with my sweetheart; exchanged jokes and banter with friends in Las Vegas and Sunnyvale; congratulated a friend on the Peninsula on a personal success; and had general conversation with two friends in San Francisco, two in the East Bay, one on the Peninsula, and one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And today hasn’t been at all unusual in that regard (except for the friend needing comfort; luckily, emotional crises among my friends are rare). And the day’s not over yet.

I used to have absolutely no socializing at all until after work, and then only on the few nights a week when people could get together in the same place at the same time. So instead of seeing maybe a half-dozen friends once a week, and larger numbers on much less frequent time-scales, now I’ve interacted with ten friends already, and can look forward to doing so every day of the week.

Tell me again how “isolated” and “antisocial” the Internet and the computer have made me?

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