DWT: Benefits and Limits of the Digital Age

By Libby Cathey

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I am the quintessential millennial girl. Self-assured, a proud post-9/11 American, a commodity loving consumer, and a fan of up-to-date Apple products, it’s a fair assumption that I’ve spent far more days with technology than without it. But challenged by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s The Distraction Addiction, which studies the interactions between people and technology, I decided to take a “digital sabbath” on April 19th. In my day without technology, I was able recognize how much I rely on my digital devices and how that has both restricted and improved my daily life. “Our goal is to not eliminate technology completely, but to limit it and control it,” Pang said.

I spent my day without technology while visiting my home in Little Rock, Arkansas. In my suburban neighborhood, it is far easier to escape technology than would be in Manhattan. I turned off my phone at 11:59PM on April 18th and rested for a presumably relaxing day ahead. Without my usual, nonstop morning alarms, I felt like I had all the time in the (tech-less) world to stay cuddled in bed. When sunlight pierced in through an overhead window, I finally awoke for the day. Without my phone or a working watch, I relied on the kitchen oven for time. 11:33AM. I’d finally caught up on sleep lost in my over-programmed semester. I looked around our open-air kitchen, into the living room, and noticed the abundance of machines surrounding me (even our cat’s litter box came with batteries). It was then that I started to realize the extent of which technology exists in my daily life, beyond the obvious iPhone, MacBook, iPad. 

I decided to take my dog, Sammy, for a run through the backwoods of our house. I began to reach for my phone to tune into my running playlist before remembering my digital sabbath. So Sammy and I ran out the door and through the trails. Without my earbuds, my running music came from the sounds of nature—leaves crushing under my feet, Sammy panting from exhaustion, running water when we dashed by the creek—but not all sounds were natural. I also heard beeps from a construction zone and cars speeding. I thought back to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and how one must seek nature to find peace. Yet I found myself thinking backwards to how peaceful I might feel with music or my phone. I thought to how I wanted—how I felt the need— to take a picture of Sammy and instagram it with my location tagged. I wondered if anyone in New York had texted me to question where I was. I began to realize how in control I feel with technology and how disconnected I feel without it.

I made it back home with a long day still ahead. The hardest device to give up was by far my iPhone. I feel that in many ways it is an extension of myself, so the habitual reaches for it every five minutes were difficult to overcome. I decided to get some school work done, but yet again, without my computer I couldn’t read the articles I was assigned for class. I grabbed an old fashioned, print book, The Poisonwood Bible, one of my favorites from high school and read for pleasure, but even in reading I found my mind wandering to social media, television, and electronic games. 

My mom arrived home with dinner, and I noticed how my social interactions differed without technology. Normally I’m “multi-tasking” in conversations with my parents—checking Facebook, texting friends, watching cat videos—but I found myself invested in our conversation because it was all that was in front of me. Pang said:

“We spend quite a bit more time on [social media] than we have in the past…there seems to be a kind of substitution effect in the sense that it’s what you do instead of hanging out and spending time with people or interacting with people who are right beside you.” 

Without my distraction addiction at hand, I was able to truly engage in the event. My mom and I spent the evening looking through old photo albums and sharing memories until it was time for bed. I can’t say my mind didn’t wander to social media, but I was able to contain myself from stealing another photo for “#throwbackthursday.” The fact that I wasn’t around others invested in their devices alleviated my urge to log on. On the contrary, when I’m out to dinner with friends, and they’re on their devices, it seems most appropriate to unlock my screen too. I found this telling of the way my generation uses technology in social situations versus the way my parents’ use it. 

At around 9:00pm I broke my digital sabbath. When my mom got in bed, I heard the familiar opening to “Law and Order” and couldn’t resist climbing in with her to watch. Once the TV was on, I immediately reached for my phone, and power was restored. It’s interesting that as soon as I allowed for one technology, I bolted to use the others. I achieved twenty-one hours without technology. Though I was habitually reaching for a phantom phone, without the device at hand I was able to “ be engaged with the event, not socially engaged with it,” as Pang says.

Technology can prevent us from noticing our surroundings or embracing a moment in real time. However, technology also allows us to access information we may never see otherwise. It allows us to remember the moments we want to hold onto, whether that’s a childhood photo or a run with man’s best friend. Technology is an invaluable resource. But it’s important to remain in control of it before it takes control of you. My day without technology concluded with an appreciation for the opportunities technology allows us but reminded me of the countless opportunities in which we can benefit by turning it off. Pang said, “The objective is to learn to use it in ways that will help you be more focused and mindful.” In my day without technology, I was able to reclaim my addiction in a distracting world.

 

Note: The photo of Sammy, my dog, was taken one day following my DWT in an effort to capture what I wanted to Instagram but could not without my iPhone. Still, it closely resembles how I spent the previous day. 

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