March 21, 2014

A Case against Unplugging

At The New Yorker, Casey Cep articulates the case against unplugging, managing to bring the Pope, Thoreau, and other critics into one piece. She pretty much spells out the uncertainty I feel.

Unplugging from devices doesn’t stop us from experiencing our lives through their lenses, frames, and formats. We are only ever tourists in the land of no technology, our visas valid for a day or a week or a year, and we travel there with the same eyes and ears that we use in our digital homeland. That is why so many of those who unplug return so quickly to speak about their sojourns. The ostentatious announcements of leave-taking (“I’m #digitaldetoxing for a few days, so you won’t see any tweets from me!” “Leaving Facebook for a while to be in the world!”) are inevitably followed by vainglorious returns, excited exclamations having turned into desperate questions (“Sorry to be away from Twitter. #Digitaldetox for three WHOLE days. Miss me?” “Back online. What did I miss?”).

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That is why, I think, the Day of Unplugging is such a strange thing. Those who unplug have every intention of plugging back in. This sort of stunt presents an experiment, with its results determined beforehand; one finds exactly what one expects to find: never more, often less. It’s one of the reasons that the unplugging movement has attracted such vocal criticism from the likes of Nathan JurgensonAlexis Madrigal, and Evgeny Morozov. If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it. But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.