I don’t normally pay attention to token gestures, but Mar 1/Mar 2 are the National Day of Unplugging. I don’t know who is behind this idea, or how much momentum it has, but I really like it. My one experience of joining a Jewish friend to observe Sabbath was both deeply relaxing and thought-provoking.
A complete unplugging happens to be unfeasible for me, since Refactor Camp is this weekend, but I am sort of pleased about the serendipity here. I am suspending my normal 90% online life to do something that strongly depends on physical presence and face-to-face interactions. Refactor Camp weekend is also Ribbonfarm Unplugged weekend.
So while I won’t be able to entirely unplug from the Internet (let alone electricity), I think this qualifies as observance in the spirit of the idea. If you like the concept, check out that NDU website for more inspiration. Figure out a way to unplug.
While this is a start, I don’t think a token day of ritual observance and a manifesto will really make a huge difference. What we really need, to preserve our sanity and really figure out how to regain control of our agency, is to truly understand how digital/electronic power have hacked our brains, and hack the digital forces right back. They’re not as inexorable as they seem.
I want to share one particularly good unplugging hack I discovered recently, which has made a huge difference in my life. I bought a pair of binoculars. Specifically, these excellent Pentax binoculars:
I’ve wanted binoculars since I was a kid, but somehow never got around to buying them as an adult. I am particularly proud that I had the discipline to buy small, lightweight and waterproof binoculars I knew I would actually use, rather than bigger, powerful ones that satisfy gadget-philia more than observation needs.
But why are binoculars an unplugging hack?
Because they intensify present-moment sensory experience to a degree that you end up systematically choosing the present over the camera-deferred future. It is much easier to disintermediate the camera using a different device than simply trying to use it less. It’s the gadget equivalent of the solution to the “don’t think of an elephant” problem (the answer is “think of a giraffe instead”).
This moment — and the opportunity to experience it more intensely through binoculars — will be gone immediately. You have to choose whether to experience the moment or capture an impoverished digital memory that you are unlikely to ever review.
I’ve now carried my binoculars with me on several long waterfront walks, observed seabirds, container ships, trains and snowy mountains. I’ve taken them with me on a couple of long train and car rides, and to the Swiss alps. It seems to count as odd behavior. People stare when I whip out my binoculars while they’re whipping out their cameras or smartphones.
The camera today — especially the smartphone and lightweight point-and-shoot — is a dangerous device. Twenty years ago, film cameras were cumbersome enough (and film expensive enough) that most normal people didn’t experience reality through them by default. The dangerous device then was the camcorder, which tempted you into looking at the world entirely through a viewfinder.
Today, cameras being entirely digital and plugged into the Internet via wireless links means that they represent the temptation of continuous sharing. They are now as dangerous as camcorders used to be. Things in the environment start to be viewed and evaluated primarily in terms of their potential as online social objects. We see a spectacle and see an invisible Like button hovering under it. Once Google Glass goes mainstream, this will be literally true.
This power and potential is great so long as we remain conscious of what social sharing adds to the present experience. Does it enhance it or impoverish it? Does the act of sharing make you pay closer, more mindful attention to what you are looking at, or are you turning snap-and-share into a mindless operation like filing unread paperwork or retweeting unread links on Twitter?
Is your camera encouraging you to file away your life instead of living it?
These are not isolated behaviors. They represent a widespread abdication of agency and indeterminate deferral of direct experience. We are starting to inhabit a culture where we are more likely to forward the experiential possibilities of our life to other people, our unreliable future selves, or digital systems, rather than choosing specific experiences in the moment.
I am never big on prescription, but I’ll offer one here: don’t do that.
And if you buy binoculars to counter the power of the camera in our lives today, please don’t buy those terrible camera-binocular hybrids you see advertised in Sky Mall catalogs. That would defeat the purpose.
I’ll stop here, just short of 900 words, which for me is a pretty disciplined act of unplugging in its own right, since I normally go on for at least 3000 words. But you’ll probably be hearing more from me on this topic in the future. I might even try to figure out a way to regularly observe a digital Sabbath (anyone want to write a WordPress plugin for me called “Digital Sabbath” that takes this site offline every Friday-Saturday and puts up a “Get offline!” page instead?)