On Disconnecting and Reconnecting
The seeds of this essay date back to May 13, 2008, when Doug Johnson posted “The beauty of disconnectedness—Ken Rodoff” at Blue Skunk Blog. But they really date back a lot further than that—at least to the 2002 Charleston Conference, during which I challenged a speaker who said none of us has time for contemplation any more.
The Johnson post is a comment on a comment. On May 1, 2008, Johnson wrote a post about Twitter—”Twitiquette is not enough.” (Johnson, a school librarian, was in student information system training and used Twitter as part of that. “I really, really, really was hoping to get hooked and discover what all the educational excitement is about this tool.” Instead, he found himself asking questions about being “Minnesota nice” in Twitter—and why anyone would use it. The questions are interesting, but this isn’t about Twitter—at least not directly.)
One comment was from Ken Rodoff—and, as Johnson did, I’m going to quote it verbatim:
Twitter is a thing. Just another thing.
Twitter use may represent a less-than-dedicated employee, but at home isn’t it less of a time-suck than, oh, say, SL?
What I find most confusing is how people can dedicate so much time AFTER work hours,AT HOME! to SL, UStream, WeStream?
Am I the only one with kids? Am I the only one trying to have a F2F with my spouse (I mean, a lot of people sure do love the F2Fs, you’d think they practice them in their homes)? Am I the only one watching Lost? Hell’s Kitchen? The Office? Please don’t answer those last three...I’m well aware I live, at times, a less than esoteric existence...but I’m watching them with my wife, and we’re even talking about them.
And what about reading? When’s anyone getting that done?
All I know is that this soporific soul of mine needs / craves / begs for sleep. Begs for balance. Begs for an all-inclusive life, but every time I add one thing, I’ve jettisoned another.
Take the origin of this comment:
1. Log on to Twitter
2. Click on Darren Draper
3. Click on the link to his blog
4. Click on his ‘hey, read this’ little blue widget
5. Read your post
6. Think about your point
7. Read the comments (okay, only two...wanna guess?)
8. Type my comment
Total time so far (Verizon Fios Internet...just thought you should know): 12 minutes.
So, what did I lose over these past 12 minutes:
1. The washer to dryer exchange that my load of darks so desperately craves.
2. Making lunch for work tomorrow.
3. Cleaning something in this house...anything in this house (myself included).
4. A chance to talk with my wife as all 4 of my children sleep.
5. A peregrination
6. The top of the 9th inning of the Red Sox - Twins game.
7. The beauty of disconnectedness
And it’s #7 here that irks me most of all because it’s the constant addition of things that makes me realize how much I had in the first place.
When I think about Twitter I’m ashamed of myself. When I check Feedburner I’m mortified at who I’ve become. When I think about what I should blog about I near tears.
All of the aforementioned make me realize I’ve neglected my children, my wife, and in its purest form, my life.
Maybe I’ll blog about it.
Advertise it on Twitter.
And see if my Technorati rank goes up.
Really now, just as Twitter asks: what are we doing?
Before you start saying “That’s just Walt putting down Twitter again” or anything of the sort: This isn’t about Twitter. I spend zero time on Twitter directly (and the same time on SL!)—but if you substitute “FriendFeed,” I understand the problem and the temptation. I particularly appreciate #7.
I’ll skip Johnson’s admiring quotation of a Clay Shirky passage that I find elitist and go on to the rest of Johnson’s response:
Like Ken, I wonder if I spend too much time online at the expense of other activities. A friend observed that replying to each comment left on my blog:
... a personal comment just to say “thanks” [for leaving a comment] makes me wonder if the blogger actually has a life!
Well, I think I have a life. It doesn’t include watching much TV, playing golf, or doing as much volunteer work as I should. While Ken and I both have four kids, the LWW and I are empty nesters. (Whew!) So can we gauge by the amount of time we spend on line if we need to “get a life?”
Subjectively, we could place all our leisure time activities on scale. The low end might be watching Gilligan’s Island re-runs (preferably while drinking a beer, wearing sweats, and in a prone position) and on the high end might be tutoring disadvantaged children, comforting lepers, or coaching one’s daughter’s hockey team. (I believe the last two also qualify one for canonization.)
Blog writing, commenting, responding to comments is, I suppose, akin to pretending to be an elf. But if feels productive rather than consumptive and is one hell of a lot more entertaining than 95% of television programming.
I guess I would even Twitter before I would watch Desperate Housewives.
Are some uses of leisure time better than others?
The odd thing here is that the title of the post has been lost somewhere along the way. Rodoff clearly sees some virtue in being disconnected. So do I. I’ll suggest Johnson may be drawing the wrong comparison when comparing Twittering to watching TV—since, realistically, being truly disconnected means being off the tube as well.
I watch Desperate Housewives. I don’t Twitter. I guess I’ve made my judgment. In fact, while we watch roughly an hour of TV a night (some old, some new), I rarely do anything on the computer after dinner, and almost never after 8 p.m. Would I be better off on FriendFeed than watching TV?
Not the right question. I think the right question here is: Am I spending enough time connected to the physical world and disconnected from various virtual worlds (which include reading)? Contemplation is part of that time. Peregrinations—great word, and my wife and I do them almost daily—are another. Meditation might be another. Sitting and staring at the window (or lying on the September grass) might be one, although that slides into contemplation pretty easily.
Johnson got 16 comments—and, as is typical for most blogs, all came within a week of the post. The very first one was on the money. In part:
Oh, free time. It’s YOUR time. It’s FREE. Deciding between Twittering (Tweeting?) or watching a ball game sounds equally silly and boring to me. I’m sure you would think what I do in my free time is boring and silly. Who cares?
That may be all there is to say (but don’t get your hopes up). I’m not about to suggest to Johnson that he reduce his online time; that’s none of my business. The second, from Jane L. Hyde, was equally to the point (excerpted):
Well, we all make our own decisions. I don’t watch TV, but I watch movies sometimes. And I read a lot. And I like to garden and feed the birds. And take pictures of stuff. And listen to music... Oh, and I hang out with my grandchildren and their parents and listen to their dad play piano and talk about his art projects, and I go to the little guys’ and girl’s ball games, because the kids grow up so fast… I don’t do SL and can’t imagine getting involved in Twitter, and I don’t keep up my work blogs very well…and I love my personal blogging… That’s my rant. If we all rant then we’ll get one thing we very much need from the Wonderful Web—the assurance that our struggles with time are not our individual burden but something we all have…. There’s no One Right Way, is there? Just the daily muddle of life and trying to hold on to some kind of vision.
This one’s interesting because Hyde is disconnected from the computer (and from media) and connected with life a lot. Johnson responded to both, beginning: “You both sound like decidedly sane and healthy persons with good values. Good to have at least a few of your type commenting on the Blue Skunk ;-)”
What I missed in most comments was any sense that being disconnected was viewed as a desirable thing some of the time. People focused on how they use their time, whether it’s the right use, whether they’re doing enough or too much new technology, etc.
Fast-forward to January 7, 2010, when Julie O’Dell posted “Open thread: Should tech get a turn-off?” at ReadWriteWeb. Excerpts:
Being a technology blogger is like having a license for an around-the-clock gadget and Web addiction.
No one expects you to leave your house during the day. You’re allowed to spend the majority of your life in front of a glowing screen, and flipping out over WiFi issues is par for the course. And you’re never far from the Web, since your mobile is always in hand when you have to leave your laptop behind for some incomprehensible reason.
But even with such a license in hand, I have to make a case for periodically disconnecting. What do you think?
More and more, I am trying to set aside unplugged hours and even days for Internet-free, mobile-free, “Luddite time.” Time for asking a stranger for directions, time for talking to the people you’re with rather than the people you “follow,” time for interacting with the world around you in ways that don’t include clicking, scrolling or downloading. Time that’s increasingly being destroyed by smart phones, “super” phones and whatever “super duper” devices are in the pipeline….
After suggesting that sitting in front of those glowing screens so much “can’t be good for us as living, breathing organismsm” O’Dell notes:
Another detriment to a constantly wired life is that you’re not truly present with the folks around you every day, and you begin to forget how polite, normal people communicate. You become too easily distracted by notifications from your mobile, glazing over and tuning out to parse your RSS feeds while real conversations are going on without you…
And very often, a preoccupation with the Web leads to a total loss of perspective… Not typically the most empathetic people, we begin to give more attention and emotion to minor tech events (Google Wave, anyone?) than to major world events. If it didn’t trend on Twitter and hit Digg’s front page, we tend to not notice or care…
She also notes that being constantly online is “probably fairly bad for your health” and, after saying she plans to spend more time offline, asks for reader opinions. The 33 comments offer an interesting range, beginning with one I find sad: A man and his wife went to Monterey for a long weekend, left their laptops and iPhones behind…and “came back a day a half early.” Another turns off the internet every Saturday. Some only seem to go offline to watch TV. Then there are the devoted disconnectors, like Maria Lantin:
I go offline for 2-3 weeks in the summer and periodically for a day or so. The single days feel good but the 2-3 weeks are amazing. After about 5 days I start feeling like there’s so much room in my mind, like I could do anything, start anything, read a book, dance, go for looooog walks. It’s pretty damn mind blowing.
Until our last major vacation we were always offline when cruising. Fortunately, most cruise ships now have wifi and relatively inexpensive internet access. Unfortunately, most cruise ships now have wifi and relatively inexpensive internet access. I love the idea of going offline entirely for two weeks—and, someday soon, I will. (Another commenter, who says he should disconnect more often, does take at least a week’s vacation every summer with no phone, laptop, iPod, TV, etc. “It takes me about 72 hours to fully feel unplugged, but the rest of the week is greatness.”)
Some people can’t imagine turning off their smartphones—but others see the point:
It’s pretty much essential. I spend far too much time checking Twitter, and have recently had to enforce a time-out rule, to take a walk or read in silence or something. Yesterday I was netless most of the day and it was great! Ended up playing the bass and violin for a while and went for a long walk [albeit in bloody freezing snow] with my daughter.
Carri Bugbee may “crave some time off in a country without broadband,” but might also be a poster child for the problem:
In this time of rapid change, it’s actually a little scary to go offline for a bit. You could come back and find out Twitter changed its essential functionality or Apple released the most amazing device the world has ever seen.
To which I would probably say “So? You’ll find out about it—and even if you don’t, you’ll live.”
Some techies recognize the problem—but go with it anyway. Take this one:
It got worse with the iPhone, I have to say. There’s always something to check or look up or play with, usually much more interesting than reality, and it’s right there, all the time. Relationships can and do suffer. But then again, you can take my iPhone when you pry it from my cold dead hands, as the saying goes. So I strive for balance, and pieces like this post really help.
So, thanks for writing this and reminding us all, once again, of the need to disengage from the online world at times. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I have a bunch of unread email...
Sigh. “Usually much more interesting than reality.”
Jack Abbott brought it back to what I find most interesting:
…The problem I have is that we seem to think it’s all about connectedness, primarily digital and being able to remove ourselves from that if just for a few moments. It’s my thinking that it’s a whole lot more than that and that it’s really nothing new in the GRAND scheme of things. Yogis have been telling us for generations, indeed centuries that to achieve enlightenment we need to quiet our minds. To truly see we need to close our eyes, to live rather than exist we need to leap ahead of our physical existence and peek into the metaphysical. I’m now thinking that what we’ve been calling a need to disconnect is really a need to reconnect, but at an entirely different level. Reengage with nature, with God, with love with ourselves…
Leo Babauta posted “Get Less Done: Stop Being Productive and Enjoy Yourself” sometime in August 2009 at zenhabits. While I could argue that being truly productive—getting your best work done, not just your most—requires disconnecting at times or at least getting away from multitasking, Babauta makes good points. Since his blog is, according to his own statement, uncopyrighted, I’m quoting the whole thing.
There’s too much emphasis these days on productivity, on hyperefficiency, on squeezing the most production out of every last minute.
People have forgotten how to relax. How to be lazy. How to enjoy life.
Try this: read some of the best books, magazines and blogs on productivity, and see how many will tell you how to get the most out of the time you spend waiting, how to maximize your energy, how to make use of your commute time, how to make every meeting more effective, how to get more out of your workday, how to crank out more widgets.
People are working longer hours, constantly checking their inboxes, constantly focused on Getting More Done.
But to what end?
Are we producing more in order to make more money for corporations? Or to make more money for ourselves? Or just to hold on to our jobs—jobs we might not like anyway?
It’s possible we’re trying to get more done because we love doing it—and if that’s the case, that’s wonderful. But even then, working long hours and neglecting the rest of life isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes it’s good to Get Less Done, to relax, to breathe.
Let’s take a brief look at how to do that.
The Beauty of Getting Less Done
While working long hours and cranking out a lot of widgets is one way to go, another is to work on important things, to create amazing things, and then to relax.
I’m not saying you should surf the web all day, or take naps all afternoon … but why not? Why not enjoy a lovely nap? Why not take a long lunch and then a siesta? Why not enjoy a good book?
I get people who ask me all the time, “What should I do on those days when I can’t seem to be productive?”
My answer: “Enjoy it!”
Sure, we need to produce sometimes, especially if we have to pay the bills, but an obsession with productivity is unhealthy. When you can’t get yourself to be productive, relax. Let go of the need to be hyperefficient. Stop feeling guilty about enjoying yourself.
But what if you can’t motivate yourself … ever? Sure, that can be a problem. But if you relax, and enjoy yourself, you’ll be happier. And if you work when you get excited, on things you’re excited about, and create amazing things, that’s motivation. Not forcing yourself to work when you don’t want to, on things you don’t want to work on — motivation is doing things you love, when you get excited.
It’s how I work every day. I work on lots of projects, on things I really care about, with people I enjoy working with. (See my guide to becoming self-employed if you’d like to do the same.)
How to Relax
It’s funny that I’d even need a section on this topic—how to relax. It seems like it should be something we all know how to do. After all, aren’t we constantly searching for ways to be less lazy? And doesn’t it logically follow that we already know how to be lazy?
It’s possible you already have mastered the art of relaxing. And if so, congratulations. You are a Get Less Done master. All you need now, perhaps, is to let go of the guilt you might feel, and enjoy this relaxation.
But for those of you who have forgotten how to relax, you’re going to have a tougher time. Here’s a hint: don’t stress out about it. If you don’t know how to relax, it’s OK. Breathe. Take it slowly. One step at a time.
· Take 5 minutes to go outside for a walk. Breathe the fresh air.
· Give yourself more time to do things. More time means less rush.
· After work, get outside, take in nature, run around if you can.
· Play. Play like a child. Play with a child. Play when you work.
· Give yourself a day off. Sleep. Watch TV. Eat bon bons.
· At work, give yourself an hour off. Don’t try to be productive. Just have fun.
· Work with someone who is exciting. Get excited about a project.
· Take evenings off. Seriously, no working in the evenings.
· Get a massage.
Step by step, learn to relax. Learn that productivity isn’t everything. Creating is great, but you don’t need to fill every second with work. When you do work, get excited, pour yourself into it, work on important, high-impact tasks…and then relax.
I had that flagged for use in a future Making it Work “Balance” piece—but it fits better here, particularly since it’s not about librarianship or libraries. It’s about life, and not only disconnecting from online at times but disconnecting from “productivity” at times.
If I was going to nitpick, I’d suggest that relaxing and being lazy aren’t at all the same thing. People who are good at relaxing aren’t necessarily lazy; they may also be balanced. I don’t claim to be balanced and I’m not as good at relaxing as I should be—but disconnecting (or reconnecting) frequently helps. (As for laziness, I’m as lazy as the best of them.) Incidentally, the original article is littered with links, mostly to other zenhabits posts. You might want to check them out, if “Zen” doesn’t offend your productive mainstream sensibilities.
Aaron Swartz was offline for a full month. He wrote about it in a July 24, 2009 post at Raw Thought (www.aaronsw.com/weblog/). How was being offline for a month?
It was a huge, incredible, transformative experience. Those 30 days felt like six months. My habits changed, my relationships changed, my identity changed, my personality changed—hell, the physical shape of my body changed dramatically. I went through four legal pads trying to describe what it was like. I’m still not sure I really know.
One thing is clear, though: my normal life style isn’t healthy. This doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that requires a break to learn. I imagine people with unhealthy lifestyles know they’re unhealthy. They come home after work and say “I can’t go on like this,” they cry randomly in elevators. But I didn’t know. Life online is practically the only life I know… For most of my life, this has been it: a jumble of interruptions and requests and jobs and people, largely carried out alone. It never let up, so I never saw anything different. How was I to know there was anything wrong?
I used to think of myself as just an unhappy person… But that’s not how I was offline. I loved people—everyone from the counter clerk to the old friends I bumped into on the street. And I loved to go for walks and exercise in the gym…
But most of all, I felt not just happy, but firmly happy—solid, is the best way I can put it. I felt like I was in control of my life instead of the other way around, like its challenges just bounced off me as I kept doing what I wanted. Normally I feel buffeted by events, a thousand tiny distractions nagging at the back of my head at all times. Offline, I felt in control of my own destiny. I felt, yes, serene…
I don’t know how I’m going to carve a life away from the world’s constant demands and distractions. I don’t know how I’m going to balance all the things I want to do with the pressures and responsibilities they bring. But after my month off, I do know one thing: I can’t go on like this. So I’m damn well going to try.
The rest of the post is worth reading. I’d like to hope most of us don’t need to take a full month offline—but extended periods of disconnectedness, of connecting with ourselves and with those around us in the non-online world, might be essential and are certainly worthwhile. (Most comments were supportive. One was so astonishingly not that—well, you’ll have to read it yourself. Among other things, this person seems to think that if we spend time offline, we’re saying people on the nets aren’t worth our time. Balance, people, balance!)
That’s what Andrew “Andy” Burkhardt suggests in a November 17, 2009 post at Information Tyrannosaur (andyburkhardt.com). He was thinking about his own “information consumption”—a dozen Firefox tabs, Tweetdeck running in the background, Outlook notifying him of email every few minutes, the Blackberry asking for attention.
I do find about all sorts of interesting things…but what is getting one bit of information after another really doing for me?...
It seems to me that there is much to be gained from slowing down in our information consumption. When we just skip from blog post to blog post, tweet to tweet, we get information, but it never becomes knowledge and we don’t use that information. That’s one reason why I blog, so I can synthesize different thoughts and make a personal connection. Thinking about something and then writing about it makes it more concrete. That’s also why I find it necessary to take time out when I’m feeling overwhelmed and simply drink some tea, or write ideas down in a notebook, or watch a meteor shower.
Slowing down allows you to make connections between those eight articles you just read in your feed reader. It allows you to internalize pieces of information that you otherwise might simply forget or not really understand. That’s why in our information literacy program at Champlain we devote part of one session to talking about slowing down and reflecting. We ask students how or if they slow down to make connections. I feel it is something that is extremely important to discuss when talking about information.
One way to slow down—one that’s pretty explicit in the second quoted paragraph—is to disconnect from time to time. If you do it often enough and effectively enough (which probably means not trying to do it effectively!), you may avoid becoming overwhelmed. I should note that Burkhardt’s question in the first paragraph may offend some neophiles, those who believe they’re “on top of things” because they’re always online, always multitasking, always finding out the latest whatever. But most of those neophiles in the library field gave up on me—and on a medium as antique as a journal/magazine, even if it is distributed online—a long time ago. If you’re somewhere in the middle, well, think about it. Preferably when you’re not online.
It’s quite possible that I learned about zenhabits from Leigh Anne Vraibel, who blogs at Library Alchemy. Since she uses LAV in her blogs, I’ll use that here—and LAV posted “Library Workaholics Anonymous: Notes on Work and Play” on November 17, 2009. (Yes, that’s the same day as Burkhardt’s post. No, I don’t perceive a direct connection, but Gaia works in mysterious ways.)
LAV calls herself a “library workaholic”—she has a hard time saying no, she gets to work early, she stays late, she struggles to make time for breaks and lunch. “Every day I get at least twenty brilliant ideas that are going to inevitably result in more work for myself, so of course I try to do them all at once. Finally, whenever I try to set boundaries, say no to assignments, and delegate tasks to other people, I end up caving faster than a master spelunker the first time I meet any resistance.”
But she also plays hard—and tries to incorporate play into her work. She also deliberately tries to avoid taking things too seriously.
It sounds…sacrilegious, almost, the idea that we could take anything we do too seriously. And yet, there it is in a squirmy nutshell, the need to be devoted and passionate without becoming a monomaniac, the kind of person people avoid at parties because they can’t stop talking about library service for five seconds.
She hadn’t been posting much—partly because there’s lot of work, but also because she “sacrificed library blogging in favor of play.” This play was in the form of NaNoWriMo (oh, go look it up—I’m not going to get into that one again), and that’s a form of online play—but it’s still a form of disconnecting. The same post points to several zenhabits posts and says of that blog:
The overriding theme of the blog is achieving more by letting go, which sounds counter-intuitive. I suggest, though, that you approach this notion the same way you approached the last Library 2.0 innovation you tried–test it out for a month, see how it works, discard if necessary.
How do you know if you’ve got the work-play fulcrum set right for you? You’ll know. You’ll know because, in spite of everything, you will feel joyful, even when you are not always happy. If library work doesn’t make you feel joyful at the core, well…that’s a blog post for another day.
Steven Bell seems to be one of those hyperproductive librarians—a weekly column, several blogs, conferences, more. He wrote this post on January 12, 2010 at ACRLog, at the end of “the break” for most academic librarians—and noted that people didn’t seem to take breaks from electronic communication. Neither did he. But he recognizes the need: He goes camping once a year with no connectivity and no computer.
That may not be enough—and some people don’t even manage that level of disconnecting/reconnecting. In fact, Bell does disconnect much more frequently:
I do get the value of unplugging–if not for days on end–at least for specific periods of time during the day. I set aside several periods where I unplug. Any time I go to the gym, usually two or three times during the work week, I leave my cell phone behind so I’m not checking email or keeping up with social networks. I do listen to music which helps me contemplate. During this time I often find myself coming up with solutions to work challenges or ideas for new blog posts or essays… Studies have found that when we free our minds from any complex thought activity, some of our best ideas will emerge from the ether. I also unplug at breakfast and dinner and just take time to read the daily paper. But I know I should probably be setting aside additional hours for powering down.
He cites the ReadWriteWeb post discussed earlier in this rambling essay and notes Kenley Neufeld’s practice of going offline for several days at a time, “which I always find interesting since he is one of the most socially-connected academic librarians I know.”
So we certainly have good reasons to unplug and power down—for all-important contemplation, to improve our health and mental sharpness, and to provide times during the day when we can concentrate on sustained reading and writing without the constant interruption of email, status updates and tweets.
Neufeld found the post intriguing, since he really doesn’t have daily tech-free times. Another commenter found an unplanned disconnect “very rejuvenating” and that she came back “sharper and more alert than I’ve been in a while.” “ssmith,” who works a 4/10 week, stays offline in the evenings and on weekends and thinks that’s great. And “Sarah” took a disconnected week-long trip to Paris and found it energizing.
Then there’s Ying:
It’s getting hard for me to imagine that I could live without internet for a single day—not only for work, but for life, and entertainment. For instance, how to even pick up a movie that you want to watch in the theater if you don’t check the trailer online?
Marilyn Pukkila had an answer for the latter: she listens to NPR or asks her friends. We read the San Francisco Chronicle with its large and excellent staff of movie and culture critics—but of course, that’s old hat.
Finally, jump back to February 12, 2010, when Andy wrote “The Disconnect” at Agnostic, Maybe. (Which is, by the way, a great name for a blog!) In Andy’s case, he got a disconnect without planning one: The power went out. After sending out a couple of text messages and contacting the power company, the family “hunkered down in front of the fireplace.” His wife spent most of the night reading.
I had a book as well that I could have gotten, but I was in no mood for reading. I wasn’t really in any mood for doing anything, really; I was just listening to the wind outside. Laying on the couch, with the crackle of the fire, eyes looking out the back window area watching the tree sway in the wind.
He went out to shovel some snow—partly to do something—and found himself in nature.
Once outside, it was bright in only the way that a winter landscape can be. The dark trees against the cloudy sky made everything stand out as I shoveled my back to the driveway. It was apparent very early on that this was going to be a short trip outside if I wanted to continue to shovel; the heavy wet snow was enough to make any snow removal arduous. I didn’t want to take out the snowblower since there is a lot of driveway under trees and I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. So, in standing under the eaves of the garage, shoveling every now and again, I would listen for the wind to kick up. You could hear it coming through the trees from far away, so I’d stop, watch, and listen.
Near and far, you could hear the sounds of branches snapping, their popping and crunching coming through the winter air. Some were so close I’d peer through the darkness to see if I locate the source; others were like distant gunshots, their noise taken away by the wind…
Then he went back inside and got ready for bed (on the couch, near the fireplace).
There, lying on the couch, listening once again to the fire next to me and the storm above me, my situation dawned upon me.
I had not been so utterly disconnected in a long while. No computer, no text (saving phone charge, just in case), no games, no television, no technology whatsoever. I had no idea what time it was; I couldn’t even remember the date. As I lay there, my mind was still churning but without the usual external stimuli. It was like a party where the noise level suddenly dies down and all but one person shuts up so their voice carries throughout the room. In this case, my mind was the only voice left.
And so, as I lay under many layers of blankets, I just let my mind roam.
I can’t really say that I thought of anything deep and profound, but that I didn’t realize how much of my day had some form of technological input. Even when I’m out and about away from the computer screen, I text on a fairly regular basis with a number of different people. It didn’t matter where I was, there was always a level of connectedness that was present. With the power loss and a driveway full of snow, it was gone. It was a disconnect that I hadn’t experienced in years…
As much as I would think to avoid putting a moral or conclusion on this experience, it feels right to say that I need more kind of this time. While it could be at home, the temptations of the household technology make it a harder sell. I should think that, in conjunction with my new year’s resolution to get out of the house and be more social, I should be looking for more opportunities to find places that make such temptations hard if not impossible…
It’s always interesting to me how the perception of things can change with just a little shift. I guess this was one of those times. And from the looks of it, it was a tiny bit overdue.
I’m guessing many of my readers were snowed in at some point in February 2009, and a fair number probably lost power. Did you take advantage of that forced disconnectedness—and did you find some virtue in it?
Admission: When I say I don’t multitask well, it’s true—but it’s also a good excuse for my deliberate habit (when not at work). If I’m writing, I’m only writing: If there’s a browser session at all, it’s only to call up source material. If I’m reading (print material), the computer’s not on…at all. Now, if you don’t mind, it’s time to finish this section, turn off the computer, and go take a walk—wholly disconnected with technology, wholly connected with the rest of the world. Try it some time. Try it frequently.
It’s about reconnecting—getting back in touch with ourselves and those around us in the physical world. If you want to get more Californian, it’s also about centering—finding our own places and recognizing our cores. If that seems too Zen for you, so be it—I’m no Buddhist, but I don’t deny the power of (what I understand of) the philosophy.
I’m going to finish this essay by reprinting a section from “Finding a Balance: The Balanced Librarian” in the February 2007 Cites & Insights, that section being a brief introduction and a reprint of an even older piece—my “Crawford Files” column from the March 2003 American Libraries (as submitted, not as it actually appeared). Heck, I may run that column again in 2013…
The Virtues of Contemplation
I believe in quiet time. I call it contemplation, although that doesn’t necessarily mean directly contemplating something (it can). You might call it Zen. You might call it prayer. I’ll use “contemplation” here if only because I’m quoting previous pieces that used that word. I’ve also become aware that different people contemplate in different ways—that for some extroverts, contemplation nearly requires conversation. It’s still a separate activity from constant turmoil, it still requires focus—and it’s worthwhile in either form.
The following originally appeared in the March 2003 American Libraries (with editorial changes) as my “Crawford Files” column. Bold paragraphs were subheadings in that column.
David Levy’s concerned about information and the quality of life. His inspiration was a discussion led by David Levy on “information and the quality of life.” As part of a speech at the 2002 Charleston Conference, Levy asked a question that he clearly regarded as rhetorical. That question inspired this column:
Who Has Time to Contemplate?
The presumed answer was “Nobody here, that’s for sure.” That wasn’t my response—and I don’t think it should be yours. Mine was, “Everybody here, if it matters to them.” Followed by, “And it should matter to you if you want to maintain your humanity.”
When Levy asked the question, I didn’t see lots of puzzled expressions from people who knew they had time to contemplate. So I chose not to challenge him. Instead, later that afternoon, I retired to a quiet spot to think about what he’d said and how people reacted. In other words, I contemplated his question and the discussion surrounding it. As long as you’re not overscheduled, a conference can be a great time for contemplation, given that a hotel room has fewer distractions than your house or apartment.
After contemplating the situation, I still believe we all have time to contemplate, but I also understand how technology can lead us to believe otherwise.
The Most Important Technological Device
What does this have to do with the column title? More than you might expect. I won’t discuss libraries as places for contemplation (which they should be), since Janes covered that so well in December. Instead, I’d like to consider some of the reasons that people avoid contemplation or fail to contemplate.
The usual excuse is busyness, being too busy to spend fifteen minutes in quiet thought. I don’t buy that. If you’re so busy that you can’t create a spare quarter-hour or half hour once or twice a week, something’s desperately wrong. You exercise three or four times a week, don’t you? Shouldn’t you exercise your deeper brain muscles once in a while as well?
For most of us, I suspect, “busyness” is another word for distractions—the media, technology, and other things that entice us to do something, anything, rather than sit and think. Distractions also interfere with contemplation. It’s hard to think deeply with a sitcom laugh track in the background. I find the combination of deep thought and staring at a Web page (or any other computer screen) almost entirely incompatible. Music helps some people contemplate, but unwanted music destroys concentration. And, of course, a ringing phone or beeping pager breaks any contemplative mood.
Thus my nomination for the most important technological device of this year, last year, or almost any year in the past century. Not transistors, not nanotechnology devices, not PCs, not PDAs, not self-circulation laser scanners.
I vote for the Off switch—the device that lets you remove distractions and prevent interruptions.
In the habit of jogging with earbuds in place connected to your Discman or iPod? Once or twice a week, turn off the player and use the time to think about things—to contemplate the world around you and yourself. (If the earbuds reduce distracting noise, leave them in. Otherwise, the sounds of nature even in an urban environment can be nice once in a while.)
Next time your favorite TV show is preempted or showing a rerun, try using the Off switch on your TV instead of channel surfing (or cueing up your next TiVo segment). You might even use the Off switch on your floor lamp if it helps.
Your phone’s ringer and your pager both have Off switches, and your mobile phone can be turned off entirely. You do have voice mail, don’t you? Fifteen minutes or half an hour’s delay in responding shouldn’t matter in most cases. If it always does, without exception, how do you ever take showers, make love, or sleep?
Thinking as if Thinking Matters
Contemplation—deep thinking—keeps us human. If deep thinking means temporarily reducing your level of technology, maybe that’s a sign. People should control technology as a set of tools. If technology controls people, we cease to be human. Find your Off switches. Use them. We all have time to contemplate. We should make that time.
If you saw me staring off into space at Midwinter, now you know why. Try it yourself some time.
Try it yourself some time. Disconnect and reconnect. Make room for the real world, and make room to stay in touch with yourself. (Oh, and plan a real vacation—advice that I should take!)
Opinions herein may not represent those of LYRASIS.
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