Digital Rabbit Holes
I am teaching a digital literacies class this semester, and the first writing assignment asks students to consider their reliance on digital devices by giving up their technologies for twenty-four hours and then writing about the experience. I often write with my students, and I never assign a project that is new to me and my class without also completing the project. So, yesterday I attempted to do without technology, and I am embarrassed to say that while I turned my phone off and never opened my laptop or watched television, I was a complete and utter failure.
First, let me say that in reality I failed from the moment I got out of bed because our voice-activated smart speaker announced that it was time to get up, but I decided to forgive this first instance of cheating with the rationale that the device was pre-programmed. My typical day involves getting up at 5:00am, checking my email, skimming Facebook, reading the NYT headlines, and reading an online devotional. I intentionally chose a Saturday for my technology fast, so I was up at 7:00am instead of 5:00am, but I was still immediately aware of the ways my fast was interfering with my morning rituals. Sitting in the quiet of my living room with a cup of coffee and my thoughts was actually quite lovely, but I honestly do not know if I could get up every morning and simply be. In his article, “I Used To Be a Human Being,” Andrew Sullivan discusses the distractions of the portable rabbit holes that are our smart phones and the intrinsic need humans have for times of quiet. I agree with Sullivan’s speculations about human nature, and I recognize my own need for time to simply dwell in my thoughts. But rather than focusing on the quiet and the pleasures that come with it, I admit that I found myself wondering about Apple news headlines, my no-doubt overflowing inbox, and friends’ status updates I might be missing.
My next failure involved checking the weather. We had a normal Saturday of errands and chores planned, and it looked like it was going to rain. I needed to know the day’s forecast so I could dress appropriately, but we haven’t received a daily print newspaper in over a decade. How was I supposed to know the weather? I cheated and had my husband check the weather for me. How on earth did our species survive without a weather app?
I made it through the next few hours without cheating on my fast, but I also confess that for parts of the day the music that was being played in my house was streaming through our smart speaker. I’ve chosen to justify that one as well because I did not ask Alexa to play “Top Pop,” my daughter did.
My husband and I had plans for Saturday evening that required formal evening wear, and I had a new lip gloss I wanted to wear (yes, as I type this I realize how shallow it sounds). Of course, this was no traditional lip gloss and there was apparently some sort of special technique I needed to use in order to ensure I did not look like a clown and my lips did not peel off (I am not jesting). The only answer was to watch a YouTube video. Once again the oldest child came to my rescue. She watched the video and applied my lip gloss for me. YouTube is a life saver. I am relieved I only missed out on how-to videos for twenty-four hours, but, as you can see, I failed yet again at my quest.
There were only a few hours left before I would have access to my phone again, I was confident that this last part of the evening would go smoothly. We got dressed up and left for our night out, and I had a momentary pang of regret as I realized that I would not be able to post pictures of our evening on Facebook. But I felt better when I considered the fact that alcohol and social media are never a good idea, and I could wait and post the pictures that other people took of us (since I did not have my trusty iPhone camera with me) first thing in the morning.
I will say that I noticed a few things during this little experiment. First, when you aren’t on your own device all of the time, you realize how much time you spend on your phone, but you also realize just how much everyone else is on their phone. I swear I wanted to hijack the devices of everyone in my household because in my low-tech state I found their incessant staring at their phones to be beyond annoying and rude. I also realized that I missed my technology most when I was between activities. I kept track of every time I had the urge to go to our charging station and turn on my phone, and it was typically when I had completed a task like cleaning up the kitchen and had not yet moved on to my next task. I am also embarrassed to admit that while sitting at red lights I desperately wished I had my phone beside me even if it was just to turn it on to see if anyone had texted me. So, essentially, in my moments of quiet, I wanted to peruse the internet.
This morning I woke up before Alexa told me it was time to get up. I read the headlines, checked my email and social media, immediately sent four text messages, played Words with Friends, and checked the weather—all within about twenty minutes. Then I opened my laptop, and once the laptop is opened, there is no return from the internet rabbit hole. This said, I am glad I attempted this experiment. Few of my experiences were surprising to me, but I acknowledge the fact that I need to spend my quiet times being and treasuring the quiet.