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March 28, 2012

Pulling the Plug: St. Mike's Goes Offline for Tech Fast

TextingTracking down students and faculty "fasting" from technology this week at Saint Michael's College is easier said than done.

Email? Nope. Cellphones? They're out, too. In a neo-Luddite's take on Lent, the school is encouraging students, faculty and staff to unplug for a few days. This week's "Disconnect to Reconnect" event kicked off Monday night with a screening of "Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier" and continues this week with a panel discussion and three-day technology fast. 

That means 72 hours away from computers, cellphones and video games — think truly wireless.

Anthropology professor Adrie Kusserow is not fasting right now, and did respond to an email request for an interview. She has enforced a similar ban on technology with her students for several years. She goes so far as to collect students' cellphones, which she hoards in a basket until the end of the experiment. Now, she and a group of other professors are taking the experiment campus-wide during a series of events designed to help students reflect on the impacts — good and bad — that digital media has on their lives.

"The degree of technological saturation is changing our consciousness in so many ways," says Kusserow. "Our family lives, our spiritual lives, our relationship to nature, our conceptions of time."

Kusserow actually doesn't like calling this a technology "fast" — that word has connotations of deprivation, she says, that don't necessarily line up with the emotional benefits of unplugging for a few days. She says her students, in the past, have ended up connecting and "getting fed" in ways they haven't for a long time.

Still, going cold turkey on tech might feel like deprivation for some students. Over the years, Kusserow's students have felt the "phantom vibrations" of cellphones they no longer carried. One reached for a calculator for the comfort of a cellphone-shaped object. Many reported feeling anxious or irritable, classic withdrawal symptoms that suggest technology isn't just pervasive — it's addictive; like, harder-to-resist-than-cigarettes-and-alcohol addictive.  

Kusserow stands by the benefits of going tech-free, at least for a few days. As an anthropologist, she says it gives her and her students a chance to observe the tech culture with eyes wide open.

"I really think the only way to get a fresh look at your own, in this case digital, culture, is by leaving your plugged-in life and watching the natives in this culture texting away as if you’re watching them for the very first time," she says. 

It's also a good opportunity for looking at one's own media habits with clear eyes, says Jerry Swope, a professor of media studies, journalism and digital arts at St. Mike's. He participated in a technology fast for one week with his students about a year ago. Instead of losing an hour or two every morning to checking emails, he says it felt good to come in, sit down, and get to work. Logging off permanently might not be feasible, or even desirable, but he has brought lessons from the fast back into his daily work life. Now on days when he needs to get down to grading, he might avoid turning his computer on first thing in the morning.

"You realize, 'You know what, the world still turns,'" says Swope. "Those people can wait a day to get a response to that email, or at least a half a day. It definitely gave me a different perspective and recalibrated my sense of immediacy."

Unplugging — even just a little — might be a good idea for Vermonters, suggests Ann DeMarle, the director of the Emergent Media Center at Champlain College. She'll be speaking on Thursday night at a panel discussion on digital media, culture and mental health. DeMarle is about as plugged in as they come: Her work at the Emergent Media Center means she's constantly thinking about social media and new technology. She also thinks that many Vermonters, for all their outdoorsy leanings, tend to be clued in on the technology front. 

"Since we're geographically isolated, the way we connect to the rest of the world is digitally," she says. She points to Bernie Sanders' prolific tweets or former governor Howard Dean's pioneering use of technology in campaigning. 

She has a few suggestions for Vermonters who, unlike students at St. Mike's, might not be able to unplug completely. Her most important? "Put your cell phone in your trunk [while driving]," DeMarle says. "Seriously."

This gets to another suggestion: Draw boundaries. DeMarle likes to organize her tech time. She's online in the morning, when she'll catch up on news over coffee, but then she steps away from the computer. 

"You need both the information" — which DeMarle says is abundant online — "and reflection" — which can be hard to find in front of a screen. "To me, finding the balance between those two points is really important," she says.

Of course, that's easier said than done, and information overload is what drives the appeal of a tech detox. The idea isn't new. Last Father's Day, the similarly named "Disconnect to Reconnect Campaign" urged fathers to unplug for 24 unwired hours with their families. The temporary ban applied to anything with a screen — TVs, computer games, cell phones. In September 2010, one Pennsylvania university actually mandated some time offline, blocking Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and instant messaging for a week on its college campus. 

Vermont comic James Sturm took the challenge a good deal further, maintaining his own 2010 Internet fast for a whopping four months. Sturm directs the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, and chronicled his "(probably) crazy plan to give up the internet" in words and comics for Slate. At the outset of his experiment, he envisioned spending more time with his family and diving into creative work with renewed concentration. 

St. Mike's "Disconnect to Reconnect" event wraps up on Thursday evening with a panel discussion on digital media, culture and mental health. Panelists include DeMarle, psychologist Dr. Paul Foxman, and Saint Michael's sociologist Dr. Robert Brenneman. The panel will take place from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in St. Edmunds Hall. Just don't expect a Facebook invite any time soon.

Photo by Flickr user Cletch, used under Creative Commons license.

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