Infernal Machine   /   March 26, 2014

You Must Unplug Your Life!

Brianne Alcala

Maybe you missed it because you left your iPhone at home, but the fifth annual National Day ofundologo Unplugging was celebrated by certain digital malcontents on March 7th. The event's organizer, Reboot, exhorts us "to unplug and reconnect in real life" for one day from sundown to sundown:

We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones and BlackBerry’s, chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of “silence” that our earphones create.

If you recognize that in yourself—or your friends, families or colleagues—join us for the National Day of Unplugging, sign the Unplug pledge and start living a different life: connect with the people in your street, neighborhood and city, have an uninterrupted meal or read a book to your child.

Reboot wants to change your life. You don't just need to put down your iPad, you need to remake yourself. This broader injunction to self-reinvention reveals just what "unplugging" and "detoxing" is all about and helps us to understand better the handwringing about too much information and digital distraction that has been a constant of cultural criticism of late.

The National Day of Unplugging grew out of the group's Sabbath Manifesto, a ten-point list of edifying imperatives that will, if heeded, make you a better person. Among the many injunctions are "Connect with loved ones," "Nurture your health," "Get outside," and, my favorite, "Drink wine"—all laudable activities that I would encourage you to try out if you haven't. But the one that tops the list is "Avoid technology." And this one makes less sense to me. How are we to "avoid" technologies? And why exactly?

Avoiding technology may sound like a noble feat of asceticism, but it's neither possible nor desirable. Technologies are part of us. They aren't just fungible tools that we can set aside when we want to be more human. They help constitute what is to be human. To pretend otherwise is naive and self-defeating. Unplugging from our digital devices, as Casey N. Cep points out,

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?”).

The idea of "unplugging" assumes that a brief hiatus from your favorite device or app will have a cleansing effect. But who among us plans on living without our technologies? We all make plans to return under the illusion that we've actually done something good for ourselves, that we've changed our lives by turning off our iPhone. These earnest efforts at digital detoxing distract from just how enmeshed we are in our technologies. The dream of a world without technologies, however short-lived, is not sustainable. We need practices and norms to help guide us through this era of technological change. We need repetition: practice, practice, practice! One day a year won't do it.