Plugged / Unplugged

Well, here’s what I think about being unplugged.

I love it. I love to be unplugged, to wax philosophically over what our nation’s ultra-connectedness is perhaps doing to our children, to our elders, to the society at large, to the shape of our culture forever and ever, Amen. We talk about it often, at dinner parties or conferences or playdates.

And the rest of the time, the lady in the gynecology lobby reprimands us for texting our sister and we blush knowingly.

You kids these days, she’d said. Can’t see past your screen, I tell ya.

She’s right, I think.
She’s wrong, I think.

Last week, I used my phone to schedule vaccinations for an upcoming trip to Haiti. I made my family’s dentist appointments. I sent flowers to a girlfriend. I wrote an early birthday message to my friend in California, I checked in on a friend in London, another in Iceland.

I booked dinner reservations and a hotel. I ordered dishwasher refills.

And then I put my phone in my purse and sat on the park bench as Ken finished his conversation by the maple tree.

We can complain about our phones, our addictions, our inability to disconnect from the screen for hours. We can blame technology for the wrong ways we use it.

Or we can, simply, change the ways we use it.

I used to be curmudgeony about my phone. I’d leave it at home for days in a row, letting it ding and vibrate and flash unanswered. It was a bother, a chore. A distraction.

And then it fell in the toilet (gah, I know).

And I changed my mind.

It’s easier to complain about others than it is to complain about ourselves. The expectations are too high. I can’t keep up. Now I have to Periscope? And no way, I can’t quit Facebook; I’d be too out of the loop.

Listen. Join Periscope, or don’t. (I chose not to, for now.) Quit Facebook, or don’t. (I quit four years ago and haven’t looked back.)

It’s your choice.

We can continue to blame technology for our lack of self-governing, or we can choose to be grateful for the mobility it offers.

I often wonder what I’m doing with the time I’ve saved using my phone. I can order rain boots for Bee through an app and they arrive two days later, wrapped in cardboard, straight to my door.

Did I save any time?

Or did I simply replace it with something else?

There’s a woman at the coffee shop I write from, and she told me yesterday she used to walk two miles to the bakery for a loaf of fresh bread, and she’d eat it the whole way home. The walk makes up for the calories, she’d said. It’s like you’re eating air!

Her sister used to give her a hard time, saying it was so much faster, cheaper, more efficient to bake bread at home.

But how much does your gym cost? she asked her once. And they don’t even serve bread!

Sometimes I think my phone is the gym.

Sometimes I forgot to see the value in doing things the long way, in walking the two miles, in visiting the thrift store to look for rain boots with Bee, to introduce her to my favorite sections in Goodwill (flannel shirts from the mens’ aisle, milk glass in kitchenware, old VHS tapes for weird gift-giving).

Sometimes I forget I have the choice.

Ken’s finished with his call by the maple tree. Can I take a second to transfer this, or do you want to hit the bank on the way home? he asks.

Let’s hit the bank, I tell him. I like their coffee.

It’s not about plugging in, or unplugging, or tethering ourselves to a movement that calls for technology within boundaries.

It’s about choosing wisely. It’s about understanding that life offers stress, one way or another. Plugged or not.

I think we tend to airbrush the lives of the generations before us. I think we romanticize the burden of laundering by hand, sudsing with dollysticks and soda crystals. We love the idea of ditching modern appliances, of going the way of the land, of fireboxes and gas lighting, of dampers and hatch.

It sounds lovely, we think.

But it’s not our reality.

When life offered our grandmothers electricity and modern appliances, they found something else to fret about. Chores. Consumerism. Higher expectations. We’re slaves to the machine!

When life offered our mothers career opportunities outside of the home, they found something else to fret about. Parenting. Equality. Higher expectations. We’re slaves to the machine!

And when life has offered us technology and mobility, we have found something else to fret about. Balance. Multi-tasking. Higher expectations. We’re slaves to the machine!

But we’re not slaves. We cannot shackle ourselves and hand the key to our phone or the dishwasher or the CEO in the corner office.

We cannot offer that kind of power to the machine.

It does not belong to them.

It belongs to us.

  • Hi you are so right. Distractions come in all forms, not just via technology. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to set our priorities and decide what’s more important. But it ain’t easy, that’s for sure. The Internet has opened up an incredible – and endless – world of possibilities, adventures and experiences that can both challenge and deepen our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world around us. When do we say “enough” , can we say “enough”? I find it easier to tune out of cute videos and news, than of art videos, Ted talks or philosophy discussions for instance. Curiosity and an insatiable desire to better myself can make it oh so difficult to unplug.

    • I totally hear you, Grace!!!! Everything in moderation, I suppose, whatever that means for the given day. ;) For me, accepting that my efforts at balance will never be truly balanced makes all the difference!

  • Ugh, I’ve been debating these things constantly lately. Sometimes I feel so thankful for technology and the time it “saves.” Thankful that I can look at Instagram and Facebook and see what my family and friends are doing without having to call. Then I feel horribly guilty that I sometimes prefer skipping the phone call and would rather just look at Facebook to see how they are doing. But most people live a different life in social media in comparison to their reality. So glancing at a newsfeed does not really let me know how my family and friends are REALLY doing. Other times I just want to get rid of my phone and laptop, delete all my social media accounts. It really is a constant battle! But you are right….it doesn’t have to be. This is absolutely something that I will be working on. Thank you for this post :)

    • Ha, I’ve been there Jackie! I sometimes think life would be easier if I were a Luddite, and then I think no, it would just be different. :)

  • I’ve never been so aware of technology than now, with a toddler in my life – can I play with your phone? Only if there’s nothing else to keep you from throwing a tantrum in the waiting room. Can I play the loud-loud? His name for iPad, and no, not every morning, you already get to play every night and sometimes on the weekend when I really need to get that task done. No, I don’t need to check Instagram while you’re eating dinner across the table, yes I will continue to keep a book on my kindle app so I can read while you watch that Scooby-Doo cartoon again… Personal responsibility and not going into technology autopilot, for myself and for my son, are the way to go. Boy, I had a bit to say about that! = )

    • Ha, I am very much the same way. Not going into auto pilot is a big thing! It makes a huge difference. Kudos for working toward some semblance of balance, however it is you define the word. :)

  • Yes, these questions have been on my mind too. I don’t have a smart phone, but it is the same with wondering if someone will call or text, and do we need to be there right away if they do? I like what you said about just replacing it with something else – you may “save” time by not going to the store and shopping for boots, but the time is still there and waiting for what you will do next.

  • I love this post so much. So often I just want to quit the Internet, then I don’t, then I feel guilty about all of the things I can do on my phone, then I’m grateful for the opportunities its given me. Your post is spot on, thank you for writing it!

    • I always vacillate between the two (wide!) views, too. We’re all in the mess together I suppose – here’s to the gratitude in it all. :)

  • Erin. Thank you so much for sharing your lovely insight. I agree with this very much. We’ll said.

  • i really enjoyed reading this post and yes I am commenting using my phone! I think it is easier sometimes for people to blame the world we live in for its 24/7 accessibility and technology. When actually we are responsible for how much, or little we engage and how we use our time. Very good post. Sammie

  • Wow this is so beautifully written! And I agree completely. In this day of age, unplugging is not an option anymore, but by just being more conscious about the way in which we are plugged, we can shape our plugged daily lives. ‘Cause yes, we are wasting a lot of time with our smartphones and social media, but for some tasks it is great that smartphones and social media exist. But then your metaphor with the bread and the gym comes in, which I think is literally ‘food for thought; . (:

  • Erin, once again you have written the thoughts that are swirling around head… although I had yet to nail down any philosophy or answers on the subject. Sometimes I feel like I’m choosing my screen-time wisely, and sometimes it’s a crutch that I fall back on too easily. I know that your wise words will inspire me when I find myself fretting over and feeling guilty about these choices.

    In a similar vein, after recently reading a New York Times article about motherhood and screen-time, I am trying to establish a new practice of narrating my actions when I use my smart phone in front of others (especially my son and husband): “Let me take a second to pay the credit card bill” or “I’m chatting with your aunt who lives across the country” or “while you play, I’m going to read my book on my phone”. I’m finding it helps me make better choices about when/why to use my phone… I’d really rather not have to tell them “I’m choosing to scroll mindlessly through Facebook rather than play with you.” And, it also helps the people around me feels less abandoned when I bury my nose in my phone for a few minutes.

    • I LOOOOOOVE this idea! I find myself doing this anyway, as a courtesy to those around me. “I’m sorry, let me double check the amount on this, or while it’s in my head, can I email myself a note?” But you’re right – it’s helpful to me, too, in making better choices to determine what can wait and what can’t. :)

  • Lovely writing. What a dilemma we are faced with each day in using our devices wisely. I agree that people in the past have had similar struggles. There does seem to be a particularly addictive quality to our phones though.

  • I am totally with you. I love my gadgets, I hate my gadgets. I love that my kids lives have been documented waaaay overboard, I kick myself for not printing those same memories and creating awesome photo albums. Maybe one day….
    We do what we do, take it or leave it.
    Nicely written, I’m a new fan.

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