Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop Dead

by Laura Lark August 28, 2010

Like so many I know, whenever I find myself in a foreign land, another state, or even another neighborhood, I get that Golly, wouldn’t it be neat to live here syndrome. It’s annoying, and at this point in my life I’m not even fooling myself. I know I’ll die and rot in this very spot in Houston, Texas, and no one will come and get me and my dog will pick my bones until someone rescues her. That last thought comforts me somehow.

But something far more irritating always eclipses the wouldn’t it be neat to live here, and it’s this: The Golly, wouldn’t I be a better person if I were just doing (or not doing) X?This has been going on for years, of course. In the ‘80’s I decided to lose that gas guzzling menace I drove and ride my bike everywhere. I was hit by a car. Twice. In the early ‘90s I felt compelled, after reading some environmentally-geared article, to put a compost pile in my back yard. It was soon overrun by opossums and raccoons, and I couldn’t get my dogs to stop dragging grapefruit rinds and moldy potato skins into the house.

The thing that chafes most about this syndrome is that there’s always some truth to the notion that I might be making my life better (and possibly another’s) by thinking outside my little box. No one wants to be confronted with the fact that, despite all efforts, one could be terribly amiss in some area of life or other.

So this Wednesday morning  I was terrified and disturbed by an article in The New York Times online edition Technology section entitled Your Brain on Computers: Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime.

One never knows when that lightning bolt of fear and guilt is going to strike, so I wasn’t prepared for the undeniable evidence that my own brain was rapidly deteriorating into a bowl of ramen.

After describing several people who spend every moment surfing, texting, talking on the phone, tweeting, etc., the author, Matt Richtel, concludes:

The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

I was addled.  I’ve known for ages that I ought to unglue my eyes from my computer screen, but my fears worsened when I followed a link I’d previously ignored on August 15, 2010:

Your Brain on Computers: The Unplugged Challenge — a collection of eleven videos made by people, ranging from late teens to early fifties, who volunteered to “give up technology” for a period of time and talk about their experiences.

I say “give up technology” because it apparently meant different things to different people. One woman (Jenn Monroe, 40, of Manchester, NH) was pretty hard core. Describing her return to technology (after no cell phone, internet, Ipod, computer, etc.), she admitted that she was having trouble even approaching the microwave. I’m surprised this woman didn’t write with a quill pen by candlelight.

Ashton Zyer, 31, of Newbury Park, CA, on the other hand, was totally suffering from turning off her cell phone during a six-hour road trip. Many of the volunteers commented on how freed-up their minds were without all of this techno-clutter. I guess Ashton couldn’t go that far: she had the car stereo on full blast as she “Jones-ed” for her cell phone down the freeway. It’s probably better that she didn’t eliminate all distracting noise entirely. I hate to imagine what dry, dusty, tumbleweedy  thoughts would be sweeping through that noggin.

Of course, watching all of these brave volunteers filled me with envy and a wistful hope. I’m certainly tired of checking stupid emails every five minutes, and I’m aware that  I literally walk through nearly all of my waking life chattering into a Bluetooth device, looking like a well-dressed lunatic to people who can’t see that I’m on the phone.  And I watch enough television to consider the cast of Jersey Shore close, personal friends.

Could I take the “Unplugged Challenge”? If I did, what would that mean to me? Would I go commando like Ms. Monroe? Or would I find, like John Stark, 46, of Danville, CA, that my friends could still get messages to me without actually calling my  phone? How would the standards be set?

I thought about it.

The Author, Each Night at Bedtime

1)   First to go, of course, would be the cell phone. Who do I talk to on the phone, anyway? Am I an executive for BP? Did I really need the thing?At first I thought not. But then I noticed that many of the New York Times volunteers, like Aura Lopez, 28, of Mexico City, had phones at work. Or they had land lines. I don’t have a land line, and I work at home. I would feel awfully cut off from civilization.

I decided not to lose the phone.

To make up for that weakness, I decided that if someone  did call, I would just remedy the problem by hanging up on him or her immediately. Sorry if that happens to any of you. One has to make rules and stick with them.

2) Then there was the Ipod. Why should I be attached to an Ipod? I’ve got the world’s worst taste in music. Would I actually miss The Carpenters’ Gold: The Greatest Hits or The Theme from Billy Jack?

I didn’t think so.

But then I remembered why I use my Ipod on a daily basis: to escape the even more offensive media blitz at my gym. Every morning I mount the dreaded elliptical trainer. Every morning I smooth my outdated copy of The New Yorker over the “dashboard” of the machine, so I won’t have to look at all of the LED bells and whistles that tell me how many calories I’m burning or how fast my heart is pumping, because I really don’t care.

I also have my trusty New Yorker before me so I will not look up at the wall of television sets and see how each and every one of them is programmed to Fox news.

Then I put my earbuds in place and crank my Ipod to a mind-numbing and eardrum-splitting level. This is so that I will not have to listen to the revolting dreck that streams endlessly through the gym’s sound system.

Despite my best efforts, I’m can’t totally blot out All The Single Ladies.

Damn you, Beyonce Knowles.

My Ipod was my shelter from a much greater evil. I think anyone who remembers riding the subway pre-personal stereo system will readily agree. Sure, you’re tuning out a lot of the world with that Ipod. But a lot of that world really ought to be tuned out.

I swiftly decided that, if only as a sanity-maintaining defense mechanism, the IPod would have to stay.

3) I thought that TV could probably go, program quality being what it is.

Snooki, I’ll Miss You the Most…

4) But then there was the internet. Ah, the internet! How would I do without that? The mere thought of it struck me with fear. As I perform what few tasks I have before me, I need constant distraction.  Getting up and walking around seems out of the question, so I fill up tons of time with surfing.

All the volunteers for Challenge claimed that dispensing with technology freed up a lot of time. This might be counterintuitive in my case. I don’t need more time.  I don’t need to be surfing, either. I just need more to do…

And when I thought about surfing and going to the gym, my thoughts strayed to the problem of the modern metrosexual. When I meet some dude at the gym sporting some stylishly applied product and I can’t figure out whether he’s admiring my physique or my fashionable Spandex togs, I can check out his gender preferences on a variety of personal networking sites. Online, they’ve all filled out their forms! My work’s done. You have no idea how much embarrassment this has saved me… I decided that the internet wasn’t going to go, either.

I realized that I was too much of a wuss to really take the Challenge. This made me feel bad. How would I ever prove to myself and the world that I didn’t need, and could live without, technology when I couldn’t even bring myself to pull the plug?

But then I remembered that I’d watched all of the videos for the Unplugged Challenge online. I’d read Matt Richtel’s article on the hazards of online brain-rot—yes, you guessed it—online.

I typed this article with a computer and it’ll be posted, duh, online.

Was there no way to prove that I was tough? That I could communicate the old fashioned way and actually speak to an actual person across the dinner table? That my life was more 3D than 2D?

Then I remembered that time. A lot of people around Houston probably remember it? That phenomenon which blew a lot of stuff around and ruined a lot of perfectly good property? Ah, Hurricane Ike! What a party that was. No cell phone, no air conditioning, no electricity, no unspoiled dairy products!

Gulf Coast, Unplugged

Why, we all took the Unplugged Challenge—and depending on the part of town, some of us took it for weeks on end. Rather than feeling the burn of a simple inconvenience—an inability to text or catch up on Facebook—we felt more like characters from Cormac McCarthy ’s The Road.

Average Houstonians, Post-Ike

The New York Times Unplugged Challenge volunteers all agreed that they had more time to spend constructively when they didn’t spend all their time suckling at the teat of technology. But after living without a/c for days on end, I think I’d rather scold myself for staring at a computer screen all day than sweat like a pig and stare at a moldering wall

Of course, the internet’s a time-suck. Nobody’s arguing that. I’m sure many an employer would rather that people be working industriously than slacking and surfing. But face it: we’re all going to find a way to slack off, with or without the net. It’s true that spending large chunks of time in front of an electronic screen can’t be good for you, but when I recall my parents’ generation (think Mad Men), surfing might be healthier than that daily pack and a half of Pall Malls.

Killing Time & Themselves The Old-Fashioned Way

Something’s gotta get you through that boring-ass job…So, for once, I don’t feel so bad. I’ve rationalized away that Unplugged Challenge! And I won’t even let myself go to that dark place where I’m thinking, Golly, wouldn’t I better person if I weren’t brain dead?

I don’t have time.

I’ve got mail.

Alfred Always Says It Best

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