The Point of Unplugging: It’s Not About the Technology

Scott William Carter   June 20, 2014

Casey N. Cep’s article, “The Pointlessness of Unplugging,” published a few months ago over at the New Yorker, is well worth a read for those of us who make an effort to occasionally disengage from what I call the Great and Powerful Hive Mind. From her conclusion:

That is why, I think, the Day of Unplugging is such a strange thing. Those who unplug have every intention of plugging back in. This sort of stunt presents an experiment, with its results determined beforehand; one finds exactly what one expects to find: never more, often less …If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it. But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.

I confess I’d never even heard of the “Day of Unplugging” until this article, which either says something about how little known the movement is or how disconnected I am from it.  Maybe both.  Here’s the thing, though: While Cep mades some good points, I think she misses what unplugging, for most of us, is all about. It’s not about the technology.  It’s about disengaging from the hyper-connected information sphere.  It’s the modern equivalent of the introvert just wanting to be by himself— to be alone with his  own thoughts, to take some solace from the silence (even mental silence is a kind of silence), to find some inner peace away from all the digital noise.

For many of us, information overload, especially of the ephemeral “I had a donut this morning” and “I haz cats”  variety, can eventually be toxic.  You are what you eat.  You are also what you put into your mind. I took a two-year break from social media before realizing that I was being silly doing so, that I never really had a problem with social media, and I especially had no problem with technology (which, at its core, is a word that just means tools that make our lives better).  I just needed to find the right balance.  I agree that the person who makes a big show out of unplugging may be a bit of an exhibitionist, just another way to say “Look at me!,” but that’s not why I do it.  I do it because disengaging from everyone else, and the Internet in general, is a way of engaging fully with me.

The struggle for most of us is not whether to unplug.  It’s how. I’ve worked hard to completely unplug from the Internet while in my home, which works for me because of the circumstances of my life, but even that’s been a challenge lately because of how embedded the Internet is in everything I do now.  Do I tell myself it’s okay to look up the weather online, but that I can’t go on Twitter?  Do I avoid reading, but allow myself to use Google Maps to get directions?  It’s not as clear cut as it used to be.

What I have found is that if I commit as much as possible to unplugging while in my home, then I tend to have a list of things to do when I permit myself to get back online. But it’s still not easy.  I’m still trying to find the right balance, and I suspect that most people taking part in the “Day of Unplugging” are the same. I just do it daily instead of once a year.