Living, Slide Show, Technology — November 13, 2011 8:03 pm

Pulling the Plug on Technology

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Could you survive a week without access to the Internet, Facebook and (gulp!) your cell phone? Here’s a guy who tried to thrive like it was 1995 and lived to tell about it.

Everybody who is anybody has a smart phone these days. Photo by Danielle Koval.

One day last spring, I unplugged from the modern world. It all began brewing in the shower, which—completely void of hot water—was a fast, miserable affair. After drying off, I lashed out at my roommate—via Twitter—for selfishly draining all the hot water. Then on the way to my car, I pulled out my Blackberry and blasted him on Facebook, too. I quickly checked the score of the Cincinnati Reds game, stuffed the phone back into the lint-laden confines of my pocket, and left for work.

I don’t consider myself a technology junkie. I certainly wouldn’t make the cut for Best Buy’s Geek Squad; I don’t regard Kindles as “books,” and—call me old-fashioned—I still print out directions on Mapquest rather than using a GPS. I am, however, 24 years old, born right in the thick of a generation of people who use the Internet to do their Tweeting, score checking and banking from their cellular “phones,” yet don’t consider themselves technology junkies.

Living without technology wouldn’t have even crossed my mind, had Time Warner not accidentally shut the Internet off at my apartment the week before that cold shower. It would have been just another day of mindless browsing. But Time Warner did screw up, and it took them four days to correct it. Although my personal laptop isn’t my only source to the Internet, it was still a relatively unplugged, thought-provoking four days.

How long had it been since I’d had a full day without the Internet, I wondered. A year? Two years? Without the Internet around to distract me, I actually sat and thought about it. It had likely been at least five years since I had willingly gone a day sans www.

Four days later, upon the Internet’s triumphant return to my apartment, I wasted no haste, greedily checking my Facebook, Twitter, blog, email, fantasy baseball team (The Electric Sliders) and sports scores—all while playing dozens of games of Yahoo! Euchre. When nature inevitably called, I glanced at the time in the upper-right-hand corner of my cell phone. Six hours had gone by, disappeared into unproductive nothingness.

Is that what life really meant to me anymore?  I pried myself away from my laptop and sent a text to my roommate. “Internet’s up and running, you can move back in again.” Now what did I have recorded on DVR?

In the era of DVR technology, popping in a DVD of a TV show seems pretty old-school. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Halfway into a recorded episode of “House,” it occurred to me that I was hooked—utterly dependent—on modern technology. I have a diverse set of interests, sure, but they’re almost all unified by a common portal: technology that’s only been available to the public within the last 15 years. I play video games live on Xbox 360. I watch a variety of shows—“House,” “Jeopardy,” “Breaking Bad,” etc.—and I record all of them on DVR so I never miss an episode. I keep up with sports through a scores application on my Blackberry. I play cards—but on a computer. I’ve always loved music, but now it’s streamed onto an iPod that holds thousands of songs, fits in my hand and can go anywhere. I stay in touch with friends mostly through texting, Facebook and Twitter. And I’m not a technology junkie?  Forget denying it, this whole generation is hooked on the techno juice. In 2011, one in 13 people on earth had a Facebook account, and 48 percent of people aged 18-34 years old were checking theirs the minute they wake up. Another 28 percent can’t even wait until they get out of bed. Welcome to the new social norm.

Serious tech-addicts aren't even out of bed when they check messages. Photo by Danielle Koval.

It all made me wonder: Could I do without? Not just the Internet via my personal laptop, but the Internet altogether. And the cell phone. And cable television with its luxury of recording, rewinding and fast-forwarding. Could I possibly live without the whole high-tech kit-n-caboodle? At 24, I belong to a bridged generation who spent most of their childhood doing without any of the technology listed above, but were introduced to it in their mid-teens. I grew up playing Wiffle-ball in a Cincinnati cul-de-sac. I romped through the woods in our backyard and hunted for turtles. I watched ABC’s Friday-night lineup, but it was during Friday night, no exceptions. You missed “Boy Meets World?” Then you missed “Boy Meets World.”

I could do it again, right? I could prove my identity wasn’t connected to a computer, a television and a cell phone; the charger cord wasn’t my lifeline, right? Forget four days, I thought: It was just past noon on a Sunday, and starting at midnight, I was going a full week without the aid of any technology unavailable in 1995.

And I meant it.

The rules were theoretically simple: If I didn’t have it when I was 8, then I wouldn’t use it now. Fair enough. I could still watch TV, but only after axing it down to the local channels, with nothing recorded and no guide button. To unplug from the Internet, I banished my laptop to the top shelf of my closet. As for the telephone, I no longer had a landline, or even access to one, so I improvised. I plugged my cell phone into the charger, and there it would rest the entire week—mobile no more. If I missed a call, I would check voicemail. No “contacts” icon was helping me in 1995, so any number I wanted, I wrote down on a piece of loose-leaf paper and left by the phone. No iPod, no Xbox, none of it.

For many in our generation, cell phones have replaced our alarm clocks. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Sometime before 8 a.m. the next day, my alarm went off. A nagging, repetitive beeping blasted monotone, forcing me out of bed. I lumbered across the room and pushed the snooze button. I had dug the antiquated contraption out of the same closet where I was storing my laptop, and my touch on the snooze button left a fingerprint in the dust. I already missed the upbeat jingle from my cell phone’s alarm function.

Per routine, I went to my desk to update my fantasy baseball roster, just as I did every morning. I panicked when I got there—someone had stolen my laptop!  Oh, right. The closet. I remembered that Toronto had optioned Travis Snider back to the minors last night, and I had fallen asleep before swapping him out of my roster. I had erred myself into a whole week of a worthless roster spot. Luckily, the Electric Sliders were already in last place. I groaned, reset the alarm and crawled back into bed.

I had four hours to kill before work. I had slept to my maximum potential, and a hybrid of cabin fever and an itch to be productive was bubbling up inside me. I ignored where the computer used to be, and didn’t feel like watching daytime television. The apartment seemed empty. What am I supposed to be centered on now?

I went for a jog. The sky was painted with thunderclouds and it was lightly drizzling, but I had to get out of the apartment. Its unplugged silence was staring me down. I was a new man, I told myself—a time traveler. From now on, I was a guy who went for jogs. Motivated by this thought, I decided to run to my full potential. I could be sitting on my living room couch, playing “Call of Duty” against a 12-year-old from Mumbai. Nah, I thought: Just do it. I ran until my heart clamored against the walls of my ribcage. I had gone a hair over two miles.

Upon showering (I showered a lot during that week; I’d take first dibs on the hot water for a change) I still had nearly three hours left. I had used up just 1/24 of 1/7 of one week. I looked over to my bookshelf, and pulled down “Lolita,” my all-time favorite, from somewhere in the middle of a dusty row. There was a bookmark stuck about a fourth of the way through. I discarded it, and started rereading from the beginning.

Six pages in, my cell phone vibrated: a text message. I was curious how many would pile up, left ignored, by the week’s end. There are 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers—or roughly 77 percent of the world population—and this particular cell phone wanted attention. The phone vibrated again (message No. 2) and went silent for the next few hours. At 4:30, I pulled away from Humbert Humbert’s narration and plodded off to work, the cell phone still plugged in and at rest on my nightstand.

Here’s food for thought that I hadn’t even considered: driving home from work, in the dark and the rain, with no cell phone. If I were T-boned by an SUV going 50 mph, it was just me there. No paramedics at the quick tap of 9-1-1. No final call to my parents if things went south. Just myself and the wreckage. What did people do when they got T-boned by SUVs going 50 mph in the early ‘90s?  Crawl to a payphone?  Wait until someone else drove by, noticed, drove to the nearest payphone, then called 9-1-1? I drove five miles under the speed limit, and turned off the CDs that were substituting for my iPod.

I usually try and turn in before 1 a.m., but that first night was an exception. Wiped from the morning run and trying to ignore the thoughts of my ailing fantasy team and my ghost town of a Facebook profile, I never saw a minute past 10. I zonked out, still in my work clothes, eyes following in sync with the gentle lopping of the ceiling fan. One day down.

It took a few days, but I finally got into the rhythm of 1995. Time passed considerably slowly, but by Wednesday, things seemed settled. At first all I wanted to do was update my Facebook status about how miserable I was without it, but soon enough, I stopped thinking about it. Without the new episode of “Pawn Stars” being thrust in my face by the DVR menu, I didn’t miss it. I forgot about Travis Snider’s .173 batting average giving him a swift boot to the minors, and the vibrations of neglected text messages became white noise.

I finished “Lolita,” and began reading “The World According to Garp,” a book I had owned since forever but had never opened. Every morning, I bought a newspaper—you remember those, right?—and checked the baseball scores and NHL playoff race. I kept running. I took my friend mountain biking in Kentucky, on the sheer guise that it seemed appropriate for someone in my situation to do. I didn’t learn anything new on my acoustic guitar, but I actually practiced what I already knew. I pulled out my Sega Genesis, and after half an hour of blowing into the machine, played “Sonic 2” and gave Dr. Robotnik the business. For kicks, I mailed my parents a letter. In an envelope.

One night, I went fishing, drank a sweaty beer, and listened to the Reds game on a battery-powered radio. Another day, I actually went to a physical bank—bricks, building and all. Smiling tellers still exist, in case you were wondering. I fired up my old desktop computer that still ran on Windows 95, and played a few rounds of “Oregon Trail II.” It was a self-induced culture shock, and life passed like a snail scaling Everest, but I hadn’t felt as relaxed and centered since…well, 1995. I’d lasted five days, and they weren’t as bad as I’d thought they’d be.

Then I cracked. The exact time was 7:38 p.m. on Friday. My roommate, who was juggling playing online poker, listening to his iTunes, and updating his fantasy baseball team roster, boorishly jeered into the hallway that he was bidding on the Chicago Cubs’ second basemen Darwin Barney and there was nothing I could do about it. We’re talking a .330 batting average, 18 runs already that season, and a free agent. Travis Snider was unleashed back into my mind like an exploded dam, burning a hole in my roster spot; he was hogging prime fantasy-points real estate like my roommate often hogged all the hot water. Batting .173 and in the minors. The minors!

I sprang to my closet, slung out my laptop and thanked God it was faster than my roommate’s dinosaur desktop. In a matter of two minutes, I had kicked Travis Snider to the curb, and Darwin Barney was wedged comfortably in his place, producing fantasy points like it was his job. In my absence, The Electric Sliders had firmly held their ground in last place.

Texting is so prevalent in our culture that it's hard to imagine going without it. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

My pride deflated, I slunk over to my phone, and gave the 37 unread text messages the attention they had been vibrating for over the past five days. For nearly a week, I wasn’t a technology junkie, and now I was back in the statistical technology pile—just another schmuck among 5.3 billion on cell phones. Had I been someplace else when my roommate began doing what roommates do, I might have lasted longer. There was something strangely real about those five days, although if you ask me about it, I’d be hard-pressed to explain it. Will I ever attempt it again? Probably not. In the end, we’re all technology junkies, and it will only be getting worse. Twitter lets users have 140 characters to speak their minds. I only needed enough for two words: @Jmechley: Just failed.

Welcome to the new social norm. 

 

 

 

 

 

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819 Comments

  • I admire your bravery lasting five whole days without 21st Century technologies. I’ve also been in a similar situation…this summer when I moved into my new house I went well over a month without any internet or television. My roommates hadn’t moved in yet and didn’t want to chip in for the first months bill, so I just decided to wait the month until they moved in. I found it to be very boring at first, trying to find something, anything to keep my mind occupied but soon realized how soothing it was to actually go to bed at a reasonable hour! I spent most of my days outside going on hikes, cycling, camping, I even asked my friend from California if they wanted to be my pen pal!

    Sometimes I wish I had been born in a past decade so I could have more vivid memories of the 80s and 90s. I’m 23 and I agree with you that when we were in our teens, technology became increasingly advanced in how we communicate and live our lives. I think its safe to say that our generation can be considered the ‘pioneers’ of modern technology. Much like the pioneers settling in the new world, who set the standard of living and influenced every generation to come. Now its our turn. We are the people that will set the standard for living in this fast-paced, knowledge numbing world. I can only hope that we won’t be forced into keeping up with the worlds hunger for the next best thing and we can at the very least reminisce about the simpler times, with a familiar face.

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