Turned Off

The eighth-grade students were stunned.

“Mr. B, how do you live?” they asked, after I mentioned I turned off my Facebook account, don’t have cable TV, have never tweeted, and only send 10 or so text messages a day. For most of my students, this act of cutting back or turning off an otherwise constant flow of information was inconceivable.

Now let me set the record straight—I’m certainly no Luddite. I’ve organized most of my class work around a blog, maintain my own education Web site, and am, in general, pretty addicted to the Internet. As a substitute for cable TV, I subscribe to Netflix and stream some of my favorite shows, including Dexter, 30 Rock, and Damages. I like my BlackBerry. By any logical or sane standard, I’m hardly disconnected. But in today’s intractably tethered world, not really.

Jaron Lanier’s fascinating critique of Internet and digital media use, You Are Not a Gadget, was a catalyst for my scaling back. While there are amazing benefits resulting from the ease of digital information production and sharing, Lanier points out the worst of it. There are the bullying, the anonymous abuses online, and the Twitter feeds that create what he calls a “cultural slum world” online. Think about the amount of spam and chatter online that is simply a mindless response to movies, music, video games, and other media forms. This is not to mention the millions of useless blogs, YouTube clips, and other forms of expression that may or may not have any redeeming value.

If all of my skills and interests exist in a digital sphere, what do I do if I don’t have access to the Internet, my iPod, or other gadgets? If the Internet crashes, what do I do? If all my important skills, documents, and general records of existence survive in some abstract computing cloud somewhere, what if the cloud disappears?

Inspired by Lanier and Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben, who presciently (eerily?!) wrote about the fragmentation of “real” experiences in contemporary society in his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information, I’ve attempted to strike a better balance between what I do digitally and what some might call “hard” skills.

Take my new hobby of bow hunting for whitetail deer, for instance. To hunt, I need to experience more than the keyboard or mouse, be aware of my natural surroundings, and draw upon human needs that many of us can get disconnected from if we’re too concerned with digital, “cultural slum” material.

I also brew my own beer, raise chickens in my backyard, enjoy gardening and working on house projects. I like to build fires in the fire pit in my backyard. I like to grow things. Just because we don’t have to do these things doesn’t mean we should write them off in favor of leisure and convenience.

We are all too quick to embrace the latest software development or gadget as if it is unequivocally necessary for human survival, happiness, and productivity. I love many technological applications in my personal and professional life.  But I worry that too much technology and an overzealous approach to its mere existence will somehow distract us from hard skills and satisfying aspects of humanity that have persisted for thousands of years.

A teacher and a writer, Paul Barnwell currently works in the Jefferson County School System in Kentucky.

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