Unplug and Tune Out – “The Winter of our Disconnect” by Susan Maushart
I’m a moderately gadget-y girl. I text, facebook, blog, twitter, and spend my work days completely glued to a computer running approximately thirteen different tools and systems at any given moment.
Susan Maushart is a gadget-y girl too. A journalist who podcasts, she found herself addicted to technology. Sleeping with her iphone and laptop next to her in bedwasn’t uncommon. As she surveyed her own reliance on technology, she also looked around at her three teenage children’s involvement in technology and realized something was probably missing.
So, she pulled the plug.
Armed with her beloved copy of Walden, and with visions of emulating Thoreau’s retreat to the wilderness, Maushart takes away her household technology and begins six months of living “out of the loop.” No cell phones, ipods, TV, or DVDs were allowed in the house. (Being a modern family, with students and jobs, they didn’t cut out the internet completely, however it was banned from the house which necessitated in trips to cafes, coffee shops, and school libraries to type up homework assignments and articles – and, gasp, writing by hand!)
You know what? No one died. The world didn’t end. And the friends who are really “friends” and not just facebook “friends” were still there on the other side.
As our narrator and guide, Maushart is as likable as can be. You understand her motivations – who among us hasn’t at some point texted from a bathroom stall, really? She’s open and honest about both her excitement and guilt regarding “The Experiment” (as they refer to it) and even reflects back on her parenting choices throughout the children’s lives to see what led them to this point.
However, her children are the real revelation. Anni is 18, Bill is 15 (he turns 16 during the book) and Sussy is 14. When “The Experiment” begins, they’re not happy. Sussy even moves out for two weeks to live with her father. However, they adapt quickly and take part in the process. Bill, unplugged from his mega-loaded computer, pulls his old saxophone out of the closet and begins to play again, discovering a passion he’d forgotten about. Anni goes on a cooking spree. And Sussy (my favorite character in the whole book, thanks to her frank honestly and unabashed teen-ness) moves back in to the house and learns (slowly) to deal with all of it. Turns out, she’s grown accustomed to falling asleep while watching movies. Once unplugged, she sleeps better and her moodiness evens out.
The kids all rediscover reading, hanging out together, and board games, and seem to awaken to the fact that by working so hard to connect to the world through media, they’ve disconnected from the people right next to them.
Technology has a downside, for sure. The American Journal of Psychology added “Internet Addiction” to a list of mental disorders in 2008. As a society, we’ve become so obsessed with not being bored that frankly, we’re bored all the time and developing a serious collective case of ADD.
When Maushart pulls the plug on technology, it makes her aware of many things. For one, when their phones are on, her kids text her constantly throughout the day with little messages like “Where’s the (insert food item)?” or “Bill just punched me.” When forced to use a land line phone, the kids simply figure out how to fend for themselves. Instead of waiting for Mom to do things for them, they do it themselves. Also, while on a lunch date with a friend, Maushart waits while her friend (also a mother) takes a call from her son and explains directions to him – directions he could have easily figured out on his own if he’d stopped to think about it rather than calling Mom immediately for help.
Was the family changed forever? Sure. Was the change drastic? No. They went back to emails and computers and TV, but their eyes were opened to the things that existed outside the digital world they’d previously focused nearly all their attention on.
While reading this book, I was curled up on the couch with a sleeping cat under the blanket next to me. There was no music playing, and my computer and phone were in the other room. It was lovely.
I’m admittedly often overwhelmed by technology, and have near-meltdowns sometimes trying to remember the 25+ usernames and passwords that seem to be a mandatory part of my life.
Reading Maushart’s book helped me realize I’m not alone.
Technology isn’t all bad, but it certainly isn’t all sunshine and lollipops either. If we all unplugged, even for a day, we’d probably be surprised how much human connection we’re all missing out on.
Maushart’s book is a joy to read, and one I hope gets a lot of (deserved) attention.
Says the girl with the blog. 😉