Unplug from the grid, get anxious
by Amanda Williams
In a compelling lecture entitled “A Plea For Time” delivered in 1950, Canadian scholar Harold Adam Innis urged us to reconsider our modern “obsession” with immediate gratification fostered by technology. Innis proposed this idea long before the existence of the Internet, Facebook, cell phones, or the many other gadgets seemingly essential to our daily survival. Nevertheless, he was profoundly concerned during the time he was writing with the rapid spread of film, television, and radio because it was transforming the way people communicated and what they communicated about.
As an instructor of communication studies, I take Innis’ unease about the dangers of technological dependency seriously. Consequently, in a course I teach on new media I offer my students, most of whom are “digital natives” (born after the introduction of digital en masse), the opportunity to engage in a unique social experiment. For a week, in both the classroom and their outside lives they are urged to give up technology. This means turning off their beloved cell phones, packing up their laptops, hiding their television remotes and headphones, and unplugging their desktops. Students are asked to document this process and share their findings. The results of what they uncover is often enlightening.
Most students report surprising symptoms alarmingly soon after they go off the grid. For example, sweaty palms, nervous twitches, a dry mouth, and an overall increase in anxiety, are not uncommon. Inevitably, when the initial shock wears off, they recount being amazed at the forgotten possibilities that await them. New opportunities become more attractive when they are not preoccupied with Facebook status updates, searching the Internet, watching movies, or texting. Such activities include everything from experiencing nature, a desire to exercise, reading a book, having a face-to-face conversation, tinkering with their car, or stopping by unannounced to visit friends. No matter what they chose to do, participants described a sense of calm that accompanied each technology-free experience.
As an instructor, this experiment creates a particular challenge for me. I can no longer rely on the technical standbys I typically use to engage my students. Without PowerPoint, media clips, or videos, we have more honest and engaging conversations, forcing me to consider why I find technology so essential to my teaching process.
There is no denying that information and communication technologies can enrich our lives. Still, going off the technological grid reminds me that a break from these devices is refreshing. Thus I want to propose that in the next few weeks you allow yourself to have some technology-free time. Reconnect with your friends over coffee, not via a text, or update your family over dinner instead of Facebook. Be forewarned: the profuse perspiration and rising anxiety you initially experience is to be expected. Yet after a few deep breaths you may be surprised by what you learn about the world around you and also about yourself.
Amanda Williams presently teaches for the Faculty of Communication Studies at MRU. She has a doctorate from the University of Calgary in communication studies, and a master’s and undergraduate degree from Queen’s University in sociology and film studies.