'Plug In Better': A Manifesto

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The trick isn't to unplug from our devices -- it's to unplug from the distractions, information overload, and trash that make us unhappy.

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A world ruled by spin, in which political influence lasts only until the next embarrassing YouTube video. Industries starved of creative, deep thinking, as focused effort gives way to incessant multitasking. Households made up of neglectful, distracted parents and vacant, screen-glazed children. Human beings reduced to fast-clicking thumbs, their attention spans no longer than 140 characters. That's the future we hear about from Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, and The New York Times's Your Brain on Computers series, which tell us that our growing time online is diminishing both our individual intellects and our collective capacity for connection.

If this dystopian vision drives the call to unplug, there's something more personal motivating those who heed that call. I've been tracking the urge to unplug for the past few years by aggregating and reading blog posts from people who use phrases like "give up Facebook," "go offline," or "without the Internet." When I read accounts of those who've gone offline for a weekend, a holiday, or the 40 days of Lent, they often seem wistful for how their brains, bodies, and relationships feel when they aren't constantly engaged with life online. "Disconnecting from the virtual world allowed me space to connect to the present one," writes one blogger. Blogs one mom, "it's been sorta nice NOT hearing the Cuteness say, 'Mommy, pay attention to me, not your phone.'" "For the first time in a long time, I experienced silence," echoes a third.

Unplugging may feel like the most obvious way to access these experiences of intimacy and quiet in a noisy digital world, but the very fact that it's so obvious should make us suspicious. As usual, we're going for the quick fix: the binary solution that lets us avoid the much more complicated challenge of figuring out how to live online. It's easier to imagine flipping the off switch than to engage with and work through the various human failings that the Internet has brought to the fore.

And it's easier to avoid what is, to many, a very painful truth: Going offline is no longer a realistic option. Sure, we can unplug for an hour, a day, or even a week, but it's not like you can permanently shut off the challenges of our online existence. The offline world is now utterly defined by networks, too, from the pace of our work to the flow of our money. You can look up from the screen, but there is no way to escape the digital.

What you can do is find those qualities of presence, focus, and even solitude in your networked existence. Call it the new unplugging: a way to step back from the rush and din of the Internet, and approach our time online with the same kind of intention and integrity we bring to our best offline interactions.

The new unplugging doesn't require you to quit Facebook or throw out your iPhone. What it requires is careful attention to the sources of our discomfort; to the challenging qualities of online interaction, or of simply living in a networked world. Looking at those pain points, and finding a way to switch them off, is the new unplugging.

Unplug from distraction: If you're routinely using three screens at once, distraction can feel like a way of life. But going online is only synonymous with distraction if you assume that what you need to pay attention to is necessarily offline. Sometimes the screen -- with that crucial email, inspiring video, or enlightening blog post -- is exactly what you need to focus on. So unplug from distraction by giving that one on-screen item your full attention: turn off your phone, shut your door, close all the windows and apps that are competing for your attention in the background. Commit to a single task on your computer or mobile device, the same way you might commit to an important face-to-face conversation. You can find freedom from distraction on-screen as well as off.

Unplug from FOMO: Fear of Missing Out -- or FOMO -- is one of those human neuroses that has been dramatically amplified by social networking. Even before Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, there were probably conferences you missed attending, concerts you couldn't get into, or parties you didn't get invited to ... you just didn't know about all of them. Nowadays, your social-networking feeds provide constant reminders of all the amazing, inspiring, and delightful activities other people are doing without you. Ouch! Opting out of social networks may feel like the cure for FOMO, but it's the equivalent of standing in the middle of a crowded room with your eyes and ears covered so you can pretend you're all alone. The real solution to FOMO is to accept the fact that, no, you can't be everywhere and do everything. But if that's more than your inner Buddha is ready for, here's my cheat: Click the "hide" button on Facebook updates from friends who are always bragging about their latest cool activities, and use a Twitter client that lets you filter out the enviable stream of tweets from whatever conference you're not attending. That way you can unplug from FOMO without actually unplugging.

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Alexandra Samuel is the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, Canada. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, on CBC Radio, and in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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